Our Asian Fairy Godmother

Annette Shun Wah interviewed by Melissa Lee Speyer



By Melissa Lee Speyer


She’d never ask for the recognition, of course, but I believe Annette Shun Wah should be Australian of the Year. Here’s why.

Most emerging and mid-career Asian-Australian performance artists call Annette Shun Wah their “Asian Fairy Godmother”.  Dig deep into the origins of any new Asian-Australian theatre work happening at the moment, or even over the past 10 years, and her influence will make itself felt somewhere: 

“I met my director through one of Annette’s Longhouse events …”

“I wrote my first play in CAAP’s Lotus program …”

“I got my first main stage AD gig through the CAAP Director’s Program …”

“We’ve been circling each other for years, but we only started working together after CAAP Artist Lab …”

She was nominated for an AFI Best Actress award (or, as they are colloquially known, an Australian Oscar) for her very first acting role; she is the first Asian-Australian Artistic Director of the OzAsia Festival; she’s a published author and former radio producer and presenter for Triple J; she’s worked for both of Australia’s national broadcasters, at a time when Asian representation was minuscule; she helmed that cult classic late night 00s short film mainstay Eat Carpet on SBS, the only program of its kind and certainly my first introduction to the wild world of short filmmaking; she speaks English, Cantonese and even a fair amount of German; she founded Australia’s first and only professional arts company dedicated to Asian-Australian performance. 

“Shun Wah” is not a typical Chinese surname. It’s actually the name of the general store that her grandparents opened once they moved to Longreach sometime around 1892. It means “civil and harmonious dealings”, but apparently everyone thought it was the family surname, and with a little classic migrant adaptability, the name stuck. Nowadays, Annette typifies civil and harmonious dealings in the quiet diplomacy she employs in influencing major theatre companies to commit to nurturing Asian-Australian creatives and their work. But that doesn’t mean she does it without tenacity or without fighting to maintain her high standards.

Annette is discerning and can be difficult to please. She’s never disparaging or dismissive – it’s just quietly clear when the work hasn’t lived up to expectations. So though we in the Asian-Australian community talk about her in glowing terms as our “Asian Fairy Godmother”, there are certain standards of excellence attached to her benevolence. Annette doesn’t simply provide a free pass to main stages for anyone who happens to share her ethnicity. The work has to be worth it.

The results often speak for themselves – before she joined CAAP’s Lotus Program for playwrights, Michelle Law was a young actor who had never previously considered writing for performance; now she is one of Australia’s busiest writers for stage and screen. Courtney Stewart was another young actor who initially did CAAP’s Directors Program in order to better understand the acting process from a director’s perspective; she was recently awarded the Richard Wherritt Fellowship and is directing Michelle Law’s new main stage play at Belvoir Street Theatre. 

Those are just two of the practitioners who’ve benefited from the training and networks that CAAP has painstakingly put together over the years or participated in its various shows; others include main stage Queensland playwright Merlynn Tong; Melbourne playwright and screenwriter Natesha Somasundaram; WIFT Australia Board member and writer Katrina Iriwati Graham; STC’s youngest produced playwright ever, Disapol Savetsila; the list goes on. Full disclosure: I’ve benefited from three of CAAP’s programs and met countless creative collaborators. 

Annette estimates that over the past ten or so years, at least 200 people have gone through CAAP’s skills-based training programs, delivered in conjunction with the likes of Sydney Theatre Company, Malthouse Theatre and the former Playwriting Australia; 100 people have been employed in CAAP productions. “And then we have just under 400 people on our directory,” says Annette, of the publicly accessible web-based register of Asian-Australian actors, writers, directors and crew that CAAP maintains. Doesn’t this put to shame the myth that there “just aren’t that many” Asian-Australian artists around.

High standards were necessary from the outset. Contemporary Asian Australian Performance, or CAAP, began life as an offshoot of an Asian Australian visual arts body. Initially called Performance 4A, the company rebranded sometime in 2017 to reflect its focus. But while it was called “a company” with a volunteer Board, in reality CAAP was mostly just Annette: “It was just me, working part-time in my second bedroom – this room, actually, I’m still here,” Annette gestures around the room, which has a framed Eat Carpet poster on the wall in pride of place, “I’m still here trying to make things happen.”

Annette has often worked a full-time job on a part-time salary in her spare room, or sometimes, when grants haven’t come through, not accepted a salary for her work at all: “We were making a work called In Between Two, and we knew that Sydney Festival wanted the work. And we just needed to apply for one development round to get us to opening night. And that round was canceled.”

Remember 2015, the year that the arts budget was slashed without warning?

“So we were six months out from opening night. And it was like, what do we do? Do we just put this off and miss the opportunity of being in a big festival? Or do we keep on going? So I just fought, you know, I just didn’t take any money out of the company. I didn’t take a salary. And everyone else got paid. And we made the work. And it took a few years. And eventually we made the money back. But I just believed so strongly in that show. I knew it was going to be a good show, and I knew it was an important show. So all of that paid off. I think that’s the secret, if you really believe in the value of what you’re making and doing, then that’s what keeps you going.”

Around that time – a time that coincided with the start of a new wave of global discussion about representation in the arts – CAAP became a company-in-residence at Carriageworks.

“There was clearly a demand for what we were doing, not only for Asian-Australian artists, but also from an industry that was now talking about having greater cultural diversity, but not doing anything about it. Not necessarily because they didn’t want to, but because they just didn’t know how, without putting what they were already doing at risk. So there was a lot of lip service basically. And I had no infrastructure or support, and the only way I could do things like make a theater piece was to partner with bigger organizations. So CAAP started partnering with other companies. And in that way, I was helping them create some change as well. And then I realized that this was the way to work from now on, this was the strategy. We’ve worked very closely with bigger companies throughout the industry to make sure that the change that happens happens for all of us. And that’s how it’s been able to make an impact.”

Why is representation important? Haven’t we “fixed racism” in Australia? “It matters for inclusion – you feel that you’re left out, you don’t belong, because there’s no one that looks at you, or lives like you, or has experiences like you.” 

When we discuss racism in Australia, Annette is never bitter or angry, but there’s an inherent sadness to the way she speaks so matter-of-factly about the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of anti-Asian behaviour that Asian-Australians all face on a regular basis: “It’s always there, it’s always been under the surface, and it just bubbles up, it bubbled up during Pauline Hanson, it’s bubbling up again during the pandemic, and it’ll keep bubbling up. It’s institutionalized, it’s unconscious racism, which a lot of people do not acknowledge. Yeah, they acknowledge it as a concept, but they believe that they’ve resolved it, or they believe they are beyond it. But you can tell by people’s actions that they don’t really think very seriously about these issues, and they certainly have not changed their behavior.”

As Artistic Director of OzAsia Festival, Annette is hungry for exciting new work. But what defines her tastes in art – what she wants to program, and what she wants to fight for? “I’m intrigued by ideas that come from a different perspective. While some people see difference as negative, something to be afraid of or that should be controlled, I see difference as being a huge virtue. That has been a common thread through everything. Whether it was presenting music on The Noise, I always looked for the stuff that nobody else was showing. Not necessarily because I loved it, but because I wanted my audience to have an opportunity to experience it. And they can decide for themselves if they love it. And sometimes they did, and that opened up whole worlds for them. I mean, having that impact is amazing. And so I guess it’s about finding the stories that other people haven’t heard, or the experiences that other people haven’t been witness to, and putting it in a place where they can comfortably and safely experience it for themselves. And then it’s up to them what they do with it. I think that’s the thing I’m driven to do most.”

Speaking of audiences, is that the next frontier for diversity in the arts? Changing the demographics of the people who come to participate in the work: “It’s really interesting, sometimes companies think they just need to put on a work that’s by a culturally diverse writer, or has a culturally diverse theme, maybe even has some language. And then they wonder why the audience doesn’t come. It might be, for example, a work in Chinese. So you attract a Chinese audience, but there is otherwise not a word of Chinese spoken in the entire building. So how do they communicate? There’s no-one at front-of-house to tell them where to go, there’s no signage so they know where the exit is or where the toilets are, and which ones. Those are very basic things. Australia is so monocultural, and in terms of signage and language, it is not a very welcoming place if you’re not an English speaker. I’ve been to countries like Taiwan, where every bus or train announcement is in four languages. If we were serious about being a multicultural nation, we would have multilingual signage. Those are the different ways we should be thinking as a country, if we really want to be taken seriously, as a place that welcomes people from diverse backgrounds.”

I ask Annette whether she has any hints for others looking to create the change they want to see in the world.

“When I was young, I had a very lonely childhood. And so I became very self-sufficient. So I often thought I could do things by myself. But now I realize that your potential is very limited if you go out that way. So I think my biggest tip is not to try and do it all yourself. By having the right allies and partners to work together, you create it more efficiently, and will have a much bigger impact, because you will all benefit from it. And you will all carry it through.”

This – from a woman who grew up with nobody to blaze a trail for her, nobody to advocate for her, who saw little representation of herself on screen or in print, and who has fought hard for representation, for the career successes of others, and to bring our community together. And all of this is why Annette Shun Wah should be Australian of the Year.


First published in Sydney Review of Books on14 March, 2021. Article commissioned by Diversity Arts Australia for the Pacesetters Creative Archives project, which was funded through Create NSW.