A FURORE has erupted over a new mini-series about the deadliest sniper at Gallipoli, Chinese-Australian Billy Sing, who is played by a white man.
This portrayal in the The Legend of Billy Sing has been attacked by Australians of Chinese ancestry as a betrayal of their heritage, robbing them of a rare historic hero.
Director Geoff Davis has cast his son Josh in the lead role, while Sing's Chinese father is played by the veteran actor Tony Bonner, who came to prominence as a blond-haired helicopter pilot in the Skippy TV series.
Sing, born in 1886 at Clermont, Queensland, to a Shanghainese father and an English mother, moved as a young man to the canefields of Proserpine, where he became a keen cricketer, kangaroo hunter and a crack member of the local rifle club.
He enlisted as a trooper in the 5th Light Horse Regiment, and became celebrated as "the Assassin" at Gallipoli, where he had 201 confirmed kills, winning the Distinguished Conduct Medal, second only to the Victoria Cross. His sniping "spotter", Ion Idriess, later a successful writer, described how the Turks sent their champion sniper "Abdul the Terrible" to hunt him down, but Sing shot Abdul first. Former Nationals senator Bill O'Chee, who became an army reservist when he left parliament in 1999 and was born to a Chinese father and an Irish-Australian mother, was "deeply disappointed" by the production.
"We'll now have people growing up thinking Billy Sing was white. But we are jealous of his memory," he said. Federal Queensland Liberal MP Don Cameron, who found the site of the South Brisbane boarding house where Sing died in 1943 with five shillings on his bedside, said it was "tragically wrong" to have the sniper played by a white.
"It is plain wrong. I congratulate the filmmakers for doing the story, but condemn them for being so careless with the truth."
Davis said the problem in casting Sing as a Chinese-Australian arose when he couldn't find a 60-year-old Chinese actor to play his father.
"Asking Tony to play it as Chinese would not only have been racist and demeaning. It was also financially irrelevant -- we could not have afforded the make-up," he said. "Whatever his genetic background, his culture was Australian. To me, he's very representative of every Australian whose parents were not born here.
"A lot of people are sitting at the back of this bus attacking the driver. A lot of people feel they own the story of Billy Sing. But they've probably got more resources than me -- if they want to tell that story, then tell it."
Davis said his critics misunderstood his intention to "create a fictional story validated by having people perform true deeds, in the tradition of the historical novel".
Damien Beebe, who has worked on films including Moulin Rouge and Mission Impossible, has been enlisted as director of photography, and Andrew Knight, of Sea Change, as a producer.
The cast comprises largely unknown actors, who will be paid only if the films -- a three-part mini-series of 90 minutes each -- make money. He had run out of money to complete the series.
Australia China Youth Association president Henry Makeham said Australian Asians lacked prominent role models.
"To 'white-out' Billy Sing with a caucasian face is not only a gross historical misrepresentation, it is treading on the grave of a true Chinese-Australian hero," he said.
A mini-series has caused a stir by recasting the Chinese background of a Gallipoli hero
WHO owns the great stories of history? That question resonates through much literature and theatre, film and television. And it is being rowdily debated in Australia now, over the portrayal of the hero of TV mini-series The Legend of Billy Sing.
Film director Geoff Davis says he wants to tell the story of Australia's slump from one of the richest countries in the world at the turn of the 20th century into one caught in the Depression through the mostly unhappy fate of World War I Chinese Australian soldier Billy Sing.
"You can't help but fall in love with the guy," Davis says.
"And our movie tries to honour him."
Davis has defended in two ways his decision to use the name of Billy Sing while portraying him and his family as white Australians. First, he says he is fictionalising the Sing story "in the tradition of the historical novel".
Davis's second reason for changing Sing's ethnic identity is, he says, a matter of resources. He was unable to find a Chinese actor to play Sing's father at 60 (for deferred payment, as with the rest of the cast). This meant excluding Sing's ancestry from the film. The father is played by Tony Bonner, best known for his role as the helicopter pilot in Skippy, and Billy is played by Davis's son Josh.
Davis draws comparisons with Wyatt Earp, American lawman and gunslinger whose life coincided with much of Sing's.
Earp was portrayed on film by many very different actors, among them Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster, James Garner and Kevin Costner. They can't all be historically correct, argues Davis.
Sing was born in Clermont, Queensland, in 1886 to a Shanghainese father and an English mother. He moved as a young man to the cane fields of Proserpine, where he became a keen cricketer, kangaroo hunter and crack member of the rifle club.
He enlisted as a trooper in the Australian Fifth Light Horse Regiment and became celebrated as The Assassin at Gallipoli, where he shot 201 enemy soldiers, winning the Distinguished Conduct Medal, second only to the Victoria Cross.
Sing was then sent to the Western Front, but when he returned, his life failed to find traction in the grim years of the Depression. His marriage failed and he died in a run-down boarding house in Brisbane on May 19, 1943, with five shillings on the bedside table.
Davis comes from South Gippsland in Victoria, where he runs a winery. He is a member of a small group that made a very modest comedy film, which returned a profit. After this, he decided to take on the more ambitious Sing project.
Despite the rush of critical comments online that have followed Davis's posting of a brief excerpt of the film on YouTube, the response to a test screening of a fuller version of the series was overwhelmingly positive, he says.
For now, Davis has run out of money to complete the series, two 90-minute parts of which are mostly finished.
He works during the week at a software house in Melbourne and returns at weekends to his winery to help repay the costs so far.
It is the excerpt on YouTube that has convulsed the Chinese Australian community, attracting bitter responses from a number of people, including former Nationals senator and army reservist Bill O'Chee, whose father is Chinese and mother Irish-Australian.
Don Cameron, a federal Liberal MP in Queensland from 1966-90, is also fired up about the issue. He applauds Davis for wanting to tell the story, but calls him "careless with the truth".
"It is tragically wrong to have him played by a white fellow," says Cameron.
Cameron was moved by Sing's story, which he read in a feature in The Courier-Mail, and he tracked down the site of the boarding-house where Sing died. Cameron paid for a plaque to be placed on the commercial building now on the site and another at his grave in Lutwyche War Cemetery, where a growing number of admirers gather each May 19 to pay tribute.
John Hamilton, the author of Gallipoli Sniper, an account of Sing's life published 18 months ago, stumbled on the story during a conversation with an Australian War Memorial historian while on a visit to Gallipoli for Anzac Day a decade ago.
The book is now in its seventh printing. But Hamilton, a well-known Melbourne journalist who works for the Herald Sun, has had no contact with the filmmakers.
He pays tribute to Alby Smith, an armaments expert who, with a few associates, helped identify Sing's grave and one of his surviving relatives.
Hamilton says that Sing was accepted in the community at Proserpine as himself, half Chinese, half English, despite the virulent anti-Chinese sentiment common at that time.
He was seen as a person in his own right. And perhaps that's because of the nature of the cane fields, with their mixed-race workforce.
"He came home after the war to a hero's welcome at Proserpine, with a band playing, a civic reception, speeches," Hamilton says.
Darryl Low Choy, who grew up at Innisfail in Queensland and became the first person of Chinese ancestry to become a general in the Australian army -- he retired as a major general six years ago and is now a planning professor at Griffith University -- says that Sing's heroism reflects that of many other Chinese Australians in both world wars.
Their first heroic deed, he says, was to succeed in enlisting at all. Until the end of World War II, those fighting for Australia had to be of substantial European descent.
But Davis's focus is on portraying Sing not as an outsider who fought his way in -- and then kept fighting, to deadly effect -- but as a quintessential Queenslander.
Such fiercely argued disagreements about how historical characters should be presented, date back centuries.
The flavour of William Shakespeare's history plays owes much to the attitudes displayed in the chronicles of Raphael Holinshed, a historian and contemporary of Shakespeare's who is now viewed as an unreliable part-propagandist.
The latest Oscar winner for best picture, The Hurt Locker, set in contemporary Iraq, has come under strong criticism from elements of the American military, with one soldier claiming that the central bomb disposal figure is based on him.
Ethnic identity issues keep causing trouble for filmmakers. Five years ago, the film version of Arthur Golden's novel Memoirs of a Geisha aroused intense antagonism from Chinese critics because three of the main characters were played by Chinese, not Japanese, actresses.
Davis points out that he avoids what is now perceived as a worse piece of casting, making up a white actor as Chinese, as for instance happened in the Fu Manchu movies, where the evil Chinese genius is played by Christopher Lee, Richard Greene and even Peter Sellers.
Aboriginal detective Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte, created by Arthur Upfield, has twice been portrayed on television by white actors, Kiwi James Laurenson and Cameron Daddo, arousing some controversy.
Ned Kelly has been played on film by a motley crew of actors, most eccentrically by Mick Jagger. Russell Crowe, Davis points out, portrays Robin Hood in a new film. The famous outlaw is unlikely to have been a New Zealander.
But Sing's story is too new and intriguing to most Australians, and the significance of his identity too rare and too meaningful, especially for Australia's fast growing community of Chinese ancestry, for it to be reconfigured without the kind of controversy now crashing around the modestly conceived mini-series.
John Fitzgerald, author of The Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia, says: "Ignored in his lifetime, Billy Sing should not be dishonoured in ours. His memory will finally be honoured when Australians can all acknowledge that they share a multiracial history, even at Gallipoli."
The historical background of the Gallipoli campaign and how the Anzac legend evolved in Australia makes this even more offensive. Read this article for more.