Thursday 30 June 2011

Michael Gove Wanted Me To Powder Him Down

Here's a little something about Michael Gove I posted last year describing an actual event that took place a few years back in Grays Inn Road. BTW, it's true — teachers do need love, not Gove.

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.

Saturday 25 June 2011

Takeaway review: Theatre Royal Stratford East

Theatre Royal Stratford East

The cast were fab, the energy level of the production was sky-high, but why was all that talent wasted on a heartless non-story about such an unsympathetic character?
Takeaway, a musical touted by some as a long-awaited breakthrough for UK Chinese, is a delight in so many ways that it's sad to report that where it failed, it bombed big time.

British Chinese are easy to please at the moment. Having been starved of representations of ourselves for so long, the sight of five, yes, FIVE Chinese out of the nine-strong cast almost had me on my knees singing the Hallelujah Chorus. With one black, two South Asians and one white actor, the self-styled multi-culti Arcola Theatre in Hackney should eat their hearts out and only wish they could aspire to the rainbow head-count over at Stratford East, given as they are to all-white casts in plays about the mysterious Orient (see More Light).

The lovely Stephen Hoo (a Ricki Beadle-Blair regular) stars as Eddie Woo in this tale of an East London lad working in his Dad's takeaway, The Happy Family. (May I just say that sitting this close to a set with a big menu staring back at me had me salivating for ribs throughout? I'm that suggestible.) The conceit in writer Robert Lee's premise is wonderful: the Chinese male, commonly defined in colonialist terms as feminised and either asexual or over-sexed without the adequate equipment to fulfil the drive, is represented here by a handsome dude who wants to become a sex-god showbiz star.

That the sex-god is old-timer Tom Jones (who was always a bit of a joke before his savvy son gave him a make-over in the 1980s and made him sing Prince's Kiss) knocks the gilt off the gingerbread a tad, but the overall "thrust" of the hi-energy staging provides hardly time for a quizzical "Hunh?" before we're caught up in the next dazzling showstopper.

But toe-tapping tunes (Leon Ko), beautiful lighting (Paul Anderson) and design (Foxton) plus imaginative choreography (Jason Pennycooke) aren't enough to divert you from the gaping hole at the centre of the piece.

Lee has cast his net across the culture and trawled a haul of lurid clichés which he plonks almost wholly unmediated on the stage. As I've said before, restating stereotypes is not the same as subverting them, and the show shoves one long tidal-wave of negative depictions at us, albeit dressed up cute. There's much pandering to gems such as "Made in China" being synonymous with tat despite high end technology being produced there; "Britain has the class, not China"; "small eyes, smaller dreams". And there are even several references to small dicks. Yaaaaaawn! It's not the size of the stereotypes, hun, it's what you do with them.

Full of self-loathing dressed up with a modicum of wit, the John Chinaman song and the Ching Chong segment at the funeral could all have been blistering satire shedding light on the nature of such negative depictions. But all I came out with was a sense that the writer is ashamed of being Chinese. Similarly, the dream sequence ending Act 1 was promising and looked as if it was going to undermine the stereotypes, but what it really told us was that Eddie has nightmares about being Chinese. The actor who had to deliver those self-abasing songs deserves a shout-out: Windson Liong as the uncommunicative chef at The Happy Family does a solid job and should be given tons of work after this. (In fact there are no weak links in the acting department: Ozzie Yue plays the most sympathetic character as the hard-working widower trying to raise his wastrel son. His song about his hopes and dreams for Eddie is touching. And Shelley Williams stands out as the comedy star, nipping effortlessly from accent to accent: her turn as the drunk priest was hilarious.)

Unintentional absurdities abounded, like Pik-sen Lim's Madam Chu having fled Hong Kong when the communists took power. Hong Kong?!! She had to flee to Britain from British-owned HK, ya see. Right.

What really killed the show stone dead for me, though, was the repeated depiction of anyone who cared about the Morecambe Bay cocklepickers as loons somehow deserving ridicule and loathing, reinforcing the notion that real Chinese don't value life. Twenty-one of our poorest human beings died doing a shit job for poverty pay: picking the cockles that probably ended up in the freezers of takeaway businesses like The Happy Family. A handful of campaigners ensured that they weren't written off as mere "criminals" in the way some of Woo's fellow UK petit bourgeoisie were attempting to do.

Lee sneers at and satirises Chinese activism when it barely exists as a force, at least in terms of meaningful numbers. We need more. Woo's takeaway might not have survived the Foot & Mouth Disease accusation by government and swathes of the media in 2000 that the Chinese caused the outbreak if it hadn't been for a few activists, such as the one played by Gabby Wong, going into action and saving his Dad's business. The resulting thousand-strong protest attracted international media attention and resulted in an abject public apology and vindication from the minister, Nick Brown.

What's American writer Robert Lee ever done for UK Chinese, and what does he know about us? What did Lee do when Morrissey called the Chinese a subspecies? What's he saying about the current wave of Yellow Peril attacks in the media? Maybe he's been brilliant, but I've never heard of him and I've been paying attention. All he can do is bellyache about bunny-boiler girlfriends and obsess over a granddaddy figure whom his lead character seeks to emulate. He can't even establish his protagonist as an original, a sui generis, only a copy. Jeez, no wonder we have no equivalent of Anna May Wong.

Still, what's the trashing of a few Chinese if it means casting yourself as Not Other in the eyes of those you envy?

If Eddie Woo failed his A levels at 21, is he just too thick to comprehend other ways of looking at the world? Solipsistic and incapable of forging relationships, he skates on the surface of life, lying to his Dad and girlfriends, rude to the kitchen help. Others with a deeper connection to the world are a puzzle to him. That would have been a subject worth pursuing dramatically, but the suspicion lingers that this flimsiest of stories is largely autobiographical: the writer's own flaws and limitations writ large on the stage with no prospect of examination or exploration.

Takeaway life is not all there is to the Chinese diaspora experience. Characters who reflect a bigger world out there and a richer world within are excoriated by a tiny Tory mindset which hasn't developed beyond X-Factor TV show values.

The greatest musicals leave you moved and feeling somehow bigger: Carousel, West Side Story, Sweeney Todd. Even Blood Brothers has a tragedic plot under the pizzazz. But I left the theatre feeling I'd been party to something small and mean. Takeaway shrieks a lot but has nothing to say. In comparison with what other practitioners of this genre have achieved, this is vacuous, visionless tat. "Made in China", indeed.

UPDATE: Thursday 30th June 2011 A rather limp response in the Guardian from writer Robert Lee who can't tell the difference between anger and disdain, and who pleads the "irony" defence. Still has nothing to say about mocking the 21 cocklepickers who died at Morecambe Bay, either. Sample joke: the emergency services didn't respond to the dying Chinese who were trapped on sandbanks with the sea rising because they couldn't understand their accents. How droll. Glad to see the old stereotypes alive and well at Stratford East.

Lucy Sheen reviews Takeaway here

Gwei Mui not impressed here


Book and Lyrics by Robert Lee
Music by Leon Ko
Directed by Kerry Michael
Set & Costume Designer Foxton
Musical Director Robert Hyman
Choreographer Jason Pennycooke
Lighting Designer Paul Anderson
Sound Designer John Leonard
Associate Choreographer Farrah Hussain
Assistant Director Amy Ip
Casting Sooki McShane CDG and Lucy Jenkins CDG

Marcus Ellard, Stephen Hoo, Natasha Jayetileke, Pik-sen Lim, Windson Liong, Gloria Onitiri, Shelley Williams, Gabby Wong, Ozzie Yue.

Takeaway runs at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 9 July 2011. Tickets are £16 – £24 (concessions available). To book tickets phone 020 8534 0310 or visit

Photos here

Friday 24 June 2011

Charles Shaar Murray: The Hellhound Sample book launch and birthday party

"You don't need to go to the crossroads to make a deal with the devil. The crossroads will come to you."

So says award-winning author and journalist Charles Shaar Murray of his first ever novel, The Hellhound Sample. Off we trooped to the Archway Road crossroads in north London on Wednesday for his combined book launch and 60th birthday celebration at the trendy Boogaloo, haunt of many a cult muso and rock-chick supermodel in north London.

The Hellhound Sample, is published by Headpress in July. It's a handsome beast with a fab photo-mosaic cover of our favourite icons from Bessie Smith to Marlon Brando, the book being a supernatural epic taking in three generations of black American musicians. Charles draws on his extensive knowledge from a 40-year career as "the rock journalist's rock journalist" and biographer of blues legend John Lee Hooker, to weave a vivid tale of the blues. Whatever happened to those who followed in Robert Johnson's footsteps down at the crossroads?
It's a potent mix of secrets, nightmares and lies, spanning decades and continents. James "Blue" Moon has one last chance to escape the hellhound on his trail ... if the cancer doesn't get him first.

Deborah Grabien, creator of the successful JP Kinkaid stories, says:
Charles Shaar Murray has given us a phenomenal story ... It achieves something rare in fiction: it makes you feel and it makes you wonder.

Charles read an extract from the book (see video above) and was then interviewed by another legend of the counter-culture, John Sinclair. John was a major figure in the American underground of the 1960s and 70s. He managed the proto-punk Detroit rabble-rousers MC5 band, supported the Black Panthers and formed the White Panther party in solidarity, and was then arrested by a narc who'd bummed a couple of joints off him and sentenced to 10 years in prison. This sparked a wave of protest from the left, with John Lennon recording the song, "John Sinclair" on his album, "Some Time In New York City".

The author said that, while it's not exactly a roman a clef, there were elements of several well-known music figures in the characters. F'rinstance, "Blue" Moon's house is based on John Lee Hooker's gaff where Charles stayed while talking to the great man for his biography, Boogie Man. And Mick Hudson's music company office in Soho Square was modelled on Paul McCartney's. There. You were told here first.

The evening ended with a set by Charles's band, Crosstown Lightnin' (a video of which I'll be posting later), and a fab encore where the band was joined onstage by Gary Lammin, Peter Conway and John who recited some of his poetry to a medley of Bo Diddley.

It was a fine way to spend an evening and I had the headache the next day to prove it.

Pix and video by Anna Chen.

Charles Shaar Murray writes.

More pix at Headpress.

Sunday 19 June 2011

Chinese Communist Party 90th birthday: which way forward for the CCP?

I've just read this in Stalin's British Victims (pub: Sutton) by Francis Beckett: "In theory, communism is a generous and fair-minded creed, which rejects, for good reason, the poverty amid plenty which is the hallmark of capitalism."

That just about sums up my sympathy for a system which was supposed to have eradicated poverty and a class system that privileges a tiny bloated section of humanity at the expense of everyone else. This is an ideal worth fighting for but I'll get onto the provisos later on.

An article by Heiko Khoo has just been published marking the Chinese Communist Party at 90, in which the author goes back to basics and attempts to provide an accessible overview of the present economic crisis in the West.

Forged in the fire of the early 20th century when China was a third world nation on its knees having suffered numerous invasions by imperialist powers — and with the fledgling Soviet Union appearing to be a progressive force in the world that would liberate the international proletariat from capitalism — the Chinese Communist Party was formed in 1921. Like so many communist parties around the world, it took its confidence from the Soviet model. However, it eventually split from the Soviet template and avoided disintegrating as the USSR did after its fall in 1989. China's subsequent embrace of a hybrid communism with a capitalist engine, something George Orwell might have dubbed one of his "Barnum & Bailey monstrosities", was a deft turn that allowed China to powerhouse its economy but at great immediate cost to the workers and peasants it was supposed to represent.

The current onslaught on Western working and middle-classes to pay for the crisis of the banks is persuading many of us through hard experience that a planned economy such as China employs is preferable to the chaos of the free market. Our pensionable age is rising, rail commuters are having to pay a third of their salary just for the privilege of getting to work despite a worsening service, public housing stocks have shrunk or stagnated while lowered welfare payments means an expected exodus of the poor from our cities as they are priced out of the housing market. And as one radio interviewee put it, Nye Bevan got the doctors on board for the creation of the NHS by stuffing gold into their mouths — the ConDem coalition is prising the gold from their teeth and stuffing it into the pockets of NHS privateers.

As Khoo writes:
Capitalist states, no matter how democratic, systematically favor the private sector out of ideological choice, which corresponds to the material interests of the ruling class. Thus widespread fraud and recklessness by private banks before 2008 was rewarded by transferring their debts onto the shoulders of the working classes of Europe and the United States.

It's not as if the money isn't there. At the same time as we are daily assailed by the "Big Society" lie that it we are all in together, and that our rights and share of national wealth have to be carved up, we see reports of a Bernie Ecclestone daughter buying a £56 million house, Hyde Park flats going for tens of millions, the Sunday Times rich list revealing the accelerating wealth of the super-rich, supermarkets posting record profits, and so on. Britain is a haven for low or non-tax payers while the tax burden grows for the rest of us.

Without a successful communist model to tempt western workers, the gloves are off and the capitalist elite is clawing back everything we gained after World War II. Yet China's example seems to reinforce the capitalist argument. A bloated Chinese ruling class may be emerging from the work done by their communist predecessors, but the proletariat is also gaining, albeit at a slower rate than the yuan billionaires now hoovering up the national wealth.

Khoo goes on to write, and this is one area where I take issue :
What the CPC has shown since Deng Xiaoping initiated reform and opening of the economy is that capitalist forces can be kept in check by the increasing strength of the working class. For every capitalist born there are tens and hundreds of workers. A key question confronting modern Chinese communism is how can workers exercise democratic control over productive forces and realize their constitutional rights as masters of the state?

The CCP, whatever its origins and noble intentions, is not synonymous with the Chinese working class. Many would argue it never was. There seems to be a major contradiction in the first sentence of the paragraph: capitalist forces can be kept in check by effectively strengthening it? Where is the "checking" coming from? Although China attempted to relax its trade union rights in 2006, lobbying by the American Chamber of Commerce, supported by the EU, and I'm sure to the satisfaction of swathes of the Chinese leadership, terminated the reforms. It is only recently that strike action outside the official trade unions have exerted enough pressure to gain concessions.

Chinese workers and peasants have lost many rights under the auspices of the CCP. Job security, housing and health have all suffered, as well as the all-round emotional, intellectual development that socialism was supposed to bring, although the new sweatshop factories are slowly raising wages and leading to a burst in consumerism. The straight-jacketing of thinking through the imprisonment of dissident intellectuals, the abandonment of political ideals and an adherence to feudal Confucian attitudes have hamstrung Chinese society. The mega-blogger Han Han is held up as an example of freethinking in China, but how much of what this racing-driver playboy has to say is an expression of an old dispossessed elite flexing its muscle and getting ready to displace what little vestigial socialism there is left?

If we are to build a society that is fairer to all, crucial problems need addressing. The Chinese communists were right to combat imperialist aggression as well as aiming for the construction of a classless society. They have succeeded in raising an estimated 600 million people out of absolute poverty and doubled life expectations. Khoo's document is a sharp reminder that there is a better way to be, but it remains a Platonic ideal while there is such a disjuncture between stated aim and actuality.

The CCP represents the new ruling class. I do not agree that "some have to get rich so everyone can get rich", as espoused by the Deng Xiaoping group who welcomed Milton Friedman into their midst in 1989, shortly before cracking down on the protests in Tiananmen Square. Neither am I impressed with the vast accumulation of wealth by the children of the former apparatchiks who ran state assets and who are now billionaires. China was one of the most hopeful social experiments ever conducted in the crucible of war, famine and a host of calamities and yet its leadership now presides over an increase in inequality. How to get it back to its ideals so that it is serving all its people and not just the few is the big challenge. A redistributive tax to make the new wealth work for the whole population, welfare protection for the poorest, and a curb on obscene syphoning off of wealth made from what were once state assets and labour exploitation would be a good start. Let's hope the working class, all 450 million of them, starts to flex its muscles.

Right now, China does not fire the imagination of international movements looking to build a better world. It does not represent a model for workers across the globe, only for the capitalist class who are looking on the new superpower with envy and resentment.

Professor Gregor Benton adds:
A report released by China’s central bank said corrupt Chinese officials smuggled an estimated $123.6 billion out of the country over a 15-year period. Apparently 17,000 Communist party cadres, police, judicial officers and state-owned enterprise executives fled the country between the mid-1990s and 2008. Higher-ranking officials who absconded with money had the ÛS as their favourite destination, followed by Canada, Australia and the Netherlands. Those who couldn't get visas went to eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa, to await a chance to remigate to a 'better' destination. Lower-ranking officials went to countries bordering China, or to Hong Kong. For those who read Chinese, the report is abridged here.

EDIT 2023: With the benefit of hindsight and witnessing the enormous progress made by China in lifting 800 million out of absolute poverty, creating a 500 million-strong middle class, nearly twice the size of the US population, and speading stability and prosperity through its Belt and Road initiative, China deserves much more credit than thought in 2011. Many of those early criticisms may have been valid at the time but what cemented my admiration for what they've done is the way Xi Jinping's government took on their big capitalists when they threatened to grow too big to fail. When Jack Ma, one of the richest men on the planet, argued for bringing in 9-9-6 work culture — meaning his employees would have to work 12 hours a day, 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week — the government cracked down, which was then spun in the western press as authoritarian repression. This defence of workers was significant. They still remember trying to improve workers' conditions in 2006 only to be told by the US Chamber of Commerce that they weren't allowed to do it. This is only one reason that China needs to get out from under the yoke of predatory western corporations and their governments who try to call the shots. Do improvements need to be made? Of course. However, the western Left's use of Chinese workers' rights as a stick to beat the Chinese government has been both disappointing and questionable. Our workers are under a vicious, existential attack at the end of the post-war liberal order but you're still supporting our feral elites in their war on our global lifeboat? Puh-leaze!

Friday 17 June 2011

Blair's support of Cameron torpedoes Labour anti-cuts fight

Just when you thought the monster was dead, he rises in the fourth reel. So the Blairites are out in force supporting Cameron's National Health Service destruction (I can't bring myself to call them "reforms", an Orwellian deformation of the English language).

First David Miliband gives us the speech-that-never-was, and suddenly they're all emerging from under their stones. Tony Blair has been a major bulwark for Cameron, who quotes the filthy-rich warmonger willy-nilly, with some in his camp, notably Education Secretary Michael Gove, outing themselves as Blairite.

The Independent's Steve Richards wrote a blistering piece yesterday, headlined, "Blair's approval keeps Cameron safe". And, indeed, it does.
Blair appears to broadly support Cameron's public service reforms, and in his memoir argued in favour of George Osborne's contentious deficit-cutting strategy. ... His former health minister Lord Warner appeared on the Today programme on Tuesday to put the case for the Coalition's original NHS changes, conveying more evangelical zeal than Andrew Lansley did when he launched his partially doomed revolution. On the World Tonight on Tuesday, there was an illuminating discussion between another former adviser to Blair, Julian Le Grand, and the former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris. Harris noted that Le Grand's arguments were so close to Lansley's he was surprised Blair's adviser did not support the original plans. Meanwhile two of Blair's former ministerial allies, Alan Milburn and John Hutton, have worked or work on specific projects for Cameron. Both have been known to tell friends: "These people are Blairites." ... When [Ed] Miliband and others argue against cutting the deficit too quickly, he and George Osborne are armed with quotes from Blair's memoir supporting them.

Alan Milburn, another former Labour health minister under Blair, has supported the hated Andrew Lansley (also with his finger in the privatisation pie, being bankrolled by a major private health company) who's been charged with ripping up the NHS. What could possibly have moved the lefty who once ran the "Haze of Dope" bookshop to switch ideologies so drastically?

Entirely unrelated, Hugh Muir writes in today's Guardian Diary:
A broadside in the Telegraph from former health secretary Alan Milburn about the coalition's apparent loss of nerve over the health reforms. Nye Bevan himself would have been perplexed, said a furious Ally. "When I introduced private sector providers, some claimed it would be the end of the health service as we had known it. In fact, they strengthened it." In time, they strengthened the Milburn bank balances too. Milburn chairs the European Advisory Committee at Bridgepoint, a private equity group that makes a pretty penny out of private healthcare. Nothing wrong with that, though the Telegraph rant might have mentioned it. Helps him see the big picture.

I never liked Ed Balls due to his pandering to the immigration scapegoat, but he is fast looking like the only Labour contender to check the pillage by Blair's acolytes. Can someone please finish off the grinning monster for good?

Thursday 16 June 2011

The Who: Baba O'Reilly shred video

Never let is be said that Madam Miaow doesn't have her sticky mitts on the cultural pulse, only that she writes about herself in the third person.

Here for your delectation is an example of the new fangled "shred video" in which under-utilised scamps devise an entirely new and awesomely unflattering soundtrack that could be, just at a pinch, the original act.

She is assured that these have been around for ages and that YouTube is awash with the critters.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Big society: US workers' share plummets

US workers' share of national income plummets to record low while the richest one per cent explodes. Wonder how Britain compares in the age of the Big Society.

Thursday 2 June 2011

All the tea in China: the return of the East India Company

Was it something I said?

When a friend received a tea-tasting invitation from the East India Company, based in one of the swankier streets of London's West End, we did indeed do a double-take. But, hey, a tea tasting? I've never been to one of those, so last night off we trundled in the spirit of "once a philosopher, twice a pervert".

Entering the ornate orientalised doors under a sign that I never thought I'd see in my lifetime certainly sent a frisson of dread running though me. Why on earth would anyone wish to revive the name of a company reviled for its role in some of the most vicious imperialism ever seen on the planet? China and India occupied, exploited, oppressed — only recently emerging from centuries of ravishment by foreign powers and now no longer lying back and thinking of England.

Oh well, perhaps enough historical time had elapsed to allow an innocent Disneyfication of one of the most (in)famous business enterprises ever. Who can begrudge a wily entrepreneur a short cut to branding their store?

Hi Ching, one of my trés elegant companions, who knows a thing or two about cha, thought the striking black and red lacquer to be an amusing pastiche, although "S", my friend with the invitation, suspected it was the real thing.

The event was laid on to promote the first flush crop of Darjeeling, on sale for £30 per packet. To get us into the mood, sweet young ladies served us tea-based cocktails flavoured with fruit cordials, while salesmen (all male but one) schmoozed the guests. The list included hibiscus and mimosa, but today we sampled poppy, ginger and orange blossom. I was sufficiently impressed with the orange blossom (a deliciously delicate taste, mixed over ice with white tea) to request that an assistant put aside a bottle and a packet of the same white tea for purchase once the tills were open.

Perhaps this is where communications were delivered a fatal salvo from a gunboat up their collective Yangtze. I had the temerity to ask the price. The cordial was marked at a reasonable £7.90, but I wanted to know how much the tea would be. It took four different assistants to let me know that it would be £15 for a tin. More than this Clipper tea-bag gal would normally shell out, but acceptable as a treat. Maybe their alarmed expressions when faced with this sort of enquiry should have alerted me. Were they aspiring to the exclusivity of Louis Vuitton just round the corner, whose shops forbid you to buy more than one of their £3,000 bags per blue moon? Did they really believe that if you have to ask, you can't afford it? In this age of the Big Society? Shouldn't their clients be charged more tax in order to disabuse them of this delusion? I mean, it's only a shop.

I'd imagined serving up orange blossom cocktails in the garden for mates whose tastebuds hadn't yet been wrecked by curry, fags and beer. But, sadly, it wasn't to be.

Following a minor glitch that seemed to frazzle our hosts' nerves beyond what was entirely necessary, the PowerPoint presentation commenced. The talk which followed gradually confirmed "S"'s hunch about this being the real deal rather than a pastiche. A history of the East India Company was littered with "we", as if this store was a continuation of the megacorporation which received its Royal Charter from Elizabeth I in 1600 but was dissolved in 1874. The company's role in the Opium Wars and the espionage involved in extracting the technology and Camellia Sinensis plants from China was glossed over while we were told about the red-headed Scots botanist who could "pass as a Chinaman". Well done. Three great clunking insults in one tiny sentence.

To say that the expert, when he took the mic, was tense would be an understatement. At the end of his contribution — not the most exciting or informative five minutes I've ever stood through — we were served the Darjeeling first flush tea and the floor was opened up for questions. An older manager in a light suit called, a tad desperately, for our participation in the Q&A. Having read several articles, including ones by George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens, on making the perfect cuppa, I asked one that has always seemed to stymie the experts: should you make tea with water at boiling point or below? "Either," came the rather unhelpful reply. Hi Ching then asked what material our expert recommended for the pot: glass, clay or china? "Either", we heard for a second time.

After a longeur, I continued Hi Ching's theme and asked if they thought clay or bone china cups were best, as if I actually gave a damn. "Depends on what you can afford," sneered the man in the light suit. Mustering maximum hauteur, I growled sweetly, "Assuming one can afford both, which is best: bone china or clay?" Apparently there is no difference, but presumably "either" is better than the tiny paper cups being used today.

Then my friend Tim asked the Milk Question: in the cup first or added after the tea? Tim is white with a posh accent. For some strange reason that escapes me, he received a more detailed and jovial response which could be summarised as, "Either", but at least they made the effort. Seems the idea of putting milk into the cup first arose only with the use of thin porcelain purely in order to prevent it cracking under the sudden temperature change.

Finally, the young ladies served up a fabulous array of chocolates but "S" and I decided to make our getaway while Hi Ching was questioned by a guest who evidently considered him better qualified to talk tea than the staff.

Oh, and that orange blossom and white tea order? Couldn't afford it, could I?

Anna Chen presents The Steampunk Opium Wars at the National Maritime Museum 16 February 2012.

Anna Chen will be hosting an evening at the National Maritime Museum on Thursday 9th February 2012 to mark the opening of the museum's Traders Gallery which will include a section on the Opium Wars. She has featured the subjects of tea, chinoiserie and the Opium Wars in her programmes for BBC Radio 4, Chinese In Britain, and Chopsticks At Dawn.