For Chinese Language Week, actor and writer Perlina Lau talks with the creators of a new show tackling a taboo in Aotearoa's first Chinese bilingual show.
"It doesn't bother me if someone else does it - just not you." This is perhaps one of the guiding principles every Chinese parent lives by and a phrase every Chinese kid has heard at some point. Chinese parents can be tolerant of different lifestyles and choices, as long as it's not their children who are diverging from the norm. It's about saving face and reputation. This idea is part of the backdrop to the new television comedy-drama series, Inked.
The eight-episode series tells the story of 22-year-old Jiayue, who secretly quits university and begins working as an artist at her friend's tattoo studio. All this, while trying to navigate a strained relationship with her father.
Lisa Zhang who plays Jiayue says when reading the script, she understood the "familiar situation; an Asian person growing up in a Western society, either following their dreams or pursuing the path designed for them."
Abandoning university aside, tattoos still remain a taboo in Chinese society. Although many younger people have embraced the practice as art, it still chimes of criminality, deviance and gang association among traditionalists. In Chinese history, tattoos were used to denigrate ethnic minorities, punish criminals and brand slaves.
Just last year, in the northwest Chinese city Lanzhou, taxi drivers were given a firm government directive when it came to tattoos - get rid of them. Officials said the tattoos could make passengers uncomfortable and cause distress to women and children.
But it all stems from the Confucian values of filial piety or Xiao; an attitude of respect for one's elders and ancestors and avoidance of self-injury. Your body is seen as a gift from your parents.
For Jiayue, dropping out of university and becoming a tattoo artist is certainly one way to double down.
With around 90 per cent of the show in Mandarin, it's the first-ever Chinese bilingual drama made for and by Aotearoa. Considering almost one-third of Auckland identifies as Asian, with Chinese making up more than a third of that population, it's hoped this will not only captivate the Chinese community but also resonate across generations of immigrants - first, second and the "one-point fivers". The 1.5 generation is used to describe those who were born overseas and moved to New Zealand at a young age.
Helen Wu (Mulan, Meme) co-produces the show, along with Ruby Reihana-Wilson (Life Is Easy, Asian Men Talk About Sex), and says projects like this are important.
"The 1.5 generation stories are missing. When you're speaking in half-Chinese, half-English, your culture changes. You're not just a Kiwi or Chinese or a migrant - you're a bundle."
A life of constantly straddling and attempting to find the balance between two languages and cultures is the story of most immigrants and their families.
Premiering during Chinese Language Week on a local channel means Chinese immigrants are able to see themselves, hear their language and their culture represented on mainstream TV.
There's access to Chinese TV in Aotearoa where the content comes directly from China or Hong Kong.
Zhang says the taboo of tattoos remains strong in Chinese media.
"I have friends who are immigrants and the media they consume is produced by China, which contributes to the stigma. There's a soft ban on tattoos on celebrities and close-up shots will be blurred."
Seeing characters on screen which Chinese audiences can relate to - and not just on Chinese TV - is the representation Zhang and Wu want to see more of.
Viewers will recognise this struggle depicted in the show; raising children while balancing tradition and maintaining cultural practices but also embracing the culture of their new home.
Wu recalls the challenges her parents faced when her family moved to New Zealand from China, when she was 10.
"They talked to the neighbours and actively tried to live like 'foreigners' and when they met other Asian migrants they thought, 'Oh this is so much easier and comfortable' and the bubble self-generated.
"This show is built upon the understanding of this concept - inside the bubble."
"There's this understanding there has to be integration but there's also seeking comfort," adds Zhang.
"There's a sense of pushing your children out there and that they can do what they want but as long as they preserve the language or the love for the food."
Films like The Farewell and Crazy Rich Asians featuring full Asian casts and released in Hollywood have helped pave the way for more diverse storytelling.
Wu says she hopes Inked will open more doors for similar projects in Aotearoa.
Zhang believes the 1.5 generation and the first and second generation - those born in New Zealand - will relate to the show very well but there are elements that could be confronting for older generation.
Aside from addressing the controversial nature of tattoos, the show also addresses LGBTQIA+ themes among the other characters' storylines.
"It's so important and it's commonly dismissed in Chinese TV," says Zhang.
Wu says it's a difficult conversation to have with the older generation, particularly among those who are middle-aged and older or those who've already had children.
"It's very much real and needs to be discussed," says Wu.
The bilingual kaupapa of the show extended throughout the whole process. When scripts were issued or republished, there would need to be three versions.
"English, purely Chinese for actors who couldn't read English and one for Lisa with descriptions and large text in English and dialogue in Pinyin," explains Wu.
Pinyin is the phonetic writing of Chinese using the alphabet rather than Chinese characters.
Even members of the crew all spoke different languages.
"It was a challenge and slowed things down," says Wu.
Every direction and new take would have to be translated and explained so everyone understood what was expected or why they would film the scene again.
Perhaps most impressively, the sound operator only speaks and understands English. Signalling where there needed to be retakes would be communicated by imitation of facial expressions, body movements and what wasn't said, rather than the words spoken.
Productions already work to tight schedules because time really does mean money. To say this would have required patience is an understatement.
Taking into consideration the language requirements, casting the lead role of Jiayue wasn't easy.
Wu says they needed someone "who could read, speak and be on the scale of 1.5".
It's Zhang's first major role.
"I've played roles where I'm a Chinese character but not one in an Asian household not written by Asian creators," says Zhang.
Wu explains Zhang was chosen because "she had more connection to her Chinese roots, the logic, the thinking and had experienced those difficulties. We wanted that natural rawness and instinct."
Writer and co-director of Inked Mingjian Cui has opted for a more raw, natural style of life where the tension comes from the characters, rather than being overly staged or dramatised. Wu cites inspiration from Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda (Shoplifters, After the Storm).
Working with a Chinese director, Zhang describes the communication as more direct and says there's an unspoken understanding of how to portray scenes in the show.
The role gave Zhang the opportunity to reaffirm what she had struggled with internally.
"To experience what I had felt, through someone else's eyes, I realised it was more universal than I ever imagined.
"We compare the way our parents treat us with Kiwi parents - and we have to realise that their love language is very different. So perhaps, people will see in Lisa's character that there can be different ways to express your love," says Wu.
"Both Jiayue and her father are so stubborn so it's about coming around and meeting in the middle," Zhang explains.
Zhang describes her character as "very fierce and tenacious".
She says, "I got to learn more about the tattoo industry and I have a new appreciation for it. Those tattoo guns are so heavy!"
Inked will premier on Prime TV on September 28 at 9.40pm.
Streaming will be available on Sky Go from September 29.