Tinderbox plc: a poem for Grenfell Tower

A poem for Grenfell Tower marking a month since the fire

Today marks a whole month since the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, yet the conflagration that killed at least 80 people seems ever present, still fresh in the mind and the heart. This is more than an accident, a natural tragedy — call it gross negligence, call it murder, someone had to make a buck. Only £2 per panel of cladding separated the chances of survival from inevitable death. Then there were the absent sprinklers, the single stairwell, the lack of adequate firefighting equipment, the destruction of regulations designed to keep us safe, and all the other corrupt, mendacious, money-grabbing decisions taken that led us to this point.

While the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea took £55 million a year in rent from the remnants of its social housing, only £38 million made it back to the property that yielded so much loot that the borough was able to amass £274 million to spend on council tax rebates for the better off and flashy opera events in Holland Park. The poorest paid for the amusement of the wealthy. Funny how there’s always money for those who need it least.

Artists are engaging with events. Here is my attempt to make sense, reflect and refract. I hope readers get something out of it.

Tinderbox plc

At the hot point
Of the turning world
A spark lit the flame
That caught the cladding
That burnt the facade
And threw a light
On the burned-out shell
Of the state of the State,
By Lucifer’s light,
A glimpse of hell
Roiled and erupted.
Two pounds of flesh
Per shake of dice
No values known,
Just the cheapest price
In modern Britain plc.

A giant with his fiery sword
Sliced and smote from the flash at four,
He slashed the night to twenty-three,
Dividing the world, rich and poor.
He made his mark, he slashed the dark
On the bias to the roof and higher,
Earth to sky, sheer cliff of fire,
Sliced the tower to light and ash
On one side life, the other a fire of flesh,
A cash-fuelled slomo waiting-room of death,
Each poisoned breath counting down
Lives extinguished but not the flames
Blackening air with soot and cinders.
That is my neighbour, this is a mum,
There is the artist, those are children
Unto the last babe in turbulent dreams
Such horror wreaks and wrecks.
This is the state at the top of the heap,
What power sows, the weakest reap.

Another giant slashed and burned for years
And turned a world upon its head,
A bonfire of red tape set in motion
A cascade of events, invisible, minuscule,
Each piling onto each in spidery increments.
Action group Cassandras screamed murders in waiting,
Grievous bodily profit with intent.
Lift a rock and see what crawls,
So many in the frame, your head spins,
The shitlist lengthens with every trawl,
Cash is cruel, cash is king:
National Grid gas pipes, KCTMO, austerity,
Stay Put, politicians, the construction industry …
Even Maggie Thatcher takes a bow
Her dishes are all cooked by now,
Her high rise cladding on simmer the year the miners struck,
No law now, just luck and the gift that keeps on giving,
She slashed and burned faster than the FR60
One-hour fire-hold rule she flamed,
Halted building, sold off social housing,
Health and safety not gone mad. Just gone.

Aberfan, Hillsborough, Grenfell Tower,
Who had the cash also had the power
To wrap Babel in plastic, for the view palled,
No thought for the living when the opera calls,
A class event, a bagatelle paid for with Grenfell rents,
Rip off the poorest, the system bent.
Gas pipes up the stairwell, smoke in the vents,
Alarms on the fritz, saved a few pence,
Water pressure failing, too little spent,
Retrofit sprinklers too high an expense
And on ignition, stay put was their best advice.
Two pounds of flesh per shake of dice
No values here, just the cheapest price.

The giant scrawled in smoke and flame
Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here
But the firefighters came in all the same
Through Bosch’s vision, the scorching Hotpoint near,
Over bodies they clambered, up clogging stairs
Barely three feet wide, on a wing and a prayer
And an underfunded gulp of air.
The sullied air chokes but the horror is pure,
Breathe deep and inhale fury and fear,
Cyanide, asbestos and your neighbours.
Which is the most toxic?
Down in your lungs even now
The death clock ticks, reset

Time was the enemy.
Fire was the enemy.
Mammon was the enemy.
Kensington and Chelsea council was the enemy.
Kensington and Chelsea TMO was the enemy.
The industry was the enemy.
The government was the enemy.
They sprung a trap, a trap was sprung.

Yet still we lived. Watching from an outer circle,
We were resourceful in those hours.
In our heads, at least, perhaps a car could provide a landing.
Could a mountain of mattresses soften the fall?
For these were no princesses on the pea
But cheeky, boisterous girls and boys.
We wished a man could fly.
We wished for Superman, iced chunk of Thames in tow.
We wished a child could bounce,
That they weighed a quarter of an ounce.
We wished we could put gravity on hold
Stretch this moment til an escape was found,
Slow down damn time til they reached the ground.
A thousand people prayed a million wishes:
For a Star Trek transporter to beam them away,
A fakir’s rope dropping as the gentle rain from heaven,
For wings to sprout, something miraculous to get them out.
A ladder! A tall ladder, a platform with a high pressure hose,
No, too fanciful when the giant slashes and fire stations close.

Did those knotted blankets lead someone to safety
Or a dead end?
“I had my whole life ahead of me,” Gloria Trevisan told her mum.
And it was.
Six and a half minutes with Rania Ibrahim
Is to take a trip to a dark side,
Her voice rings out truth everlasting.
Walk with her, it’s the least she deserves.
Walk with the Grenfell dead and soar with the angels.
A bonfire of people followed the bonfire of regulations
As surely as night followed night followed darkest night of the soul
Cry cruellest murder, the tower can never be put right.

Over the main route into London from Heathrow,
Looms a burnt-out colossus:
A coked-up Tory wideboy in a cheap suit with a pocketful of loot;
We all learnt the meaning of metaphor that night
In Tinderbox plc.

by Anna Chen
12th July 2017

The author was born and raised in Hackney in east London and lived at Hackney Downs and on the Gascoyne Estate.

Apologies for not being able to find the photographers who took the photographs on this page. Please let me know if you took the photographs and if I have your permission to use them with a credit (or if you’d like them taken down). By the same token, please feel free to publish my poem with a credit and link to this page. Thank you.

EDIT: More poems are turning up. I’ll link to some of them here.

Grenfell Tower, June, 2017: a poem by Ben Okri. ‘If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower.’ Video here

This video of “No Alarms” by Sana Uqba made me cry with its haunting rhythms and powerful imagery

The Merited Moral Remembrance Of The Wilfully Massacred Residents Of Grenfell Tower – Poem by Stanley Collymore

“Grenfell” by Olga Dermott-Bond

“Nowhere”: a response to the housing crisis by poet Tony Walsh – audio

“A Hope for the Future” by Angi Holden

On the Liturgical Poetry website, “Grenfell”

“Grenfell Tower” by Lisa Rey

“Towering Shame” by Sarah McGurk

Video of “Grenfell Fell” by Rakin Cisse Niass

“Grenfell Tower” by Maxine Black

“Kensington and Chelsea” by David R Mellor

Video of “Grenfell Tower Fire” by The Truth Poet

“Of Grenfell Tower and other scandals”: Why we must Whistleblow a wind of change, by John Pearce.

“Tinderbox plc” at Madam Miaow Says

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BBC Radio 4 Extra to repeat ST IVES AND ME Wed 21st Dec 6.30am, 1.30pm and 8.30pm: presented by Anna Chen

Spend the longest night of the year with me on BBC Radio 4 Extra when St Ives and Me is repeated on December 21st

ST IVES AND ME on BBC Radio 4 Extra.

I’ve just learnt from my lovely producers, Mukti Jain Campion and Chris Eldon Lee at Culture Wise, that my BBC R4 programme about the history of artists in St Ives, Cornwall, is on again.

BBC Radio 4 Extra is repeating St Ives and Me on Wednesday 21st Dec 6.30am, 1.30pm and 8.30pm. And there may even be one at 1.30 the next morning if you haven’t had enough of me by then or have rolled in merry from Christmas season fun and frolix and are in need of entertainment.

Available after broadcast here.

The original broadcast in 2011 was Pick of the Day for the Radio Times, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Observer and the Independent.

St Ives, a Cornish seaside town 300 miles from comedian and poet Anna Chen’s London home has been attracting artists for two centuries. A varied assortment of eccentrics, entrepreneurs and free spirits have turned the pilchard-fishing and tin-mining town into a popular cultural haven.

Anna has been holidaying there since she was ten and knew many of the famous artists who’ve populated and popularised St Ives.

In the late 1970s the bohemian fashion journalist and novelist Molly Parkin was a regular on the St. Ives scene and she recalls how, in the dark recesses of Mr Peggotty’s disco, she introduced Anna to artist Patrick Heron. In his Porthmeor studio by the Atlantic, Heron used to make Anna mugs of tea while he painted and sketched her and their conversations opened her eyes to the arts. Revisiting those studios, she meets two present day painters maintaining the St Ives’ tradition.

On a personal tour of the town, she returns to Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture garden, hears about the unique light conditions that attract so many artists and reveals the vital roles Napoleon, Von Ribbentrop and the 1960s hippies played in promoting and preserving St Ives.

At lunchtime, in Norway Square, Anna performs her comic poetry in the St Ives Festival, which has been attracting trendsetters for thirty years.

And she waits on the beach, with bated breath, for the legendary 33rd wave.

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

I may even be reading a bit of poetry. Here are a few photos from St Ives September 2011. For more pix, go here.

At Tate St Ives for Martin Creed’s balloon installation
Jan Jefferies and Anna
Denise and Steve Ingamells at Tate St Ives
Jan Jefferies and Charles Shaar Murray at Tate St Ives
Producer Chris Eldon-Lee interviews Valerie Hurry in the Tate St Ives Rotunda
Chris recording in Fore Street, St Ives
Chris reads at a St Ives festival session in Norway Square.
Also present, artists Bob Devereux, Keir Williamson
and the late, much missed Colin Birchall
Bob Devereux hosts the St Ives Festival lunchtime sessions in Norway Square.
With Marc Jefferies and Charles Shaar Murray

Lol in Norway Square
Rod Bullimore, Norway Square, St Ives
Buffalo Bill Smith and Colin Birchall at the Frug in the St Ives Arts Club
With Clare Wardman in the studio she shares with Iain Robertson
Clare and Iain’s view over the beach from Porthmeor Studios
Charles Shaar Murray in The Hub
Anna and Jan in Barbara Hepworth’s conservatory
Anna and Jan on the Island below St Nicholas Chapel
Charles Shaar Murray and Chris Eldon Lee in The Mermaid
Jan, Anna and Denise in The Mermaid
Sunset over Porthmeor Beach and the Clodgy

INTERVIEWEES:

Molly Parkin
Bob Devereux
Valerie Hurry
Steve Dove
Tony Carver
Jo McIntosh
Denise Ingamells
Annie Jackson
Iain Robertson
Clare Wardman

MUSIC AND PERFORMANCE
Charles Shaar Murray and Buffalo Bill Smith — Walking Blues by Robert Johnson
Charles Shaar Murray — Dylan in ’66
Bob Devereux — Queen of the Gypsies; Oak
Lol accompanying Bob Devereux
Rod Bullimore — Last Orders; Sewage Against Surfers
Anna Chen — Ode to a Detox on Leaving St Ives; Kicking a Dinosaur

Anna’s poetry collection, Reaching For My Gnu is available here

More information on Anna’s radio programmes here

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Helena Bonett’s Tate film of Barbara Hepworth’s Trewyn Studio in St Ives screened

I’m delighted to learn that Helena Bonett’s film of Barbara Hepworth’s Trewyn Studio — now a Tate St Ives museum — includes a clip of my 2006 video (above) and is now out doing the rounds. Next screening 15th June at Porthmeor Studios in St Ives.

From the DVD cover:

Trewyn Studio in St Ives, Cornwall, is where the British modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth lived and worked from 1949 until her death in May 1975. Transformed into a museum by her son-in-law Sir Alan Bowness, later director of the Tate Gallery, it opened to the public in April 1976 and has been managed by Tate since 1980. 

This film, produced as part of the Tate St Ives Artists Programme, presents Bowness’s memories of Trewyn Studio and its establishment as the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, using still and moving images to explore queations of time, materiality and legacy. 

A film by Helena Bonett in collaboration with Jonathan Law, 2015, 52 minutes.
Made possible by the Tate St Ives Artists Programme

I have a copy of the DVD which I’ve watched and enjoyed but sadly it’s only available for private viewing and public screenings through the filmmaker.

In the meantime, you’ll have to make do with mine. If you like my 2006 video, here’s one from 2013:

Keep up to date with Helena Bonett’s Twitter

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Anna May Wong: A Celestial Star in Piccadilly, BBC Radio 4 Extra tomorrow then iPlayer for 30 days

Anna May Wong: a celestial star in Piccadilly, BBC Radio 4 Extra, 06:30 and 13:30 Wednesday 16th March 2016

I had the great pleasure to make my programme on Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese screen legend, in 2008 for broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in January 2009. It’s repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra tomorrow, Wednesday 16th March at 06:30 and 13:30, then on iPlayer for 30 days.

Anna Chen writes and presents A Celestial Star In Piccadilly, a half-hour profile of Hollywood’s first Chinese movie star for BBC Radio 4.
First Broadcast 11:30am, Tuesday 13th January 2009.
Pick of the Day in Guardian Guide, Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.

LISTEN AGAIN ONLINE FOR 30 DAYS AFTER BROADCAST HERE

While I was growing up in Hackney, there were few east asian women in the culture reflecting anything like my appearance. Those that did slip through were not necessarily an inspiration. Yoko Ono was unfairly reviled in the media as a hate figure, although – far from breaking up the Beatles –she was a respected Fluxus artist in her own right and famous among the avant-garde cognoscenti way before John Lennon was anything more than a pop star. The twin horrors of my childhood, Suzy Wong and Juicy Lucy – happy hookers who migrated from popular literature onto the screen – were always there to define me in the eyes of a society without any other reference points. There were powerful women, too, but they came in the shape of Jiang Qing (Madam Mao), the kleptocratic Imelda Marcos and, in fiction, the evil daughter of Fu Manchu. Her I quite liked.

I wondered who the young Anna May Wong had to look up to. She grew up as third-generation Chinese born in a youthful America when Native Americans were safely out of the way on their reservations and former slaves were consigned to ghettos and plantations. Chinese-Americans were about as low as you could get; depicted as so much of a danger to working men and decent citizens that the US government introduced legislation specifically designed to curb the ambitions of the Yellow Peril within. Their ambitions may have been humble — earning an honest dollar for one’s labour, living in safety and security, bringing up families of their own — but the owners of capital tolerated them only as cheap labour, while much of the labour movement in both the Britain and the USA (Wobblies excluded) saw the Chinese as more of a threat than as fellow workers.

Various schools of thought say that Asiatic humans first walked over the Beriing Straits more than 17,000 years ago and populated the Americas down to their southernmost tip. Others contend that Imperial Chinese ships arrived in the 15th century, predating Columbus by decades; or that they initially landed in California on Portuguese ships carrying silver from mines in the Philippines.

What we do know is that in the mid-19th century, the discovery of gold at Sutters Mill in 1848 drew first a trickle and then a flood of Chinese who joined in the Gold Rush, populating the west coast and working the mines in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The next wave of immigration was brought in as cheap coolie labour by Charles Crocker in the 1860s to build his Central Pacific railroad which would link Sacramento with the East and bring the West into the Union during the Civil War. Conditions were harsh and they were paid less than their white counterparts.

But not all Chinese would submit and conform to the role of coolie; there was one major strike with thousands laying down tools as they busted through granite mountains and worked in 20-foot snowdrifts. It was a strike that had the potential to unite all workers, and ever since I found out about it in the early 1990s while working with Sinophile author Martin Booth on his film script The Celestial Cowboys in 1993, it has inspired me, especially as there are those who insist that Chinese are genetically bourgeois and incapable of working-class consciousness. The strikers were eventually starved back to work with a few concessions but they had shown they they weren’t all pushovers.

Many miners and railworkers settled in the US and formed America’s first Chinese communities. These were Anna May Wong’s roots.

In a world bereft of role models, Anna May carved out an acting career in the early days of the Hollywood film industry. She started young, as an extra on the streets of Los Angeles, learning her craft and gaining proper roles in defiance of her traditionalist father, who wanted her at home in the family laundry.

By 17, she was starring in Hollywood’s first technicolour movie, The Toll of the Sea, as the Madame Butterfly character, “marrying” an American who promptly dumps her when he returns to his homeland and a white wife. She dies tragically at the climax, beginning a pattern that would endure for most of her career.

Trapped in Dragon Lady or Lotus Blossom roles, she grew tired of being demeaned, insulted and limited. Anti-miscegenation laws meant she wasn’t allowed to kiss a romantic lead if he was white, even if he was a white actor playing a Chinese. Your sexuality got you killed, at least symbolically.

In the late 1920s she came to Britain, where she was already a huge star and made the black and white silent feature film Piccadilly for the German director E A Dupont. This was perhaps her greatest starring role, but she still had to die at the end. Death was the fate she had to endure for the crime of being attractive. I take a closer look at this movie in the programme as there’s a plethora of prejudice leaking at the edges, some of it hilarious, much of it still extant today.

Anna May was the toast of Europe: mates with Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich and, strangely, Leni Riefenstahl. Such was the contrast in Europe with what she’d experienced back home that she once stated there was no racism in Germany. And that was in the Thirties, which gives you some idea how bad it must have been if you were a minority in the Land of the Free.

She starred with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, acted with a greenhorn Laurence Olivier on the London stage. Philosopher Walter Benjamin had a major crush on her. She dined with royalty and was adored by her fans. Eric Maschwitz wrote the classic song “These Foolish Things” about her.

Yet Hollywood still refused to lower the drawbridge and give her the starring roles she deserved. Those still went to white actresses in Yellowface. Myrna Loy as evil Daughter of Fu Manchu? Loy, Katherine Hepburn, Luise Rainer and Tilli Losch were all considered better at being Chinese than Anna May Wong.

These things take their toll and she died in 1961, at the unnervingly early age of 56.

But isn’t everything different today? Nope, it’s still with us. The form has mutated but the content lives on. A Celestial Star in Piccadilly is one case study in how minorities are rendered invisible in the culture and as producers of culture, while the fruits of their labour are appropriated by those who sit at High Table.

And the danger of that is it’s the sleep of reason where monsters are born.

Hmmm, sounds familiar and rather too close to home …

Interviewees include:
Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Anna May Wong’s biographer, Laundryman’s Daughter
Diana Yeh, historian
Alice Lee, writer and actress who performed her one woman show about Anna May Wong, Daughter of the Dragon
Elaine Mae Woo, director of Frosted Yellow Willows about Anna May
Ed Manwell, film producer, Frosted Yellow Willows
Neil Brand, composer of the new score for the BFI Southbank rerelease of Piccadilly on DVD
Jasper Sharp, east Asian film expert
Kevin Brownlow, legendary film historian and filmmaker
Margie Tai and Connie Ho, who remember Anna May Wong visiting their Limehouse neighbourhood when they were kids

Produced by Chris Eldon Lee for Culture Wise Productions
Many thanks to Mukti Jain Campion of Culture Wise for giving me latitude and for her feedback

AVAILABLE TO LISTEN FOR 30 DAYS AFTER BROADCAST HERE

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British Born Chinese documentary panel discussion at the LSE: audio

British Born Chinese filmKevin and Daniel in British Born Chinese

Here’s the audio from last Saturday’s panel discussion at the London School of Economics where I’m talking about British Born Chinese, a documentary by Dr Elena Barabantseva.

Speaker(s): Dr Elena Barabantseva, Anna Chen, Andy Lawrence, Dr Véronique Pin-Fat
Chair: Professor William Callahan

Recorded on 27 February 2016 at Wolfson Theatre, New Academic Building

British Born Chinese engages the everyday struggles of two boys, Dan (aged between 11-13) and Kevin (aged between 12-14), reconciling their Britishness with Chineseness through their experiences at school, as volunteers at a community centre, and at home. Filmed over the course of two years in an innovative participatory and reflexive style, this film is an example of how artistic practices of filmmaking can work as a primary research tool. Driven by dialogue and close involvement with the film’s subjects, the film challenges the dominant popular representations of British Chinese as a ‘model minority’, and argues for a different understanding of community based on a shared sense of vulnerability.

Elena Barabantseva is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester and Co-Producer of British Born Chinese. She is a member of the Critical Global Politics research cluster, and British Inter-University China Centre (BICC) and author of Overseas Chinese, Ethnic Minorities and Nationalism: De-Centering China.

Andy Lawrence is filmmaker in residence and lecturer in Visual Anthropology at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology, University of Manchester. He is the founder of AllRitesReversed, a documentary film production company. He is Co-Producer of British Born Chinese.

Anna Chen (@MadamMiaow) writes and presents programmes for BBC Radio 4 as a freelance, and writes, produces and presents her arts show, Madam Miaow’s Culture Lounge, at Resonance 104.4FM. Her blog, Madam Miaow Says, was shortlisted in the 2010 Orwell Prize for blogs, and longlisted in 2012.

Véronique Pin-Fat publishes on ethics in global politics and is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester.

William Callahan is Professor of International Relations at LSE. His toilet adventures (2015) film was shortlisted for a major award by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Posted in Chinese Diaspora in Britain, Film, Talk | Tagged | Leave a comment

Anna May Wong Must Die! in China: Anna Chen’s radio interview on Beijing’s Studio Plus

Here’s a radio interview I gave in Beijing when I did my Anna May Wong Must Die! talk for the China-based Bookworm Literary Festival in 2015.

Anna Chen: A Voice to Conjoin Britain with China

2015-09-30 10:17:08 CRIENGLISH.com Web Editor: Li Shiyu

Anna Chen presents her multi-media one-woman show: Anna May Wong Must Die. [Photo provided by Anna Chen]

Anchor:

Chinese people are among the fastest-growing ethnic minorities in the UK. However, in areas such as arts, media and politics, they are still the quiet section of the population.

But London-based writer, performer and broadcaster Anna Chen is reluctant to remain silent. Actively involved in comedy shows and radio programs, she is using her voice to conjoin the British Isles with the Middle Kingdom.

Let’s follow Li Ningjing to learn her story.

Reporter:

In a dimly-lit room in Beijing, accompanied with rhythmic music, stand-up performer Anna Chen rapped a trenchant, witty song on Anna May Wong, a Hollywood legend and one of the most misunderstood talents back in the Roaring Twenties.

“This is what fascinated me about Anna May Wong, who was Chinese movie star, Hollywood’s first Chinese superstar (and) the most famous Chinese woman in the world in the 1920s and 30s. And the things she was up against then, I felt I was still bumping up against at the end of the 20th century. ”

Off the stage,Anna acts like a typical Londoner. But born to a Chinese father and British mother, she admits that she has always been conscious about her dual identities.

“I grew up as an English girl, feeling very English, but also very aware of the Chinese side of my family. So I always say that I have Beatlemania yelling at me in one ear, and Red Guards yelling at me in the other. It’s a very, very strange mix, but I think it’s quite interesting.”

Immersing herself in the cultural extravaganza in the UK during the 1970s, Anna Chen has developed a strong interest in the entertainment industry since an early age. But when she started to go to auditions, this fledgling performer was not satisfied with the stereotyped roles being offered.

“One of the things that I came up against with was (that) there were no parts written for Chinese women. The only Chinese women you saw on the screen, either on film or on TV, were very demeaning roles. See, (there were) either the Dragon Lady: evil, being destructive; or else you were the Lotus Blossom: very delicate, in the need of help, and a little bit feeble; or else, the third thing (is that) you are completely invisible. So after a while, I wrote my first show called Suzy Wrong-Human Cannon.”

In 1994, Chen took her show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the largest arts festival in the world and thus became the first British Chinese comic to do so. A few years later, she also made her acting appearance in Stewart Lee’s Fist of Fun. That experience not only granted her as the first Chinese comedienne shown up on British television, but to a certain extent, it also promised her future opportunities in broadcasting, particularly after successfully launching her first radio program on Yoko Ono.

“I started to make programs for BBC, for Radio 3 and for Radio 4. One of the things I always enjoyed was making programs about Chinese culture and Chinese people that showed in a positive light. I always said that if you dehumanize a group, if you make them just a blank canvas, if you create a vacuum and all sorts of really unpleasant monsters fill the vacuum, so I think it’s very important to humanize. Because we are! That’s the reality.”

Besides offering her voice as a regular guest talking about Chinese matters and current affairs, such as the Morecambe Bay cockling disaster and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Anna Chen has also written and presented China-related documentaries and drama for BBC and London-based radio station Resonance FM. From her screen heroine Anna May Wong, China’s manufacturing industry and its relationship with Britain, to Chinese sci-fi and chinoiserie cliches in music, the topics are diverse while her style is frequently labeled by critics as “witty, wisecracking and sophisticated”.

One of her most well-received programs is a ten-part BBC series named “Chinese in Britain”. Presented in an anecdotal manner, the program explores the lives of Chinese people who came to the UK before the immigration boom in the 1960s and unveils some less-heard-of truths. For example, the earliest Sino-UK cultural exchange could be traced back to the 17th century, when the Jesuit scholar Shen Futsong met King James II; while during the First and Second World Wars, actually there were a great number of Chinese sailors who joined the British merchant navy and contributed a lot to the British victory in those turbulent times.

“I do get people coming up saying: ‘You know, we really, really enjoy your program.’ ‘Cause it’s such a rarity! ‘Cause what you normally get is that if they do look at Chinese, it is normally from the outside, from their point of view looking at something strange, rather than what we did, which is saying: ‘This is us. We are here. Look, this is us telling you our story and just making it normal. ‘”

From stand-up, theatre to poetry and radio, this multi-talented artist is using her voice to “grapple with issues of politics and identity, subvert stereotypes and poke the status quo with a sharp stick” warts and all. Thanks to her projects, Chinese are no longer the takeaway owners or inscrutable Kung Fu experts, but ordinary people with diverse characters.

Anna says her role model is Prometheus, who inspires her to do her best to conjoin Chinese with the rest of the world.

“I think I am planting seeds. So whether it germinates, I don’t know. But this is how I think of myself. I think with this next generation, we are starting to see more people coming up. So I think time is on our side.”

Beside hosting her weekly radio show, Anna Chen is planning to write a memoir, which documents her life as a British Chinese.

For Studio Plus, this is Li Ningjing.

Click here to listen to Anna Chen’s radio interview on Studio Plus, Beijing.

Posted in Anna May Wong Must Die, China, Chinese Diaspora in Britain, Live performance, Race, Radio, Talk | Tagged | Leave a comment