Wednesday 24 December 2014

How St Ives came to be one of Britain's foremost art communities

St Ives in Cornwall romps home as the ideal town where most of us would like to live. 'Fonly it wasn't also the most expensive.

Here's a piece I wrote about the artists' colony and Number One desirable seaside resort for the recent First Great Western magazine (Sept-Dec 2014).

Anna Chen on how St Ives came to be one of the most important art communities in the country

It was the sunshine that did it, and not just because it gave you a tan, either. The late Patrick Heron, renowned British painter, claimed that the unique quality of the light in St Ives helped turn a fishing town up the far end of the British Isles into, not only one of our best-beloved seaside resorts, but also a magnet for some of our finest artists.

The most famous among them included the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, whose studio and sculpture garden you can visit tho this day, and her husband, painted Ben Nicholson.

St Ives sits on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic. The higher than normal level of ultra-violet reflected off the ocean creates a bright, luminous quality that has attracted artists for over two hundred years, ever since 1811, when JMW Turner — acclaimed for his ethereal landscapes — first arrived with his charcoal and water-colours.

St Ives in Turner's time had grown wealthy as a major fishing port, benefiting from abundant shoals of mackerel, herring and pilchards drawn to the red run-off from the tin-mines, with the pilchards pressed for oil and mostly exported to Italy. You can still see signs of its once-thriving industry today in the fishermen's nets and brightly coloured buoys in the yard of the Porthmeor Studios, although many of the former pilchard cellars are now holiday homes.

Fashionable British artists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries would have traditionally visited France to paint their favoured French landscapes. But with the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars in 1803, they were soon deprived of their annual sojourns, and looking for an alternative to the rugged Brittany coastline, artists turned to the rocky headlands and high cliffs of Cornwall.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Royal Albert Bridge, which spans the River Tamar, connecting Devon with Cornwall, opened in 1859 and flung wide the floodgates for a new generation of British and international artists wanting to follow the great Turner's footsteps. By the time the Great Western Railway connected St Erth with St Ives on 1st June 1877, artists were flocking to the fishing town. Artists such as Walter Sickert and the American JAM Whistler visited in 1884, drawn to the mild weather, wild landscape and, of course, that extraordinary light.

The arrival of the railway not only brought swathes of artists to the area, but also helped bring new opportunities to the town, which was falling into decline in the second half of the 19th century, due to a collapsing fishing industry. The improved transport routes connected the ailing town directly with London Paddington, opening it up as a tourist resort and an outpost for creative types.

The burgeoning artists colony started taking over the abandoned fish cellars and sail lofts, turning them into studios, with the first ever recorded conversion being a sail-loft on Carncrows Street converted by the Right Honourable Duff Tolamache in 1884. The north-facing Porthmeor Studios in Back Road West, overlooking the beach, were particularly well situated, as the light is evenly dissipated, with none of the harsh distorting shadows of a southerly aspect. More to the pojnt, they enjoy a glorious uninterrupted view of the sea and the setting sun over Clodgy Point.

James Lanham opened the first gallery in St Ives in 1887, and the inaugural School of Painting opened the following year, founded by painters Julius Olsson and Louis Grier. Special trains were laid on to bring painters and audiences to exhibitions, assuredly putting St Ives on the map as an international arts hotspot.

The best-known local artist, Alfred Wallis, was discovered painting in the doorway of his home in Back Road West by artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood in 1928. He was a scrap merchant and fisherman who painted straight onto board and bits of metal. They were struck by his unschooled "primitive" naive style and did their best to promote him. Nevertheless, despite their efforts, he sold few paintings in his lifetime and died in the workhouse. His simple grave in Barnoon Cemetary next to Tate St Ives is adorned with ceramic tiles by the potter Bernard Leach.

Leach himself had studied pottery in Japan and brought his techniques to St Ives in 1920 where, with Shoji Hamada, he established the Leach Pottery on the Stennack River. Utilitarian and functional as well as beautiful, his pioneering style earnt him the title "Father of British studio pottery". He died in 1979, but there remains a working Leach studio and gallery celebrating his life and work, as well as showcasing its produce and training a new generation of potters.

Leach received the Freedom of the Borough of St Ives in 1968, the same year as another giant of British art accepted that very accolade — the Modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth.

Hepworth moved from London to St Ives with her husband Ben Nicholson and their triplets at the outbreak of the Second World War. She lived in the town until her death in 1975, and was the centre of an influential group of abstract artists, including Nicholson, Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham, Peter Lanyon, John Wells, Patrick Heron and sculptor Nuam Gabo. Their exciting and experimental movement, while on the whole largely abstract, still remained rooted in nature, thus giving it a broad appeal.

With a resident art community now in place, other artists were encouraged to visit the town. The Irish painter Francis Bacon worked in studio 3 in Porthmeor Studios between September 1959 and January 1960, also visited for three days in 1959. Other artists include Roger Hilton, Terry Frost, Paul Feiller and Sandra Blow who worked from Porthmeor Studios from 1994 and then Bullens Court.

In 1993, the Tate St Ives gallery opened to the public, sealing the town's reputation as a world class centre for art. The gallery continues to have an extensive programme of exhibitions and events, and for the next seven months will be home to some of the best photography from the Tate collection in a new exhibition entitled The Modern Lens: International Photography and the Tate Collection.

The Tate also runs the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Scupture Garden (her former home and studio) at the Trenwyn Studio, as well as offering a multimedia Ben Nicholson tour.

For over 200 years, St Ives has been attracting some of the best British and international artists to its rocky shores. Drawn to the unique quality of its light, painters and sculptors settled in the town where they created and exhibited theirnwork while raising families and contributing to the community. They made full use of everything the area had to offer, and while there, undoubtedly got a bit of a tan too.

* * *

ARTISTS: Alfred Wallis, Borlase Smart, Patrick Heron (worked at Studio 5, Porthmeor Studios), Francis Bacon, Sandra Blow, Patrick Hughes, Naum Gabo, Turner, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, John Wells (discovered Alfred Wallis), Bernard Leach, Peter Lanyon, Sven Berlin, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Bryan Wynter, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, Roy Walker. And living: Anthony Frost, Bob Devereux, Keir Williamson, Breon O'Casey, Zoe Eaton, Clare Wardman, Roy Ray, Sax Impey.

Artist Bob Devereux helped start the St Ives Arts Festival some thirty years ago and keeps the tradition alive with the May Litarary Festival which takes place for a week in May.

Art classes can be found at the St Ives School of Painting as well as the Bernard Leach pottery. There's always somthing for children at Tate St Ives.

POTTERY: Aside from the Leach Pottery, the best ceramics shop outside London has to be St Ives Ceramics in Fish Street which carries not only contemporaty work, but also pieces by Leach and his great friend Hamada Shoji, as well as his late widow, Janet. Another pottery well worth visiting is the Gaolyard where you can watch the nine resident potters working.

Patrick Heron occupied Studio 5 Porthmeor Studios. He designed scarves form the age of 14 for his father's textile factory in St Ives. Lived in St Andrew's Street and then Eagles Nest on the road to Zennor. Designed the stained glass window on the ground floor of Tate St Ives: Window For Tate Gallery St Ives 1992–3

Virginia Woolf wrote her novel To The Lighthouse inspired by Godrevy Lighthouse. The Stephens family spent summers at Talland House in Talland Road until Virginia was 13 years old.

Art classes:
St Ives School of Painting
Learn to draw and paint or just keep your hand in at St Ives's oldest art school, established in 1938.

Porthmeor Studios, St Ives, Cornwall
TR26 1NG
t: 01736 797180

The Leach Pottery
Beginners and professionals can take short courses in throwing clay throughout the year.
Higher Stennack, St Ives TR26 2HE
Tel: 01736 799703

Ultramarine Studio

Back Road Artworks

Back Road East

St. Ives
TR26 1NW

+44(0)1736 791571

Knit One Weave One
Make an eye-popping fabric picture or a vibrant felt hat with Jo McIntosh's textile art classes.
01736 797122

St Ives Arts Club
As well as holding exhibitions and staging performances in their 120-year old theatre, the club also hosts art classes. Check the website for more info.
Westcott's Quay.

Friday 19 December 2014

Council estate "chinky bird" urges restaurateurs to piss in Nigel Farage's prawn balls

This council estate-raised "chinky bird" is making a heartfelt plea for all the magnificent Chinese restaurateurs and takeaway caterers of the British Isles to piss in Nigel Farage's prawn balls if ever he shows his dinosaur face near their establishments. Of course, they won't because they're too nice: much nicer than the bigots that Ukip appeals to. Nevertheless, I live in hope.

Nigel Farage has defended the antediluvian 'chinky bird' comment made by former Ukip activist Kerry Smith, asking: "If you and your mates are going out for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?”

Personally, I'd say we were going out for a Chinese. Or an Indian, Japanese, Thai, Mexican, Italian … whatever.

Racism and sexism all rolled up in one tiny two-word phrase of hate. That's an impressive economy of bile for you.

He then compounds it by writing off working-class people as racists and excusing Kerry Smith, Ukip's former parliamentary candidate for South Basildon and East Thurrock who made the offensive "chinky" and "poofter" comments, because he was a "rough diamond" raised on a council estate.

“He’s a council house boy from the East End of London, left school early, and talks and speaks in a way that a lot of people from that school and background do."

I've heard as much, if not more, racism and general bigotry from the bourgeoisie who inhabit the virtually all-white areas that Farage and his Ukippers court.

On my council estate — the Gascoyne estate in Hackney — only the most ignorant used hate language as callously and casually as Farage's former candidate. It was a long time ago, well before these issues started to be properly addressed. Decent white working-class people already knew that such language hurt people. Others took a while longer to realise what effect they were having on their neighbours. Gascoyne's residents were made up of a healthy mix of backgrounds and I felt safer there than in some of the white-dominated milieux I've subsequently seen.

Nowadays, only the deeply disturbed and terminally/deliberately thick insist on keeping it up. They're trying to bring back the bad old days when non-whites and other minorities were excluded and marginalised from the British society to which we all belonged.

It shouldn't be necessary to reiterate that it's not immigrants who crashed our economy, and currently still treat it like a big roulette game or a flutter on the gee-gees. It's not immigrants who decided to stop building housing for the mass of the population or make it necessary for the state to subsidise the corporations in rent, low-pay, zero-hours and rail fares.

Oh, yes, we say things like "milieux", Nigel: we snobbish elite London council estate gals who left school at 16.

There's a whole wide world out there from which the brighter among us can draw. I know you know this, Nigel, because being an MEP evidently has its perks. So stop exploiting popular prejudice like a Poundshop Enoch Powell (copyright Russell Brand's chest-hair):  for a man who prides himself on thinking outside the stale old box, you don't half talk some scheisse.

Full vile throttle at 21:50

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Being Human Festival: Anna Chen talks about Chinese comedy in culture debate

Being Human Festival: Ha ha ha? Laughter and Humour Across Languages and Time.

Had a lovely time last night talking at another event in the Being Human Festival.

Laughter is generally regarded as something quintessentially human: being human means being able to laugh (or so Aristotle claimed). However, the things that make people laugh can vary quite considerably, and these differences may be magnified across time, languages and cultures.

In this session of Café Culture, UCL academics Geraldine Horan and Seb Coxon and comedian Anna Chen aim to take a closer look at this issue. Join them to find out whether humour can ever really be a serious subject, and to debate such questions as: How do jokes work? Can jokes be translated from one language to another? What is the history of joking? To what extent are we able to understand jokes from another historical period or culture?

I talked about the history of Chinese comedy and my attempts to challenge stereotypes in my own writing and stand-up. The Chinese are said to have invented the political joke — 4,000 years of repression and hierarchy will do that to you. Under Confucianism (2,500 years ago), comics were looked down on and mocking the sovereign earned you the death penalty. This soon applied to all authority until what was required for survival was "gravity in speech and manner."

Despite this, texts in mediaeval times are full of Chaucerean mockery of authority and the big-heads who like their power over other human beings a bit too much — and also of the idiots who fell in line (nuthin' changes). Corrupt officials and country bumpkins bore the brunt of contemporary cynical wit.

This venting used the Crosstalk form which has been popular since the middle-ages: the two-hander: a straight man and a funny man.

It lost its momentum during the early communist era, especially in cultural revolution China, after 1966. The authorities demanded that practitioners cut out the satire and use their skills to praise, instead. This repression gave rise to an explosion of cynical humour under communist rule, but in private.

Although there's a strong tradition of clowning, the Chinese don’t do silly. So Monty Python, which requires a ditching of personal dignity, does not go down well. Humour that demonstrates smartness and quickness of wit, such as Monkey, is what's favoured.

Chinese tend not to use set-up and punch structure. In popular comedy, it's more scatalogical — which is understandable in a nation where death has been harshing your mellow for centuries in civil wars, wars against imperialist aggression, extreme poverty and famine. For the masses — and especially for Cantonese like my father — a farting, pooing human being is at least a live human being.

Today, authority is very much in the comics' crosshairs, especially the despised internet censors. The Grass Mud Horse phenomemon is a crude jibe at the Chinese Government's attempts to limit access to the world wide web, and plays with some very offensive double-entendres, mostly concerning yo mama's birth canal.

Comedy is now a massively popular branch of the Chinese entertainment industry. Performers like Zhou Libo are huge stars, entertaining the snotty Shanghainese, making gun of the rural "garlic-munchers". Not much comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in evidence there.

Here's a modern joke I found that features Chinese and isn't fuelled by hatred:
There are four blokes on a plane; an American, a Brit, a Chinese and a Japanese. The plane cuts out and starts to plummet but there’s only on parachute. The American is brave so he jumps out yelling, “God Bless America”. The Brit jumps out, shouting, “God save the Queen.” The Chinese yells, “May China live ten thousand years,” and kicks out the Japanese.

I interwove my own stand-up throughout my talk, giving examples of how I unercut and subvert stereotyped expectations. Where I attempt a high-wire act, treading the fine line between subversion and reinforcing the stereotypes, do I succeed? If not, why not? Do I need to refer to my ethnicity at all? Or will it always be the elephant in the room until I acknowledge it and then move on? The tension between the expectations of an audience fed a limited and distorting set of representations of east Asians (when they are not being rendered utterly invisible) and my efforts to set them straight do make for a rich seam of comedy to mine.

In the end, a writer has to write about what he or she wants to write about, and go where the energy is.

The ability to create comedy demonstrates an understanding and a facility with the cultural codes. Once a minority (ethnic, gendered, sexuality and disabled) can do comedy, you are firmly embedded at a deeper level in society and it's harder to keep you marginalised. That's why ethnic minorities always produce smart-arses who want to express a view of the world refracted through the prism of their own experience, rather than what's being projected onto them from outside.

Crossing the divide between being "other" and embedded in the culture  means you belong to society as a participant, observer, commentator, consumer and a producer of meaning. We don't want to be dismissed as "Other". It's our world, too, and we can laugh at it — and at ourselves within it if we choose to do so — but strictly on our own terms.

Saturday 15 November 2014

Doctor Who review season finale: Death In Heaven and an ideological battleground

Doctor Who: Death in Heaven season finale — an ideological battleground.


Cybermen meet zombies in the second half of this A Matter of Life and Death nick in which our intrepid heroes hissy-fit around a lot.

There's so much that could have worked beautifully in this series. How can you have those great production values and Peter Capaldi on board and still make such a hash of it?

The problem, as always, is the script. The writers' caprice runs through the Doctor Who reboot like Nick Clegg's election promises. It's all Patrick Duffy in the Dallas shower, a dream, a mish-mash of half-remembered images and tropes, mis-threaded backstory lurches (a sudden retro-fit and Gallifrey exists, the Doctor's nemesis conveniently telling him where). Characters don't so much arc as teleport to whichever position the writers decide suits the script du jour.

Dream logic seems to have been employed to suit the writers rather than designed to delight the audience the way a modern Maya Deren or Bunuel (from whom the writers appear at times to be borrowing) might do while burrowing into the collective unconscious, taking the audience on a ride rather than taking us for a ride.

Russell T Davies' heavy reliance on undermotivated melodrama and shouty frenetics is still, after all this time, shrilling away like a dentist's drill. Clara is SO deeply in love and yet she wastes an irritating plot-blocking age verifying, like software gone wrong, that it really is Danny who's speaking to her from the afterlife. Everyone's so cross all the time, operating within their own little thunderous clouds of fury. Like late-night coke-fiends running out of Charlie, you half expect them to sniff and wipe their noses before running off in the Tardis to score more.

The producers set Missy (short for misogyny?) lurching around like a menopausal drunk, neurotic and malevolent because, deep down, she lurves the Doctor, really. Michelle Gomez brings her demented Mary Poppins amusingly to life thanks to a histrionic script and neck-breaking nods to Heath Ledger's Joker. Turns out Missy's spotted the dominatrix in Clara and the sub in the Time Lord and has expended a ton of energy keeping them together. Dunno why. It doesn't help the plot but skitters along the surface of better past-masters, nicking all the glittery bits.

The script dusts the cobwebs off old favourites — "Why are you doing this?" "I need you to know we're not so different" from a squillion denouments where, quelle surprise, the protagonist and antagonist are inwardly the same. Aw, and love conquers all, unless you're the season's Big Bad.

This may be Borg territory (poking that hoary old question: what makes us human?) but collective action is trumped by the one single Cyberman — Danny Pink — who loves more than anyone in the entire history of the human race, more than any of the dead who make up the army of Cybermen because some people are more SPESHUL. (If Danny is capable of redemption, then why none of the other Cybermen? If the Brigadier retains a vestige of humanity, then why can't the entire Cyberman race be redeemed and escape genocide?) It aims for the sublime moments in Buffy where the Slayer has to kill Angel gone bad, or finally gets to kiss Spike, but misses, barely achieving bathos. There's no underpinning of the emotions at a deeper level. For a series about a Time Lord, they do get the emotional timing spectacularly wrong.

Once again, the military and authority are fetishised and ideological markers slipped in under the bells and whistles. Danny's a former soldier who meant well but accidentally killed a boy when he was serving in the Middle East. He is the idealised self-sacrificing soldier who never gets to question what it was he killed for. In this narrative, it's not the politics or the premise for the war that's wrong — it's the fault of individual soldiers like Danny, whose conscience pays the price.

Lethbridge-Stewart falls from the Presidential flight and survives because, as it handily turns out at the end, another good Cyberman caught her, her Brigadier father. If favourite characters can be saved from death as easily as this, then nothing is at stake and any anxiety invested in the outcome is thereby diminished. A huge pic of her father dominating the President's plane provides another "hunh?" moment. A humble brigadier? Really? It would take a whole Clifton Suspension Bridge of disbelief to buy that. Not only another sloppy moment of disrespect for the audience, but also an unpleasant reinforcement of the principle of dynastic succession, hardwiring young viewers with ruling-class values of social and political hierarchy.

Hysteria is sloshed on— papering over the narrative canyons instead of generating authentic emotion and catharsis — and the resulting ambience is simply over-mannered and harsh, trite and sentimental.

Superficially inclusive, the narrative brings non-whites and LGBTs under the umbrella of existing power structures – on condition that they don't actually challenge those structures. Even the cheeky black schoolgirl is another version of the perky, privileged white Clara. Prepare to be assimilated!

The BBC has calibrated its culture to the norms of business and the military, with more armed forces personnel featuring as protagonists in its drama and documentaries over the past few years than I can remember, while the space to challenge the mainstream political narrative has shrunk to almost nothing. Imposing a reading of the world at odds with people's experience, BBC output not only leaves capitalism and the status quo unquestioned, it's actually reinforced. All those celebrity chefs, big swinging business dicks and talent judges constantly putting you in your place in the New Order, clipping your wings, accustoming you to taking orders. They're even enlisting Santa, as dreamt up by the Coca-Cola corporation, for the Christmas special. They'd better subvert this one!

Doctor Who was always a bastion of establishment values when it was created just as the Sixties began to swing, but there was something innocent about it, and you could filter out the stories from the residual politics. However, our beloved creation now sneakily puts a new generation back in the box marked pleb. Respect hierarchy, genuflect before authority, fall in with militarism under the delusion that you have value as an individual. Forget the proud heritage of the post-war era where the mass of the population enjoyed an unprecedented confidence born of an increasingly (if far from perfect) egalitarian society. Science fiction fans of the world unite - you have nothing to lose but your gains.

Review of Deep Breath, the season opener.

Friday 14 November 2014

The Next Wave Home: short story by Anna Chen

The Next Wave Home
A creepy short story by Anna Chen about a woman, her daughter and a ghostly presence.

I was shoving the whites into the machine when a great wave of grief engulfed me. For no reason at all, I started to cry. I looked down and saw that I was holding a pair of Alex’s tiny cotton briefs, stained with the faintest shadow of blood, which resolutely refused to budge despite a thorough soak. Maybe my period had synchronised with my daughter’s and this was simply irrational pre-menstrual tension signalling the onset of my own bleeding. With the machine spluttering into action behind me, I carried the customary mug of Earl Grey through the long white corridor of our north London flat and stopped at the door pinned with a garish hand-painted sign:


I ignored the warning and stepped into the room, picking my way through the usual teenage obstacle course of comics, skates and multi-coloured felt-tips which threatened to leak indelibly on to the carpet. Half the contents of her wardrobe lay where they had been tugged off the night before. Tangled heaps of vivid limes, turquoises and clashing hues of red marked out a path across the floor, impossible to miss in the half-light. Alex, at thirteen, was passing through that retina-searing stage of fashion sense prior to the discovery of colour coordination. But I found her clothes irresistibly attractive in the way that they affirmed life; a far cry from my relentless blacks and greys at the same age.

And there she was – my beautiful daughter, fast asleep. Her lean, supple limbs flopped at haphazard angles; her breath popping from her delicate pink mouth in a little “kah”. I placed the steaming mug next to the clutter of beads and bangles, worn religiously ever since her progression from pop idols Bros to Madonna, and bent down.

I always loved this quiet moment when I could drink in her loveliness to my heart’s content. I never ceased to be amazed that I had borne this creature: stardust put together to divine specifications according to Rick’s and my genetic blueprint; a never-ending spark of life passed down through the aeons and expressed in this perfect form. Her expression was one of bliss. What could she be dreaming? Something wonderful, I bet. I took a deep breath of her delicious scent and gently shook her into consciousness.

Her sweet smile of sleep turned downward and her brows furrowed. With a groan she heaved the duvet over her head. I hoisted up the blind, allowing the sunlight to stream in, and yanked the duvet off her.

“Come on, luvvy, school.”

“Oh no. I’m ill,” she whined.

“Alex, don’t be such a wimp, it’s only a period.”

“Yeah, sure. Your only daughter’s losing umpteen pints of blood and that’s not serious, is it?”

“Surliness will get you nowhere. Now get up or it’s the cold sponge.”

“Oh, major threat!”

I willed hard for something, I’m not sure what.

At last, she opened her eyes and screwed them up against the light. She made an almighty effort to haul herself up and reach for the tea, and, with each successive sip, her eyes brightened into the sharpness of a child raring to engage in life. She returned my smile with a broad beam that radiated an inner light and she gave me a warm hug.

“Thanks, Mum,” she said, grateful for the tea.

Satisfied that there would be no slip back into blissful sleep, I returned to the kitchen and prepared breakfast.

The two of us sat facing each other, me nibbling my grapefruit and crispbread in a perennial battle with what I had finally ceased to call puppy-fat only a few years earlier; Alex tucking into the latest craze in breakfast cereals, a porridgy concoction liberally laced with poisonous levels of sugar.

“But the packet says ‘Natural’, Mum.” She poured fresh orange juice into her Dan Dare mug, her sole concession to my demands for a healthy diet. Rule of the house: no cola drinks before 5 o’clock tea.

The awareness that something was missing dawned slowly. Something comfortingly commonplace without which the easy familiarity of this daily scene seemed to slip out of sync with itself. What was it? I pressed my lids together and concentrated. Hard. I opened my eyes and looked at her bare wrists.

“Hey, I thought it seemed quiet. What’s happened to the hardware?”

“No one’s wearing that stuff now. Only little kids like Madonna. Everyone’s playing Janis Joplin.” Her first bra and period, and now Janis. All within two years.

“That must be the third time around. At least,” I continued, playing the experienced oldie to the hilt. “When I was your age, I broke in my voice to ‘Cry Baby’. Of course, that was pre-punk when we took the revolutionary step of deconstructing the melody.” Alex made dramatic barfing noises right on cue. We were a great double-act.

“Punk’s ancient,” she pronounced with all the authority of a veteran music pundit.

1977, the year she was born, was too recent for Punk to have been endowed with nostalgia value and respectability. Give it maybe another five years for its inevitable second cycle of popularity and then you’d see serious interest from Alex and her peers. But for now, she was happy to tease me for having been a seventeen-year-old punk, and I was happy to collaborate in her search for identity and pride.

And then the crying started. I was struck in the pit of my stomach by the same wave of grief and helplessness as earlier. A great amorphous blackness reared up out of the deepest recesses of my psyche and shook me in its jaws. Alex looked scared and rushed to comfort me.

“Mum. What’s the matter?” For a moment I didn’t know. I merely wept and dodged the fear. And then the blackness took on shape. It all came flooding back into view.

“It was a dream. An awful dream – about you. I dreamt I’d lost you.” With that last thought, my blubbing intensified. Alex pulled up her chair and sat cradling me, stroking my hair with firm, capable hands.

“Tell me. Tell me from the beginning,” she cooed softly in my ear.

“Remember I told you how, when I got pregnant, Gran sent me off to some agency to arrange an abortion?”

“Yeah, but at the last minute you realised how much you loved me and you defied everyone so you could have me.” She faked lightheartedness like a consummate actress, but I knew she was feeling my distress as her own. Of course I knew; wasn’t she my own flesh and blood?

“That’s right. Well, in this dream, everything started off the same as that day. I took the bus to Streatham – three changes – because I didn’t know anyone who had a car. I walked up the overgrown gravel driveway of a huge old Victorian house, which had been converted into a private clinic. In the lobby, about a dozen women, ranging from other teenagers to a couple of mature women of about forty, sat or stood dumbly around their overnight bags. They were all accompanied by husbands or boyfriends. Or parents.”

I remembered how I had felt the odd one out, standing there in the middle on my own, almost foolish; the local Jezebel who had neglected to bring her own partner to the Church Hall dance. Although these women had fallen about as low as one could in those days – but not as low as those who would follow a few years later, darting within spitting distance past outraged latter-day Madames Defarges who would have seen such matters resolved with the knitting needle – their eyes told me that, unlike myself, they hadn’t completely slipped through the invisible safety net of kith and kin.

I sipped my tea and glanced over at the snapshots lovingly selected and tacked to the cork noticeboard in a proud display to the world: Alex mid-romp with her friends; Alex with Rick on the waterslide at some theme park or other; Alex, Rick and myself swaddled in matching snowgear, straight off the Austrian piste, a ball of snow in Alex’s hand in the moment before it was shoved down Rick’s neck. Such a happy, secure child surrounded by the smiling faces of those who loved her. I shuddered at the thought of her ever going through an experience like mine. That would happen over my dead body.

I went on. “I was led into a room – white, cold, clinical – not a scuff mark on the skirting-board, not a single streak on the gleaming steel taps. Sterile. I undressed and pulled on the scratchy green paper robe laid out on the bed, the only colour in the room. I was being given priority treatment because of the lateness of the pregnancy. Oh, God, they were going to whip you out double quick. Twenty-one weeks – just within the limit. You’d been kicking for ages, letting me know you were there. Alive and kicking.”

Alex interjected: “But why did you and Gran wait so long?”

“I couldn’t believe this could be happening to me. I wouldn’t believe it. Plus, two hours of yoga a day had given me stomach muscles flatter than beer the morning after. Even the Harley Street doctor was amazed at how flat I was. I ignored all the signs. I thought my new larger breasts were a last-minute gift from God.”

“A nurse came in and gave me the pre-med. It was going to be easy, she said, telling me nothing I didn’t already know. Like having a tooth pulled. I’d wake up and it would be over. Ha!” I gave a sharp snort as I remembered the nurse’s well-meaning but automatic assurances, no doubt laid on for every miserable girl who, betrayed by her own body, tramped up that driveway. Did she really believe what she was saying? Could she possibly have been as much in the dark as this confused seventeen-year-old?”

“I got drowsy. They laid me on a gurney and wheeled me down the long echoing corridors to the theatre. Fluorescent strips of light strobed past on the ceiling as we thunked through door after door. And suddenly, I don’t exactly know when, I was overwhelmed by the most incredible feeling that I had ever experienced. It was as if I was at the centre of a vast, rolling universe, a quiet, endless power I had accessed. Despite everything else that was going on, I felt at peace. And you were at the heart of that peace. I knew I loved someone beyond myself for the first time ever.” Alex’s eyes widened into deep pools I could happily have drowned in. “I realised it was probably the maternal instinct that people go on about. But it was a new one on me.”

“Yeah, I remember this bit.”

“That’s the point when it all changed. I was watching myself in the dream, expecting to do the same as I’d done in life. But this time I didn’t do it. I didn’t call it off. I didn’t shout and struggle when the matron told me to pull myself together. I wanted to, but it was as if I was gagged. Or stupefied. They wheeled me into the theatre and the anaesthetist came at me with the needle. And instead of knocking it out of his hand or doing something, anything, I just …”

A fresh bout of sobbing interrupted the tale. Alex squeezed me tightly.

“I let him stick the needle in my arm, right into the vein. I felt ice-water pouring into me while I counted to twenty-eight. And when I woke up ... you were ... you were gone.” I couldn’t stand the memory of the dream. Its vividness had spilled over from sleep to wakefulness, bringing with it all those little deaths, the attendent gut-wrenching emotions of loss.

“But, Mummy, it was only a dream. Look, I’m here now.” She tore a sheet from the kitchen-roll and dabbed my eyes. “It’s all right. Shush.”

I was so proud of her; she was exactly the compassionate young woman I’d hoped to raise.

“I know. I’m just crying with relief. Oh, Alex, I don’t know what I’d have done without you. Who would I have been? Just some half-dead thing.”

“Maybe you would have had other kids.”

“Hmm. Maybe. But not in this dream. There’s more. I dreamt a whole different life for myself. I just went to pieces after I’d had you ...” I spluttered for the word.

“... aborted,” she spoke the word clearly and without my fear of it. We often finished each other’s sentences but I flinched at the power given to this word merely by its utterance.

“I lost all my emotions. I couldn’t feel a thing. It was weird, the complete opposite of what I’d felt on the gurney. I was now cut off from all that quiet power. The power that had made me feel more real than at any other time. Now, nothing mattered. Objects were just objects and nothing more, including myself.”

Alex looked perplexed. This was too abstract for her.

“Gran and Grandad didn’t want anything more to do with me. None of the family could understand my erratic mood-swings and I couldn’t give in to self-pity. So I learnt to keep my anger, my fear, my loss to myself. Years passed. I couldn’t hold down a job or keep a relationship going. It was horrific – the numbness. Nothing mattered to me. Nothing meant anything.” I slumped on the table, my shoulders heaving under Alex’s warm caress.

“When you went, a whole, vital lump of me went with you. I was lost. For ever.” Then quite without warning, Alex’s cool words sliced through.

“Mum, how would they have done it at twenty-one weeks?”

The question startled me. But then I suppose every thirteen-year-old has a gory curiosity which, once on track, supersedes all other considerations. If you are open with children, you stand a chance of removing some of life’s fears. I wanted Alex fully equipped in order to deal with her own life traumas, if and when they pounced, so I controlled my emotions and gave an honest answer.

“Well, I suppose if it’s not performed as a Caesarean, which they said wasn’t necessary in this case, they would go in through the cervix and get the foetus out that way.”

Alex had stopped hugging me to concentrate on this information. She was finding it compulsive listening.

“But a twenty-one-week-old foetus must be pretty big. How can they get it out?” Her questioning seemed to be for my benefit, as if this thirteen-year-old was playing therapist with me, trying to get me to face up to forgotten fears. It was irritating.

“Well, if they can’t ... then they’d have to ...” What was that droning? A low hum like an unearthed electrical appliance.

“Mummy?” she insisted.

“If you want to remove a large object through a small opening, you either make the hole bigger, or the object smaller.” I felt uneasy. I wanted her to drop the subject but she continued in what was beginning to feel like an interrogation.



“Snip. Cut up the baby into little pieces and pull them out one by one.”


“How small?” The question was abnormally ghoulish, even for a curious child.

“Not necessary, Alex.”

She changed tack. “What about Daddy? Wasn’t he there to save me?”

“He must have been there. Somewhere.” I broke off. The drone. I couldn’t get the drone out of my head and it was driving me crazy.

“I can’t remember anything about Rick. I don’t know why he wasn’t with me in the clinic. But he came up trumps afterwards, didn’t he?” My voice tailed off as I struggled to remember shadows. Exploring the Marianas Trench with a pen-light would have been easier.

Alex disengaged her arms from me and sat fixing my eyes with a stare eerily penetrating for a child. For a long time we said nothing. The drone grew louder, threatening to engulf me. I felt faint. Then Alex spoke.

“Mum. Dad was a methadone addict you’d known less than a month. You can’t even remember his name.” I pulled up sharply. My own daughter was beginning to scare me.

“Daddy’s in Manchester for a week. Working, Alex, come on, this isn’t my idea of humour.” But she persisted, oblivious to my unease. Or welcoming it.

“You went through it on your own. No one thought it was important at all. You even had to go into work the very next day. Remember?”

“No, darling, I had Gran and Grandad. Without their help I’d never have coped.”

Alex ignored my protestation and came out with another odd piece of fantasy plucked from Lord knows where.

“Gran and Grandad lived with you in a one-bedroom council flat. They couldn’t have helped you even if they’d wanted to. Which they didn’t.”

How stupid and selfish of me to burden her with my problems. She had a vivid imagination and my nightmare had invoked some ugly demons which I had better neutralise fast.

“They took one look at you and they were smitten. You were a gorgeous baby.” But Alex was, by now, too immersed in her fantasy to hear me.

“Mum, Granny didn’t like you.”

“No. We had our problems, like any family, but we pulled together in a crisis.”

“Grandad doesn’t know to this day what happened ’cause you were scared he’d beat hell’s bells out of you.”

“They loved you from day one. They were tremendously supportive.” I searched her face for a sign of what she might be driving at.

“Why are you saying all this, Alex?”

Alex didn’t answer my question. Instead, she relaxed back into her chair. She looked at me with huge brown eyes filled with hurt and betrayal.

“Why didn’t you do it, Mum? Why didn’t you save me? We could have managed.”

“Alex, sweetheart, it was only a dream. I jumped the gurney in the nick of time.”

A long silence. Except for the drone.

“Didn’t I? Alex?” Something shifted in the back of my head; the cold crunch of worlds colliding.
After a long pause she spoke with clinical precision.

“No. No, Mummy. I don’t think you did.” My eyes darted around the kichen, mapping out the room with her landmarks; the cereal box, her Dan Dare birthday mug, the snapshots on the noticeboard, all juddering in and out of focus.

Alex stared at me, stared right into me, and although we were close enough to touch, she seemed to hover at the far end of a long tunnel. I called her name, over and over, but she didn’t say a word, just stared at me. Tears welled in those innocent eyes that, under my care and protection, had known no real traumatic pain in any of her thirteen years since birth.

I thought I could make out the white tiles on the wall behind her. Directly behind her. She picked up her mandarin nylon carrier with the lime zipper and slowly heaved it on to her shoulder.

“I’m off to school now, Mummy. I’ll see you in a little bit.” Her voice was faint and tinny under the drone, like a bad recording from the 1920s. I tried to hold on to her, but her ethereal hands slipped from my grasp.

So it was time. I’d stretched it out longer than usual due to my growing ability to plug those sticky moments when everything can unravel in an instant. I choked down the lump in my throat and waved goodbye as she backed down the corridor.

“I love you, sweetheart.”

“I love you, Mum.”

“Take care now, darling. I’ll be thinking of you.”

She was drifting away, far away. She opened the front door into blinding sunlight, as bright as a bursting star. I froze the sight in my mind’s eye, trying to drag out the final moment for eternity; my last glimpse of Alex in silhouette at the end of the corridor. And then she was gone.

I was overwhelmed by the drone, loud and maddening; an unbearable grating as worlds slipped out of sync, one sliding into oblivion while the other, the one where the black amorphous shadow swam, took on a stark and terrifying clarity.

The machine crashes to its climax. The locking mechanism clicks off and I open the door. The formerly blood-soiled cotton briefs – my cotton briefs – fall to the floor. I straighten up, my vision rippled by tears and a head splitting with a pain that can find no outlet. A row of china tea-cups stands next to various health foods. The notice-board contains the odd list, mini-cab cards and a couple of photos of myself. My breath erupts in shallow, fitful bursts of terror and I wander through the flat like one of the undead. Gone is the handpainted sign. A blank expanse of white wall stares back where once there had been a door.

I stretch out my hands and my heart into a great nothing. Objects are objects and not much more. A scan of the cheerless sitting-room (to call it a living-room would be a lie) reveals a single photo of myself, alone, brooding and disquieted – sole proof to me of my own existence. There is a space where the framed photo of a happy family group – Rick, Alex and myself – had stood. There are no coloured felt-tip pens, left lidless on the floor for me to nag about; no teen comics, with the girls’ names as titles, for me to disapprove of for their frivolity, none of my precious record collection peeks out from bent covers. Instead, I pace up and down the tidy room and weep.

When it gets like this, I just have to wait until the next wave picks me up and drops me back into the real world to join Alex who should have been, but isn’t. The universe has been split in two and I have been chosen to occupy this version. But, very occasionally, for a few minutes only, I can live out a lifetime as it was destined, as mother to a fine and wonderful daughter who waits for me even now. In the small hours, I often hear her sobbing on the other side, missing me as much as I miss her. So I fill my hours with unimportant chores and doodlings I try to transform into work and wait to catch the next wave home.

Anna Chen 1988
First published in
Another Province 1994

Thursday 6 November 2014

More or Less Asian? Stereotypes in Literature: talk at Asia House 12th Nov 2014

The cuddly liberal Guardian thought this illustration was OK.

The original photo of the squirrel before the Guardian's Goebbels squad got on the job.

I'm on a panel next Wednesday at Asia House for a debate — More or Less Asian? — alongside actor and playwright Daniel York, playwright Yasmeen Khan, author Niven Govenden and chaired by the writer and broadcaster, Bidisha.

The debate explores Asian stereotypes in literature.

I've been challenging the lazy and dehumanising depiction of East Asian ever since I took my solo show, Suzy Wrong - Human Cannon, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1994.

My other explorations of the theme have included a profile of Anna May Wong for BBC Radio 4, A Celestial Star in Piccadilly (2009), a one-woman show, Anna May Wong Must Die! (2009), and The Steampunk Opium Wars (Feb 2012) which premiered at the National Maritime Museum to mark the opening of their Traders Gallery.

In 2007, I presented the ten-part series, Chinese In Britain (BBC R4), which gave me a rare opportunity to add balance to the skewed view of Chinese people. Among other things, the second episode managed to dismantle the myth of Chinatown. This dark region filled with opium-smoking, dagger-wielding villains is a location in the mind of the beholder and says more about what lurks beneath in the psyche than it does about the mundane reality. (The series is being repeated on Radio 4 Extra and is available to listen on iPlayer for another three weeks.)

However, the BBC series proved to be a rare slip through the white dominant net. I continue to be shocked but unsurprised by the liberal establishment's continued demented depictions of the Chinese in output such as the BBC's Sherlock reboot where everything was updated except for the sinister yellow peril in The Blind Banker episode, and the anachronistic Radio 4 programme, Fu Manchu in Edinburgh, which drew uncomfortably from the episode in the Chinese In Britain series in which we'd looked at the early Chinese medical students. These were rarely glimpsed real human beings who'd done so much good for British society, snottily eclipsed by a cheap rehash of the yellow peril stereotype.

Elsewhere, we're rendered invisible in areas where we obviously have a presence in the real world. There has never been an east Asian family on Eastenders, for example. I speak as an East Ender myself when I say that this is fairly (sic) ignorant and stupid. And it does us no favours, but warms us up for the slaughter.

The absence of east Asians in the culture means we are a blank canvas onto which all sorts of poisonous narratives and images can be projected. So when the Blair government required a scapegoat for its inept handling of the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in 2001, it was able to turns the guns of the press onto the UK Chinese by briefing Valerie Elliott of The Times that a Chinese restaurant was responsible. The media, with the honourable exception of The Independent, took up the cry lemming-like. This potentially deadly situation (fury was brewing, livelihoods were lost, farmers had committed suicide, Chinese were being targeted and spat at) required protests in London and Manchester Chinatowns and meetings with the now defunct Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) to get minister Nick Brown to vindicate us and for the absurdity of the claim to be made apparent.

So there is a politcal dimension to issues of identity. It's not a luxury add-on. This is about people's survival.

More or Less Asian? debate at Asia House, Wednesday 12th November 2014

Sunday 26 October 2014

Chinese in Britain this week: South China Morning Post and BBC Radio 4 Extra

Two lots of Chinese in Britain from me this week.

Today, my cover article for the South China Morning Post magazine — "Personal tales of a journey to a new land" — about the sweeping Ming Ai oral history project, backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund documenting, as many UK Chinese as possible 2012-2015. Drawn from stories being published online at the British Chinese Workforce Heritage website.

The second is Chinese In Britain, the repeat of the ten-part series I presented for BBC R4 in 2007, broadcast 14:15 daily from tomorrow on R4Extra. Produced by Mukti Jain Campion at Culture Wise.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Anna Chen presents the series "Chinese In Britain" on BBC Radio 4: repeated October 2014 on R4 Extra

Anna Chen presents the groundbreaking ten-part series Chinese in Britain made for BBC Radio 4 broadcast in 2007, repeated from 27th October 2014 on R4 Extra. (Recorded 2006 and 2007)

Anna and the late Harry Dewar (Cheong) at the BBC launch of the ten-part series for Radio 4, Chinese In Britain

This seminal work on the Chinese diaspora was presented by Anna Chen and produced by Mukti Jain Campion of Culture Wise for BBC Radio 4.

The series Chinese In Britain brought into view many overlooked aspects of the cultural and social impact of the Chinese in Britain for the first time, including introducing BBC audiences to the first documented Chinese visitor to Britain: Jesuit priest Michael Shen Futsong who impressed King James II enough for the king to have his portrait painted and hung in his bedroom.

Its fascinating range of contributors ranged from the catering giant and philanthropist Wing Yip to the lesser known characters who have lived here and made their mark. Artists such as the late Pam So whose grandmother walked all the way across Europe from China; Yvonne Foley whose Chinese seafaring father was was one of hundreds forcibly repatriated to China after World War II having served Britain in the merchant navy and risked their lives; actors such as Jacqueline Chan, David Yip (The Chinese Detective) and the venerable Burt Kwouk; masterchef and Bafta film editor Dehta Hsiung, whose playwright father Shi I Hsiung had a massive hit on the West End Stage in the 1930s with Lady Precious Stream; Leslie and Connie Ho who were born into Limehouse Chinatown — actually two streets, Limehouse Causeway and Pennyfields.

We looked at the myth of Chinatown and how it was created, and the yellow peril fears that made a career for Brummie hack Sax Rohmer (Arthur Henry Ward) with his villainous creation, Dr Fu Manchu. While Fu Manchu was a fictional student at Edinburgh, the series provided a rare glimpse into the lives of the early Chinese medical students who actually did study there and who contributed to the British way of life, rather than the commonplace racist sensationalism preferred by dimmer media peeps with an eye on showbiz.

Other interviewees included the late Harry Dewar, Dr Diana Yeh, Professor Gregor Benton, Olga Adderton, Dr David Helliwell, Dr John Seed, Professor Michael Fisher, Graham Chan, Dr Ian Wotherspoon, Ying Chinnery, Lee Cheong, Rosa Fong, Grace Lau and Connie and Leslie Ho (above). Not forgetting the late Jessie Lim who wrote and came up with the idea for the series' creation. (Jessie was the mother of several key projects including the anthology of Chinese British writing, Another Province.)

And now, for the benefit of those who missed it first time around and fancy playing catch-up, it's back daily from Monday 27th October 2014 on BBC Radio 4 Extra at 00:15 and 14:15.

Making the series, Chinese In Britain.

Recording the history of Chinese in Britain, a ten-part 15 minute series for BBC Radio 4, for transmission at 3:45pm weekday afternoons over two weeks from Monday 30th April 2007.

Chinese In Britain was a landmark series in an impressive body of radio work produced by Mukti Jain Campion at Culture Wise. In January 2007, on the first day of the big storms, Mukti and Anna went to Liverpool to record more stories for the series.

Anna at the Chinese Seamen's memorial plaque, Pier Head, by a stormy Mersey.
Anna in Liverpool's Chinatown at the site of the old Arthur Holt/Blue Funnel offices in Nelson Street whose steamships brought Chinese to Britain from the late 19th century to the 1960s and 70s.

In Pitt Street where Anna's father used to live before World War II when the Lutwaffe flattened it.

Anna and Professor Michael Fisher at Shadwell Church near Limehouse in east London to see John Anthony's home ground. John Anthony was a Chinese seaman and then an agent looking after Chinese sailors for the East India Shipping Company in the late 18th, early 19th century. He was the first Chinese to be naturalised as a British citizen in 1805.

Burt Kwouk in Inn of the Sixth Happiness

The lovely Burt Kwouk and Anna. Burt has acted in many films including The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and The Pink Panther, where he played Inspector Clouseau's sidekick Kato. He can now be seen in the TV series, Last of the Summer Wine26th July 2006

Anna and actor David Yip at his home. The 1980s TV series, The Chinese Detective, turned David into a household name.
17th August 2006

Lunch with producer Mukti Jain Campion at David Yip's.

Actor David Yip at home.

With Yvonne Foley who deep dived into a forensic investigation on finding out what happened to her father. Like hundreds of other Chinese seamen, who worked on British merchant ships throughout the Second World War, Yvonne believes he was forcibly repatriated by his shipping company (in collusion with the British Government) as soon as the war was over. She also uncovered some material about Anna's own father who helped set up the Chinese Seaman's Union and Kungho Mutual Aid Association for Chinese living in Britain. 27th July 2006

The series introduced Jesuit Priest Michael Shen Futsong to BBC audiences as the first documented Chinese in Britain (thanks to Mukti's illuminating excavations). A favourite of King James II, his portrait hangs in the Queen's collection. He helped catalogue the Chinese books in the Bodleian collection while he was on his world tour of Europe in the late 17th century.


1) VIPs including the first documented Chinese in Britain, Jesuit priest Michel Shen Futsong who Dr David Helliwell describes at Oxford. Professor Michael Fisher talks about John Anthony, the first naturalised Chinese Briton around the turn of the 19th century.

2) Chinatown. The myth of Chinatown, Sax Rohmer, Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril, and the reality of Limehouse with Connie and Leslie Ho who were born and raised in London's Chinese Limehouse community until the Blitz. Dr John Seed.

3) Ship to Shore. UK ports as centres of Chinese migration to the UK, the role played by Chinese in World War II, and their forced repatriation by the Atlee government after the war. Graham Chan, Yvonne Foley and Professor Gregor Benton.

4) Steam and Starch. Laundries: the iconic industry that gave so many Chinese in Britain a living until the advent of the domestic washing machine. Olga Adderton.

5) Educated in Britain. Students have studied here since the first Chinese medical students in Edinburgh. Dr Ian Wotherspoon.

6) Feet Unbound. The earliest Chinese women in Britain. The fascinating story of the women performers who walked from Hubei in China despite having bound feet. Grace Lau's mother was the wife of a diplomat and so arrived in more stylish fashion in the 1930s. Pamela So, Professor Gregor Benton, Grace Lau.

7) Mixed Blessings. Eurasians. With so few Chinese women in Britain, Chinese seamen often took on white wives, many of the Irish. Yvonne Foley is herself mixed Chinese and British. Her father was a Chinese seaman who was forcibly repatriated from their Liverpool home. Leslie and Connie Ho, who were born and raised in London's Limehouse, say they were better fed than their white counterparts because many white men drank. Lee Cheung of Limehouse welcomed the return of his father from voyage, laden with rare exotic presents such as Jaffa oranges. Actor David Yip was born in Liverpool whose Chinese seaman father was also absent for long parents. Mixed Chinese and black evacuees weren't welcome in Chester and had to walk home. Harry Cheong/Dewar was rejected by the army when he signed up for the Second World War until China joined the allied side.

8) Artistic pursuits. Shi I Hsiung was the first successful playwright and theatre director with his West End hit of the 1930s, Lady Precious Stream. Lauded by George Bernard Shaw, H G Wells and a raft of luminaries, he and his wife were the toast of the town. His son, the masterchef Dehta Hsiung, is interviewed, along with photographer Grace Lau and Dr Diana Yeh.

9) Screen Beginnings. David Yip, Burt Kwouk, Jacqueline Chan and Grace Lau talk about The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman as Gladys Aylward, Robert Donat as the Mandarin and Curt Jurgens as General Lin and shot in Snowdonia. Made in 1958, it was a breakthrough for many of our best known Chinese actors, such as Tsai Chin.

10)  Takeway. With Wing Yip who started out as a waiter in Hull before founding his food empire.

Series music by Chi2. Intro voice David Tse.

“A fascinating story” - Chris Campling, The Times
“Each episode sounded effortless only because it had been crafted with such supreme care” - Gillian Reynolds, The Daily Telegraph

LISTEN AGAIN FROM SUNDAY NIGHT, QUARTER PAST MIDNIGHT: daily from Monday 27th October 2014 on BBC Radio 4 Extra at 00:15 and 14:15.

LAUNCH PARTY at BBC Broadcasting House.

Edit 2nd August 2022: Yvonne Foley's campaign succeeds in winning today's Home Office acknowledgment of the secret forced expulsion of the Chinese seamen who'd aided Britain during World War II and settled in Liverpool.

Sunday 19 October 2014

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

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

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

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

Monday 13 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 4 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 2 October 2014

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

DISLOCATING ASIA 7pm tonight at The Forge in Camden.

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

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

Dislocating Asia
This event is part of Camden Migration Festival

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

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Friday 26 September 2014

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

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

Extracts: highlights and lowlifes

- Why did you start blogging?

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

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

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

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

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

- How about political villains?

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

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

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

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

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

- What do you consider the most important personal quality?

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

- And any pet peeves?

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

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

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

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

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Sunday 21 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However ...

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

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

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

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

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