Friday, 4 May 2018

When is a dress just a dress? American teenager's Chinese prom dress and cultural appropriation

Anna Chen writes in the Guardian, An American woman wearing a Chinese dress is not cultural appropriation

(Guardian headline and standfirst written by sub-eds)

When is a dress just a dress? Remember those photos of the little cocktail number that looked blue with black lace to some and white with gold lace to others when they were in fact the same frock? American teenager Keziah Daum now possesses a prom dress with similar magical properties, and it’s landed her in hot water with culture pedants.

The attraction of the qipao (“cheongsam” in Cantonese) is obvious: a sexy, figure-hugging sheath of silk with a high mandarin collar balancing a va-va-voom flash of leg via a thigh-high slash. Its beauty, however, turned into a curse when photos posted on social media of her wearing her beloved vintage find made her a target for tens of thousand of tweets accusing her of cultural appropriation. That’s one heck of a fashion crime.

The original complainant’s instinct – to draw a line at a time when Chinese people are under siege from Trump-inspired China-bashers – is understandable, but in this case, completely mistargeted. If anything, the qipao represents power and class, not race, and certainly not the culture of some exploited underclass.

The qipao’s history is said to have originated with the Manchu Qing dynasty, when members of the Han population they ruled were forced to wear a loose version of the one-piece instead of their own traditional clothing. Created in Shanghai in the 1920s, when warlords ran vast swathes of republican China, the slinkier form of qipao was a fashion favoured by one ruling strand of Chinese society that we associate with Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists, who fled to Taiwan when the communists won their revolution in 1949 and ditched the bourgeois qipao for Mao suits. Some even detect a western influence in its hybridisation, meaning the current outcry could be compared with taking offence because someone in Asia wore a tuxedo.

At its core, the identity debate is about power: who has it, who’s lost it and who’s chucking it around with abandon. This is hardly a case of a white American dressing up in a fringed chamois tunic with a feather headdress, mocking the indigenous people their antecedents almost wiped out.

At least Keziah wasn’t tip-toeing around to mimic bound feet in a play set a millennium before foot-binding became a thing in China, as in perhaps the most absurd example of cultural appropriation I’ve witnessed. In More Light at London’s Arcola Theatre several years ago, seven white actresses played Chinese concubines buried alive (allegedly) with China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who died in 210BC. Wearing kimonos (Japanese) and sticking chopsticks in their hair (!), this was a prime example of badly executed appropriation. Unlike Keziah’s appreciation.

When cultures meet and mingle, they inform and enrich each other. I can wear tartan, wear pyjamas, knock up a curry, curl my hair, cry along to the blues and dance to funk. I know the difference between a schmuck and a schlemiel. I’ve sat shiva for a friend’s father. I love gefilte fish. Does this make me a cultural appropriator?

The whole cultural appropriation debate is in danger of being turned from a defence of minorities under the colonialist cosh into a lazy substitute for real political power. How has it degenerated to the extent that we’re now on social media mobbing teenagers whose only crime is to consider a Chinese dress beautiful? Qipao-gate this isn’t.

With President Trump and his acolytes pumping up yellow peril fears around China, and his trade wars threatening to slip into hot wars, the last thing we need is this trivialised pastiche of serious debate. Minorities have precious little ammunition with which to challenge tribal juggernauts. Don’t waste what little cultural and political firepower we have.

Keziah was neither stealing power nor claiming ownership. And she looked lovely.

Here's me wearing the cheongsam from my solo show Suzy Wrong Human Cannon (Edinburgh Fringe Festival), at the ICA in London for a performance of Bondage Pic by Grace Lau.

Guardian piece

EDIT Here's a taste what we're thought of in Britain and pretty much generally in the western Chinese diaspora:

The Opium War by Julia Lovell book review: Smoke and mirrors and barely disguised disgust for the Chinese.

What happened when the Tony Blair government tried to blame the catastrophic outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease on the UK Chinese.

For a minority to be truly part of British society you have to be visible, otherwise you're a blank canvas onto which the dominant group's inner demons can be projected. The Chinese British community finally say no to yellowface when the Royal Shakespeare Company does The Orphan of Zhao.

Similar controversy when London venue The Print Room produces a yellowface In the Depths of Love and then performs like a contortionist to make their risible excuses leaving most of us aghast and laughing in disbelief.

Sherlock and wily orientals: Blind Banker, Episode 2 review. I'm afraid this has completely wrecked my enjoyment of anything featuring Benedict Cumberbatch. Trigger warning: it features a qipao.

Sinophobia and Copenhagen: open letter to the Guardian's Mark Lynas. Right now, Germany and China lead the world in green energy policies while Trump pumps fossil fuels, even contriving to leave the Iran nuclear agreement on dubious grounds which is sending the oil price rocketing — $71 at time of writing, expected to go over $100 for the next three years. Great for Texas ...

... and Canada is currently sitting on the planet’s second largest oil reserves which it plans to release into the markets and the atmosphere, and is the first Kyoto signatory to renege on the deal. China is sticking to the Paris accord despite Trump pulling out the US.

To "trump" it all, we're even excluded from debates about us: Laurie Penny excludes woman of colour from debate about representation of women of colour

Friday, 16 March 2018

Anna Chen's band The Snow Leopards - photos from the mists of time

Found some old pics of me with my band, The Snow Leopards. Even before Apple! Well, it was long, long time ago in a universe far, far away ...

Cruella coat designed by Dave Vanian's girlfriend, Laurie, in the King's Road days.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Credit Crunch Suicide: poem about the bankers' crash by Anna Chen

Ten years of austerity since the credit crunch crisis and we're even worse off while the rich doubled their wealth since 2008

It is ten years since the bankers' crash went full blown and what have we done? Austerity, Macjobs, disabled payments cuts, a spiteful bedroom tax costing more to administer than is collected, tax cuts for the better off, women losing seven years of state pension after a lifetime of inequality, students leaving university with crippling debt the size of a mortgage, social cleansing in London through unaffordable "affordable" property prices and demolition of their communities, life expectancy slammed into reverse in the North, hate crimes on the up, the lowest interest rates for 5,000 years, quantitive easing (QE) diluting the value of our money. And the culmination of all that injustice and greed: the Grenfell Tower fire.

The Tories and their media mouthpieces tried to persuade us that Labour caused the crisis even though UK economic growth stood at two or three per cent at the time of the 2010 general election; oh for that rate today. In 2010 the Tories were elected on a raft of lies and a narrative as dissembling as the £350 billion NHS Brexit pledge emblazoned across the Leave battle-bus. Mind you, Labour allowed the Tory narrative to set like concrete, allowing incoming Chancellor George Osborne to use the crash to impose austerity, which is basically the transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest.

Once in power, Prime Minister David Cameron came on like a Tony Blair mini-me and had a war with Libya in 2011, further destabilising the world. Cameron promised a bonfire of regulations to "kill off the health and safety culture for good". He also gave us the EU referendum, not because there was any widespread demand for it, but in order to quell right-wing rebellion in his own Tory ranks. Some 52% of the vote — 37% of the total electorate, a quarter of the UK population — voted to "Take back control" and promptly handed us over to global warming oil guzzlers and chlorinated chicken merchants. And his actions may very well end up bankrupting the country should the Brexit trajectory be carried through.

Here's a poem I wrote about the crash in 2008. The shock for me is that we are re-entering the same territory with a mountain of debt and market manipulation.

Credit Crunch Suicide

I could have been a banker
Sitting on a ledge
High up on a skyscraper
Coz someone clipped my hedge

I could have been in business
In the city making bids
Take a shotgun to the wife and dogs
And then I’d do the kids

But I’m just a daily worker
About to lose my home
Savings all depleted
Can’t even get a loan

The bankers got their billions
The doggy got a bone
The millions got the wankers
Whose hearts are made of stone

I can cry into me drink
I can curse the gods above
I'd like to give that banker
A bleedin' great big shove

Watch him splat upon the pavement
A human pizza pie
Coz that's where I'll be living
Until the day I die.

by Anna Chen 29 Oct 2008

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Tinderbox plc: a poem for Grenfell Tower

A poem for Grenfell Tower by Anna Chen marking a month since the disaster

Today marks a whole month since the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, yet the conflagration that killed at least 80 people seems ever present, still fresh in the mind and the heart. This is more than an accident, a natural tragedy — call it gross negligence, call it murder, someone had to make a buck. Only £2 per panel of cladding separated the chances of survival from inevitable death. Then there were the absent sprinklers, the single stairwell, the lack of adequate firefighting equipment, the destruction of regulations designed to keep us safe, and all the other corrupt, mendacious, money-grabbing decisions taken that led us to this point.

While the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea took £55 million a year in rent from the remnants of its social housing, only £38 million made it back to the property that yielded so much loot that the borough was able to amass £274 million to spend on council tax rebates for the better off and flashy opera events in Holland Park. The poorest paid for the amusement of the wealthy. Funny how there's always money for those who need it least.

Artists are engaging with events. Here is my attempt to make sense, reflect and refract. I hope my readers get something out of it.

Tinderbox plc

At the hot point
Of the turning world
A spark lit the flame
That caught the cladding
That burnt the facade
And threw a light
On the burned-out shell
Of the state of the State,
By Lucifer's light,
A glimpse of hell
Roiled and erupted.
Two pounds of flesh
Per shake of dice
No values known,
Just the cheapest price
In modern Britain plc.

A giant with his fiery sword
Sliced and smote from the flash at four,
He slashed the night to twenty-three,
Dividing the world, rich and poor.
He made his mark, he slashed the dark
On the bias to the roof and higher,
Earth to sky, sheer cliff of fire,
Sliced the tower to light and ash
On one side life, the other a fire of flesh,
A cash-fuelled slomo waiting-room of death,
Each poisoned breath counting down
Lives extinguished but not the flames
Blackening air with soot and cinders.
That is my neighbour, this is a mum,
There is the artist, those are children
Unto the last babe in turbulent dreams
Such horror wreaks and wrecks.
This is the state at the top of the heap,
What power sows, the weakest reap.

Another giant slashed and burned for years
And turned a world upon its head,
A bonfire of red tape set in motion
A cascade of events, invisible, minuscule,
Each piling onto each in spidery increments.
Action group Cassandras screamed murders in waiting,
Grievous bodily profit with intent.
Lift a rock and see what crawls,
So many in the frame, your head spins,
The shitlist lengthens with every trawl,
Cash is cruel, cash is king:
National Grid gas pipes, KCTMO, austerity,
Stay Put, politicians, the construction industry ...
Even Maggie Thatcher takes a bow
Her dishes are all cooked by now,
Her high rise cladding on simmer the year the miners struck,
No law now, just luck and the gift that keeps on giving,
She slashed and burned faster than the FR60
One-hour fire-hold rule she flamed,
Halted building, sold off social housing,
Health and safety not gone mad. Just gone.

Aberfan, Hillsborough, Grenfell Tower,
Who had the cash also had the power
To wrap Babel in plastic, for the view palled,
No thought for the living when the opera calls,
A class event, a bagatelle paid for with Grenfell rents,
Rip off the poorest, the system bent.
Gas pipes up the stairwell, smoke in the vents,
Alarms on the fritz, saved a few pence,
Water pressure failing, too little spent,
Retrofit sprinklers too high an expense
And on ignition, stay put was their best advice.
Two pounds of flesh per shake of dice
No values here, just the cheapest price.

The giant scrawled in smoke and flame
Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here
But the firefighters came in all the same
Through Bosch's vision, the scorching Hotpoint near,
Over bodies they clambered, up clogging stairs
Barely three feet wide, on a wing and a prayer
And an underfunded gulp of air.
The sullied air chokes but the horror is pure,
Breathe deep and inhale fury and fear,
Cyanide, asbestos and your neighbours.
Which is the most toxic?
Down in your lungs even now
The death clock ticks, reset

Time was the enemy.
Fire was the enemy.
Mammon was the enemy.
Kensington and Chelsea council was the enemy.
Kensington and Chelsea TMO was the enemy.
The industry was the enemy.
The government was the enemy.
They sprung a trap, a trap was sprung.

Yet still we lived. Watching from an outer circle,
We were resourceful in those hours.
In our heads, at least, perhaps a car could provide a landing.
Could a mountain of mattresses soften the fall?
For these were no princesses on the pea
But cheeky, boisterous boys and girls.
We wished a man could fly.
We wished for Superman, iced chunk of Thames in tow.
We wished a child could bounce,
That they weighed a quarter of an ounce.
We wished we could put gravity on hold
Stretch this moment til an escape was found,
Slow down damn time til they reached the ground.
A thousand people prayed a million wishes:
For a Star Trek transporter to beam them away,
A fakir's rope dropping as the gentle rain from heaven,
For wings to sprout, something miraculous to get them out.
A ladder! A tall ladder, a platform with a high pressure hose,
No, too fanciful when the giant slashes and fire stations close.

Did those knotted blankets lead someone to safety
Or a dead end?
"I had my whole life ahead of me," Gloria Trevisan told her mum.
And it was.
Six and a half minutes with Rania Ibrahim
Is to take a trip to a dark side,
Her voice rings out truth everlasting.
Walk with her, it's the least she deserves.
Walk with the Grenfell dead and soar with angels.
A bonfire of people followed the bonfire of regulations
As surely as night followed night followed darkest night of the soul
Cry cruellest murder, the tower can never be put right.

Over the main route into London from Heathrow,
Looms a burnt-out colossus:
A coked-up Tory wideboy in a cheap suit with a pocketful of loot;
We all learnt the meaning of metaphor that night
In Tinderbox plc.

by Anna Chen
12th July 2017

The author was born and raised in Hackney in east London and lived at Hackney Downs and the Gascoyne Estate.

Apologies for not being able to find the photographers who took the photographs on this page. Please let me know if you took the photographs and if I have your permission to use them with a credit (or if you'd like them taken down). By the same token, please feel free to publish my poem with a credit and link to this page. Thank you.

The Tower: Rewriting Grenfell. Measured, factual, humane response from Architects for Social Housing (ASH) to Andrew O’Hagan'S 60,000 word clickbait article in the London Review of Books defending the RBKC council.

EDIT: More poems are turning up. I'll link to some of them here.

Grenfell Tower, June, 2017: a poem by Ben Okri. ‘If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower.’ Video here

This video of "No Alarms" by Sana Uqba made me cry with its haunting rhythms and powerful imagery

The Merited Moral Remembrance Of The Wilfully Massacred Residents Of Grenfell Tower - Poem by Stanley Collymore

"Grenfell" by Olga Dermott-Bond

"Nowhere": a response to the housing crisis by poet Tony Walsh – audio

"A Hope for the Future" by Angi Holden

On the Liturgical Poetry website, "Grenfell"

"Grenfell Tower" by Lisa Rey

"Towering Shame" by Sarah McGurk

Video of "Grenfell Fell" by Rakin Cisse Niass

"Grenfell Tower" by Maxine Black

"Kensington and Chelsea" by David R Mellor

Video of "Grenfell Tower Fire" by The Truth Poet

"Family Trees (Grenfell Tower)" by Steve Rowland

"Of Grenfell Tower and other scandals": Why we must Whistleblow a wind of change, by John Pearce.

I think this one is from a firefighter or police at the scene: "The Grenfell Tower" by Thin Blue Line UK

"For Grenfell Tower" by Dave Rendle

Two poems at the Culture Matters page, one by Alan Morrison and one by Paul Dovey

Stunning video, "Ghosts of Grenfell", from Lowkey. Live dates

"14th June 2017", a beautiful poem from someone who was instrumental in filling the void left by local and national government, badly marred by territorial pissing in the final stanza. A conclusion about universal love and empathy rather than a demand for "I am not my brother's keeper" indifference might have been more apt because a denial of others' empathy in a cruel world is surely not the path to follow. We are all pieces of the continent of humankind — Picasso didn't have to be at Guernica in order to paint the horror. Would be vastly improved by losing the last six lines.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Who Should We Let In? Anna Chen joins Ian Hislop's investigation of immigration hysteria in Britain

Anna Chen discusses Victorian and Edwardian-era Yellow Peril fears with Ian Hislop on Who Should We Let In? Thursday 22nd June, 9pm, BBC2

From the sublime to the ridiculous. There was I, having a high old time with Ian Hislop on Who Should We Let In?— the First Great Immigration Row, his grown-up investigation into the origins of immigration hysteria in Old Blighty, when – like a toxic photobomb – up pops a modern embodiment of racism. Yes indeed, poor Katie Hopkins (for it is she), has been projecting her demons with satanic ferocity only to have it dawn that the monster is actually herself.

I'd been talking to Ian about Victorian and Edwardian attitudes towards the Chinese, portrayed in the 1900s as "hordes of fanatical barbarians", and lurid reports of massacres that never happened in early versions of the Fake News which the Daily Mail does so well and so often. Never mind the mid-19th century Opium Wars waged by Britain, which was mass producing industrial tonnages of opium in Bengal and forcing it onto the Chinese population at the point of a gun. Having turned an expensive aristocratic vice into a cheap nationwide addiction, the Brits were able — along with the other European and Asian superpowers — to take advantage of an ailing, decrepit Ching dynasty and bite off great chunks of China. Hence Hong Kong, among other territories ceded to imperialist powers.

A vicious Yellow Peril mania fuelling fear, revulsion and paranoia saturated the Yellow Press. A tiny turn-of-the-century UK Chinese population of 400 was smeared with images of drugs and sex: a bleedin' obvious projection of the vast undifferentiated id belonging to the repressed Victorians. By 1905 Britain had scored its first immigration control in the form of the Aliens Act (aimed at Jews) and, when in 1906, on the promise of jobs, 32 Chinese migrants were allowed in to Liverpool, the press barons were not so much predicting a riot as pouring on the petrol to ensure that riots took place.

"British jobs for British workers," was the rallying cry, something I have heard in my own lifetime applied to UK Chinese not only from the right but also in the British outside left. Trade unionist and co-founder of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) James Sexton may be a hero of the Liverpool labour movement, but he rode this wave of hatred for all it was worth: it has been pointed out that "he won St Anne's ward in 1905 on an overtly anti-Chinese (and anti- Semitic) manifesto." Whether or not the left stick to socialist principles over free movement of labour as well as capital when Brexit presents such get-rich-quick pickings remains to be seen.

In 1906, still others scented blood. With a jaundiced eye on the main chance, American writer Claude Blake migrated to Britain and rang the dinner bell on the tiny group of would-be laundry and shop workers in a sensationalist series of articles, entirely oblivious to the hypocrisy of his own freedom to travel and displace hard-working journos in Ingerland. His most infamous article, "Chinese Vice in England: a view of terrible conditions at close range" in the Sunday Chronicle, described "dark, dirty, evil-smelling streets", "half-caste youngsters" and "sinister offspring". (Well, hell-ooo!) The Chinese were "far less fitted to form an integral part of a civilised white community." These stereotypes linger still — more easily detected in up-front "monsters" like Hopkins but also hanging around the left like a bad smell.

Alarmed by Blake's article, Liverpool City Council investigated, finding only that their Chinese community was in fact "the embodiment of public order". Facts? Facts? Who cares about facts?

Over a century on, nuthin' changes. Hopkins observes, "Two things sell newspapers, Maddy McCann and migration." "It feels so modern, so contemporary," she gushes over Blake's article. Under Ian's steely gaze and queasiness over her use of the word "cockroaches" to describe migrants, she slips and slithers and volunteers some bullshit that it was really migrants' endurance that led to the comparison. She says she admires Blake's language, both of them happy to describe migrant communities as "festering sores". Ian offers "an offence against humanity" as a more accurate definition but this hurtles right over her pink-rinse. Challenged on her "plague of feral humans" — "Are they all feral? Is it actually a 'plague'? Have you met any asylum seekers?" — her pitch and volume rise as she defends the indefensible, descending into Trumpelicious attacks on the PC meeja including Hislop; collectively responsible, she says, for the biglyness of her audience. She reminds me of Caliban, the dark mirror of the human soul, and seems to see herself as a Teller of Titanic Truths who would people "this isle with Calibans" while blaming others for her excesses.

Well done, Ian, for leading Hopkins to some sort of moment of self-enlightenment, even if it did emerge with the feeble glimmer of a 20-watt light bulb. Illuminating, all the same. Hopkin's self-aggrandising movie cliché, "I am the monster but you made me," denies intellectual responsibility or free will, putting her at the heart of a drama whose tragic consequences have nothing to do with commentators like her mangling the facts.

I've tried to be generous with Hopkins, aware that she has a severe epileptic condition that wipes out swathes of brain cells with every episode. However, making her illness an excuse would risk ascribing her malice to everyone sharing her disability rather than merely those sharing her poisonous ideology. But what do I know? Perhaps fear and paranoia around "other" really does come down to a brain disorder with synapses misfiring all over the place and, as ever, innocents caught in the crossfire.

As innocents always are.

Who Should We Let In is available to watch on iPlayer for 30 days from 22nd June 2017

More information about the programme here

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Roger Moore dies at 89: sweet guy on and off the set

Hours after the horrific murder of young people at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester targeted by nihilistic sadists, comes news that another one of our screen icons is dead, aged 89.

I met Roger Moore when I was in one of the Bond movies as a teenager. I was sharing the dressing room opposite his at Pinewood with Bunny twins and he'd have us over for tea — proper silver service with cakes and sarnies. He was a lovely, generous guy even if he wasn't my favourite Bond by a long chalk. A great raconteur and delightful company who everyone found easy to work with.

So many deaths today. Look after the kids, Roger. RIP all you innocents.