Interview: Annette Shun Wah

Our Asian Fairy Godmother

Or, Why Annette Shun Wah Should be Australian Of the Year

She’d never ask for the recognition, 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 Asian-Australian theatre work over the past ten years and her influence will make itself felt:

‘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 …’

For her first acting role, Annette Shun Wah was nominated for an AFI (Australian Film Institute) Best Actress Award (or, an Australian Oscar, as they are colloquially known). She is the first Asian-Australian Artistic Director of the OzAsia Festival, a published author, former radio producer and presenter for Triple J. She worked for both of Australia’s national broadcasters at a time when Asian representation was minimal. Annette helmed that cult classic late night 00s short film mainstay, Eat Carpet on SBS. Eat Carpet was the only program of its kind and was my introduction to the wild world of short filmmaking. She speaks English, Cantonese and a fair amount of German. And 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 the name of the general store that her grandparents opened when they moved to Longreach around 1892. It means, ‘civil and harmonious dealings,’ but apparently everyone thought it was the family surname, and the name stuck. Nowadays, Annette employs a quiet diplomacy when influencing major theatre companies to commit to nurturing Asian-Australian creatives.

Annette is discerning and can be difficult to please. She is never disparaging or dismissive, but it is quietly clear when the work hasn’t lived up to her expectations. Although 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 the Contemporary Asian Australian Performance’s (CAAP) Lotus Playwriting Project, Michelle Law was a young actor who had never considered writing for performance; now she is one of Australia’s busiest writers for stage and screen. Courtney Stewart was another young actor who participated in CAAP’s Directors Initiative in order to better understand the acting process from a director’s perspective; she was recently awarded the Richard Wherrett Fellowship and is directing Michelle Law’s new main stage play at Belvoir Street Theatre.

Those are just two of the practitioners who have benefited from the networks and training that CAAP have painstakingly put together. Others include: Queensland playwright Merlynn Tong; Melbourne playwright and screenwriter,Natesha Somasundaram; WIFT Australia Board member and writer Katrina Iriwati Graham; STC’s youngest-ever-playwright Disapol Savetsila; the list goes on. Full disclosure: I’ve benefited from four of CAAP’s programs and met countless creative collaborators through this network.

Annette estimates that over the past ten years at least 200 people have participated in CAAP’s skill-based training programs. The programs are delivered in partnership with companies that include Sydney Theatre Company, Malthouse Theatre, and the former Playwriting Australia. Approximately 100 people have been employed in CAAP productions and ‘we have just under 400 people on our directory,’ says Annette referring to the CAAP’s web-based artist directory. 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 (CAAP) began life in 2002 as Theatre 4A, a tiny offshoot of Asian Australian visual arts body Gallery 4A. Originally founded by Rick Lau and Paul Cordeiro, Annette was invited to Chair its Committee in 2004. She helmed the company through a major rebrand in 2017. But while it was called ‘a company,’ in reality CAAP in its many incarnations 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 cancelled.

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? 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. 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 there was a new wave of global discussion about representation in the arts – and 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. 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 theatre 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 discussing racism in Australia, Annette is never bitter or angry, but there’s a deep sadness in the way she speaks about the 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 institutionalised, 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 behaviour.

As the Artistic Director of the OzAsia Festival, Annette is hungry for exciting new work. But what defines her tastes in art? What does she want to program, and what will she fight for? Annette says:

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.

This could be 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 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. She replies:

When I was young, I had a very lonely childhood. And so I became very self-sufficient. 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. 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.

Annette Shun Wah, our Asian Fairy Godmother, is a woman who grew up with nobody to blaze a trail for her and no one to advocate for her. Growing up she saw little representation of herself on screen or in print, and consequentially has fought hard for equal representation, the career successes of others, and the opportunity for the creation of community. And all of this is why Annette Shun Wah should be Australian of the Year.

Annette Shun Wah (left) and Melissa Lee Speyer (right) in conversation over video chat, 2021.

This interview is from Diversity Arts Australia’s Pacesetters Creative Archives project, a chronicle of the histories of creative practice of migrant, refugee and culturally diverse communities in Australia. Find out more at