Adelaide filmmaker Henry Thong has spent years documenting the lives and work of artists, actors and creatives through online documentary project Makers Who Inspire. For his latest series, Thong explores a theme that’s very close to home.
Thong published his first string of Makers Who Inspire stories to YouTube in 2016, profiling South Australian figures including fashion designer Naomi Murrell, recent Archibald finalist Tsering Hannaford and miniatures artist Joshua Smith. Since then the scope of this personal project has expanded to include New York-based fashion photographer Max Papendieck and San Francisco ballet dancer Madison Keesler alongside prominent locals like Paul Vasileff, Adam Liaw, Ellie Kammer and Peter Drew.
A plan to use a fourth season to explore the stories of migrants in creative industries took on a more specific and personal focus after Adelaide-based artist, chef and restaurateur Poh Ling Yeow and comedian and actor Ronny Chieng were recruited. “It was actually Poh who suggested to me that a focus on Asian Australian creators specifically would be a really cool idea,” Thong tells The Adelaide Review.
Writers and siblings Michelle and Benjamin Law, and Mao’s Last Dancer author and Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin also joined the series, which together highlights five unique creative and personal paths.
“Seeing how Poh, Ronny, Ben, Michelle and Li use their work to reconnect with their culture and explore their backgrounds, and how their backgrounds have in turn influenced their creative output, has really caused me to reflect on how I can use my work to explore my own heritage, and how it can be something that helps other people.”
“I spent so much of my youth trying to deny and suppress it,” Yeow says of her heritage in an episode launched last week. “You just want to assimilate and be like every other Aussie kid. I did such a great job of it, and now I’m grappling to get that all back.”
Her experience as a first generation Australian particularly resonated with Thong. “I personally identify with Poh’s story very strongly because, like me, she moved to Australia from Malaysia at nine years old and assimilated very quickly,” he says. “And now, like me, she uses her work to explore her cultural heritage, which she’s kind of lost touch with because she’s lived here for so long.
“Almost every one of the creators I profiled talks about how their work has been a way to cope with the feeling of being ‘other’ or different to their peers,” he says. “Growing up in a western country, many of them felt like they didn’t belong, and now use their work to explore those themes.”
In the past, Thong says, such pressure to assimilate has been amplified by a lack of Asian representation on our screens. “I always saw myself as a ‘supporting character’ to someone else because I never got to see people like me in lead roles in films, and as a result I made a concerted effort to assimilate to western culture after I moved to Australia,” he says.
The historic box office reception of last year’s Chieng-starring blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians and the local success of productions like The Family Law however, are signs that things are beginning to change. “It’s becoming apparent to me that the mainstream public is becoming very interested in stories like ours,” Thong says. “And then when I was filming Michelle’s episode, seeing the reaction to her play Single Asian Female in Brisbane cemented [the realisation] that now is the right time for creators like us to be telling our stories.
“It’s a body of work that’s really close to my heart because, as a migrant Malaysian-Australian creator, I’ve been able to reconnect with my cultural heritage through working with some of the most accomplished Asian Australian creators in Australia,” he says. “I know how hugely inspiring and motivating it can be to see successful people who come from similar backgrounds to you – I experienced it while making this season – so if it season can do that for even one person, I think it’ll all be worth it.”
Poh Ling Yeow, photo: Henry Thong