Chopsticks At Dawn on BBC Radio 4 Extra 2nd July

My programme, Chopsticks At Dawn, about chinoiserie clichés in music, is repeated tomorrow BBC Radio 4 Extra & iPlayer.

It’s on four times: 6:30; 13:30; 20:30 and again the next morning at 06:30, so no excuses.

First broadcast 2010 on BBC Radio 4.

Produced by Chris Eldon-Lee and Mukti Jain Campion for Culture Wise.
With musicologist Dr Jonathan Walker.

Chinese decorative arts are revered in the West. From Willow pattern dinner plates to the Brighton Pavilion, their designs are regarded as beautiful and sophisticated. But for the past two centuries European composers and musicians have had no qualms about mercilessly parodying what they thought of as ‘Chinese tunes’.

As a girl growing up in Hackney, the opening orientalised-flute strains of the 1970s pop record Kung Fu Fighting by Carl Douglas were enough to send future comedian Anna Chen running for cover.

The same cliches haunt Turning Japanese by The Vapours, Hong Kong Garden by Siouxsie And The Banshees and David Bowie’s China Girl. They have all followed a pattern set by Claude Debussy, Malcolm Arnold, Albert Ketelbey and Lancashire Linnet George Formby, who were equally guilty of taking Chinese musical motifs and mangling them – or simply making them up!

How did this mocking abuse of a handful of venerable Far Eastern notes begin?

Musicologist Dr Jonathan Walker accompanies Anna on a historical mission, picking out examples on the piano and explaining why and how our western ears hear certain note configurations as “oriental” – from Chopsticks to Chopin.

They explore the pentatonic scale that chartacterises so much Chinese music, delve into the story of the Opium Wars which triggered a deep British disrespect of Chinese musical culture and unveil the earliest dubious examples of Chinoiserie in Western Music.

And we hear from a new generation of British born Chinese musicians who are putting right the discordant wrongs of the past 200 years.

Producer: Chris Eldon Lee
A Culture Wise production for BBC Radio 4.

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Don’t let Disney whitewash Mulan

This is modern identity theft on a grand scale. All those east Asian girls in the West already rendered invisible being denied their greatest positive role model in the popular culture. Please sign the petition. Thank you.

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The Great Wall at Mutianyu: Anna and Paul in China

Another movie from the China trip last month. The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu, an hour and a bit drive north of Beijing, which is not only less touristy but has the advantage of a chair lift so you can be right in the landscape, and a toboggan run back down!!!

In between, some awesome history, breathtaking scenery, blue skies and lovely mortar work.

Sadly, I obeyed authority and put away my camera for the toboggan ride. Now regretting it. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Thanks to all at the Bookworm Literary Festival for getting us there. With Paul Anderson, Frané Lessac, Mark Greenwood and Pornima.

More videos of Anna and Paul in China:
The Forbidden City.

The Kung Fu Pandas of Chengdu.

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The Forbidden City video: Anna and Paul in China

In China for the Bookworm Literary Festival and only a day left in this astonishing city of 30 million, so what to do? You can’t visit Beijing and not see the old quarter, the hutongs, Tiananmen Square and, of course, the vast Ming era (15th century) Forbidden City.

It makes a welcome relief from the endless glass and steel towers of modern China. Imagine Canary Wharf. Now multiply it by dozens, going on for miles. That’s what the big Chinese cities look like, even the secondary ones. Lil ol’ Chengdu, nestled in the Himalayan foothills in the middle of the country, has a population of 14 million. Five more than London. Think on that.

The low-lying Forbidden City and its environs are exactly what these tourists craved. The air may be polluted but the streets are the cleanest you’ll find anywhere, due in part to the government’s Keynsian employment of human beings to sweep the streets with old fashioned twiggy brooms and cute little motorised carts.

We were supremely lucky, according to our friends, to enjoy a rare run of blue skies and warm spring weather for our sightseeing. The first time I’d seen Beijing was on a trip with my parents in the 1970s, where everything was Mao suits and bicycles and not a grubby thought to be had. Now everyone has pollution-gauge apps on their smartphones and shops at every familiar western outlet from Gucci to H&M.

We were as fascinated by watching ordinary Chinese at play as they were by my lovely companion, Paul Anderson. The young people like their fashion and electronic kit. The elderly marvelled at the inner sanctum of imperial life that had always been denied them, despite being built on the backs of their ancestors. They were all eager to learn about their own history and grab a little piece of it on their smartphones, as was I — watch the scrum around the throne pavilion in the video. We are indeed all more alike than different.

The fact that the Chinese have any access at all to this beautifully preserved city — now known as the Palace Museum — is fortunate, considering the looting and destruction perpetrated by both the Kuomintang and the Japanese during the first half of the previous century. When I saw it in the 1970s, the painted woodwork was faded, with many of the tiles broken and fallen, and there were few tourists. It’s undergone a transformation as stunning as the Chinese economy.

We arrived earlyish at around 10.30am and the place was already thronging. The long queues through the airport-style security outside Tiananmen Gate were packed into narrow avenues protecting us from terrorist attacks such as the one a couple of years ago that killed several tourists when a jeep ploughed into the crowd and exploded in a fireball – but they got us through quickly enough.

By 4.30pm, when the kicking-out music was played over the loudspeakers, we’d barely seen a quarter of it. You can sense the ghosts of residents past and trace the route taken by emperors borne in palanquins by eunuchs over magnificent stone carvings. Imagine the imperial writhings on the silk beds in the private quarters; hear the pillow talk, the intrigue. What must the palace politics have been like? What must it have been like to be a minion? A concubine? Trapped, never seeing the world outside these dusty red walls for an entire lifetime?

It must have felt eternal, as if it would continue for another five hundred years at least. But nothing lasts forever, especially if rulers grow complacent and forget the interests of the wider population. That’s a lesson we’re learning in the West, a lesson that knows no national boundaries.

The first movie I stuck on the telly when I returned home? The Last Emperor, natch, shot in the Forbidden City itself by Bertolucci nearly thirty years ago in 1987. Reader, I woz ‘ere!

More videos of Anna and Paul In China:
The Great Wall at Mutianyu
The Kung Fu Pandas of Chengdu

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The Kung Fu Pandas of Chengdu video: Anna and Paul in China

I’m back!

I saw pandas running. I saw pandas rollin’ and a tumblin’. I saw pandas sprawling with a filthy “come ‘n’ get me, boys ‘n’ gurls” look in their over-kohled eyes. I saw marzipan pandas and made short work of them. I saw flaming pandas off the shoulder of Orion. And, yes, I saw pandas doing kung fu with some mighty nifty left and right jabs.

What’s more, dear reader, I videoed them at it.

I have tales of my return to the motherland of my fathers to enthral you here in the fatherland of my mother, but Paul Anderson has written a thorough overview of our China trip so I don’t have to. Yet.

First, the holiday snaps. As indeed it did. Let us begin at the beginning, with the furry chaps and chapesses (video above — you tell me which is which!). Black and white, unite and fight!

I still have jet lag and the bronchitis I went out with, but I’m a happy bunny, inspired and ready to roll. A big thank you and a massive panda bear hug to all at the Bookworm Literary Festival: Peter Goff, Mojdeh Sheik, Tom Price, Anthony Tao, Julia, Alana, Pornima and all in Beijing; Catherine Platt and the team in Chengdu — not forgetting William Hall of the Crowne Plaza hotel who laid on the marzipan pandas, Earl Grey tea and unforgettable breakfasts; Daniel Clutton and Tammy in Suzhou; Alan McCluskey in Ningbo; Wena Poon and Xiaolu Guo, two utterly different writers but amazing women who I now hope to count as my buddies; and Bidisha, part fairy godmother, part martial arts master/mistress without whom …

When pandas get biblical, we’re living in interesting times. The pandas know.

This one’s from the Panda Channel:

More videos of Anna and Paul in China 2015:
The Forbidden City
The Great Wall at Mutianyu

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Off to the Bookworm Literary Festival in China

The kind people at the Bookworm Literary Festival have invited me to speak at their events this year, in Chengdu, Suzhou, Ningbo and Beijing.

Which is why I’m waiting for the cab to take me to trains and airport. The longest journey begins with the first taxi, grasshopper.

I’ll be talking about Anna May Wong and reading poetry from Reaching For My Gnu, published by Aaaargh! Press. Plus I’ll be holding a poetry workshop: Poetry Against the Machine.

Also from Aargh! Press, Paul Anderson will be there too talking about communism in the UK.

Posted in Aaaargh! Press, Anna May Wong Must Die, China, Chinese Diaspora in Britain, Event, Live performance, Reaching for my Gnu, Workshop | Tagged | Leave a comment