Rejecting All Asian Stereotypes — An Interview with French Actor Frédéric Chau
Born to Cambodian-Chinese parents, French actor Frédéric Chau has been living in Paris since he was six-months old. He was first discovered through his participation in the Jamel Comedy Club, a popular French stand-up comedy show. Subsequently, his performance in the French hit Serial (Bad) Weddings – the most successful release in the 2014 French box office – cemented his mainstream status.
Chau, together with co-star Steve Tran, was recently in town for the French Film Festival’s screening of the 2019 French comedy Made In China, which he co-wrote with director Julien Abraham. He stars as François, a young French-Chinese man who hasn’t returned to his Chinatown home after a dispute with his father ten years ago. However, after learning that he will be a father soon, François takes the opportunity to repair frayed relationships and reconnect to his cultural roots.
Sinema had the pleasure to sit down with Chau to find out more about his creative process, and his own journey in reconnecting to his cultural roots:
What was the inspiration behind the story?
The story is close to about 80% of my life. I wanted to shine a light on the Asian community in France because every time I watch a movie with Asian characters, it’s always with cliches in the subject, or with some jokes about Asian cliches. Why I decided to write this movie was because I wanted to change this point of view. Like the character, I used to get jokes based on Asian cliches when I was a kid and it made me reject my Asian parts. But when I was about 30 years old, I decided to change and to accept my Asian identity by reconnecting with it.
What are some of the similarities between your life and François?
Similar to François, my parents pushed me to be an engineer too – but François decided to be a photographer while I went on to be an actor. The background story of his father is similar as well. My parents are Chinese from Cambodia and it’s the same for François. In 1975, there was a civil war in Cambodia and my parents made the two-month walk from Cambodia to Saigon. I was born in Vietnam and I arrived in France when I was about six-months old. It’s the same story.
Also, just like François, sometimes when I meet somebody I don’t know, one of the first questions they ask is: “Where do you come from?” I would get tired of explaining to them that I’m a French Asian so I would reply and say that I was adopted. And when you say that, they stop immediately. I was getting tired explaining that I’m French.
What are the challenges of working as an actor of Asian descent in France and in Europe in general?
I don’t know if I take it as a challenge. I just try to do my job as an actor, like an artist, to explain, to show my point of view about the world, and my point of view as a French Asian living in Paris and Europe. But I don’t push myself to represent any movement.
I try to tell a story which relates to my personal story as someone who is French with Asian origins. So I don’t want to represent any movement and be an image of any movement or activism. My story is my story so I don’t think it can represent other people’s stories. So I just tell it – maybe it will resonate with some people but not with others. I can understand that some people, especially young people, can identity with my work because I’m speaking about something universal in values and issues. But I don’t feel keen to be a symbol of anything.
A lot of times when I’m interviewed in France, a lot of journalists ask me how I feel representing the Asian community and if I feel the responsibility about a lot of things, such as with what I act and how I act. I always reply, no, it’s a big responsibility but my choice of life is my choice of life. I cannot say that you have to do this or do that – nobody can do that. But you can be inspired, like how I was inspired by Scorsese’s work or by other directors and actors.
Do you feel like you are typecast in France?
I refuse all these roles – like Asian characters with strong accents or characters that will come to nurture stereotypes. I think that when you say no, it’s the only way to really have what you want. It’s been more than six or seven years since I’ve told my agent that, with all these roles, don’t use your energy to call me to tell me about them because I will say no. My agent can definitely say no on my behalf.
With writing, directing and acting credits for shorts, TV series and movies all under your belt, what is next for you?
I’m writing another movie where the cast is 100% Asian again because I think the more you talk about your passion, the more it becomes universal. Like with Made In China, I talked about family; it’s a subject that has touched me a lot.
For you, what does it mean to be French today?
I’m very proud to be French because I grew up in France and my education is in French. At the same time, I’m also very, proud of my Asian part. Sometimes people ask me if I feel more French or more Asian. I say it’s like asking me if I prefer my mother or my father. I cannot choose – I’m both of them. I’m French. I’m proud to be French and I’m proud to be an Asian.
In your opinion, what do you think can be done to encourage youths to connect with their cultural roots?
I think, like me, I rejected my Asian culture for a long time – from when I was a kid all the way till I was about 30. But it felt like growing up in an empty space in your heart. It’s like you built a house and if it’s empty or without strong foundations, the building is going to fall. It’s the same thing. I recommend this empty space to be filled up by reconnecting to one’s roots. This is why I decided at the age of 30 to reconnect with my origin and my identity, to know my story, and to spend some time with my father, my mother, my grandfather and my grandmother; to go back to China, to go back to Vietnam, go back to Cambodia to reconnect with them. This way, the empty space is not empty anymore. So I grow up with peace now. This is what I recommend – to reconnect with your identity, your history and who you are.
Check out our review of Made In China here!
Don’t miss your last chance to catch the heartwarming family film on 17 November, screening as part of the 2019 French Film Festival. Details can be found here.