Tuesday, 26 April 2016

WASPI women's pensions were in surplus but RAIDED: restore our pensions

I love it when we women work together. A fellow WASPI has sent me the following illuminating submission to the Work and Pensions Committee from Rita Abrahams, which is crying out to be read far and wide.

Ms Abrahams has done a sterling bit of detective work and calculated that not only are we NOT a drain on the state, as the Tories insist, but that our state pension pot was showing a surplus year after year. She also tackles the NICs sleight-of-hand, which has been largely ignored or overlooked by the powers that be.

The government has cynically used the mask of "equality" to steal tens of thousands of pounds from some of the poorest in Britain: around £40,000 for some of us when you take into consideration the soaring cost of NICs to replace the Class 2 contributions abolished by George Osborne in his last budget. One serious step towards a meaningful equality would be to ensure women receive equal pay rather than the 80 per cent of men's income that we average.

And let's not forget that the super-rich have tripled their wealth since the 2008 crash.

I hope there will be a legal challenge, perhaps some sort of class action, if we don't receive our fair pension. I admit to a lack of confidence in the pensions minister, Baroness Ros Altmann, who, far from proactively fighting our corner, has belatedly had to be dragged into the spotlight, suggesting that the best we can hope for is a slightly earlier pension age at a reduced rate. The crumbs are getting smaller.

Written evidence from Rita Abrahams (ESP0178)

I would like to start with asking the following question of the committee, before the debates in February and March how many read the Government’s Actuary report on the National Insurance Fund which was issued on 25th January 2016?

I raised this question for the very simple reason that the financial position of our National Insurance Fund might not have been accurately referenced, in fact it might not have been referenced in any of the debates which is very worrying as that’s the account which pays out contributory benefits such as the State Pension.

Many who wrote, talked and voted against the motion questioned how could the Government fund the request of WASPI, here just two of those quotes: Marcus Fysh (Yeovil) (Con): It would be unfair for us to continue to burden younger generations with extra taxes in order to make more concessions than we have already.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): When I explain to women born in the 1950s that state pensions are paid out of normal expenditure, not some magical pot of gold from NI contributions, and that our (1950s generation) pensions will be paid for by our children and grandchildren’s taxes, they all get the point.

Such remarks would indicate that the Actuary report’s wasn’t considered before the vote, in fact other remarks would indicate little knowledge of how our National Insurance Fund actually works. I hadn’t realised but basically our National Insurance Fund was set up as a pay as you go system; its income comes from National Insurance Contributions and expenditure can only used to pay for contributory benefits such as State Pensions, a working balance of 1/6th of annual expenditure is required to be kept in the fund for emergencies.

The latest Actuary report published in January projected that by April 2021 our National Insurance Fund will have a balance of £58 billion; thus after setting aside the working balance requirement of £18.52 billion (1/6th of payments) a surplus would remain of £39.48 billion.

The surpluses over the working balance for each of the next 5-years roughly breaks down as follows.
2016-2017: - £ 9.78 billion
2017-2018: - £ 3.85 billion
2018-2019: - £ 5.65 billion
2019-2020: - £ 9.10 billion
2020-2021: - £11.10 billion

I question how many who voted against the motion knew of the projected £39.48 billion surplus and if they did then why did they not raise that most important fact as evidence during the debates, but if they hadn’t known about the latest Actuary’s report then doesn’t that make a farce of the vote.

Therefore, contrary to belief there would be no requirement to increase general taxes going forward or use funds that have been set aside for other projects since that £39 billion is a totally unexpected surplus as in January 2015 the Actuary projected a fund value at April 2020 of only £10.62 billion so not even enough to cover the working balance; the Actuary’s latest projections for April 2020 now stands at £46.299 billion.

Importantly to note is that by October 2020 both women and men would have reached the new SPA of 66 and at the end of that same financial year in April 2021 our National Insurance Fund surplus is still projected by the Actuary as increasing at a very high rate and in that year alone it will receive £11.7 billion more in receipts than it is paying out in
benefits. Thus, shouldn’t this have been used as evidence during the debates into the WASPI petition as this casts a totally new and opposite perception on affordability?

Consequently, as any surplus within our National Insurance Fund can only be used for contributory benefits then if we use it for the purpose it was designed and collected for then it’s a cost neutral win-win situation not only for those affected but also for the country.

When recycling our National Insurance Fund’s unexpected surplus to those disadvantage by the age equalisation act it will also help to stimulate the country’s economy, some will see it’s way into the Government’s purses though taxes, some will retire when they had planned so giving up a job to a younger person, some being carer’s to older and younger family members and the many other positive results that has been mention during the debates.

And to better understand why we should be first utilising the surplus in our National Insurance Fund before placing the cost onto those who had been disadvantaged by the mismanaged communications I would like the committee to consider and comment in their report on the following.

Prior to the 1995 Pension Act SPA remained constant for over 50-years so one can justly classify any increase in the SPA as being a significant change and as such wouldn’t one expect to be notified in a timely manner?

In the White Paper Equality in State Pension Age published in December 1993 CM2420 it states within chapter two the following:
2.1 In developing its proposals for implementing the change the Government has paid particular attention to the need to give people enough time to plan ahead and to phase in the change gradually.

2.2 The change will not begin to be implemented until 2010. This lead-in period of over 16- years allows plenty of time for people to adjust their plans.

Part I of the Pension Act 1995 which applies to all occupational pension schemes (not the State Pension) sets out in Section 67 a number of limits on what type of changes can be made to ones pension. The Pension Advisory Service describes that section in the following terms.
“Over the lifetime of your pension, it's possible that your employer or trustees may want to make changes to your pension scheme. If this happens, you should be consulted if the changes affect how you build it up. Unless you agree, any change should not alter the benefits you have already built up. In addition to various pieces of legislation, the rules of your scheme will outline what your provider can and can't do. It's important the rules are followed. If they are not, the changes may be invalid. In broad terms, unless you give your written consent any changes can't worsen benefits you’ve already earned”.

The equalisation of State Pension Age was covered within Part II section 126 of the same 1995 Pension Act, but no reference or rules were listed to how State Pension changes should be communicated to all those affected.

The Pension Act 1995 was also the result of many pension scandals such as the Maxwell affair which brought about various investigation’s such as the Goode report in 1993, a Social Security Committee report in 1992 and a White Paper in 1994.

The Goode Report commented on cases where “pension scheme members have suffered from unfair treatment, inadequate and misleading information and delays in the payment of contributions and benefits.”

While the Social Security Committee stated, “Members should have the right to information about their scheme which is 'succinct, easily understood and timely.”

I picked out the above examples from the many within those reports so to not only highlight how the Government wanted all occupational pension schemes to be administered but also that those creating the 1995 Act and also those voting on it might have taken for granted and therefore presumed that similar communication requirements were already set in place within the State Pension Scheme.

Evidently, the requirements to adequately notify SPA changes to all those affected were either not followed or there were no requirements/rules laid down at all; either way it highlights how the same 1995 Pension Act successfully laid down notification rules to members within Occupational Schemes but failed when it came to notifying members within the State Pension Scheme.

Consequently, when reading in the White Paper for the need to give people enough time to plan ahead so to adjust their plans I believe MP’s would have assumed that women would be notified soon after the act was passed; had it been known before the vote that the very first batch of individual letters would actually be delayed by 14-years then wouldn’t MP’s have requested additions to the State Pension rules so similar to those rules governing occupational pension schemes on notification of significant changes?

The proposals within the reports leading up to the 1995 Act of timely informing people were clearly not followed through and there is now more than enough evidence to come to the conclusion that the communication was mismanaged, this clearly disadvantaged women born after 1950 and that lead to a financial loss and hardship in so many ways; one of those being the opportunity to contribute into a pension scheme for over a 15-year period so to help fund an expected retirement at 60.

Admittedly not everyone could afford making additional pension contributions but at least everyone affected would have been given that choice and opportunity and when taken up tax relief averaging over 25% would have uplifted those 15-years of contributions for a basic-rate taxpayer plus increases from their investments.

When also considering the rule governing occupational pensions, which the Pension Advisory Service states in broad terms, unless you give your written consent any changes, can't worsen benefits you’ve already earned, then clearly the accrued benefit that I had built up in my SP and payable from the age of 60 was not only drastically reduced but it was without notification and also my consent; one rule for one and a different rule for others comes to mind, but in fact maybe no rule even existed for the State Pension.

Thus a cost neutral outcome would clearly not be seen as a fair conclusion and therefore before someone takes this to the courts wouldn’t it be advisable to classify this as it is, a real financial loss and thus similar to PPI and the financial and pension mis-selling which compensation has and is still being paid out?

I suggest the committee looks further into the National Insurance Fund projected accounts by the Actuary at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/494 930/53430_GA_UpRating_Report_2016_Accessible.pdf

And here are some facts to be going on with.
1) Our National Insurance Fund (NIF) holds the contributions of the National Insurance Scheme which is funded by compulsory contributions on earnings, paid from employees, employers and the self-employed, plus interest on its investments and is used exclusively to pay for social security benefits such as state retirement pensions.

2) A fixed proportion of our National Insurance Contributions (NICs) goes directly to the National Health Service (NHS); this allocation is paid directly by HMRC into the NHS account.

3) NIF is like a current account and is kept separate from all other revenue raised by national taxes and the Government has no powers to use NICs to fund anything else.

4) NIF is operated on a pay as you go basis so this years contributions pays for this years benefits.

5) In 2003 there was a 1% increase in NICs, but the full 1% increase went directly into the NHS account and wasn’t proportionally split as one would expect into both our NIF and NHS accounts.

When looking at the years prior to and after the 1% increase in 2003 one can see a dramatic boost that almost doubled the amount of our NICs that was directly transferred by HMRC into the NHS account.

NHS allocation funded from NICs between 2001-2015
2001-2002 - £7.8 billion
2002-2003 - £8.0 billion
2003-2004 - £14.9 billion
2004-2005 - £16.8 billion
2005-2006 - £18.4 billion
2006-2007 - £18.9 billion
2007-2008 - £21.0 billion
2008-2009 - £20.7 billion
2009-2010 - £20.3 billion
2010-2011 - £20.4 billion
2011-2012 - £20.6 billion
2012-2013 - £20.5 billion
2013-2014 - £20.8 billion
2014-2015 - £21.5 billion

If the 1% increase in our NICs had instead been shared out in the same proportions, as before, then between 2003 and 2015 our NIF account would now have a surplus of over £100 billion more than the working balance.

Unfortunately, it seems that the Government at the time decided that our NIF did not required extra funding; maybe it’s time to reverse that decision and share out our NICs in the same ratio as it was prior to the 2003 change. Admittedly that would mean less being transferred from our NICs to our NHS and therefore that shortfall would need to be made up from our general taxes but that would be more appropriate as all taxpayers would be contributing into this and not just working people under the state pension age who are the only ones liable to pay NICs.

It could appear to an outsider that the Government in 2003 did in a way act similar to Maxwell, using our benefit contributions to increase funding in a total separate business and in doing so might have helped in the perception that the state pension system is in the long term unaffordable and thus the SPA had to increase and for some at a quicker rate. Thus, has our Government been mismanaging our NIF, maybe they need to look into using our NICs in at least the same proportions as it was in 2002 so to delay future SPA increases.

During 2020-2021 (so after SPA equalises at 66) our NICs will raise approximately £153 billion, of that around £30 billion will be transferred into the NHS fund with the remaining £122.8 billion being transferred into our NIF, payments for benefits will be £111.126 billion as estimated by the Actuary leaving a surplus in that year alone of £11.674 billion.

I might be naive but maybe its about time to have two-totally separate forms of deductions with no cross-over so our NICs would only pay for our contributory benefits while the NHS would only be funded from our general taxes that all taxpayers contribute into? This has to be a much fairer system all round, understandable by all and if that scenario took place in 2021 there could be a surplus of over £41 billion in that year alone and clearly with that sort of annual surplus NICs could be reduced and/or further SPA’s increases could be shelved. Yes, there would be a resulting shortfall in the NHS accounts but then all taxpayers no matter what their age so including pensioners, whether working or not would correctly manage that NHS shortfall and therefore helping all age groups towards a fairer State Pension.

Call for written submissions addressing the following points.

What would be the short-term and long-term fiscal impact?
When using the surplus in our National Insurance Fund there would only be positive impacts, one example would be that some would find its way back into the Governments purse through personal tax.

What would be the other costs of the scheme?
If using our NIF surplus it’s basically only the cost to administer and due to the unequal and limited surplus each year there’s a need to find a simple no frills package which might include only one choice to defer, so if chosen deferral has to be until ones SPA as per the 2011 Pension Act and there would be no increases such as the 5.4% p.a. bonus for each year of deferral. Also NICs would still be payable for those still in employment up to the ages within the 2011 Pension Act.

Could additional costs be incorporated in the reduction factors used to achieve long-term fiscal neutrality?
No requirement if the NIF surplus is correctly used.

How should the scheme interact with pension credit and other benefits?
As currently with any State Pensions in payment.

How could uncertainty within the system be budgeted for and managed?
Currently around 20% of NICs is transferred into the NHS fund with 80% into our NIF, if in 2020 we revert to the 2002 percentages so with around 12% going into the NHS fund and 88% into our NIF then that would give our State Pension Scheme an extra uplift in just that one year alone of around £12 billion. And if the Government ran it more like a company pension scheme so all NI contributions went into our NIF and none to the NHS then that would result in an extra uplift that year of around £30 billion and when added to the expected balance at the end of that year of £58 billion, that’s a massive pot of £88 billion and some £70 billion over the working balance. Clearly this would be a much simpler, fairer, manageable and understandable pension/benefits system, which would result in not only lower NICs from employer and employee but also possibly placing on hold any further SPA increases. Obviously the NHS shortfall would need to be funded from general-taxes but that’s payable by all tax payers no matter what their age.

How are similar schemes managed in occupational pensions?
No answer required if our National Insurance Fund surplus is used, but worth noting that occupational schemes would not have got into this predicament due to the 1995 Act governing communications.

Who should be eligible and why?
All who’ve not received 10-years notice of a change to their SPA, so including both men and women, thus men 55 or older who’s not received notification should still be allowed to take their State Pension at 65 and women 50 or older who’s not received notification should still be allowed to take their State Pension at 60.

How popular would the scheme be among the people eligible?
When using the NIF surplus for what it was collected for then it would be immensely popular and also to their families as it would help in caring for both the younger and older members of those families.

What impact would it have on the lives of the people eligible?
Positively and in so many individual ways and to name just two, less stress and financial worries.

Link to the Governments Actuary’s report on the projected position of the National Insurance Fund over the next five financial years which was issued in January 2016. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/494 930/53430_GA_UpRating_Report_2016_Accessible.pdf

The table below is taken from page 33 of that report which shows the improvement in the fund from the previous year’s report, note the difference with a fund balance at financial year end in 2019-2020, the previous report was £10.622 billion; the latest report issued in 2016 is £46.299 billion and by April 2021 there’s a projected balance of £58.002 billion.

This unexpected surplus which had not been referenced at all during the debates clearly resulted in a misguided conclusion, that compensation for the WASPI ask was unaffordable and consequently the only option put forward was an early retirement but of a lower Sate Pension so to be cost neutral to the fund.

Rita Abrahams — My Brief History.
Born August 1954
Started full time work August 1969 at the age of 15-years and 2-weeks.
Gave birth in 1982 and after a short break of 4-months returned to part-time work.
I gradually increased my working hours and by 1990 had returned to full-time work. Received at my request a State Pension Forecast dated 10th December 1993 with a SPA of 60.
Reason for submitting this evidence, I never received a follow up statement to indicate there had been a change to my December 1993 statement; this was a major error and failing by the DWP.
Found out about SPA increases from a newspaper report in 2011.
Unexpectedly made redundant in 2015.
Spent about 3-months on Job Seekers, felt belittled, uncomfortable and stressed, now doing voluntary work.
Trying to hold off drawing my company pension due to reduction factors so living off my savings.
Finally and to this day, I have never received any personal notifications with regards to any of the significant changes made within any of the Pension Acts, but at my request I recently received a State Pension forecast.
April 2016

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Michael Gove Wanted Me To Powder Him Down

Time to revisit my encounter of the turd kind with Michael Gove in the noughties ...

Sad-sack Education Minister Michael Gove helped himself to make-up belonging to an exotic lovely and made strange demands minutes before appearing before blonde Kirsty Young, 27, at ITN's studios in posh intellectuals' haunt, Grays Inn Road.

"It was when I was publicising The Best Democracy Money Can Buy", said buxom press-officer Anna Chen, 22, flicking her long tresses out of her almond eyes. Sultry beauty Chen said, "There I was in the Green Room, helping my mate Greg Palast not reflect the light from his very high forehead when Michael Gove, who was there for an 'interview' with our Kirsty, suddenly reached in and grabbed. He'd been coveting the contents of my little make-up bag with his pre-lasered eyeballs for ages. This was back in the day before he got his new hairdo and makeover."

Sinister Gove then asked her to "powder me down".

"Powder me down" is a well-known perverts' term for unspeakable televisual and filmic practices.

"So there I was, trying to beautify the most evil Education Minister this country would ever see like some champion fluffer. All my skills and photoshopping couldn't prettify this ugly little monster."

Ms Chen is deeply regretful. "It's like when they ask you, if you could go back in time and top Hitler before he came to power, what would you do? I wish I'd tattooed the pursed-lipped creep with 'I am a threat to your children' across his fugly mug. To have missed a chance like that is enough to turn you to drink," said the busty Ms Chen, pouring herself another quart of Absinthe with a trembling hand.

Ms Chen is 19.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Osborne clobbers low paid freelancers and deals fresh blow to women born in the 1950s in Budget 2016

So you wanna be a writer? 

Budget 2016: Low paid freelancers are likely to see their NICs INCREASE five-fold from Class 2 £2.80 pw to Class 3 £14.10 pw

Women born in the 1950s have been truly gang-banged by George Osborne and his Tory cohort. While the rich saw their income triple since the 2008 crash, women who earn only 80 per cent of their male counterparts, who have had their pension age leap from age 60 to 66 and beyond, now find their lower cost Class 2 National Insurance Contributions (NICs) abolished with the cost jumping five-fold from £2.80 per week to £14.10 in Class 3 if your earnings are below £8K. This means an annual bill soaring from £147 to £733 if you wish to continue making voluntary payments to qualify for the state pension — 35 years of NICs.

So not only have they moved the goalposts and added 6 years, we can't afford to pay for them. And if we don't pay for them, we get an even lower pension than expected.

According to the government paper on abolition of Class 2 NICs (consultation closed):
In order to qualify for Class 4 NICs you have to be self-employed and must additionally pay Class 4 contributions once your profits reach a certain limit.

In 2016-17 Class 4 contributions are 9 per cent of taxable profits between £8,060 and £43,000. On profits over £43,000, Class 4 contributions are 2 per cent of profits.

Figure 2.B: The proposed Class 4 NICs structure

So what happens if your income falls below this threshold?

Those with profits between the SPT and Lower Profits Limit (LPL) (£8,060 in 2015/16) would no longer pay any NICs but still build entitlement to contributory benefits.

State Pension entitlement
Following these reforms, those with profits below the SPT [Small Profits Threshold — currently £5824] would need to make use of the existing provisions in the NICs system that serve to protect an individual’s State Pension record, in the same way as for employees who do not gain entitlement through Class 1 NICs. These are NI credits and Class 3 voluntary contributions.
While the Government recognises that the rate of Class 3 contributions is higher than Class 2 contributions, those for whom Class 3 may be prohibitively expensive may be eligible to claim means-tested benefits, which would protect their State Pension record via NI credits. [My italics]

Means tested. No savings above rock bottom.

Remember, this is not voluntary in the true sense. Fail to pay for those qualifying years and your state pension will feel it.

... those whose profits are below the SPT in only a small number of years may not need to pay Class 3 NICs to fill gaps. It is those with successive years of low profits who may see their State Pension entitlement affected if they did not pay Class 3 NICs. [My italics]

Read section 2 very carefully. Low cost Class 2 NICs has been abolished so you will have to pay the higher rate of Class 3 after 2018 if you do not qualify for Class 4 contributions with an income over around £8K.

Women born in the 1950s — who have not been given a reasonable time to make the transition — will lose around £36K in having to wait the extra six years for their pension. But that's not enough for the Tories and their "hard working people" mantra. We now have to pay thousands more in order to pay for those years to get as near to 35 years of contributions as possible.

Labour should be all over this like a rash. You may have the angels on your side but, as I learnt in the field, it's in the first moments of an issue breaking that the dominant narrative is formed. If you can't grasp that, stop being a dog in the manger and get someone on board who does. For all our sakes.

EDIT added 17 March 2016:
Paul Johnson at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says:
The disingenuousness of the rhetoric on the personal allowance continues. The chancellor boasted yesterday that the increase in it “means another 1.3 million of the lowest paid workers taken out of tax altogether”. No it does not mean that. Taken out of income tax, yes. But not taken out of direct taxes on income. It remains the case that National Insurance Contributions, which are just another tax on earnings, start to be paid once earnings rise above about £8,000.

Gallantry? Chivalry? Here's John Ward at The Slog
"... faced with what they thought in 2005 was approaching Armageddon, the Sir Humphrey clan DOUBLED the pension payout for the 600,000 top civil servants. The measure bypassed the Public Accounts Committee, which means that legally the pension awards were embezzled from the taxpayer. And the bypassing of the PAC means it was done with the complicity of elected Ministers. Consider the size of this heist: unfunded Civil Service pension liabilities today stand at £1.4trillion. 50% of the National Debt is down to the greed of 600,000 Sir Humphreys. Indirectly as a result of this, around 325,000 Waspi women have been left destitute."
How the establishment is stealing everything that isn't nailed down. Via @therealslog

Another Budget scandal exclusive from John Ward at The Slog. Why Big Corporate lobbying made Osborne more tearful than 500,000 WASPIs on the breadline
"Look at some of the other ‘priorities’ Osbollocks put ahead of pensioner destitution:
Freeze on fuel duty – £435m
Relief for oil companies – £265m
Freeze on alcohol duty – £85m
New rights to buy – £35m
Tax cuts to personal allowance & higher rates – £2bn
ISA savings allowance – £170m
Not investigating senior mgmnt tax fiddles on loans – £260m
Reduced corporation tax – £1.1bn (2020) ... the Government lie about 'having to wait a further 18 months for a State pension' is in fact SIX YEARS for women born in 1955 or later. That should be cut to one year from 60th birthday with immediate effect. For the 150,000 WASPIs involved in that, there is a 50% duplication with more women who have no partner, private pension or other means of support. That group should now get their pension immediately, backdated to 60th birthday. The remaining 175,000 WASPIs not in either group should have their delay halved, as a penalty levied on the Treasury for ignoring the Turner Commission. This would mean that all those who were, say, 60 in 2011 will get their pensions immediately, backdated to 2013."

Socialist Economic Bulletin: Budget shows women bearing the heaviest burden of austerity.

Press finally catch on. Daily Mail 12.04.16: Women were told they'd win in the shake-up but thousands who gave up careers will get almost nothing

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Another chance to hear Anna May Wong: A Celestial Star in Piccadilly on BBC Radio 4 Extra and iPlayer

Anna May Wong: a celestial star in Piccadilly, BBC Radio 4 Extra, 06:30 & 13:30 Wednesday 16th March 2016. Written & presented by Anna Chen

I had the great pleasure to make my programme on Anna May Wong, Hollywood's first Chinese screen legend, in 2008 for broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in January 2009. It's repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra tomorrow, Wednesday 16th March at 06:30 and 13:30, then on iPlayer for 30 days.

Anna Chen writes and presents A Celestial Star In Piccadilly, a half-hour profile of Hollywood's first Chinese movie star for BBC Radio 4.
First Broadcast 11:30am, Tuesday 13th January 2009.
Pick of the Day in Guardian Guide, Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.


While I was growing up in Hackney, there were few east asian women in the culture reflecting anything like my appearance. Those that did slip through were not necessarily an inspiration. Yoko Ono was unfairly reviled in the media as a hate figure, although – far from breaking up the Beatles –she was a respected Fluxus artist in her own right and famous among the avant-garde cognoscenti way before John Lennon was anything more than a pop star. The twin horrors of my childhood, Suzy Wong and Juicy Lucy – happy hookers who migrated from popular literature onto the screen – were always there to define me in the eyes of a society without any other reference points. There were powerful women, too, but they came in the shape of Jiang Qing (Madam Mao), the kleptocratic Imelda Marcos and, in fiction, the evil daughter of Fu Manchu. Her I quite liked.

I wondered who the young Anna May Wong had to look up to. She grew up as third-generation Chinese born in a youthful America when Native Americans were safely out of the way on their reservations and former slaves were consigned to ghettos and plantations. Chinese-Americans were about as low as you could get; depicted as so much of a danger to working men and decent citizens that the US government introduced legislation specifically designed to curb the ambitions of the Yellow Peril within. Their ambitions may have been humble — earning an honest dollar for one's labour, living in safety and security, bringing up families of their own — but the owners of capital tolerated them only as cheap labour, while much of the labour movement in both the Britain and the USA (Wobblies excluded) saw the Chinese as more of a threat than as fellow workers.

Various schools of thought say that Asiatic humans first walked over the Beriing Straits more than 17,000 years ago and populated the Americas down to their southernmost tip. Others contend that Imperial Chinese ships arrived in the 15th century, predating Columbus by decades; or that they initially landed in California on Portuguese ships carrying silver from mines in the Philippines.

What we do know is that in the mid-19th century, the discovery of gold at Sutters Mill in 1848 drew first a trickle and then a flood of Chinese who joined in the Gold Rush, populating the west coast and working the mines in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The next wave of immigration was brought in as cheap coolie labour by Charles Crocker in the 1860s to build his Central Pacific railroad which would link Sacramento with the East and bring the West into the Union during the Civil War. Conditions were harsh and they were paid less than their white counterparts.

But not all Chinese would submit and conform to the role of coolie; there was one major strike with thousands laying down tools as they busted through granite mountains and worked in 20-foot snowdrifts. It was a strike that had the potential to unite all workers, and ever since I found out about it in the early 1990s while working with Sinophile author Martin Booth on his film script The Celestial Cowboys in 1993, it has inspired me, especially as there are those who insist that Chinese are genetically bourgeois and incapable of working-class consciousness. The strikers were eventually starved back to work with a few concessions but they had shown they they weren’t all pushovers.

Many miners and railworkers settled in the US and formed America’s first Chinese communities. These were Anna May Wong’s roots.

In a world bereft of role models, Anna May carved out an acting career in the early days of the Hollywood film industry. She started young, as an extra on the streets of Los Angeles, learning her craft and gaining proper roles in defiance of her traditionalist father, who wanted her at home in the family laundry.

By 17, she was starring in Hollywood’s first technicolour movie, The Toll of the Sea, as the Madame Butterfly character, “marrying” an American who promptly dumps her when he returns to his homeland and a white wife. She dies tragically at the climax, beginning a pattern that would endure for most of her career.

Trapped in Dragon Lady or Lotus Blossom roles, she grew tired of being demeaned, insulted and limited. Anti-miscegenation laws meant she wasn’t allowed to kiss a romantic lead if he was white, even if he was a white actor playing a Chinese. Your sexuality got you killed, at least symbolically.

In the late 1920s she came to Britain, where she was already a huge star and made the black and white silent feature film Piccadilly for the German director E A Dupont. This was perhaps her greatest starring role, but she still had to die at the end. Death was the fate she had to endure for the crime of being attractive. I take a closer look at this movie in the programme as there’s a plethora of prejudice leaking at the edges, some of it hilarious, much of it still extant today.

Anna May was the toast of Europe: mates with Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich and, strangely, Leni Riefenstahl. Such was the contrast in Europe with what she’d experienced back home that she once stated there was no racism in Germany. And that was in the Thirties, which gives you some idea how bad it must have been if you were a minority in the Land of the Free.

She starred with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, acted with a greenhorn Laurence Olivier on the London stage. Philosopher Walter Benjamin had a major crush on her. She dined with royalty and was adored by her fans. Eric Maschwitz wrote the classic song “These Foolish Things” about her.

Yet Hollywood still refused to lower the drawbridge and give her the starring roles she deserved. Those still went to white actresses in Yellowface. Myrna Loy as evil Daughter of Fu Manchu? Loy, Katherine Hepburn, Luise Rainer and Tilli Losch were all considered better at being Chinese than Anna May Wong.

These things take their toll and she died in 1961, at the unnervingly early age of 56.

But isn’t everything different today? Nope, it’s still with us. The form has mutated but the content lives on. A Celestial Star in Piccadilly is one case study in how minorities are rendered invisible in the culture and as producers of culture, while the fruits of their labour are appropriated by those who sit at High Table.

And the danger of that is it’s the sleep of reason where monsters are born.

Hmmm, sounds familiar and rather too close to home ...

Interviewees include:
Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Anna May Wong's biographer, Laundryman's Daughter
Diana Yeh, historian
Alice Lee, writer and actress who performed her one woman show about Anna May Wong, Daughter of the Dragon
Elaine Mae Woo, director of Frosted Yellow Willows about Anna May
Ed Manwell, film producer, Frosted Yellow Willows
Neil Brand, composer of the new score for the BFI Southbank rerelease of Piccadilly on DVD
Jasper Sharp, east Asian film expert
Kevin Brownlow, legendary film historian and filmmaker
Margie Tai and Connie Ho, who remember Anna May Wong visiting their Limehouse neighbourhood when they were kids

Produced by Chris Eldon Lee for Culture Wise Productions
Many thanks to Mukti Jain Campion of Culture Wise for giving me latitude and for her feedback


Sunday, 13 March 2016

Lucy Sheen's moving documentary, Abandoned Adopted Here, launched at SOAS, 7th April

Abandoned Adopted Here — SOAS

7 pm.7th April 2016.
DLT Lecture theeatre. SOAS. London. WC1H 0XG.

The first public screening of the acclaimed documentary - Abandoned Adopted Here by Lucy Sheen.

From 50s, 60s Colonial Hong Kong to pre-multicultural UK, a group of Hong Kong foundlings were transracially adopted. Lucy interviewed a few of her fellow adoptees to explore whether their experience of identity and belonging had been as challenging as hers. How far do other British East Asians feel a lack of belonging or identity or is it just something that culturally displaced babies and children feel?

This documentary has been selected for screening at Singapore World International Film Festival, Hong Kong World International Film Festival and Minnesota Transracial Film Festival.

“Abandoned Adopted Here is one of the best treatments of transracial identity in film that I have seen.” - Dawn Tomlinson, President of AdopSource Minneapolis.

Abandoned Adopted Here challenges the idea and concept of transracial adoption. This documentary, by looking through history and the differences of cultures, discusses the impact of this phenomenon and how that affects the adoptees and the British East Asians in the UK society.

The documentary will be screened at the DLT Lecture eatre at SOAS, followed by a Q&A section chaired by Dr. Diana Yeh.

Name of Contact: Heather lai
Company Name: Foundling Productions - Lucy Sheen
Contact Phone Number: 07796678882
Contact E-mail: heather_lai@hotmail.com , lucy.sheen@icloud.com Box-office website: https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/date/239995 Website Abandoned Adopted Here

Saturday, 5 March 2016

British Born Chinese panel discussion at the LSE: audio

British Born Chinese film
Kevin and Daniel in British Born Chinese

Here's the audio from last Saturday's panel discussion at the London School of Economics where I'm talking about British Born Chinese, a documentary by Dr Elena Barabantseva.
Speaker(s): Dr Elena Barabantseva, Anna Chen, Andy Lawrence, Dr Véronique Pin-Fat
Chair: Professor William Callahan

Recorded on 27 February 2016 at Wolfson Theatre, New Academic Building

British Born Chinese engages the everyday struggles of two boys, Dan (aged between 11-13) and Kevin (aged between 12-14), reconciling their Britishness with Chineseness through their experiences at school, as volunteers at a community centre, and at home. Filmed over the course of two years in an innovative participatory and reflexive style, this film is an example of how artistic practices of filmmaking can work as a primary research tool. Driven by dialogue and close involvement with the film’s subjects, the film challenges the dominant popular representations of British Chinese as a ‘model minority’, and argues for a different understanding of community based on a shared sense of vulnerability.

Elena Barabantseva is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester and Co-Producer of British Born Chinese. She is a member of the Critical Global Politics research cluster, and British Inter-University China Centre (BICC) and author of Overseas Chinese, Ethnic Minorities and Nationalism: De-Centering China.

Andy Lawrence is filmmaker in residence and lecturer in Visual Anthropology at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology, University of Manchester. He is the founder of AllRitesReversed, a documentary film production company. He is Co-Producer of British Born Chinese.

Anna Chen (@MadamMiaow) writes and presents programmes for BBC Radio 4 as a freelance, and writes, produces and presents her arts show, Madam Miaow’s Culture Lounge, at Resonance 104.4FM. Her blog, Madam Miaow Says, was shortlisted in the 2010 Orwell Prize for blogs, and longlisted in 2012.

Véronique Pin-Fat publishes on ethics in global politics and is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester.

William Callahan is Professor of International Relations at LSE. His toilet adventures (2015) film was shortlisted for a major award by the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council.