" Madam Miaow Says

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Anna on the BBC World Service Weekend programme, 18th October 2014

I was a guest on the BBC World Service Weekend programme on Saturday, talking about the news: the Middle East, The Catholic Synod, Ebola and sheds. This year is the tenth anniversary of the Morecambe Bay Chinese cocklepickers disaster so I read my poem, "I Am Rich and Your Are Poor: lines on dead Chinese workers and their rich benefactors".

Daniel Johnson (son of Paul and editor of Standpoint mag) was the other guest. It was presented by Paul Henley and producer by Michael Innes.

You have seven days to listen … and other Ringu tropes.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Yellow Peril Orientalism past and present: awaiting Chris Frayling's new Chinaphobia book

This morning's hypnagogic state was interrupted by a call from Pat Edlin, who excitedly told me about a book by Chris Grayling about yellow peril fears and orientalism that he'd just heard discussed on the Today programme (BBC Radio 4).

I did wonder why a dodgy Tory minister would suddenly break the habit of a political lifetime and stick up for underdogs instead of sticking it to them. The thought of kindness and rationality emanating from John Humphrys and the laughably titled Justice Minister blew my noggin enough to have me reaching for Wiki.

Ah, Pat meant the other one. How unfortunate for academic Chris Frayling to so nearly share a name with the Slippery One: only one letter away on the keyboard for anyone with fat fingers.

I met Chris — the nice Chris — on BBC Radio 3's Night Waves in 2011 when I was talking about Anna May Wong and the dire representation of Chinese and east Asians in general in the media. I'm delighted to see him take on this subject and hopefully give it the Edward Said Orientalism treatment.

Here's a round-up of yellow peril episodes both historical and current that we've had to deal with.

From Anna May Wong having to die every time a white bloke fancied her, Sherlock's Blind Banker episode and propagandist hack Sax Rohmer's villainous Fu Manchu to the government blaming Chinese Brits for for its own failure to contain the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in 2001, we've encountered a slew of challenges, and even won a few of 'em.

I'm looking forward to reading Chris Frayling's new book, The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia (Thames and Hudson), presumably covering similar ground as Philip Dodds' sympathetic Radio 4 programme, Overwhelming China, that Daniel York, my fellow Fu Fighter, and I were on a while back.

Let's hope we're hitting a critical mass and that all this yellow peril nonsense will come to a swift end.

And then the BBC sacked Jeremy Clarkson, and then I woke up.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Dislocating Asia review: groundbreaking cultural event showcasing East Asian British music, literature and poetry

Last night's Dislocating Asia event at The Forge in Camden was more than a whole heap of fun: it was significant in showcasing a variety of top East Asian talent without a hint of faux orientalism.

We were the cool kids (okay, we were the rebels smoking fags behind the bike sheds and sassing the dweebs from the back seats in the class), and all references to our East Asian heritage flowed from an organic part of who we are and our interests, without a panda or pander in sight — unless you count my poem, "Chi Chi's Glorious Swansong" (about the great panda star of London Zoo in the 1960s). It was one of the first events of its kind that I can recall where you didn't cringe with embarrassment at the insecurities of the third largest non-white ethnic minority on display: it was another marker in the British East Asian community at long last, finally growing up.

Dr Diana Yeh curated the evening around the publication of her book, The Happy Hsiungs: Performing China and the Struggle for Modernity.

Diana was first up with an illustrated talk about the Hsiungs that flew by. Extracts from the play, enacted by Jennifer Lim, Daniel York, Melody Brown and Amanda Maud, revealed a witty comedy of manners and a case of mistaken identity: most apt for a minority constantly being denied theirs. This was underlined by photographs of the original cast — all white actors in yellow face. Oh, how we laughed.

Shih-I Hsiung, now almost forgotten but about to be resurrected, was a barnstorming playwright whose hit West End play, Lady Precious Stream, made him and Mrs Hsiung (the first Chinese woman writer to publish a book in English) the toast of the town. George Bernard Shaw considered him to be the Chinese Shakespeare but advised him that Chinese-themed work would assure him of success. His great hit show, based on a Chinese classic, played the West End for 733 nights from 27th November 1934, going on to be performed internationally from Israel to Kenya, and was adapted for television in 1950.

He has been rediscovered in China, where diaspora pioneers such as Hsiung and Anna May Wong are seen as important cultural icons in the history of the new superpower.

Hsiung's son, the elderly masterchef Deh-ta Hsiung, attended with his wife Julia. The Forge is a great new venue with wonderful acoustics, like a mini-version of the Royal Festival Hall. Its 60-seat capacity was rammed for the show.

Melody, Amanda and Daniel took the stage in their other guise of the night: the three-piece acoustic band, Wondermare. Melody and Amanda's warm, delicately-nuanced harmonies convey a range of emotions from the menace of David Byrne's Psycho Killer to the gentle comedy of My Lovely Horse from Father Ted. Daniel departed from his mandolin to serve up a stonking slide guitar solo in Ode to Billie Joe. They called on Liz Chi Yen Liew and Charles Shaar Murray to accompany them for their final song, a stirring commemoration of the Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers who died ten years ago this month.

I did a thirty-minute poetry set, reading from my book, Reaching for my Gnu, and performed a few new ones including Margaret Thatcher Died At the Ritz and Eating Placenta: Lines on the Royal Birth, before Charles Shaar Murray joined me for Anna May Wong Must Die.

Composer Liz Chi Yen Liew, who has worked with a host of big names in music including Moby, proves a fierce violinist and pianist, sensitively complemented by Dennis Lee on flute and zither. Lee's delicacy on the zither means every plucked note resonates with depth that reaches right into your belly. My friend Paul Anderson was literally moved to tears and snuffled away quietly into his beer. It was his birthday so he was most likely contemplating the passage of time and similar existential matters — it was that sort of a night. Liz and Dennis brought the show to a rousing end, leaving DJ Zoe Baxter, whose Lucky Cat series resumes shortly on Resonance 104.4FM, to spin her hidden wonders of early East Asian recording — always a fascinating listen.

We all had such a great time that we're hoping to repeat it. Who knows? There may even be a Wondermarey Christmas on the way.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Tonight at The Forge: I'm reading poetry among a smorgasbord of East Asian talent

DISLOCATING ASIA 7pm tonight at The Forge in Camden.

It's finally arrived … 7pm TONIGHT, I'm performing at the spectacular Dislocating Asia talent fest in Camden. With Charles Shaar Murray, Diana Yeh, Daniel York, Jennifer Lim, Wondermare, Liz Chi Yen Liew (Chi2, Damon Albarn) and Lucky Cat Zoe Baxter.

I'll be doing a 25 minute poetry set accompanied by Charles Shaar Murray on guitar, who'll also be guesting with Wondermare.

Dislocating Asia
This event is part of Camden Migration Festival

WIN: A whole bundle of prizes from our Dislocating Asia contributors. To be in with a chance to take the following home, simply book your ticket now.
1) Signed copy of Diana Yeh's book The Happy Hsiungs: Performing China and the Struggle for Modernity
2) Signed copy of Anna Chen's poetry collection Reaching for My Gnu
3) Signed copy of Liz Liew's CD Snapshots
4) DJ Lucky Cut Zoe Baxter's exclusive mix CD with sleeve notes

The Forge
3-7 Delancey Street


020 7383 7808

Friday, 26 September 2014

Saturday interview at All That Is Solid with Anna Chen: "Don't sneer at love in politics"

Saturday interview with Phil Burton Cartledge at All That Is Solid ...: Anna Chen

Extracts: highlights and lowlifes

- Why did you start blogging?

I started blogging as Madam Miaow in 2007 to stop me chucking heavy objects through the television screen. I needed not only to vent, but to order my thoughts when faced with the all-pervading mess out there. I'm sure there are many of us who have been kept sane by having the option to communicate our views to an audience, even a small one. It's a healthy way to make sense of an increasingly chaotic world.

- What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

A rising tide floats all boats. Rosa Luxemburg's warning that the choice would be between socialism or barbarism grows truer by the minute. Socialism is supposed to about an egalitarian, freeing society; from each according to their ability, to each according to their need, not a wholesale troughing down by power-hungry opportunists.

- What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?

Nationalism, anti-immigration, racism, sexism. I would include reformism if only there was a socialist alternative.

- How about political villains?

Anyone who rises through the left only to take an axe to the movement as soon as they see an opportunity to climb the greasy pole — they have done so much damage to the movement and proper socialism which should represent liberation for the majority. The SWP analysis in the late 1990s predicted that Blair would be right-wing and betray the working class who would move rightwards so it was vital that we build an alternative to Labour. They were correct in that instance yet here we are over a decade later with the left worse than ever following pointless sectarian punch-ups mostly initiated by the SWP when a strong principled left has never been more desperately needed.

- What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

The constant upward suck of wealth with our resources accreting in the hands of a tiny global elite. This can't carry on without major crises and a battle to redistribute fairly. Trouble is, they now have the technology to hang on to their ill-gotten gains and leave us behind. Recent "revolutions" have not been inspiring, they've simply meant a change of personnel at the top as die alte scheisse takes over.

- What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

Beware inadequates — they loathe you. Learn to tell the difference between lip-service and action. If love isn't part of your politics, then you have no business telling others what to do and how to run the world. Far from being romantic nonsense as so many cynics would have it, love is the highest plane on which human beings as social animals interact. We need to develop 360 degree abilities and wider bandwidth.

- What do you consider the most important personal quality?

Capacity for love — not the romantic kind, the other bigger one that encompasses generosity, solidarity and comradeship. Intelligence versus cleverness.

- And any pet peeves?

Mockney accents on posh leftists who tell working-class people how to be working-class. Purported progressives and anti-racists I've never met projecting their yellow peril fears onto me. Leftists who fall over themselves to appropriate your labour and the comrades who turn a blind eye. The snowy blinding WHITENESS of the left groups and the obvious lack of diversity, often manifesting as outright hostility towards Other. Organisations that bolt themselves to the front of other people's struggle and then claim leadership rights. None of this helps us advance our political cause.

- What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Use softening rose water instead of tonics that strip your skin and dry it up. Don't smoke or stay in the sun too long.

Don't go anywhere near the British far left. Too many charlatans, careerists and snake-oil salesmen and women with ambitions who are happy to plant their boot in your face if it means personal advancement as soon as something's up for grabs. Suddenly, gay rights are no longer a "shibboleth", that rape never happened and "what's yours is mine". Wise up to the fact that, just because someone says the right thing, it doesn't mean they live it. No-one on the left has your back if you are already a marginalised minority because so many of them are insecure, chasing status, career, youth and power, and they harbour a deep contempt for those who they see as occupying the bottom of society, whatever lip-service they pay otherwise — it's their own self-loathing projected out. Just because you are comradely, principled and non-sectarian, it doesn't mean everyone else is, too, simply because they've read the right books. Watch out for the middle-class ones who sneer at ethics and morality as "bourgeois", forgetting that Trotsky wrote a book called Their Morals and Ours, not Their Morals and We Ain't Got None.

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Sunday, 21 September 2014

Texas rules up-the-skirt photos are legal in freedom of speech tussle that's not as clear cut as you think.

I've been saying for a geological era that women in the west have a burqa imposed on us. It's just that ours is invisible.

The Texas Court of Appeal ruling legalising up-the-skirt shots — where a perv can thrust his camera up your skirt to take the image for sexual gratification — seems on the surface like another mind-boggling manifestation of how patriarchy rools.

However, sensationalist reports have ignored the genuine concern that, in its current form, the improper photography statute has enough wiggle-room for abuse by the State. It is actually an interesting legal dilemma that requires closer examination than my own initial harrumphing shock-horror allowed. As ever, going back to the source rather than relying on press reports yields nuances that get missed.

The Independent reports:
The Texas Court of Appeals ruled 8-1 to strike down part of a law which bans taking images of another person in public without their consent and with the intention to “arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person”, criticising the “paternalistic” intrusion into peoples’ private right to be aroused.

To stop someone using you as a masturbatory aid is not something the Founding Fathers had in mind when they penned their First Ammendment, says Sharon Keller (for the judge be a she, sistahs).

"Orwellian thoughtcrime", yelled lawyers for the perp Ronald Thomas, sounding like they never read any Gorgeous George in their lives. (Alexander Pope wasn't wrong when he wrote "a little learning is a dangerous thing".) After an alarming 2011 incident at Sea World in San Antonio, Thomas was found with 73 T & A shots of swimsuited children on his camera but, hey, this is his constitutional right.

In Wednesday's judgement the State argued, defending the improper photography statute in its present form:
The State further contends that the lack-of-consent requirement means that the statute does not apply to a photograph of a person in public as long as the photograph is of an area of that person that was exposed to the public. … any person who appears in public and exposes a certain part of the body to the public has necessarily consented to that part being photographed, and therefore, the improper-photography statute would not apply. But, the State reasons, if the person is not in public, or the photograph is of an area of the person that is not exposed to the public—such as the use of an X-Ray camera that can see through clothing or a photograph taken up a woman’s skirt—then the improper-photography statute would criminalize such behavior if done with the requisite intent [italics mine]. … the statute serves the important government interest of protecting privacy by “protecting individuals from invasive covert photography” and “protecting individuals from having their images unconsensually exploited for the sexual gratifications of others.”

But the defence argued:
... the improper-photography statute prohibits not merely the act of photography but photography with intent to arouse or gratify sexual desire, and the latter is expressive. ... While the legislature may have a legitimate interest in prohibiting “peeping tom” and “up-skirt” photography, appellant contends that the language of the statute “utterly fails to achieve that interest because it fails to distinguish those situations from merely photographing a girl in a skirt walking down the street.” Appellant argues that the “street photographer, the entertainment reporter, patrons of the arts, attendees to a parade or a pep-rally, [and] even the harmless eccentric are all at risk of incarceration under a plain reading of this statute." … The amicus also states that the statute “covers only those photographs that have the intended primary effect of causing sexual arousal, and it is the content of speech that would cause such arousal.”

It's a bad-faith argument, but the creep has a point in law. Your freedom not to be sexually harassed and violated is trumped by this man's right to expression because the lawyers who wrote the legislation failed to nail it. So now in this corner of the Land of the Free, women and children have choices: you can cover up or you can wear your skirt or swimwear and be considered fair game by male predators.

The judge concluded:
... that photographs and visual recordings are inherently expressive … The camera is essentially the photographer’s pen or paintbrush. Using a camera to create a photograph or video is like applying pen to paper to create a writing or applying brush to canvas to create a painting. … Banning otherwise protected expression on the basis that it produces sexual arousal or gratification is the regulation of protected thought, and such a regulation is outside the government’s power.

Yet this intimidation is permitted. Consent doesn't come into it as it would if you sat for a painting as "there need not be any actual concurrence of wills between the photographer and the subject or any actual voluntary agreement by the subject to be photographed." Is a direct image of you snapped by a photographic device as artistically valid as a scurrilous cartoon? One has been created in the mind and brought into the world through an act of artistic creation whilst the other is an immediate capture of your actual image in light form. Snapping police in their duty has political validity in a way that photographing your knickered bum clearly does not.

However, the judge says, "A person who walks down a public street cannot prevent others from looking at him or her with sexual thoughts in their heads." Perversely, even though the areas of your body are not on public display, photographing them covertly is legal. "Protecting someone who appears in public from being the object of sexual thoughts seems to be the sort of 'paternalistic interest in regulating the defendant’s mind' that the First Amendment was designed to guard against."

Yeah, so let's allow them to enact what's in their minds willy-nilly. The letter of the law is a dead thing if there is no application of the spirit of the law.

However ...

Could it be this which is the problem? The judge says:
The statutory provision at issue is extremely broad, applying to any non-consensual photograph, occurring anywhere, as long as the actor has an intent to arouse or gratify sexual desire.

Because the act of photographing is not illegal in itself, but is only illegal under the improper photography statute when motivated by sexual gratification, the law is being asked to look into a person's mind, and this, I reckon, is where the difficulty lies. Remember those italics in the State's argument defending the statute? "… if done with the requisite intent"? How on earth do you determine whether or not this is the case?

“Photographs are routinely taken of people in public places, including at public beaches, where bathing suits are also commonly worn, and at concerts, festivals, and sporting events. Taking photographs of people at such venues,” the Court said, “is not unusual, suspicious, or criminal.”

So this may be a case of dangerously worded legislation bashed out in a rush, with the devil being in the detail. Some societies consider a photograph to be theft of the soul. Until this flabby statute is tightened up, in this instance, I fear they may be right.

The appeal against the ruling hinges on whether the camera is a dead machine and photography a technical process not protected by constitutional right. Jury … still out.