London-born Chinese British poet, writer and broadcaster Anna Chen
Anna Chen is a writer, performer, poet and broadcaster, born and raised in Hackney, east London, to a Chinese father and an English mother. She has written and presented programmes for BBC Radio 4 as a freelance and presents her arts series, 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.
She was the first British Chinese writer and performer to take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with 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, and was the first to appear 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).
Her programmes for BBC Radio 4 (produced by Mukti Jain Campion of Culture Wise) are regularly Pick of the Day or Week in the national press. They include: 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 exploring the familiar five-note musical trope cartooning Chinese music; Madam Mao’s Golden Oldies 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 (produced by Sally Heaven, BBC Bristol) on Chinese trade and the novelty goods we demand from Chinese factories; Found In Translation, about Chinese comedy; Yoko Ono — A Life in Flux (produced 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 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 Radio 4 play, Red Guard — Yellow Submarine (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.
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 is one of the few east Asian women of colour visible in the media.
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, is available as an eBook on Amazon and was published in paperback in February 2013 by Aaaargh! Press. (Poetry videos here) A rarity among British Chinese poets and writers — a Chinese British 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, and curated various events as well as writing and presenting The Steampunk Opium Wars for performance at the National Maritime Museum to mark the opening of their new Traders Gallery in 2012.
She is a regular 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.
She has appeared in a Bond movie, dated a rock legend, been drawn by Patrick Heron, photographed by Bob Carlos Clarke and dressed by Vivienne Westwood — she was Britain’s first homegrown Chinese Brit punk. Bob Carlos Clarke’s photos of her were used on the iconic Streetwalkers Vicious But Fair album, and 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); read scripts for Palace Pictures and was a script doctor for the European Script Fund; also taught scriptwriting at Bournemouth Polytechnic/University.
Of her work, she says: “I always seem to end up grappling with issues of politics, race, class and identity, 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 night.”
POLITICS: Anna Chen pioneered the use of mainstream media and press relations in the British left from the late 1990s, organising and directing several publicity campaigns to hit national and international media including launching: the Chinese Foot and Mouth Disease smear campaign in 2001; the Socialist Alliance in the London (2000) and general elections (2001); the Stop the War Coalition anti-war protests (2001-3) culminating in the million-strong London demonstration in February 2003; and helped kick off the RSC Orphan of Zhao protest by the British East Asian Actors group (of which she is a founder member) in 2012. She is a founder member of the Chinese Civil Rights Action Group UK (CCRAG) which later became Min Quan when it affiliated to The Monitoring Group. She organised the press launch for the Bookmarks bookshop’s grand move and opening at its current location in Bloomsbury Street, London.
She runs 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 has taught for the Orwell Prize Wigan Pier Workshops.
Anna’s Ted Talk East End 2015
“Just imagine, the whole place being upset by one little Chinese girl in the scullery.” (Piccadilly, 1929)
“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 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.” MICK FARREN
“… 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.” LOUISE WHITTLE, LABOUR BRIEFING
“ 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.” HEATHCOTE WILLIAMS
Reaching for my Gnu is available on Amazon as an ebook and in paperback.
THE STEAMPUNK OPIUM WARS — WHAT THEY SAID
“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
More press here
Anna and Ian Hislop discuss Yellow Peril hysteria on Who Should We Let In?
BBC2, 22nd June 2017