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Michelle Law
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in August 2023

Michelle Law is a proud Chinese Australian who grew up in the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, and is a writer and actor working across print, theatre, film and television. Michelle’s latest play Miss Peony, self-described as “a magic realist comedy” is a proud celebration and modern-day tribute to the Chinese diaspora community, centred around a beauty pageant and a grandma’s ghost, and finished touring around Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Wollongong and Geelong recently.

As a playwright, she’s also written the brilliantly funny plays Top Coat and Single Asian Female. Her screenwriting work includes the SBS show Homecoming Queens, which she co-created, co-wrote and starred in. She also wrote the specially curated travel guide Asian Girls are Going Places in 2022, and co-wrote the comedy book Sh*t Asian Mothers Say with her brother Benjamin Law, and regularly contributes to Australian publications and anthologies. Michelle has been awarded a Queensland Premier's Young Publishers and Writers Award, and two Australian Writers Guild awards.
Your writing is often inspired by your personal narrative and experiences. For example, Homecoming Queens, a web series you co-wrote and starred in, was semi-biographical and involved your experience of having an autoimmune disease called alopecia areata. How has writing and creating art allowed you to understand your personal narrative more?
I find that writing what you know lends an authenticity to stories. This isn’t necessarily the case all the time, because as a writer, you have the agency to imagine different experiences - to an extent. But I do find that writing from an informed place shines through in the work.

Writing also allows for sustained periods of self-reflection. It personally helps me to see things in a more objective light. You have to pick which parts of the experience might lend itself to the narrative best, in order to make it a more compelling and cohesive story.

It’s hard to impose a structure onto my own personal story simply because life can be so random. It does make you realise that reality is much stranger than fiction in a lot of ways. And I think that's why people write or create stories a lot of the time - to make sense of that, especially if you're not religious or depending on a higher power. Creating stories is a way for you to try to piece together and make sense of life.
You’ve written for print, theatre and screen; what is your favourite medium to write for and why?
It's really hard to choose because they’re all different, and they all have their pros.

With print, the pro is that the work is almost solely yours; it’s a thoroughly internal process and you have much more control over the outcome.

What I love about theatre is that you can get an immediate audience response, and get to work with performers you admire. When I was developing my opera and workshopping with the singers, I was so blown away by their talent. Being in that space and creating with them, I very much felt like, “I could happily do this for the rest of my life”.

Screen is exciting because it's so collaborative. It’s also out of your hands, which is a blessing and a curse, the blessing being that it can be very liberating to let go.

But right now I would probably say theatre - simply because of how special it is when you're there on opening night and able to witness people's reactions, or when people send you messages about the effect your show has had on them.
Apart from being talented at writing, what’s an unexpected skillset you’ve needed to do well in this creative industry?
People can enter the industry thinking it's going to be quite easy, or that becoming successful depends entirely on the art. They don’t realise that writing is a hustle. All throughout my 20s, I didn’t have much of a social life because I was always inside working, trying to get a foot up in the industry.

It’s important to be tenacious, but also quite adaptable and have a willingness to accept instability, especially since creating art is not a stable nor lucrative job. It’s hard to financially rely solely on your art especially when starting out. I worked in retail doing random jobs, and then as a bookseller for 10 years before I could start freelancing full time.

It’s the same for every sector, but you definitely need good people skills - to be adept at building and cultivating relationships. It helps to have a high EQ, and to be able to read the room. Inevitably you’ll clash with some people along the way, but because it’s such a small industry, you need to find a way to make things work in the long term.
Your most recent play Miss Peony questions what it means to be Chinese as a third-culture kid (children raised in a culture different to their parents’) specifically growing up in Australia. In fact, you’ve been interrogating this idea from a young age, in your first written piece A Call to Arms in the 2008 anthology Growing Up Asian in Australia. In your opinion and experiences, what does it mean to be Chinese, and also Chinese Australian?
This is a tricky question, because being Chinese and Chinese Australian can be anything really - it’s what you personally make of it. In Miss Peony, this is a question the protagonist Lily interrogates throughout the entirety of the play. It comes to the fore when she enters this pageant that she doesn't necessarily agree with, or feel like she fits into.

Like Lily, I feel when it comes to being Chinese, there are core principles linked to Confucianism such as respecting your elders, having filial piety, being stoic and hard working, and there being honour in ‘saving face’.

But when you're from a diasporic Chinese community or a third culture kid, that's when things get confusing because you're caught between two or more worlds. And then what it means to be Chinese can be a nebulous concept, especially when it comes to things like language, clothing, or even the food you eat. It can feel like you're doing everything wrong. And both communities can become quite discriminatory, whether they mean to or not.

Ultimately I think when it comes to belonging in any sort of diasporic community, it's what you make of it. It's a ‘choose your own adventure’ where the answer to that question is always changing. And it’s a question everyone in those communities contends with their whole lives.
A lot of your writing involves dispelling the problematic stereotype of Asian women as meek, demure and submissive. We’ve most recently seen this with your newest book Asian Girls are Going Places interviewing a range of Asian females, and the impressive diverse cast of Asian female characters in your play Miss Peony. What have been some of your own favourite portrayals of Asian women in mainstream media? 
I have a lot, which I’m thankful for because I feel like there's been a huge step forward in representation when it comes to mainstream media.

A more recent example is definitely Everything Everywhere All at Once. I really love the TV series, PEN15, which is this offbeat, silly and experimental show that’s also unexpectedly moving as well. One of the show creators, Maya Erskine plays a 13 year old version of herself. I love most things that Sandra Oh is a part of. I really liked Always Be My Maybe, and Bao, the Pixar short film - even though there wasn’t any dialogue I thought they developed the character of the mother really well. We’ve gotten so many more amazing portrayals of Asian women in mainstream media, and my work has really focused on contributing towards that.
What new projects do you have in the works that people can look forward to?
I’ve optioned Alice Pung’s latest book One Hundred Days which I'm planning to adapt into a feature film. I'm in the early stages of doing that. I've also got a new theatre concept that I've been chipping away at, as well as television and book concepts that I’ve been developing. I’m sorry I can’t give away too much more!
on culture and identity
What has your relationship with your Asian Australian identity been like, and how has it evolved?
So I grew up in the Sunshine Coast, which is quite monocultural. I didn't think that I was different in any way until people at school pointed it out to me, because I was maybe one of two or three people in my grade who were Asian.

Back in those days, it felt difficult navigating my dual identity. I have those classic stories of being teased for what I was eating for lunch, or feeling really self-conscious that my parents didn't act the same way that white parents did. Even something like our car - other kids’ parents would drive nice, flashy cars and my dad would have this old Honda Civic full of fresh produce for our restaurant, so it always smelled like some kind of fruit, vegetable or meat. There were also just small things that showed my parents weren’t as clued up about Western customs.

At a young age, I wanted to look like everyone else, which has definitely shifted as I’ve gotten older. I think what helped was moving away from that region and moving to cities that were way more multicultural. Even moving to Sydney in my mid 20s was really eye-opening. I finally felt like I could just disappear in this city and that I wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb. 

As I've gotten older - and this is such a common story - but you do realise that your culture is something that you have to cherish and hold on to.
What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
Definitely Lunar New Year when my Ma Ma was still alive - she was the only grandparent I had in Australia. We celebrated LNY in a very lowkey way, because if we wanted to do anything big we would have to drive to Brisbane and go to Chinatown. But on the Sunshine Coast, we would have a celebration where we got red packets and Ma Ma would cook a huge array of dishes. I specifically remember eating with Ma Ma’s Shrek-green coloured melamine chopsticks.
What is your favourite food from your culture?
I love traditional Cantonese steamed fish with ginger and shallots, with the hot oil poured on at the end. I also love yum cha. And salty plums or any preserved snacks are always a hit. 
Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
The first one is Alice Pung. She leads such an impressive life as a writer, lawyer and a mother of three kids. She makes work that is so culture shifting. And she’s always focussed on the act of writing, as opposed to the writing scene, which is a trap a lot of people can easily fall into. She’s very true to her own values and goals, which is admirable. Alice is so generous with her time; she’s a kind person but also stands her ground really firmly.

Another person who inspires me is Poh Ling Yeow. She does absolutely everything - she’s a chef, business owner, visual artist, makeup artist and has an amazing green thumb. I admire the life that she’s built for herself. She’s also proudly from Adelaide and has never felt the pressure to move to a bigger city. And it seems like every time I see her, she’s doing something new and unexpected. She doesn't hold back!

I feel lucky to know them both, and they’re definitely role models in terms of the kind of career and life that I want to have.