Recently, Harry Potter actress Katie Leung, who played Cho Chang, spoke candidly to podcaster Chinese Chippy Girl about the online racist abuse she received when she first appeared in the Goblet of Fire in 2005. What was so sad about it is that this was practically expected. Cho Chang is an East Asian character, so whoever out of the 3,000 aspiring East Asian actresses who auditioned to play her were to land the part was unfortunately destined to fall victim to the same fate.
And what is also extremely sad is that whoever told her to deny the racist abuse she was receiving, is – sorry, not sorry – at the very least, a racist sympathiser and, at worst, a racist asshole. They didn’t want any negative press and drama surrounding the Harry Potter franchise (little did they know what would happen many years later with J.K. Rowling’s own big mouth or what would happen with the Fantastic Beasts films) so made sure the actors were all on a tight leash, especially the child actors who had little media training and years later revealed they struggled to cope with the increasing fame and pressure, which led to some mental health issues.
What would be very interesting to know is who, 15 plus years ago, had the audacity to write such things (which we can only imagine what they were) about her and got away with it, and whether or not they are now reading the news about it. Do they remember doing this? Do they regret it? Why did they do it? Are they going to do the big thing and come clean about it? There are so many questions that will probably never be answered.
I do remember around that time reading that there was apparently a lot of jealous girls who disliked her simply because she was the lucky girl who got to kiss Daniel/Harry (yes, really). Back then there was no mention of racism but you could probably imagine there was. The media just kept it quiet. If Cho had been a White character, you can bet the jealousy of many crazed teenage girls would still have existed (why, only god knows) but that’s surely where it would have ended. One of the pages Leung came across was “click here if you disagree with this casting”. Let’s not pretend they thought another East Asian girl would have been better because there were no prominent ones at the time they could have chosen. They thought it should be a White girl, and we all know it – would anyone have batted an eyelid if Cho Chang was erased from the film franchise and whitewashed? It also makes you wonder how many of those spouting racist remarks back then have now turned against Rowling for her views on trans people or are they “with” her?
Unfortunately, Katie came across these websites and comments (the ones the publicists alleged they hadn’t seen so told her to say it’s not true if asked – but surely if the media asked it’s because they’ve seen it, so her lying would look even worse?). And your heart goes out to her because she saw these things with her own eyes rather than being told from another source at such a young age and so early on in her career. However, one silver lining is that it hardened her up for the future and eventually gave her courage to speak out against racism towards her and fellow East Asians in everyday life and in the media. She was also one of the many Harry Potter actors to defend the trans community after J.K’s controversy storm.
This is not the first time racist Harry Potter fans have whipped off their invisibility cloaks. When Harry Potter and the Cursed Child premiered in 2016, there was uproar from some about Hermione being portrayed as Black (many hid their true feelings behind the idea that it was a continuity issue on Rowling’s part and that she was simply pandering to a certain audience) and in 2017 an artist drew Hermione as Black, which led to more backlash.
One thing that struck true with me when I shared the original news with a friend was when she (my friend) said “what pisses me off about this country is that at least the Americans don’t hide that they’re racist”. There are sadly hordes of openly racist people and groups in America that have unashamedly reared their ugly heads in recent years. In the past 20 years alone, the 9/11 attacks and subsequent persecution of Muslims because of some extreme “Islamic” terrorists under Bush, the monumental occasion of Obama becoming President, and of course Trump and then the BLM uprisings as well as the rise in anti-Chinese hate crimes last year, have all played their part in failing to kerb America’s growing racism issues. In the U.K., racism is indeed very much here and alive but a lot of people deny it, turn a blind eye and deaf ear to it or victim blame and therefore sympathise with racists.
The recent Meghan Markle vs. the “racist” Royal Family fiasco is one prime example of this – people are denying the Royals are racist or call her a liar. These are people who claim to know members of the family and the general public who staunchly support the monarch, or simply hate her (be it because of her skin colour or because they accuse her of “stealing Harry” from his family). These same people have probably never experienced any form of racism or xenophobia in their life and whether or not they know the Royal Family, they did not live her experience, so how can they know whether they are really racist or whether she was subject to it? They invalidate her experience because they don’t want to believe it or because they simply dislike the idea of Meghan and Harry speaking their truth against an institution they blindly love.
However, with a Prime Minister like Boris Johnson, who has failed to apologise for his past racist remarks, has only spoken out against the racism towards East Asians in passing, and when recently asked to comment on the aforementioned drama declined to comment, it shows just how much our government pussyfoots around racism in this country. While in the U.S. racism is directly acknowledged (Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have mentioned it many times) and brought up in manifestos during political campaigns.
The upsetting fact is that those behind brushing the racism against Leung under the carpet did so for so long just to keep the innocence and the truth is only now coming out. Will people still invalidate her experience, call her a liar and say it didn’t happen or wonder why it is only now she’s saying this? Typical opinions and examples of underhanded discrimination and racist sympathising range from “oh, she must have a new film out!” (she doesn’t – unless you count this year’s Locked Down, where she has a minor role) and “she’s just jumping on the anti-J.K. Rowling/anti-racism bandwagon”. Many people will be the first to believe and stand with women who reveal they were sexually assaulted even if they only talk about it years on, but nowhere near as many will do the same for those subject to racist abuse, particularly, as I have realised during this pandemic – East Asians. Why? Because so few report it and stand against it and with us or speak up about it in public.
In the many articles reporting about the revelations in the podcast, the publications say they reached out to Warner Bros. for comment, with so far no response. And it would be just as unsurprising as the racism she received, if they never do respond. Warner Bros. will happily fire and release a statement about Johnny Depp over domestic violence allegations and the negative media coverage he received, while ignoring the fact Amber Heard was admittedly just as destructive in the relationship and keep her on the cast of the Aquaman sequel. But they will likely do what too many people do these days regarding racism – pretend it never happened. The most you can imagine they will say, if anything, is that they were not responsible for whoever told Katie to keep her mouth shut. But well done and thank you, Katie, for speaking out about it now!