A selection of Anna Chen’s City Scope columns in the South China Morning Post.
Anna May Wong Must Die! In the mirror
Custard-pie kung fu defender of geriatric billionaires Wendy Deng has been joined by Tinglan Hong as the other Chinese woman who Londoners can nearly remember. Hong, or ‘Ting Ting’ as she’s otherwise known, has hit the news as mother of Hugh Grant’s child, “Bamboo” or, in Chinese, “Happy Accident”.
I write this column from the cultural frontline at the New Diorama Theatre where I am performing my one-woman show, Anna May Wong Must Die!, dealing in part with the phenomenon of Asian invisibility. In one fell swoop, Ting Ting has doubled the roster of famous female Chinese names in recent times, and I have been busy making the requisite adjustment to my script which, may I add, is a very fine thing indeed.
Anna May Wong Must Die! was born out of my BBC Radio 4 programme about Hollywood’s first Chinese film star, A Celestial Star In Piccadilly, which I made in 2008. My personal journey through the life and crimes of the first Chinese superstar, it’s essentially rocked-up satire, politics and rudery with songs. It’s now part of True Heart Theatre’s In The Mirror season in London, in a unique unprecedented event featuring solo plays by three women from the Chinese diaspora.
Actress Lucy Sheen has written her first play, There Are Two Perfectly Good Mes: One Dead, the Other Unborn, about her life as an adoptee with a British family. She was brought over from Hong Kong at nine months — or two years — no-one is certain, and the photo of her at this time shows an undernourished baby that’s difficult to pin an age to. It’s an eerie feeling to touch the tiny red quilted jacket she was wearing when she arrived here. Luckily, our Luce is a whole lot more robust than her fragile beginnings would have led you to expect, and she presents her experience of trying to trace her family roots with sensitivity and humour.
Actress Veronica Needa, True Heart’s founder, performs a marathon as she revisits her one-woman show, Face, in both Cantonese and English, which feat has me going “ooh” in admiration. It’s a brave woman who invites audience participation but she does it with gusto in the second half, using the playback method to get the audience sharing their own stories about identity.
Wish us luck. We may get a shot at next year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which I want to publicise as “The Chinese are coming!” Lucy suggested “The Chinese Invasion”. [Whichever, we anticipate fun and majorly stirring it up big time.]
9 OCTOBER 2011
When trading meant invading
It was nine years in the making but the launch of the British National Maritime Museum’s Traders Gallery late last month has proved well worth the wait. As a long-overdue reappraisal of the East India Company’s ravages in Asia, this permanent exhibition goes some way towards address- ing the triumphalism of empire that has skewed the telling of this story in the history books. Starting with Queen Elizabeth’s royal approval of the firm in 1600, “Traders: the East India Company and Asia” takes us through the history of the organisation, from its inauspicious beginnings to a time when it was effectively a separate government with its own army. …
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28 AUGUST 2011
The difference between riot and wrong
With statistics showing Chinese students are the highest achie- vers in Britain, the British media have been in hot pursuit of our magic formula.
“Why, oh why, don’t the geeky kids riot?” they wail, adding that Amy Chua – author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a controversial guide to getting the best out of children through tough-love techniques – might be on to something. While it’s tempting to promise that six-hour piano lessons and forcing disobedient four-year-olds to stand outside in blizzards will turn young tearaways into model citizens, perhaps it’s best not to go for a cheap laugh. …
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10 JULY 2011
Chinese unfulfilled as Takeaway goes cold
Takeaway was billed as the first Chinese musical to be staged in Britain. It hit the capital’s Theatre Royal Stratford East last month with the energy of a thousand firecrackers – and then fizzled out, dealing a blow to all local Chinese in the process.
Ethnic Chinese wrote the musical and made up five of the eight cast members. It was touted as our long-awaited breakthrough and I was expecting something like the Second Coming. However, restating stereotypes is not the same as irony, despite what the critics might say, and I doubt any more cringeworthy cliches could have been squeezed in. It simply wasn’t funny.
In my BBC Radio 4 programme, Found in Translation, I decided to explore what makes us laugh, rather than what makes others laugh at us. As a stand-up comic, I’d sometimes wondered where the other Chinese comedians were. When I finally met some, I was pleased to see our funny bones were tickled in some surprising ways; learning about the crosstalk form of comedy popular in the mainland and the internet phenomenon known as the Grass Mud Horse, a meme used in symbolic defiance of internet censorship.
It’s a slow boat we sail, but we’re gradually registering in British culture. On BBC Radio 3’s arts programme, Night Waves, I was asked about Hollywood’s first Chinese superstar, Anna May Wong. Two more of her films have been restored and released on DVD: Java Head and Tiger Bay (both 1934). In Java Head, filmed and set in Britain, she was allowed to kiss her leading man even though he was white. The Brits employed only mild racism when compared with the anti-Chinese segregation laws of Wong’s American homeland.
Why, the host asked, was there no Chinese equivalent of Wong today? It was a good question, one that should be directed at writers and castingdirectors who forget we exist outside their fevered fantasies of fiendish “Orientals” hell-bent on the destruction of civilisation.
In the absence of any decent representation, idiotic images fill the vacuum. This is one reason why I and others are forming British Chinese United Artists, an umbrella group aimed at helping writers and performers rise on the same tide. We hope to make Chinese visible in our infinite variety, not just as the rinky-dink fabrications that
have defined and limited us.
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22 MAY 2011
The theatre that is British politics
Britain’s recent royal wedding was timed – for some arcane reason – to coincide with Walpurgis Eve (the Witches’ Sabbath) on April 29. Whether this means someone promised to sacrifice the firstborn in return for the continuation
of the monarchy, we can only hope … and gawp. The city was cleansed of protesters, and raids on hippies and republicans ensured democracy could be seen to run smoothly, with bunting and tears of joy for
our glorious leaders. …