Anna Chen's new website is LIVE!
London-born Chinese British poet, writer and broadcaster Anna Chen
"Whatever current western propaganda demands that you believe, we are capable of altruism, fellow feeling, critical thinking and original thought. Of course we are. We’re human. Never forget that."
Anna Chen is a pioneering writer, poet and broadcaster, born and raised in Hackney, east London. The child of a Chinese father and an English mother, she grew up in the heart of two major civilisations at a historic crossroads. As a result, it was hardly surprising that she would end up as a cultural outrider.
Born into the belly of the imperial beast (London), she saw at a young age how no Chinese were positively reflected in the culture. Realising it was only supposed to be vampires who cast no reflection, she kicked up against the invisibility imposed on her from childhood.
She grew to recognise this erasure as a manifestation of a larger class conflict that required women and labour, as well as empire minorities, to submit to a grinding world order. One subsequent aim – to demystify and humanise the Chinese as a counterweight to the prevailing Yellow Peril stereotypes embedded in western culture – would turn out to be a matter of survival and solidarity.
Undeterred by the absence of role models, she carved out new ground. Her poetry was first published at 14. She trained in cinema, and her challenging writing for the theatre became a cultural breakthrough at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She wrote and presented programmes for BBC Radio 4 as a freelance and created her own arts series, Madam Miaow’s Culture Lounge, at Resonance 104.4FM. She has written for the Guardian, New Internationalist magazine, South China Morning Post, Tribune, Morning Star and Asia Times.
Her writing at Madam Miaow Says was shortlisted in the 2010 Orwell Prize for blogs, and longlisted in 2012. She is a TED Speaker. A great believer in evidence-based Age of Enlightenment ideals, she is one of the longest-standing politically active Chinese Brits of the last few tumultuous decades.
With the refreeze into a new Cold War came the end of the brief “Golden Age” of British Chinese relations. In short, it meant curtains for anyone in the liberal media holding Anna’s critical values who refused to come to heel. Faced with the challenge, the clampdown has only invigorated her drive to replenish the soul, renew the spirit and free the mind as a full member of human society.
Anna Chen: Broadcast
Anna wrote and presented programmes for BBC Radio 4 as a freelance and presented her arts series, Madam Miaow’s Culture Lounge, at Resonance 104.4FM.
The BBC: Anna set out to break down sinophobic stereotypes and humanise east Asians in the media. Her programmes for BBC Radio 4 (produced by Mukti Jain Campion and Chris Eldon-Lee of Culture Wise) were regularly Pick of the Day or Week in the national press.
Her BBC work includes:
A Celestial Star in Piccadilly: Anna May Wong (2009) introducing British listeners to the Hollywood legend and most famous Chinese woman in the world in the 1920s and 30s;
Chopsticks At Dawn (2010) exploring the familiar five-note musical trope cartooning Chinese music;
Madam Mao's Golden Oldies(2012) looking at Jiang Qing's five model operas during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and what happened to some of the people involved;
China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum (2010, produced by Sally Heaven, BBC Bristol) on Chinese trade and the novelty goods we demand from Chinese factories;
Found In Translation (2011), about Chinese comedy;
Yoko Ono — A Life in Flux (produced and written by Lance Dann 1999 for BBC R3) about the respected artist rather than the rock chick in which Ono broke her silence and gave her first interview to the British media for years;
St Ives and Me (2011) in which Anna shared her love of the Cornish artists' colony;
and the groundbreaking ten-part series,
Chinese in Britain (2007),which drew public attention to the identity of the first documented Chinese person to live and work in Britain, the 17th century Jesuit priest Shen Futsong.
She wrote and narrated the BBC Radio 4 play, Red Guard — Yellow Submarine (2005, produced by Pam Fraser Solomon), based on an extract from her memoir.
Her short story, The Next Wave Home, was published in the anthology, Another Province, which came second in the Raymond Williams publishing award in 1994/5.
Anna Chen: Theatre, Poetry and Press
She was the first Chinese British writer and performer to take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with the satirical trailblazer, Suzy Wrong — Human Cannon (1994), in which she memorably gunned down audiences with a pump-action sex doll firing ping-pong balls out of its business end. British theatre audiences had never seen the orientalist stereotypes of Chinese people taken apart by a Chinese woman before and it gained her a slew of press. She debuted on British television, in Stewart Lee and Richard Herring's show, Fist of Fun (BBC2) in 1995. She is the author of I, Imelda 1998; Anna May Wong Must Die!; Taikonaut; and The Steampunk Opium Wars (2012).
Presswork includes writing for the Guardian, Morning Star, New Internationalist magazine, Tribune and South China Morning Post, and appearances as a commentator on BBC World Service and Sky News. She has sat on the ITN Diversity Panel and was one of the few east Asian women of colour visible in the media. Her first column for Asia Times appeared 14 August 2023.
POETRY and EVENTS: At 14, her poetry was first published in the Jonathan Cape anthology Fire Words. She won the Farrago Poetry Zoo Award for Best London Performance in 2012. Her first collection of poetry, Reaching for my Gnu, was published in paperback in February 2013 by Aaaargh! Press. (Poetry videos here) Her second volume, Chi Chi's Glorious Swansong, was published in 2021. A rarity among British Chinese poets and writers — a Chinese Brit socialist poet — she has read and performed at the Oxford University Poetry Society and Oxford Radical Forum, Farrago Poetry, Apples and Snakes, the St Ives Arts Festival, the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, the National Maritime Museum and the British Academy. She hosted the British Museum Late event during the Terracotta Warriors exhibition (6th December 2007), and curated various events as well as writing and presenting The Steampunk Opium Wars which debuted at the National Maritime Museum to mark the opening of their new Traders Gallery in 2012.
She appeared at the St Ives Arts Festival in Cornwall, giving poetry readings, hosting Madam Miaow's Culture Lounge at the St Ives Arts Club and, in 2012, brought The Steampunk Opium Wars to the festival. In 2015 she read poetry and performed Anna May Wrong Must Die! at the international Bookworm Literary Festival in Chengdu, Suchow, Ningbo and Beijing — listen to her interview with Radio Beijing.
Anna Chen: Culture
Anna has appeared in a Bond movie, dated a rock legend, been drawn by the artist Patrick Heron, photographed by Bob Carlos Clarke and dressed by Vivienne Westwood. The UK’s first homegrown Chinese Brit punk before the movement was popularised in the media, Anna featured at the transition between rock and punk as pictured on the iconic Vicious But Fair album cover, wearing the catsuit Vivienne Westwood made for her. (Westwood invited her to represent her Kings Road shop, Sex, in Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World but, still at school, she turned it down due to exams coming up.)
She has survived being mauled by a puma in her beloved Cornwall and swam with a shark (basking) in St Ives harbour. Blockbuster author Stan Pottinger based his character Tacoma Reed in The Boss on her. She has read scripts for Robert McKee, Ken Campbell and various producers including the late actor Richards Johnson’s United British Artists, later his partner in the Script Advisory Service (SAS). She read scripts for Palace Pictures and was a script doctor for the European Script Fund, as well as teaching scriptwriting at Bournemouth Polytechnic/University.
Two images of Anna from the groundbreaking Streetwalkers' Vicious But Fair album cover that caused a stir when it was released.
Of her work, she says: "I always seem to end up grappling with issues of politics, class and race, subverting stereotypes and poking the status quo with a sharp stick. Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable is a pretty good rule of thumb to try to live by. I strongly believe that a rising tide floats all boats and that it's an artist's duty to make visible the invisible. My role model is Prometheus but I'm not entirely happy with the bit about having your liver pecked out by an eagle every day."
"Poetry can convey the underlying dynamics of how we work, the psychological truths of how and why people utilise power, which ultimately is what politics is about. Although I was born in London and my mother is white English, because I look like my dad and have his name I’ve been in a strange limbo land of being perceived and treated as Other while having undergone the formative experience of belonging. It’s been painful and, at times, almost a curse but it offers a unique view of who people are. The view is often not pretty and quite disturbing and yet I feel blessed and privileged, like having X-ray vision as your superpower."
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” – Karl Marx
POLITICS: Anna Chen innovated the British left from the late 1990s by introducing new skills championing the use of mainstream media and press relations. She organised and directed several publicity campaigns to hit national and international media including: the Chinese Foot and Mouth Disease smear campaign in 2001 and the Socialist Alliance in the London (2000) and general elections (2001), an alternative to New Labour’s rightward drift.
Against the odds, she established the press office for the moribund Stop the War Coalition and the anti-Iraq war protests (2001-3) took off, culminating in the million-strong London demonstration in February 2003. Investigative journalist Paul Foot called her the “best press officer in the country,” for her pioneering work in the left.
She was a member of the delegation that negotiated with Minister Nick Brown at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) in 2001 concerning the Foot and Mouth Disease smear. A few years later, she was invited to train up as a Parliamentary candidate to become Labour’s first MP of Chinese heritage. She politely declined.
In December 2023, Twitter/X deleted her 15-year old @MadamMiaow account with thousands of followers, the only continuous political and cultural commentary from a critical Chinese western perspective since 2008. This was despite no violations and no warning, and six appeals which fell on deaf ears. Her replacement account starts from scratch at @AnnaChenMiaow
She set up and ran The Hothouse Project, an alternative education series of classes featuring legendary author and journalist Charles Shaar Murray's "Journalism as Craft and Art" Hothouse Course and Anna's own "Poetry Against the Machine" workshop, which she also taught for the Orwell Prize Wigan Pier Workshops in 2013.
Anna wrote and presented Madam Miaow's Culture Lounge, an arts series, for Resonance 104.4FM. It launched in 2013 with "Oh Other, where art thou?" looking at yellowface, blackface and ethnic minority representation in UK culture.
Anna's Ted Talk x East End, 2015
Anna in Stewart Lee and Richard Herring's Fist of Fun S2 E1, BBC2
“Just imagine, the whole place being upset by one little Chinese girl in the scullery.” (Piccadilly, 1929)
PRESS FOR ANNA CHEN
"Charming, witty and sophisticated." SUNDAY TIMES
"... extraordinary ... independence and spirit. A very distinct voice, very funny ..." JEAN SEATON, DIRECTOR OF THE ORWELL PRIZE
"Obviously very well informed." JONATHAN MIRSKY on the Jeremy Vine Show 16.09.2016
PRESS FOR REACHING FOR MY GNU poetry collection by British Chinese poet Anna Chen
“The poems in this collection are graceful, muscular, playful, rich in both emotional depth and intellectual rigour; brimful of righteous anger and piercing wit; intent on revitalising both the truism that 'the political is personal' and its obverse - that the personal is political.”
CHARLES SHAAR MURRAY
“As a poet Anna Chen is brilliant and dangerous. In Reaching For My Gnu she operates one wild-ride roller coaster that soars to altitudes of unfettered wit and then plunges with a startling and implacably knowing anger, stripping away pretence and pretension and targeting both ancient oppression and contemporary crime. 'What work of depravity is a man who amasses more than he can spend in a lifespan?' Her deck of cultural references includes Poe and Freud, Stalin and Hemingway, junk food, Marlon Brando, Moby Dick, and Anna May Wong, and she deals these cards face up with a unerringly sense of history uniquely coupled with a perception that’s as topical as tomorrow."
"... a strange rendezvous of language, wit, and the imagination. ... She fully integrates the movingly personal, the vibrantly social and the diablolically political. Her rhyming is frequently quasi-Byronic, full of surprise and acerbic invention ... Burning words, full of life and truth."
CHRIS SEARLE MORNING STAR
" … heartfelt, funny, satirical, accessible and strong."
“ It’s saucy, devilish and delightful!” MY ASIAN PLANET
"Superb. ... Anna Chen’s poetry wears wet leathers, red lipstick, stilettos – and is heavily armed. Her slim volume, Reaching for My Gnu, is filled with what I’d call 'strap-on poems'. They look like an evening’s easy pleasure but are far more painful and unforgettable than you’d bargained for."
GREG PALAST in VICE MAGAZINE"
"Fucking great. I couldn't put it down." WILKO JOHNSON
"Love Anna Chen's art and work...." ANGIE BOWIE
"Anna Chen is fighting the good fight with fierce, funny, moving and sulphurous poems. You wouldn’t want to cross her, but you want to read her."
Reaching for my Gnu is available on Amazon as an ebook and in paperback.
WHAT THEY SAID
CHI CHI'S GLORIOUS SWANSONG (out in early 2021)
"This marvellous collection builds like a symphony, from its opening dances through the surf of language and ideas to the breath-taking cross-channel swim of ‘Tinderbox plc’. Assured, funny, angry, exhilarating, and with a shout-out to the majestic Bob Devereux for good measure, Chi Chi’s Glorious Swansong demands to be read; demands to be listened to. A triumph."
"Anna Chen’s talent is rare yet what she writes is in a long-standing tradition: as a poet she blends commentary on both the social and the political in sharp, vibrant, often cuttingly funny verse. Highly recommended!”
* * * *
"Anna, who writes with the power of myth and the sense of reality."
“Invigorating, engrossing, witty, passionate and righteous – they should put Anna Chen’s The Steampunk Opium Wars on the school history curriculum.”
BEN CHU (of the Independent)
” … a novelty in politically charged entertainment, defies easy analysis. … the unforgettable Hackney and Bermondsey Tea Ceremony. … not so much political entertainment as politicising entertainment. … You can’t really ask for more.”
BEN CHACKO, MORNING STAR
"One thing stands out above all from this blog: the excellence of Madam Miaow's writing. Her commentary is consistently strong, especially on Chinese cultural and political issues, and unsurprisingly - given her comedic background - the sense of humour is top-class. We really enjoy reading this blog not because of its political insight - but simply because it's really, really good." POLITICS.CO.UK
More press here.
|Anna and Ian Hislop discuss Yellow Peril hysteria on Who Should We Let In?
BBC2, 22nd June 2017
Anna inspecting the arthropods during construction of the Biosphere in Arizona.
A sparky 17-year old working-class punk autodidact from Hackney
in the catsuit made for her by Vivienne Westwood
Suzy with her Uzi. Suzy Wrong, Human Cannon, mows down the audience with her pump-action ping-pong ball gun
Anna Chen's new website is now LIVE