Flat3 in the Super City: Interview with Perlina Lau

I first emailed Perlina Lau as a nervous 17-year-old for advice about taking a gap year in the West Midlands, UK. Five years on, Kiwese hung out with Perlina at a mate’s flat in Auckland, to get the deets on Flat3 over some wines and see who’s Asian glow was the hottest.

To be honest, when I first heard there was a web series about Chinese flatmates in Auckland, I was pretty skeptical.

Ugh, yup, total eyeroll. It sounds awful, its gonna be all Asian, its gonna be really pretentious and done. We massively wanted to avoid that. When we were first telling people about it I was like … there is nothing I can say to you to make this sound appealing [laughs]. “Umm, my friends and I made a web series, well, we’re all Asian, but we dont talk about being Asian… I’m losing them, I’m losing them!!”

 

How do you feel about the ‘NZ Chinese identity’?

I guess for me personally, I never went through that struggle of “who am I, what’s my identity?” I don’t actually have that many Kiwi Chinese friends, growing up I had one and my cousin. I find this very odd because my Kiwi Chinese friends generally have other Kiwi Chinese friends, but the difference is I am first generation and they are second or third – so their parents were born here. Sometimes it kind of confuses me when Kiwi Chinese people have a very Chinese mentality, which is essentially like my grandma, yet they don’t speak the language, it’s like whaa…

"It's for our non-wedding photo album, of all the guests holding different fruits,"
“It’s for our non-wedding photo album, of all the guests holding different fruits,”

Totally. The image can seem kind of forced, particularly in the way Chinese are represented in the media. I feel there is a lot of myth making about Chinese culture going on a lot of the time.

So often it is just reinstating what’s already the obvious, a constant reference to being Asian. Yes, of course you are Chinese, but that does not define you. This is applicable to every ethnicity. Some feel the need to always talk about it like it’s lost or it’s leaving us. I guess that was a big part of starting Flat3 – I’m not saying representing ‘Chineseness’ isn’t important, but there’s the other side that goes unrepresented as if it doesn’t exist. For us, there are so many things that happen in our lives that have nothing to do with us being Chinese, but everything to do with us being awkward in our twenties not knowing what the hell to do with our lives and questioning everything [laughs].

Losing my shit upon discovering Flat3 earlier this year.
Losing my shit upon discovering Flat3 earlier this year.

Flat3 often subtly takes the piss out of Asian typecasting and cultural appropriation. The scene where Jess is serving wasabi peas in a qipao at the Viaduct! I died!

First and foremost it’s the storyline, the journey of the characters. If it so happens that Asian jokes or being Asian becomes a factor in the storyline or scene, by all means go for it. Acting jobs are scarce as it is, then being a minority as well – you need to be really pragmatic about it, as in, I’m not white – I’m Chinese. So you just have to be really blunt [laughs]. In acting, it is about who looks right for the part. In that Viaduct scene it’s like “well, she’s gotta pay the rent!”

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How did you first meet JJ and Ally? You guys seem like such good buds on screen.

I met Jess in The Secret of Dongting Lake, a theatre show back in 2010. It was one of the first theatre shows I’d done in years outside of high school. We were cast as best friends, so we had a bit of chemistry there and could work together. Plus, it was comedy – she was a princess who’d made it and I was the lady in waiting like ‘uhhgh life.’ Ally was brought in as an extra, she was really quiet but we really liked her!

How did the idea for Flat 3 come about?

Around mid-2012, I was at uni and Jess was a full time performer. We were just hanging out and talking about how there wasn’t much going round in terms of production, then came up with the idea for a kind of a day-to-day awkward comedy theatre show. We hadn’t seen Ally in ages, but contacted her anyway to see if she would be interested. We weren’t sure if she was big on comedy and she ended up being the underdog!

What were the first inspirations for a web series?

Auckland Daze had come out at the time, which is produced by Kerry Warkia, our producer, that’s when we started watching it and loved it. You could tell a lot of it was improv, very loose sketches, really funny, and with four main guys. So basically we were like, okay – three female Chinese leads, comedy, New Zealand, Auckland, having lots fun. We had written a brief synopsis then figured we were all terrible writers [laughs]. We thought it would be a long shot, but we managed to get Roseanne Liang onboard as the scriptwriter and director!

Roseanne behind the scenes
Roseanne behind the scenes.

“With Roseanne, Banana in a Nutshell absolutely changed my sister and I’s lives. Her dad was our paediatrician while growing up, so now it has come to this weird full circle.”

What kind of shows are you inspired by?

Those first meetings with the four of us were just about shows we enjoyed watching ourselves: Sex and the City, New Girl, HBO stuff. Girls had also started coming out with a few eps at the time and we were all like ‘oh shit this is amazing!!’

 

You kept your real names for the show, how closely do the characters correlate to your actual personalities?

Pretty close, there’s a reason my character is called Perlina [laughs]. Well, we actually kept all our names because we kept forgetting who was who. It was like “Okay WHO IS BETH??” “Am I Beth? “Yes, you are Beth, you chose the name” “Oops I forgot.”

While writing we started telling stories about ourselves – just weird things that had happened with boys, colleagues, people at the bus stop. Ally is an optometrist and has the most hilarious stories from work. Playing the characters in the show is like a parallel universe.

You guys have been getting some international exposure with CAAMfest in San Francisco and so on, how’s that going?

New Zealand is the biggest audience, then after that it’s the US! It took us by surprise really, I thought it would’ve been Australia or England. But Americans really appreciate that awkward, self-deprecating humour – Flight of the Conchords and that. The sheer quantity, quality, turnover and pace of stuff out of America is incredible, so it’s really validating and nice to know they are watching our stuff and commenting too! End of the day, some people aren’t gonna like it but meh, you can’t please everybody. 

Flat3 is not afraid to get rude. It doesn’t really follow that quiet high-achiever Chinese discourse.

Oh god no. I said to my mum “you are not allowed to watch the third episode of season two.” I think the Chinese community is still very conservative, even in NZ. The raunchy stuff would never make prime time TV. Ever. There would be so many complaints [laughs]. Fact is, people swear. When you try to replace swear words with anything else it sounds stupid and phony. People in their twenties sleep with other people outside of marriage. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with it but we aren’t gonna not show it as if it doesn’t happen. You got laid and we are gonna celebrate.

You guys did Season One with a grand, then $10,000 from Indiegogo supporters and then got a $100,000 NZ On Air grant??

It was never about the money – there was no money. In fact we put our own money into it – so we are running on a massive loss [laughs]. The grant has changed up the production, plus we can pay everyone something, where they had previously been doing it for free. It is a lot of money, but once you include food, location fees, petrol it does add up. This season we were able to afford people and locations we couldn’t before – it’s just gone next level.

How do you guys find locations to shoot?

All Auckland based. Central Auckland is very tight knit, parking is shit and stores are mostly small spaces. So we did a lot out in the north-east and south-west where its not as busy and you get less people like “woah! *barrelling the camera*”

Cast and crew shooting around Auckland.
Cast and crew shooting around Auckland.

Season One and Two saw a lot of local funny peeps in the mix – Rose Matafeo, Nic Sampson and so on.

Yeah, they are amazing! The guest cast this season made us switch it on from an acting perspective,  we’ve have had some stellar actors – Madeleine Sami (Outrageous Fortune, Jacqui Brown Diaries), her improv is out of this world, as well as Pua Magasiva (Shortland Street, Sione’s Wedding)  and Glen Levy (Auckland Daze).

How is Season 3 progressing?

We just finished filming today! I’m so pleased with it and so proud because we basically made a feature in about three weeks. It has been full on, a controlled train wreck. We had a great crew, lighting guys, two cameras, art department, make up, costume – incredibly talented people who were making things look way better on screen. We had Liz, a script supervisor for continuity, plus an amazing DOP.

Corpsing, laughing, forgetting lines. The other day we were filming in Spotlight and we just couldn’t stop laughing – Roseanne was like “okay laugh it off, get it out, run round the store, yell!” We were laughing so hard we couldn’t yell, so she was yelling at us for not yelling and we were just cracking up round the stupid fabric aisles.

What can we expect from this glam new season?

You can expect it to look great, there are a lot of locations, aesthetically there is a lot to look at. A lot of people are coming back, with new characters and more extras as well. There are a lot of homages to things we like, films and concepts. Everything is a bit more epic with the storyline and there is also a gaggy improvy feel to it. We are rounding it off this season, so the characters have a bit more depth and continue into their storylines from the second season. We should be online by September!

Katrina as Katrina
Katrina as Katrina

So do you who do you actually flat with?

I flat with Katrina from the show! We went to doing Communications together at AUT and were friends, then we started flatting together. She is that weird character – bit of a dork, bit of a geek, but owns it completely.

Thanks, Perls!!

NB: Use of [laughs] does not accurately reflect the actual amount of laughter that occurred during this interview. 

Perlina and I, Arch Hill, Auckland 2014
Perlina and I, Arch Hill, Auckland

Flat3 is a comedy web series from Auckland, starred in and co-produced by Perlina Lau, JJ Fong and Ally Xue, written and directed by Roseanne Liang.

You can watch Season One and Two of Flat3 on YouTube!

Follow Perlina, Jess and Ally on Twitter and/or like their Facebook page!

Even got an Instagram @flat3_webseries

Read Ally’s hilarious Flat3 blog here.

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