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