Monday 24 December 2012

All the musicians who passed on to the great concert in the sky in 2012

It's a scary list. Whitney Houston, Dave Brubeck, Davy Jones, Andy Williams, Etta James, Dory Previn, Donna Summer, Robin Gibb, Bert Weedon, and even the man who made the Marshall amp, to name but a few. Suddenly an entire generation of our greatest musical artists starts slipping away.

As a childhood fan of Hollywood movies and an avid admirer of their screen gods and goddesses, I remember how bereft it left me to see stars of the calibre of Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles, Greta Garbo, Mae West and Cary Grant pass away. Marilyn Monroe's death still reverberates today. These people embodied US-centric Western popular culture for generations and have rarely (if ever) been equalled.

Running in tandem and blossoming later in the 1950s and 60s — both artistically and commercially — an era of musicians created the soundtrack to our lives. We're now at the point where these post-war artists are tipping over the death ledge in serious numbers.

The authors of the peak of western culture are disappearing and, with very few exceptions of whom hardly any reach the mainstream, are not being replaced by fresh generations of writers and performers capable of exploring our inner world, or examining where we are — politically and emotionally — in the cosmos. The soundtrack to our civilisation's demise is the scream of time being killed and the ker-ching of tills.

The Guardian's list of musicians who died in 2012.

Charles Shaar Murray's The Guitar Geek Dossier available on Amazon as an eBook for less than the price of a pint.

Saturday 22 December 2012

2B Or Not 2B, that is the pencil: poem but not Shakespeare

Here's a short poem I wrote.

2B Or Not 2B

2B or not 2B
That is the pencil
Whether it is
Nobblier in the line to
Scuff the springs and marrows
Of outmoded pictorial representation,
Or to take snaps upon the digital?
To sketch up the dawn of a rosy hue
Or to take lines of sea and rubble
And by Photoshopping them, amend them?
To scumble the surface no more
But open a window on the world.
Depths and planes,
Impasto and light.
What The Fuck!

(written May 2009)

Friday 21 December 2012

DREAM SELLER: I'm in this scary short film made in St Ives

I'm in this mesmerising and disturbing short film made in St Ives by my friend Paul Healy. Receiving Paul's cheery little movie, Dream Seller, on the day the Mayans said the world would end, is most appropriate as it speaks of the End of Things.

Paul has captured a powerful atmosphere and imbued it with tons of meaning. It's staring the Grim Reaper in the face for our generation, as well as anticipating the decline and death of our version of civilisation now that capitalist production is moving out of Europe and into Asia and Africa, and capitalism is mutating into a form that doesn't need us (as I've been banging on about for some time).

Dream Seller was shot in one of St Ives's few remaining fish-net cellars ("seller" — geddit?), now earmarked for development, with various poets and artists who are to be found in this artists' colony. So as well as being a fascinating exploration of our fears in the face of The End, it's also a groovy holiday movie of my mates.

It was a pretty scary place. I did remark to Paul as he led me down into the dank and gloom, alone and defenceless (him, that is, not me, heh!), that it had the feel of somewhere where a sex-crime had been carried out.

The worst thing that happened, though, was that I left my make-up bag down there and had to send the boys round to get it back.

A sweet memento of my time in St Ives.

Tuesday 18 December 2012


Aaargh! Press, a new Brit alternative small press, is celebrating its birth with a party in London next month to mark the publication of its first titles, Reaching for my Gnu by Anna Chen (Kindle eBook and paperback) and The Guitar Geek Dossier by Charles Shaar Murray (Kindle eBook only for now).

Reaching for my Gnu, a collection of poems by British-Chinese poet and performer Anna Chen is available as a paperback for £9.99 and as a Kindle e-book for £1.99.

'Brilliant and dangerous ... one wild-ride roller-coaster that soars to altitudes of unfettered wit and then plunges with a startling and implacably knowing anger' MICK FARREN


'Charming, witty and sophisticated' SUNDAY TIMES

The Guitar Geek Dossier, an author's-choice collection of columns from Guitarist by legendary music journalist Charles Shaar Murray is available as a Kindle eBook for £1.99.

'The Johnny Cash of rock journalism' PHIL CAMPBELL, MOTORHEAD

'The rock critic’s rock critic' Q MAGAZINE

'Front-line cultural warrior' INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY

Charles is author of Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix And Post-war Pop and Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century (both Canongate). His first novel, The Hellhound Sample, was published by Headpress in 2011.

The details of the launch party, which will be something to remember, will be posted here and on the official Aaaaargh! Press website very soon.

MY ASIAN PLANET calls Anna Chen "a bit of a Chinese firecracker" and says of the book, "It's saucy, devilish and delightful!"

Saturday 15 December 2012

Occupied Friern Barnet Library cabaret: Save the library in court on Monday

Had a lovely time tonight at the Occupied Friern Barnet Library. Thanks to Phoenix, Barbara Gordon, Poppy, Angel MC, all the acts and everyone who packed out the place, proving how wonderful a community hub can be.

I hadn't realised that the library is the last public space in Friern Barnet, so the philistine decision to sell it off to Capita is entirely political and nothing to do with the needs of the human beings who live there. All the books were donated by the public because the council had emptied the shelves and dumped the books lord knows where.

The campaigners are being dragged into court by Barnet Council, who want to evict them, on Monday morning at Barnet County Court, St Marys Court, Regent's Park Rd, London, Greater London N3 1BQ. So I hope there will be a crowd of supporters letting the authorities know how badly needed the library is.

Indymedia report here

Poetry at Save Friern Barnet Library cabaret tonight

I'm delighted to be performing poetry for a great cause tonight: the Save Friern Barnet Library cabaret. Charles Shaar Murray is accompanying me on guitar, and there's a long line-up of talent from 7.30pm.

Since the Tory coalition government (which few voted for) grabbed power with the help of their Lib Dem human shields, the social carnage in the UK has been devastating.

In the area of our national culture alone, the arts have been dropped from the proposed EBacc(teria) exam created by Michael Gove in order to completely turn education into a sausage machine for the surviving capitalists.

Arts funding has been slashed, and in some cases destroyed. Curiously, Maria Miller, the minister for Culture, Media, Sport and Women, threatened the Telegraph newspaper with Leveson press laws when they dared investigate her claim for £90,000 from the public purse for a house occupied by her parents.

And libraries, those great Victorian philanthropic centres of study, educating and enlightening the masses, are being closed down against the wishes of the communities they serve.

The scapegoating is pitiful and transparent. No immigrant ever took an axe to our way of life the way the Tories have with the connivance of the Lib Dems and the timidity of the Labour Party. No "benefit cheat" ever did the damage the bankers and tax avoiders have wrought over the years.

All along the Tories have droned the same mantra: that we have to clear the deficit. And yet the profits from the top 1,000 richest is enough to clear it. I blogged this in 2010:

A report in the Independent shows that the richest 1,000 people in the UK could pay off the whole of the £159 billion public deficit tomorrow, just from the profits they have made last year out of the economic crisis.
The collective wealth of the country's 1,000 richest people rose 30% last year in the wake of the economic crisis.
Their combined wealth rose by more than £77bn to £333.5bn, the biggest annual increase in the 22-year history of the Sunday Times rich list.
The occupation of Friern Barnet Library by local volunteers has become, in the words of the Greens, "a symbol of resistance". That is why it is so important that we all get behind the wheel on this one and ensure the Friern Barnet Library campaing wins because this fight is for all of us.

Please come to the gig tonight and support these brilliant people. And see some great entertainment.

7.30-10pm tonight
Friern Barnet Library,
Friern Barnet Road, N11 3DS

Twitter: Occupied Library; Save Friern Barnet Library

Indymedia report here

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Stephanie Dogfoot Chan wins the Farrago UK Slam Poetry Championships 2012

The UK Slam Championships last night was one of the best Farrago Poetry events I've been to. It was an honour and a pleasure to have been asked to judge, along with Charles Shaar Murray, by Farrago founder John Paul O'Neill.

The Slam contest is interspersed with guest feature poets. I read from Reaching for my Gnu, clutching my actual analogue paperback collection of poetry for the first time. Also performing were Cherry Smyth, Vrouwkje Tuinman, Keith Jarrett and Deanna Rodger (who prompted one of the funniest love-poems ever from the Wizzard of Skill).

The first round was so difficult. We had to select from an initial 16 poets who had three minutes each to impress us with their content and recital skills. Seven of these plus three who'd already won their local heats went into the next round where five judges had to use score cards Olympic stylee to whittle it down to five. Then the final round — and that was hot.

It was a bloody marvellous win for Stephanie Dogfoot who is consistently brilliant — she won the Farrago History Slam at my Steampunk Opium Wars event at the National Maritime Museum in February this year.

Stephanie gets to represent the UK in the European Championships in Antwerp on Saturday, and then in Paris. Her mischievous intelligence, wit and elegant delivery gets me every time and she is a well-deserved winner.

A big shout out to Anthony Fairweather, Mike Galsworthy, Lucy Gelman, Lori Zakariyya King and others who were fabulous as usual but didn't get through by a whisker as the overall standard was so high and choosing the qualifiers was HARD.

Anna Khan's drag glamazons were the image of the night, Errol McGlashlan was so funny and smart, Wizzard of Skill was the best I've ever seen him, and Jason Pilley was frikkin' awesome.

Thank you John Paul for being our lovely MC. Terrific show, everyone.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

HSBC's record drugs money laundering fine: from Opium Wars to Mexican drug lords

Ain't life funny?

The HSBC started off in the 19th century opium wars, servicing the British narcocapitalists, and here they are still at it, laundering drugs money for Mexican drugs lords.

You'd think, given the severity of US drugs laws and how they slap every spliffer and cannabis-dealing youth into jail — especially if they're black — that proportionately, the suits behind the mega-bucks Class A drug loot would find themselves dropping their soap in the showers along with the rest of the small-time felons.

However, you'd be wrong. For some strange unfathomable reason, the drug-profiting HSBC has been let off with a £1.2 billion fine to "settle allegations" in the US that they laundered money. Oh, and then there're the global terrorist funds they put through the wash as well, but no-one's been locked up.

So do remember that if ever you're caught with a wrap of coke or a joint.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Anna does poetry at Farrago on Tuesday

I'm a guest poet at the UK Poetry Slam on Tuesday where I'll be reading from Reaching for my Gnu now available as a paperback on Amazon. Charles Shaar Murray and I are also judging.

* * * * *

The UK SLAM! Championships are on TUESDAY 11th December @ RADA Foyer Bar, starting off with an open to ANY poet qualifying round at 7pm. As well as three rounds of top SLAM! poetry there’s an awesome feature line up including Anna Chen, Vrouwkje Tuinman, Keith Jarrett & Deanna Rodger!

The winner goes on to represent the UK in the annual World Cup of Slam in Paris & European Slam Championships. Past winners read like a Who’s Who of British performance poetry and include Elvis McGonagal, Dizreali, Kat Francois, Zena Edwards, Nii Parkes, Niall Spooner-Harvey, Deanna Rodger, Hollie McNish, Keith Jarrett & Harry Baker.

If you can make it into London on the night please come down and please spread the word!

John Paul

Farrago Poetry presents: The UK SLAM! Championships 2012
The 19th Annual National Poetry Slam.
Tuesday, 11th December, Qualifying round sign up from 6:45pm. Show: 7pm.

A night featuring poets from all over the UK battling it out for the title of The UK SLAM! Champion 2012/13. Qualifying round at 7pm open to ANY poet living, working or studying in the UK fulltime. Contact Farrago Poetry for full information and rules.

+ A brilliant feature line up including Anna Chen, reading from her first collection, Keith Jarrett, former London & UK SLAM! Champion, Vrouwkje Tuinman, award winning Dutch poet & Deanna Rodger, another former UK SLAM! Champion + others tbc!

Emcee: John Paul O’Neill. Tickets: £6/£5.

Information: 07905078376. & Farrago has a facebook page & group. Twitter & Youtube channels.

Saturday 8 December 2012

Keeping fit makes you ill: on crutches, hands, knees and bumpsadaisy

A little update: in my perennial battle against the flab, I have taken to running very fast on the spot — a bit like the red queen with similar health results — mostly in the kitchen while the kettle boils.

Warm-ups have been cursory; a bit of toe-touching, the odd yoga stretch. So I was more shocked than surprised when making a cuppa on Wednesday, I sprung into action like a mountain goat only to fell something go "pop" in my left leg. Something snapped in my calf muscle halfway up and down I went.

First thing I did was to feel for a knot of muscle as I'd imagined the tendon to have broken from the bone and the muscle coiled back on itself like over-extended elastic suddenly released. How the frick, I wondered, was that going to be repaired? An operation? The inevitable bout of MRSA to follow?

Luckily, a quick feel confirmed both legs were symmetrical.

No pain except when I stood and then ... OW, OW, OW, OW, OW!!! Like a bullet, sudden and sharp agony.

Acting on the doc's instructions, I went to the minor injuries clinic in A&E. The wheelchair was most enjoyable — part palanquin and part pram, I quite enjoyed being wheeled around. When I come to power ...

I am now on crutches. But able to move on hands and knees like something out of 50 Shades of Grey. Or a single segment of Human Centipede.

I had to crawl to the loo in the middle of the night because of my torn muscle. Crawling back in the dark, I realised I looked like Sadako in Ringu (or like my Grudge video above) and terrified myself to the point where I cried. A bit. Not too much, coz I'm tough. Even if I scare myself. Grrrr!

With any luck, the six week estimated healing time may not be needed, as long as I stick to the RICE regimen: rest, ice,compression and exercise plus painkillers four times daily. Today I could put weight on it — just about. It's really only the point while walking where I shift from heel to ball of the foot where it's agonising.

So Tuesday's Farrago Poetry Slam UK Championship will see me onstage and reading from my poetry collection, Reaching for my Gnu, whether on crutches, or hands and knees. I'm there.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Press baron monopoly and supine police the problem, not the law: Leveson report wrong

If you could go back in time and nobble the architects of some of the greatest disasters in history, would you do it?

Luckily we don't have to time-travel to ensure press control does not pass into the hands of the government, ending our tradition of a free press — we're already here and staring at the far bank of the Rubicon. Leveson's recommendation for press regulations to be backed by statute — with harsh penalties for guilty parties — is no answer to the appalling corruption of sections of our Fourth Estate.

Lord Leveson's exoneration of both the police, who failed to enforce existing laws, and former Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt, who made all the noises that he was hell-bent on pushing through Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of BSkyB, giving him an even bigger unaccountable monopoly of our media, does not fill me with confidence.

It's impossible to look at the Hacked Off platform of press victims without feeling heartfelt sympathy: the traumatised McCann's traduced as child killers while searching for their abducted daughter; Chris Jeffries picked on because he reads books and looks like a "weirdo" (read: intellectual); and of course the Dowlers whose murdered daughter's mobile phone was hacked by the News of the World, kicking off the scandal that led to the Leveson Inquiry.

However, their treatment could have been dealt with by the police and the courts. Phone hacking is illegal. Young women like Sienna Miller and Charlotte Church should not be hounded by baying packs of aggressive men just because they're famous. Why did the police protect their masters — their paymasters in some cases? How can Leveson seriously say that the police have no case to answer?

How did we get to the point where one powerful man's companies could do such damage to British society? Why has Leveson recommended laws controlling the press, when this looks like bolting the stable door after the nag has run, and not given the same emphasis to the dangerous monopoly of our democracy's media by a handful of ruthless press barons?

A brief history

The government has controlled the press before, granting licenses to those unlikely to alter the status quo. After licensing collapsed in the late 17th century, there was a mini-golden age that produced writers of the calibre of Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, and the Spectator's Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, who sought, "to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality ... to bring philosophy out of the closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and coffeehouses".

Twenty years later, the imposition of a stamp duty tax hampered widespread readership by the masses until 1850s. The radical press had to operate without state legitimacy and remained vulnerable to harrassment.

The first of the big press barons, 1st Viscount Lord Northcliffe, Alfred Harmsworth, set up the Daily Mail in 1896 (before his ennoblement and two years after buying the Evening News), which became the first mass-selling daily paper. Prime Minister Lord Salisbury described it as, "written by office boys for office boys". Alfred wrote the editorials as a hands-on proprietor.

Along with his brother, Harold Harmsworth, Lord Rothermere, Northcliffe became richer that Croesus and would have told a nation what to think if it hadn't been for the existence of the quality Daily News (founder: one Charles Dickens) and the Daily Chronicle, both popular liberal papers. The Northcliffe/Rothermere empire bought up the ailing Observer (1905) and Times (1908), among others, and launched the Daily Mirror (1903).

Alfred Harmsworth launched the Daily Mirror as a paper by women for women (hence the name!) but, when it didn't work, the lady journos were sacked. The new editor, Hamilton Fyfe, said it was "like drowning kittens". He turned it into the first picture tabloid and it became a runaway success.

Such influence in the press by one man and his brother was unprecedented. Then along came Beaverbrook.

Already owning the London Evening Standard, Anglo-Canadian tycoon Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, acquired the Daily Express in 1916. He was said to have operated a blacklist of famous people who had offended him including Sir Thomas Beecham, Paul Robeson, Haile Selassie, and Noël Coward. He was awful but at least he didn't support Hitler like the Daily Mail proprietor, Rothermere. Rather, Beaverbrook's papers were an important arm of Britain's war machine, shaping and disseminating government propaganda during World War II.

The big three press barons of the first half of the 20th century, Northcliffe, Rothermere and Beaverbrook, were all very right-wing, though otherwise very different. Northcliffe was originally a Liberal Unionist, fanatically jingoistic and pro-Empire. Unlike his brother Rothermere, a fascistic bean-counter who supported Hitler, Northcliffe hired a range of talented writers from Rudyard Kipling to inter-war pacifist Norman Angell.

But power will always out. Flexing their political muscle, Beaverbrook founded the Empire Free Trade Crusade in 1929 and in 1930 briefy joined Rothermere in his United Empire Party (a bit like UKIP) to campaign for free trade against the protectionist Tories. It was a union which Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin condemned as "Power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages".

They benefited from the tabloid style of journalism (only the Mirror was actually tabloid in size). Attracting advertising, they were able to subsidise sale price, and increase cheap mass-circulation in an upward spiral — more ads made for cheaper papers but depended on a move downmarket. The Daily Chronicle and Daily News followed this model with some success by World War I, and merged as the Liberal News Chronicle in 1920s, later sold to the Daily Mail in the 1960s.

The most notorious episode was probably Rothermere's Daily Mail backing Hitler and the Black Shirts until Moseley's boot-boys beat up the audience at a rally in London's Olympia.

The Times were a changing. Northcliffe died in 1922 and most of his empire went to his brother, Rothermere (who had already taken over the Daily Mirror and various other papers). In the 1930s, the Labour Daily Herald hit 2 million circulation, outstripping the Daily Mail. Rothermere lost interest in the Daily Mirror and sold his shares; the paper came under the control of his nephew Cecil King,  acquired cartoons and moved leftwards to become an increasingly pro-Labour working-class paper and the biggest seller from the late 1940s to the 1970s.

King did not share his moneyspinner's politics, but it was a cash-cow.

The Daily Herald — co-owned by the Trade Union Congress and Odhams Press — took the reverse route and eventually became ... the soaraway Sun. How'd that happen?

In 1960, the Mirror Group bought up Odhams, including the Daily Herald and created the International Publishing Corporation (IPC). It now owned the two competing bestselling Labour-supporting dailies.

In 1964 Mirror management relaunched the Daily Herald as new mid-market white-collar paper, and renamed it the Sun for the new non-right wing middle-class. It didn't work. The new paper was too similar to the old one, and its target readership was already gravitating towards the Guardian. (Watch the beleaguered Guardian make a similar error with its new young digital target market.) It lost money so the Mirror sold it in 1969 — the choices were Robert Maxwell or Rupert Murdoch. In their wisdom, the Mirror Group unions thought they'd get a better deal from Murdoch and thus gave him his second base after his purchase of News of the World. Maxwell eventually bought and ransacked the Mirror and the rest is history.

It dived downmarket and by the 1970s the Sun was outselling the Daily Mirror. Murdoch backed the little known milk-snatcher in the 1979 general election. This paid off handsomely when he used his huge profits to buy the troubled Times and Sunday Times. His ownership of two major newpapers should have precluded him from the purchase but Thatcher's government failed to call in the monopolies and mergers commission over his growing domination. It can be argued that there was an absence of alternative buyers, although editor Harold Evans was attempting to find backers for his own buyout. Murdoch's Sunday Times eventually lost Harold Evans and, later, the investigative Insight team. Murdoch bust the unions through changing technology, destroying lives, but also revitalised the newspaper industry.

From the late eighties to 2008, the newspaper industry thrived, but Murdoch's influence via the Sun, the News of the World and much of the rest of News Corp has been deeply corrosive: Hillsborough, hacking, creepy sexualisation of human beings for commercial gain, police curruption, politicians' terror, trade union bashing and, across the Atlantic, Fox News. His pay-TV channels in the UK now dominate sports coverage and broadcasting of films and top American series.

We look at Fox News and give a collective shudder. Jeremy Hunt nearly pushed through Murdoch's bid to take 100 per cent ownership of BSkyB, giving one man and his family even more of a monopoly over our culture. Without the depraved actions of Murdoch's own news hounds hacking into Milly Dowler's mobile phone, it could all be so different. And that's only one of many reasons to remember the tragic young woman who's death kicked this all off.

ADDENDUM Sunday 2nd December 2012

A journalist compadre — Kate Belgrave — reminds me that grassroots journalists like her are thwarted in their bid to hold the powerful to account at every turn. How much more difficult will her job be with a new law, the first on statute since 1695?

Kate writes:
As someone who does the grassroots end of reporting, if you like, I'm very aware of the enormous restrictions that the state (or state in the form of local government) already places on reporting. Plenty of us have been told to stop recording or filming council meetings. We've had our phones, computers and cameras confiscated by security companies which haven't been through the proper security checks (Metpro, Barnet). Massive private sector contracts are decided in secret, or with paperwork being available only in the non-public sections of public meetings, etc. Staff who dare to whistleblow are harassed and hounded - for example, a group of women who supposedly talked to me for a Guardian story I did on a council supported living hostel closure were dragged through the disciplinary process at their council.

I've had letters from council lawyers for publishing links to documents on major privatisation deals. If Cameron's so hot on a free press, he might like to throw some of government's relationships with the private sector into the open. Let's see all the paperwork and every email sent to and from government and G4s. If journalists and media moguls are found to have broken the law, then they must be pursued by the law, as Anna rightly says. I have no time for illegality, or the abuse inflicted on innocent citizens by phone hackers posing as journalists. Just don't imagine for a moment that the press - or, at least, journalists who wish to report, rather than sensationalise - is already free.

The Barnet mass-outsourcing scandal and contracting shambles like Metpro certainly wouldn't have seen the light of day without the five Barnet bloggers there - they're among the best local journalists around. The Atos and ESA scandals were put on the map by bloggers - those bloggers managed, ultimately, to bring the mainstream along with them, but even now, those subjects aren't covered in anything like the detail they should be by the mainstream. People like Johnny Void and Joe Halewood are covering the looming Universal Credit and housing benefit disasters better than anybody. Their range is outstanding. They need more freedom, not less.

PLUS read:
Kenan Malik on Levenson

Tuesday 27 November 2012

RSC The Orphan of Zhao debate Part 2: British East Asian Artists discussion

With charges of "sour grapes" and claims that east Asians couldn't be cast in parts that had no "Chinese connection", there's an awful lot to discuss concerning the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Orphan of Zhao.

So it's a shame that the RSC declined an invitation to take part in a debate between members of the British East Asian Artists and theatre academics from Swansea, Brunel and Royal Holloway Universities, organised by the Asian Performing Arts Forum.

Dr Ashley Thorpe of Reading University chaired this roundtable discussion. Taking part were Daniel York, Dr Amanda Rogers (Swansea University), Dr Broderick Chow (Brunel University) and Anna Chen.

VIDEO: Part 1 of The Orphan of Zhao debate.

Anna Chen's review of The Orphan of Zhao

The "two dogs and a maid" blogpost that kicked it off.

British East Asian Actors website

The Orphan of Zhao debate Pt 1: no show by the RSC at roundtable discussion

The Royal Shakespeare Company declined this chance to debate with members of the British East Asian Artists group who had been critical of the casting for The Orphan of Zhao, a Chinese classic. The 17 roles included only three BEAs, and those were in minor parts: chiefly working a puppet dog, and playing a maid and a ghost child.

Having seen the production, I can safely say there's a whole lot more that needs to be discussed, oh yes.

Dr Ashley Thorpe of Reading University chaired this roundtable discussion hosted by the Asian Performing Arts Forum; Taking part were Daniel York, Dr Amanda Rogers (Swansea University), Dr Broderick Chow (Brunel University) and Anna Chen.

Thanks to Chowee Leow on camera.
Edited by Anna Chen.

Part 2 of the Orphan of Zhao debate

The "two dogs and a maid" blogpost that kicked it off.

British East Asian Artists website

Anna's review of The Orphan of Zhao in the Morning Star.

Review by academic Amanda Rogers.

Thursday 15 November 2012

RSC The Orphan of Zhao review: Aladdin for middle-class grown-ups

At last it is out. I've been champing at the bit, positively having a conniption while all the reviews came out, but finally mine is published and here it is.

A quick update: the British East Asian Artists have sprung up to challenge these archaic attitudes towards us and had brilliant support internationally from the United States of America (thank you Aapac and everyone), Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Netherlands, Singapore, France, Spain and Portugal.

Here at home two BEAAs have been added to the steering committee of the Arts Council England, Equity and SOLT/TMA event "designed to facilitate introductions, increase understanding and broker partnerships between East Asian actors and theatre makers and the wider theatre industry." Expected some time in February.

The BEAAs are working to take their campaign to the next step to ensure we can take our place in British culture — it's OUR culture as well.

The Orphan of Zhao review
Royal Shakespeare Company — Swan Theatre
By Anna Chen 8th Nov 2012

Sometimes it's useful being the barbarian at the gate. This "outsider" role has been imposed on British east Asians by top-ranking arts institutions for far too long, so don't blame us when we warm to it. "Normal" roles are denied us unless they're race-specific with a "Chinese connection", and sharp white elbows mean we often don't even get those. The welcome policy shift towards cross-racial casting — intended to give ethnic minorities a fair share of parts, representing British society in all its glorious variety — has led instead to one-way traffic and exciting new opportunities for white actors to scarf up the juiciest Chinese parts.

Take the hallowed RSC's latest offering: a reworking of the traditional Chinese classic, The Orphan of Zhao, dating back 2,500 years: Ji Junxiang's 13th-century version merely the best-known, but here credited solely to adapter James Fenton as part of the RSC's A World Elsewhere trilogy which includes Pushkin's Boris Godunov and Brecht's A Life of Galileo. Only three out of 17 actors are east Asians, but none in leading roles, thereby missing a golden chance to rectify invisibility with something imaginatively groundbreaking. So blatantly unfair is this casting that it's fomented an unprecedented uprising by fellow British east Asian actors and an international controversy.

Orphan is a good old blood-and-guts revenge story, set in ye olde feudal China. Sexually degenerate Nero-like Emperor murders for pleasure while his favourite minister, Tu'an Gu, a black-clad Ming the Mercilless villain played charismatically by a shaven-headed Joe Dixon, plots to grab power. Gu wipes out his chief rival (the noble Zhao Dun) and his entire clan, but misses the baby borne by Zhao's wife, the Princess, the Emperor's daughter. The child grows up to avenge his family and take his rightful place.

As bloody as any Shakespearean or Jacobean tragedy, the story is somewhat cruder. Despite its "Chinese Hamlet" reputation, it features no deep philosophical musings on the meaning of life. How could there be in a story so infused with Confucian fetishisation of hierarchy? The plot turns on the assumptions that aristocracy will out, true blue blood is all, and everyone's lives are subordinate to the blood line.

'Adapted' this may be, but updated it's not.

When Doctor Cheng Ying (Graham Turner) swaps his own newborn son for the aristo, condemning his baby to certain death, there is no sense of inner struggle for this mysterious Eastern cypher. Cheng's motivation is as absurd as it is creakingly mechanical: "He must be given a chance to grow so that justice can finally be done" — a line typical of the subtext-free character of the dialogue. Even his wife, despite begging for her child's life, hands him over without a fight. The Herodesque slaughter the sacrifice is supposed to stop is a dramatically undeveloped afterthought. However, the Pythonesque trail of deaths by a series of plot-devices on legs, including a ninja — Japanese! — assassin Glasgow-kissing himself against a wall is, at least, inadvertently amusing. This is Aladdin for middle-class grown-ups.

The story's appeal to the resurgent 19th-century mindset dominating too many of Britain's cultural institutions is clear. Sex and cruelty: a wonderfully exotic orientalist fantasy for middle-Ingerland. They even fly in four severed heads the colour of the Peking ducks you see hanging in Chinese restaurants, last seen in the ENO's Turandot where the psycho Princess's murdered lovers are suspended in the palace kitchens.

Scratch a liberal and you'll find antiquated colonialist attitudes they don't even know they possess, reinforcing some startling class-and-race political notions. In a potent illustration of these unconscious assumptions, the four ethnic actors playing servants kow-tow in a line while the white actors — Cheng Ying, his wife and nobleman Gongsun Chujiu — play their scene: a snapshot which speaks volumes.

Chris Lew Kum Hoi has one moment to shine at the very end, playing the ghost of Cheng's child. He does it beautifully.

It's fascinating to watch the establishment close ranks over this play. White males of a certain age, desperate to convert paunch into punch, flailing and failing to land one on us because, even by their own liberal criteria, they are on the wrong side of history. We ghosts are materialising and pissing in their prawn balls.

The Orphan Of Zhao runs at the RSC unitl March 28. Box office: 0844 800-1110.

"YOU. NEED. TO. APOLOGIZE." Fairy Princess Diaries

Review by academic Amanda Rogers.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

China's new leaders: a neo-liberal victory?

Say hi to the man set to run the biggest superpower in the world (expected around 2015): President Xi Jinping

The stand-out thing for me in China's changeover of power as incoming President Xi Jinping takes his place at the helm, is the move towards privatisation. The neo-liberal economist Zhang Weiying keeps citing the west's dependence on the market as justification for their abandonment of any socialist ideals of an equitable society despite the disasters these Milton Friedman-influenced policies have wrought in America and Europe. The ditching of the US Glass Steagall Act (separating investment and savings banks) and the banking crisis should be one of several salutory lessons but, with big bucks at stake, the elite is ploughing on never-the-less.

The outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao managed to slow down the rightward drift since Deng Xiaoping set the nation's capitalist course in the 1980s, but were never going to reverse it. Wen is said to be keen on privatisation, although the fortunes of his geologist wife — once a state regulator of who China's diamond market and who now owns a fat slice of it — have proven to be an embarrassment. Once seen as progressive (he famously accompanied General Secretary Zhao Ziyang into Tiananmen Square during the protests but luckily didn't share Zhao's fate, ending up being promoted rather than purged) his is the kindly face of the new capitalism. And yet, his family is reported to be worth US $2.7 billion — a figure he is disputing all the way into the law courts.

Wen has steered a leftish course, such as resisting US demands to devalue the renminbi — so tiny is the mark-up in Chinese manufacturing which relies on vast volume that even a tiny rise in the interest rate would wipe out a large swathe of their production. However, in 2009, he declined to introduce a huge state stimulus package despite soaring wealth, turning his back on Keynsian policies traditionally favoured by socialists, emboldening the hard-core neo-liberals.

Since the fall of golden boy Bo Xilai — another populist but one whose USP was Mao nostalgia and lip-service to socialist values while filling his boots — the neo-liberals are off the leash, promising to privatise everything that isn't nailed down and laughing at the notion of public investment. Should they win outright, the only freedom on the cards is the freedom for this bloated layer to stuff themselves with state assets and play catch-up with the Soviet oligarchs. And look what happened to them!

It almost feels like a smash and grab before everything falls apart, although recent figures contradict projections of China's demise as global economic powerhouse miracle. As in the UK under Tony Blair (what is it with these supposed socialists?), the gap between rich and poor continues to grow but, with the incoming crew, that widening between the haves and have-nots promises to accelerate to a yawning chasm (average annual urban income is $2,000). Whether the centre can hold under the centrifugal pull on social assets spinning off into the bank accounts of former cadre as they pilfer the state, remains to be seen.

The good news is that strikes are on the increase, and workers are being radicalised as their exploitation bites. The excesses at Foxconn seem never to be out of the news even if we keep buying their iPhones in an astonishing failure of solidarity.

Freedom of speech is a lot healthier than you probably realise, the government's attempts to close it down notwithstanding. Chinese netizens are probably the most populous and active in the world, expressing themselves on internet services such as Weibo. The Chinese have proven creative in getting around blocks, often with hilarous results: such as the Grass Mud Horse and River Crab episodes where the levels of meaning in Chinese characters allow the dissenting public to say much more than first meets the eye, and lampoon the authorities over their corruption. Ai Weiwei's imaginative sending-up of his tormentors has also proven popular with donations towards his legal case literally flying in over his garden wall, folded into paper aeroplanes.

It's interesting to note that, despite western criticism of the Chinese lockdown on free expression, a company linked to none other than Mitt Romney has won the contract to put as many CCTVs in public spaces as we have here — they have yet to catch up the UK as being the most surveyed nation in the world.

Perhaps the Mayans were right in their own way. Maybe 2012 isn't the end of the world, but the end of enlightenment values the world over as the light is switched off. All power to those strikers.

This Saturday I'm appearing in the morning at an all-day event. Socialist Resistance have a full day meeting on developments in China next Saturday in London and meetings all around the country with Chinese suthor Au Loong Yu to launch the new book analysing China’s growth from a Marxist perspective – “China’s Rise: Strength and Fragility” (Resistance Books, IIRE, Merlin Press).

Also read The Changing of the Guard at Socialist Unity.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Anna Chen at Farrago Poetry Nov 2012: bringing the funny

Here for your pleasure is a video of my gig last night as a guest poet at the Farrago Poetry Slam London heat of the 2012 Slam championships. Congrats to Richard Marsh who goes on to the next heat.

I'm performing "Poe", "Daddy Freud", "Travelogue" and "Ode to a Detox on Returning from St Ives".

Friday 9 November 2012

Anna and Lucy go to Stratford: RSC The Orphan of Zhao

Had we been ninja, we could have crept stealthily into the village without being seen. However, as we had done our research — which in this case consisted of being Chinese and paying attention — we blew into town and proceeded to make like we were proper Ingrish which, as we all know from recent events, we are not.

I am about to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and write my review and feature.

In the meantime, let's have an Interval and some lovely photos of the day Les Gurls (Lucy Sheen and I) went to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Orphan of Zhao.

First, here is a short quiz to keep you entertained while I go off and do my thang:
Q1: Was there or was there not a ninja in last night's show?
Q2: Where do ninja come from?
Q: How many other spacio-temporal anomalies can you find?

Not having a "Chinese connection", this little repast confuses our intrepid heroes and Anna can't work out whether to dunk her sausage into the mash or her Earl Grey tea.

The barbarians at the gate about to breach the defences.

Inside! Er ... but still outside. Oh, you know how this works.

The lovely RSC programme — A Dysfunctional Dynasty. I'm not arguing.

What we are.

How this makes me feel.

The Fairy Princess Diaries strikes again.

Visit Lucy Sheen's fab new website.

Friday 2 November 2012

My Get Fit and Write Diary: the struggle of a lady of letters

Inspired by Gwynneth Paltrow's Journal at, I will now take an organic leaf out of her virtual volume and keep a diary of my struggle as a lady of letters.

7.30am Wake up. Twilight. Cold. Forbidding.

7.35am Fall asleep.

8.05am Wake up. Stare at the space where my mug of tea should be. The absence makes me think about the state of the world, the sad state wherein which we humans have arrived at in. Fall asleep.

8.42am I must have dreamed — vividly — because I wake up with a start, full of inspiration, or something. I snatch up my black moleskin notepad, stroke its soft yet firm welcoming cover, and scribble down my thoughts.

8:45am Fall asleep.

9.22am I am woken with a steaming cup of Earl Grey, too hot for plump sensitive lips that speak of sensuality and a generous soul, so I wait for it to cool a little.

10.17am I wake up to find my tea tepid — the ice-fairy has visited during my slumber. I drink a little, nevertheless, and am reminded after the first lukewarm mouthfull that hot things rise, and that my tea will fall icier as I descend its depths. I call for a fresh cup. Bone china — with real bone so the delicacy of bergamot infusing the leaves of the camellia sinensis can come through and clear my heady head, even if it means (s)cuppering my drive to go vegetarian like my heroine Gwynnie and save the planet.

10:18am Intent on using every available moment of the day, before even leaving the warmth of the duvet, I do some limbering up in bed. I know I must get myself fighting fit like an athlete for the day ahead. It is vital for a creative person like I to get their endorphins flowing through the brain: the intellect is your armoury in the struggle to create. Breathing puts arrows in your quiver, lead in your pencil and electron thingies in your Mac.

10:33am Exhausted from multiple leg-raises and yoga stretches, I resist the urge to slip into the sweet arms of Morpheus. But, hark, here comes my tea. I clear my lungs of their overnight bronchital detritus and contemplate the day ahead.

One must be sensitive to the Process. I am aiming for a chapter every day: two thousand words minimum. At this rate I will have my memoir finished by Christmas.

14:15 Showered, lunched and gardened out, I proudly announce that I have spent 20 minutes masturbating when I catch myself and realise I mean the other activity beginning with M: I have been meditating for 20 minutes flat-out and feel marvellous. I settle down to the computer to write. But first, I download my email, respond to several urgent calls upon my time, check Facebook, read the papers (including my secret vice, the Daly Mail), check Twitter, check Facebook again and then, finally ready to begin The Work, I open up the Word document.

It is not the blank screen of terror that stares back. I have already written 500 words or so only the previous week before having to take an important telephone call. However, time ticks on and the butcher shuts at four so I dash out to the shops, remembering to pick up milk, fresh vegetables and fat balls for the birds.

16:56 Arrive back home just in time to tune in to Eddy Mair on Radio 4's PM. It is so vitally important to keep up with the news, and Eddy's little jokes always make a welcome break from the tragedy unfolding on the BBC. Mr Savile the entertainer and Freddy Kreuger have never been seen in the same room together and there is a lesson to be learned there somewhere if you dig deep enough and think hard and long. But as an intellectual, that is my job.

19:00 We sit down to dinner and another one of Jon Snow's fabulously cheering ties. If only they had these in the Blitz. Lavender socks today, Jon. A welcome joyous flash in today's bleak world.

20:00 I allow my dinner to go down as Mr Showbiz himself, Gok Wan, starts another telly series, "Baggage", which feels ironic somehow and yet never is. I stifle the thought that this is unmitigated rubbish and continue to watch out of solidarity with the bredren and fascination at the novel sight of a Chinese person actually saying things until the little vein at my temple begins to throb.

23:29 News at Ten and Newsnight over, it is time for bed. I apply myself to my ablutions and retire to bed with my kindle, tired after a hard day's labour. To rest and wake up refreshed for another day's toil at the writing coal-face.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

RSC Orphan of Zhao: British East Asian Actors' statement

The British East Asian Actors group (of which I am one) has issued a statement concerning the recent RSC casting debacle over The Orphan of Zhao.

British East Asian Actors
30th October 2012

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)
The Orphan of Zhao


British East Asian actors have challenged the Royal Shakespeare Company over the casting in its upcoming production of the classic Chinese play, The Orphan of Zhao by Ji Junxiang. Support for the British East Asian actors has spread globally with statements flooding in from Asian actors’ groups in America, Australia, Canada and other countries; as well as messages of support from theatregoers and the public on the RSC’s Facebook site.

Only three actors of East Asian heritage have been cast out of 17 and none have leading roles in any of plays in the World season trilogy of which The Orphan of Zhao is one. The RSC has only cast an estimated four East Asian actors in the last 20 years.

Actor Daniel York said: "This exclusion has been going on for far too long within the British stage and film industries. Colour-blind casting is a wonderful concept, unfortunately, it’s all one-way traffic. Something has to change. We are asking for fairness and a level playing field."

British East Asian Actors have released the following statement in response.

London, UK - For more than three weeks, we have protested to the RSC and the Arts Council England about the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of the Chinese classic The Orphan of Zhao.

Our concern is that there are only three actors of East Asian descent in a cast which consists mainly of Caucasians but no other Asians. This does not, in our opinion, represent "multi-cultural casting" as the RSC insists it is.

We have identified the following issues:

1) The RSC states that "It's certainly not the case that we've not employed any Chinese or East Asian actors". However, we have only been able to ascertain two actors of East Asian descent employed as part of regular seasons in the past 20 years, as well as two others in standalone productions - a clear shortfall. It also appears that, as far as we can gather, none of the three RSC Winter Season directors has any noticeable track record of employing East Asian actors and, in fact, only Gregory Doran appears to have done so, once, in the last ten years.

2) Of particular concern to us is the under-representation of East Asian actors in what is often described as "the Chinese Hamlet". Unfortunately, this is reflective of the entire UK theatre industry. The RSC assures us that the three East Asian actors (who we wish well) are playing "key" roles. Whilst we value and support all actors and would hope that all roles in a play are "key", none of the three East Asians in this particular production appears to be playing what can be described as a "leading" or "protagonist" role: a character who is central to the action and who drives the play. It is also clear that all three are roughly in the same age demographic and this belies the diversity and experience that exists among British East Asian actors.

3) British East Asian actors wish to participate in their own culture but this is being denied us. We are too often excluded from roles which are not East Asian-specific, yet when roles arise that are, we are also excluded. We applaud colour-blind casting, but colour-blind casting was created as a mechanism to afford more opportunities for all minority actors, not to give additional opportunities to Caucasian actors. At present, colour-blind casting fails British East Asians.

4) The RSC has cited the need to cast actors across three different plays as one reason for the low number of East Asians in the cast. It appears they were unable, for whatever reason, to countenance the idea of British East Asians playing leading roles in works by Ji, Pushkin and Brecht. It appears that white (and in some cases black) actors are able to play Chinese roles but not vice versa.

5) The RSC states that they met "lots and lots" of East Asian actors, yet we have only been able to ascertain eight. Aside from the three who were cast we only know of one who met more than one of the season's directors.

6) The RSC insist they cast "the best actor for the roles available" yet the visibility and quality of work available for the actors chosen to be leading players in the Company simply isn't attainable for actors of East Asian descent. There is no level playing field.


It is clear to us that there is an industry-wide problem regarding the opportunities available for East Asian actors. Too often, actors from our background can only access auditions for poorly-written and stereotyped roles on television that require a heavy emphasis on being "foreign" as opposed to being integrated and three-dimensional members of British society. In the theatre, with the occasional rare exception, we are shut out completely from all but community and children's theatre, with opportunities to appear in classical and mainstream drama extremely rare.

We welcome a time when actors can play across race, gender, class or disability. However, this can only meaningfully occur on a level playing field to which we must ensure we have fair access.

As a publicly-funded company, the RSC has a responsibility to reflect the make-up of society. In order to tear down the limitation on East Asian actors, it is our heartfelt wish to see far more active outreach to our sector. When the Harry Potter film franchise was casting for an actress to play Cho Chang, applicants queued around the block, disproving the notion that people from East Asian backgrounds have no interest in the performing arts. At present, the message being sent out to young people from East Asian backgrounds is that a career on the stage is not available to them.

We welcome greatly the closing paragraph from the RSC's most recent statement on the subject:

"We acknowledge that there is always more to do and recognise our responsibility in this area. We want to explore the rich seam of Chinese drama further, and engage more often with Chinese and East Asian actors. We want to integrate them more regularly on our stages and hope that this production, and indeed this debate, will be a catalyst for that process."

In order to enable this to happen we request:

1) An apology and acknowledgement for the lack of consideration afforded us as an ethnic group with regard to the casting of The Orphan of Zhao and for the way East Asian actors have been marginalised.

2) A public discussion forum to be held in London with Greg Doran and the two directors of the other plays in the trilogy, with speakers of our choosing to represent our case. Similar to that held at La Jolla Playhouse, CA, when comparable controversy occurred with their musical adaptation of The Nightingale, the purpose of this is to enable us to work with the RSC in leading the way for the rest of the industry.

3) Ethnic monitoring of auditionees for both race-specific and non-race-specific roles and for that data to be freely available. We would also like to remind all Arts Council England funded theatre companies of Recommendation 20 from the Eclipse Report which highlighted several recommendations for theatre practice with regard to ethnic minorities including:

"By March 2003, every publicly funded theatre organisation in England will have reviewed its Equal Opportunities policy, ascertained whether its set targets are being achieved and, if not, drawn up a comprehensive Positive Action plan which actively develops opportunities for African Caribbean and Asian practitioners."

For too long East Asians have been left out of "Asia".

4) Further to the above we would like to see a clear measurable target in terms of engaging and developing East Asians actors as you do with a broad range of socio-economic and ethnic minority backgrounds with a view to seeing and casting them in future RSC productions.

5) We feel it is absolutely imperative that there be no "professional reprisals" with regard to any recent comments from within our community. East Asian actors and professionals have shown great courage speaking out about the clear inequality that currently exists within our profession, and we would like that to be respected. Too often, there exists a climate of fear in the arts world and we feel this is detrimental to free speech as well as to fundamental human rights.

We hope very much that we can all move forward together and gain greater understanding for the future. We look forward to working with the RSC, a company for which we all have the fondest love and respect.

British East Asian Actors
30th October 2012

Anna Chen
Dr. Broderick D.V. Chow - Lecturer in Theatre, Brunel University, London
Kathryn Golding
Paul Hyu – Artistic Director, Mu-Lan Theatre Co; Equity Minority Ethnic Members’ Committee member
Michelle Lee
Chowee Leow
Hi Ching – Director, River Cultures
Jennifer Lim
Lucy Miller – Associate Director, True Heart Theatre
Dr. Amanda Rogers - Lecturer in Human Geography, Swansea University
Daniel York

The BEAA would like to correct erroneous reports in the press that the statement was written by Equity. It wasn't. As the statement says clearly, this is a statement by the British East Asian Actors group. This group is made up of academics, East Asian actors and representatives of East Asian Theatre groups in the UK. Two of the signatories are on the (Equity BAME committee) but the other nine are not.

The article that kicked it all off: RSC casts Asians as dog and maid in Chinese classic.

Anna's review of The Orphan of Zhao in the Morning Star.

Review by academic Amanda Rogers.

Friday 26 October 2012

Culture wars: Cloud Atlas yellowface casting

I click my fingers and ... you're back in the 1950s. It looks as if the culture wars are well and truly on with some utterly barking casting decisions being made across ye olde Western Empire. In Britain, Germany and America, Mighty Whitey is asserting its last remnants of power in a changing world, like a dinosaur thrashing in its death throes.

On the frontline, catching the bronto tail full in the chops, are the East Asians, with the Royal Shakespeare Company giving only three out of 17 roles in their adaptation of the ancient Chinese play, The Orphan of Zhao by Ji Junxiang, to actors of Asian heritage: two to work a puppet dog and one to a maid who dies. No lead roles went to East Asians, with one reason given for the paucity of limelight on offer being that it is running alongside Bertold Brecht's Gallileo and Alexander Pushkin's Boris Godunov.

Sadly, as no Asians are considered "Godunov" to play white characters, numbers had to be kept down across the other two plays. Never mind that Pushkin was part Ethiopean, we have to continue the fantasy that real civilised arts come from white males and everything else is ersatz.

In Germany, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Bruce Norris retracted the rights to his play, Clybourne Park, when the German company cast a white actor to play a black woman in blackface make-up.

And now we have a proper throwback to yellowface complete with taped-up eyes in Cloud Atlas. All the main male roles in futuristic South Korea are played by white actors Jim Sturgess, James D'Arcy and Hugo Weaving.

This is particularly sad because co-director Larry Wachowski is now Lana following her gender reassignment. You'd hope that she'd have been sensitive to other minorities struggling to be seen and respected. Lana and Andy Wachowski create a world where you can have "cannibals, parasitic brain worms and an artichoke that shoots laser beams" — the full bells-and-whistles panoply of screen trickery — but they can't imagine East Asians playing East Asians.

It's like the La Jolla Playhouse public debate over The Nightingale never happened.

What's their excuse? That they don't have great — and I mean GREAT! — East Asian actors? Think of Grace Park, Daniel Dae Kim and Lucy Liu breaking new ground as Dr Watson in the new US TV Sherlock Holmes series, Elementary. Couldn't they have found one to join in the cross-race fun? Is white the default universal mode? [Edit: Kathryn Golding says there is an Asian woman who plays a white bloke, so it's not completely awful.]

The guiding principle(!)of some of the deadheads running things seems to be, "What's ours is ours and what's yours is ours as well, slant-features." Don't you want your world enriched by the amazing diversity out there? Do you have to keep on insulting us and pretending we don't exist in your shrinking imagination?


Looking like a Romulan left over from Star Trek: Nemesis, Hugo Weaving should stick to Elves and Matrix software, about as real as the Korean folk into whom he's supposed to be breathing life on the big screen.

Remember: "First they came for the East Asians but, because I wasn't East Asian and was doing all right by Boss Man and had landed a juicy role in The Orphan of Zhao, I went into crush-kill-destroy mode on the RSC Facebook thread, swatting the little yellow people out of the way. Then, emboldened, they made with the blackface and I was out of a job."

Dr Broderick Chow: Two dogs & a maid at the RSC

Dr Broderick Chow, lecturing in theatre studies at Brunel University and a performer in his own right, was an early commentator on the Royal Shakespeare Company's casting fiasco for The Orphan of Zhao.

Here is his article — Two dogs and a maid — which he posted on Friday 19th October at his Dangerology website.


In 2005, I played the role of Thuy, a Viet Cong commissar and the betrothed cousin of the female lead, Kim, in the Arts Club Theatre’s production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s mega-musical Miss Saigon, in Vancouver, Canada. The musical is an adaptation by two French men of the opera Madama Butterfly, itself a piece of flagrant orientalism by Puccini, an Italian composer. Transposing the action of Madama Butterfly from 1904 Nagasaki to the Vietnam War, Miss Saigon has been both lauded for its hyperreal spectacle (including the famous ‘helicopter scene’) and denounced for its paternalistic and colonial attitude towards Southeast Asia (the bar girls, the scene in Bangkok, and yes, the same old suicide). At the time, I was aware of the arguments against the piece (my cousin Elaine had written a rather scathing essay on it for her Women’s Studies class at SFU) but, to be honest, I didn’t let it bother me. It was a job. And furthermore, it was a job for me.

Here’s the thing: Vancouver, as it is well known, has a large East Asian and South Asian population, including a high percentage of first, second, third and fourth generation Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, South Asian, Korean, and Vietnamese immigrants. Out of this Asian Canadian community, some of us are actors. When the Arts Club – being Vancouver’s largest non-touring, ‘homegrown’, theatre company – announced Miss Saigon as its summer show, our community of Asian Canadian actors couldn’t believe our luck. Finally, we thought. Here is a show for us. Here is a show about Asia. Here is visibility. It’s fairly easy to feel invisible as an actor of East Asian origin – after all, the roles we tended to audition for were generally predicated on their rather marginal visibility: the computer guy, the drug dealer (who hides away in the shadows), the waiter. Or rather, maybe we felt silent. After all, these roles were often S.O.C. (Silent-on-Camera), and anyway, isn’t that the stereotype? Aren’t we quiet? Shy? Inscrutable? Emotionless?

But here was a show where Asian Canadian bodies were visible, in often exploitative states of undress, in feats of dance and acrobatics, but also noisy, loud. We were no longer silent: we sang full-throated and raw. This was a piece in which a small Vietnamese peasant girl belts the lines: ‘A song / played on a solo saxophone / a crazy sound / a lonely sound / a cry, that tells us love / goes on and on.’ No cod-Vietnamese accent. No broken English. Just melodramatic sentimentality combined with a rather lovely melody and a virtuosic performance.

I played Thuy for three months, and loved it. Despite only appearing in the first act, this was a great character, with a spectacular and indulgently melismatic death scene. After the show closed, however, I felt a nagging suspicion: what if this is as good as it gets? After Thuy, who? The guy in Flower Drum Song? Or wait until the gods of colour-blind casting deign to ‘reflect Canada’s multicultural heritage’ and throw us a bone? Two months after the show closed I moved to London to begin a Master’s Degree at Central School of Speech & Drama, the first step on the path to my current role as Lecturer in Theatre Studies at Brunel University.

I offer this story as a way of understanding, from the inside, the complex and often conflicted feelings felt by actors of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) origin when confronted with works that embody colonial, orientalist, and downright racist attitudes. I know Miss Saigon is pretty offensive. History is going to prove that bar scene as one of the most egregious combinations of racism and misogyny in musical theatre. But deep down, I still love it, as do, I will bet you, many people of East and Southeast Asian origin (though not my cousin Elaine). It launched the international career of the Filipino actress and singer Lea Salonga – just as in the 1910s, the Japanese singer Miura Tamaki rose to fame playing Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly. The relation between racist and colonialist stage works and the BAME actors who take part in these works is complicated, and I believe has to do with the dual nature of the theatre as a space of visibility and invisibility, of representation and the real, and of make-believe and truth.

What happens, then, when we encounter a theatre work that seems so calculated as to deny visibility to those persons it supposedly represents? The work in question is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Orphan of Zhao, which opens at The Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon on 30 October 2012. As has been already reported by bloggers including British-Chinese poet/writer Anna Chen and British-Chinese actress and associate director of True Heart Theatre Lucy Sheen, The Orphan of Zhao is an adaptation of a 13th Century Yuan Dynasty ‘zaju’ (mixed-drama) by Ji Junxiang, adapted by writer James Fenton. It is, apparently, the first work of this Chinese dramatic form to be translated into English.

(Here is a show for us. Here is a show about China. Here is visibility.)

As if learning nothing from the scandal that surrounded the La Jolla Playhouse and their production of The Nightingale, an original musical set in ‘mythic China’ (whatever that is), the RSC’s Artistic Director (and director of The Orphan of Zhao) Gregory Doran has chosen to cast, out of 17 roles, only 3 actors of East Asian origin. Worse still, these three actors play two halves of a dog, and a maid. There are other BAME actors in the play, but all major roles are played by white actors. Despite this, the RSC’s publicity for the production depicts a young boy of East Asian origin, and the company is courting Chinese audiences, with a information on the play given in Chinese on the website (after all, Chinese people only like to see Chinese things, and eat Chinese food, and, I don’t know, go around holding chrysanthemums). Needless to say, this racist casting decision hasn’t been without controversy, though this controversy has been somewhat invisible – Chen points out that Anglo-Chinese actor Daniel York*, who is Equity’s BAME representative, has been trying for months to elicit a response from the RSC without luck. On 19 October 2012, in response to increasing pressure online, the RSC issued a lukewarm non-response, which can be found here.

I don’t want to summarise previous arguments or the debate as a whole, but rather to offer a personal and analytical response on why the RSC’s casting decision bothers me so much.

What The Orphan of Zhao’s white-washing feels like is Miss Saigon in reverse. Miss Saigon is an orientalist work because it was written by two white French man, and directed by a white English man, who depicted a fundamentally orientalist narrative in which a Vietnamese girl falls in love with an American (white) soldier, is left, has a child, and kills herself in grief upon discovery that her GI has a new wife. On Youtube you can find footage of a very young Lea Salonga auditioning for the part of Kim. The image of a young Filipina in Catholic white, hair tied back and decorated with sampa gita (the Philippines’ national flower, a small white blossom), singing in a fantastically clear and resonant mezzo-soprano, looked on by a table of middle-aged white men, including National Theatre Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, is very familiar. It is an image of exoticism. Boublil and Schönberg attempt to represent a reality of the East from a Western position of enunciation. The device through which they do this is spectacle. Asian bodies, as I have said before, are made (literally) visible, they are readable and audible. While the content of the representation itself may be problematic, Miss Saigon as a theatrical form makes Asian bodies present.*

The Orphan of Zhao, on the other hand, is a classic Chinese text. Its position of enunciation, the place from where it speaks, is China. In adapting the text, The RSC, a British company are engaging in an act of appropriation. To their credit, I don’t think the RSC are unaware of this, in fact, Gregory Doran has written blogs on going to China, and engaging in research and so on. What their failure to consider the visibility of Asian performers in this production is a failure to understand the very nature of theatre, and the real effects beyond representation that theatre’s choices in terms of what is seen and what can be seen (its mise-en-scène) can have.

The ontology of theatre is dual – it is at once a form that trades in representation, illusions, shades, but at the same time it accomplishes these things through the real, through an organisation of bodies, materials, and images. This is what the French philosopher Jacques Rancière calls the ‘distribution of the sensible.’ Art, and by extension, theatre, for Rancière, may create representations, it may be false, it may be make-believe, but its effects are no less real, because it helps to establish common modes of perception. To read theatre as a distribution of the sensible means that it establishes what is and isn’t able to be visible or represented, in the ‘common sense’ (and here I use sense in its dual meaning, of both a perception through the senses, and the meaning or understanding that arises therefrom). These common modes of perception are important because they structure what Rancière calls the ‘police order’, which means the set of unspoken but understood rules that determine certain roles in society. Such elisions between the representational mode of art and the social field are pretty evident when we consider even the word representation – the ‘asylum seeker’ is a figure only represented in a certain way, while those seeking asylum in the UK increasingly have less and less recourse to legal representation. When aesthetics structures what can be seen and heard in the field of art, it is also structures in social life, how we perceive who may appear, speak, participate in democracy.

Back to The Orphan of Zhao, Doran’s casting choice represents an artistic gesture that effectively reproduces, rather than challenges, the existing distribution of the sensible, in which East Asians are typically seen as the ‘model minority’: high-achieving, but silent, and especially, compliant. Doran is perfectly within his rights to cast as he wishes, but he should be aware of the way his piece reproduces the status quo. Take the example of the character of the ‘Demon Mastiff.’ Played by Siu Hun Li, Chris Lew Kum Hoi (both of apparently Chinese origin) and Joan Iyiola (a black actor), the Demon Mastiff is described by the RSC in their ‘clarification’ in response to the controversy, as a ‘spectacular piece of puppetry.’ On the level of representation, on the make-believe level of theatre, perhaps. Perhaps I will be thrilled to see these three actors operate a demon dog puppet so as to create the illusion of a real animal. But on the level of the sensible, I will also be aware that I am watching three actors of colour three levels removed from visibility and speech – they are speaking (if they speak) through an avatar, they are three represented as one, they are visible through an avatar that is meant to draw our attention away from the material evidence of their Otherness, their bodies. I will be aware that these actors of colour are not in a position in which they are made visible, present, and importantly, heard. This is not the case for Lucy Briggs-Owen, who plays The Princess — she, on the other hand is able to be visible, and to speak, without the mediation of a puppet. This position of voiceless-ness and removal from visibility reproduces the police order by which those most seen and heard, are white, with minority ethnic persons relegated to existing roles.

The RSC’s response to the controversy was pretty lukewarm and insufficient, but very telling*. They tell us that: ‘we are always aiming to reflect the diverse population of the UK’, and there we have it, it is indeed a reflection – a reproduction. ‘The multi-cultural make-up of our winter season company reflects British society.’ Indeed it does, very well, right down to the entrenched prejudice that is felt by BAME persons all the time. The response attempts to portray the RSC as progressive and global, noting that The Orphan of Zhao ‘originally came from China, and has since been revived, adapted and explored by many writers across the world.’ If true, this doesn’t explain why then the RSC would choose to play up the Chinese angle, by using its online and print marketing to reach out to a Chinese audience, and by fetishizing a boy with East Asian appearance on its publicity image – and then committing the old hypocrisy of folding all this back into old hegemonic casting practices.

In summary, I respect Doran’s right to artistic expression. But I believe he has made the wrong choice, and a very damaging one. Certainly he has done nothing to alter our ‘common modes of perception’, unless, perhaps, we count the number of Asian writers and artists making noise against the RSC, and the growing lines of affinity to other communities that have also experienced such invisibility. The only proper response at this point by the RSC would be to acknowledge that hurt has been caused – this uproar isn’t a moan, a complaint, it’s a response to genuine hurt. To be told that the ‘best person for the part’ of ‘Chinese Princess’ is a white woman, is deeply wounding. But it happens all the time. (Jason Chu’s poem Colourblind has a great list of examples).

I don’t really think about race very often. I don’t believe I experience racism very often on a daily basis. When I perform, in my dance work with a white male performer, I don’t believe we are perceived through the lens of race, and audience feedback bears this out. But every so often I will be reminded that while I may not be confronted with racism on a personal or individual level, there is still systemic, entrenched racism in Western society. The white-washing of ‘our’ works of art, be they The Orphan of Zhao or the proposed American remake of Akira, isn’t malicious on some individual level, it’s systemic. But systemic racism is still felt as racism. White-washing reproduces the common mode of perception that the default position of speech and visibility is a white man or woman. It takes away the little thrill of ‘here is a story for me.’

When I was an actor in Vancouver moaning about auditioning for another take-away driver or something where I had to speak broken English, the advice everyone gave was ‘well, stop complaining and start making your own work.’ Good advice. I guess that’s what I ended up doing. I think most actors of colour should follow it. The way to truly engage and challenge the ‘distribution of the sensible’ is not to pine away for the fabled contract at the RSC or 6 months in Miss Saigon. It is to stop saying ‘here is a story for me’ and to start saying ‘here is my story.’

- 19 October 2012

Dr Broderick Chow, Lecturer in Theatre Studies, Brunel University London, and co-founder of dance and physical theatre duo the Dangerologists.

* Daniel York has worked with the RSC before. But, amazingly, he is the only actor of Chinese origin to be cast by the RSC in 20 years. The RSC often blazes a trail for colour-blind casting, having produced an all-black Julius Caesar and an Indian production of Much Ado About Nothing, but they really seem to dislike Chinese people.

* The singing voice in Miss Saigon is an interesting issue, as all characters, no matter what race or ethnicity, sing in an Anglo-American accent, without resorting to broken English. The voice is thus a leveller that perhaps marks out Miss Saigon as an early piece of the theatre of globalisation.

* Although their defense of ‘The Maid’, played by Susan Momoko Hingley, is pretty funny: ‘”The Maid” is one of the key roles in the play. She stands up to tyranny and is executed.’ Because of course, a good death scene, like Thuy’s, makes all the difference. And doesn’t their description sound like Tuptim in The King and I?

Tuesday 23 October 2012

American actors call for action over RSC in New York

Statement released by AAPAC today on Facebook. Wonderful solidarity from our American bredren. This is so fantastically moving. I feel I am learning so much about these issues — a very fruitful time for all of us.


AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Coalition) stands in support of our British East Asian colleagues in their outrage over the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of James Fenton’s adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao. Originally written by 13th century Chinese dramatist Ji Junxiang, this production, directed by RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran, has followed in the footsteps of La Jolla Playhouse’s recent production of Sater and Sheik’s The Nightingale, in that out of 17 actors in the cast, only 3 are of East Asian descent.

The cast of Orphan will also perform plays by Pushkin and Brecht in repertory as part of a season. Doran has publicly stated prior to today that though "the RSC has led the way in non-culturally specific casting,” there was “no way I was going to do this with an exclusively Chinese cast that would then go through to those other plays.” He has publicly justified this by saying that Orphan isn’t a “specific Chinese play,” its characters are not “race-specific,” nor does it have a “Chinese context.” However, their press materials use an East Asian child’s face as the visual centerpiece, with this wording: “Sometimes referred to as the Chinese Hamlet […], The Orphan of Zhao was the first Chinese play to be translated in the West.” Doran not only traveled to China to research it, he hired Dr. Li Ruru, a Chinese expert on Shakespeare, to teach Chinese concepts and movement to the cast, and James Fenton studied Chinese poetry and theatrical traditions when adapting the original piece.

Doran is also quoted as saying they auditioned “lots and lots” of East Asian Actors, that in some cases offers were made to EA actors but were turned down, and that ultimately he had to “choose not based on ethnicity but on the best actor for the role.”

Yesterday, October 22, the RSC issued a public apology in which they state, “We commissioned our World Elsewhere season in order to explore great plays from world culture […] recognising that much of this rich seam of drama has been largely ignored in the West, and certainly by British theatre." They also state that they “intend to present The Orphan of Zhao in our own way, just as a theatre company in China might explore Shakespeare […] we want to approach the play with a diverse cast and develop our own ways of telling this ancient story and thus explore its universality."

The contradictory and fallacious nature of Doran’s various remarks points to their disingenuousness. Playwright David Henry Hwang says: “The Orphan of Zhao casting controversy says less about Britain's Asian acting community, than it does about the RSC's laziness and lack of artistic integrity […] By producing The Orphan of Zhao, the RSC seeks to exploit the public's growing interest in China; through its casting choices, the company reveals that its commitment to Asia is self-serving, and only skin-deep. During the Miss Saigon casting controversy in 1991, producer Cameron Mackintosh claimed that he had conducted a 'world wide talent search' to cast the role of the Eurasian Engineer, before selecting Jonathan Pryce. Several years later, the musical's director, Nick Hytner, revealed to me that there had never been any such search at all, that Mackintosh's public assertion had been a complete fabrication. In light of this history, when self-righteous theatres defensively claim to have conducted thorough auditions before denying acting opportunities to minority actors, I believe the burden of proof, at the very least, falls on those producers."

Veteran British East Asian actress Tsai Chin states, “It was such good news when I heard the RSC was putting on a Chinese play, a great classic written a few centuries before Shakespeare. It is deeply disappointing to learn that only a few East Asians have been cast in the production [...] My British training gave me a solid foundation to pursue a successful career in the UK for a few decades, for which I am extremely thankful. However, it was when I went to America that I could extend my potential further by being given chances to play great roles in western classics, which empowered me to expand my acting career to more than half a century. It is therefore heartbreaking to discover that nothing seems to have changed back home, and that the younger generations at the helm of British theatre in the 21st century are still lagging behind the times by hanging on to old-fashioned ways of treating East Asian actors […] As the head of the British Theatre, meaning the crown of world theatre, surely it is [the RSC’s] responsibility to be the example for our profession and beyond.”

Doran seeks to claim multi-racial casting as shorthand for universality without realizing that for decades, casts consisting of one race – white Caucasian – have been regarded as universal simply because it reflects the majority. And he hopes an apology will excuse actions that both exploit China’s cultural legacy and yet deny the heirs to that legacy the opportunity to represent their culture onstage. We at AAPAC submit that the universality of a piece will be tested by the strength of its writing and performances regardless of actors' ethnicities. In the words of Dr. Broderick Chow, a performer and Lecturer of Theatre Studies at London’s Brunel University, his “failure to consider the visibility of Asian performers in this production is a failure to understand the very nature of theatre, and the real effects beyond representation that theatre’s choices in terms of what is seen and what can be seen can have.”

We believe New York artists should be concerned because The RSC is coming to New York City in two different ways:

·The RSC is producing Matilda the Musical this season on Broadway and casting is happening now.
·The RSC’s Young People’s Shakespeare production of King Lear in collaboration with the NYC Department of Education is playing now to more than 1,000 New York City public school students.

Will they bring their practice of exclusion with them?

Here’s what you can do:

1) Post a comment on the RSC Facebook Page ( or tweet them at @thersc.

2) Write Dennis Walcott, Chancellor of the NYC Department of Education to say you do not support the RSC’s casting decisions of The Orphan of Zhao and will not tolerate predominantly white casts for NYC school productions. Write to him at:


The article that kicked it all off: RSC casts Asians as dog and maid in Chinese classic.

Read academic Amanda Rogers who asks who owns culture, and questions if this is "a simple exoticism via an engagement with a culturally different form"?