I’ve been thinking about this even before 2008, when I made a BBC Radio 4 programme on one of my heroines, A Celestial Star In Piccadilly, about Hollywood’s first Chinese screen legend, Anna May Wong (broadcast January 2009). I’d originally tried to time the show for 2005, her birth centenary, but it took two goes to get the commission.
Rather that tell a straight story about her life, as I did on radio, I decided to take a different approach. You can read all about Anna May in at least two fine biographies: The Laundryman’s Daughter by Graham Russell Gao Hodges, and Perpetually Cool by Anthony Chan.
I wanted to show her as refracted through my own experience, of someone in the here and now of the Chinese diaspora, and I came up with Anna May Wong Must Die!: a personal journey through the life and crimes of Hollywood’s first Chinese superstar.
It’s especially pertinent in an age where, unlike in America, you hardly ever see an Asian face depicted as a normal participant in British society. You’d never know that there were up to 500,000 Chinese (including native-born descendants) in the UK.
We still play Spot The (East) Asian, but mostly all we get are fiendish criminals (Sherlock: The Blind Banker — BBC); Will Self (who ought to know better, much better) dismissing Chinese as “antlike”; trendy progressive theatres laying on yellowface plays where white actors depict the “essence” of the Orient (More Light and The Golden Dragon at the Arcola and Traverse); government and media accusing the filthy Chinese of starting the major disease outbreak of Foot & Mouth when Labour’s handling of it went tits-up in 2001 (for which we won an apology from the government, but not the press); London Mayor Boris Johnson claiming that the Chinese are “incapable of original thought” (isn’t that unoriginally nicked from Mark Twain, Boris?); Morrissey working out of the Dr Mengele handbook and declaring the Chinese to be a “sub-species”; China used as a hysterical diversion during the Copenhagen Climate Change summit in 2009 when news was about to break that the wealthy nations were stitching up the rest of the world with the “Danish text”, and Ed Milliband playing his own part in the Copenhagen cover-up — but at least Ed admitted in February this year that he’d been wrong and acknowledged the resources being chucked at the problem, not to mention that a third of China’s emissions are produced through making stuff for us.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t criticise China for getting things wrong. As part of the global community, and a force that may lead us out of the recession, China should listen to valid, productive comment, just as Western nations should. But using Chinese people to bash the new economic rival and mask racism with politics is, by any civilised standards, dirty pool.
We know — post-Macpherson — that institutional racism has to be identified and called out for what it is. So it is astonishing to see practically no Chinese in fiction or news. I break out the cava whenever I see our one ubiquitous telly face, Gok Wan, or rare sightings of James Wong, ethnobotanist, and other fabled mixes (Alexa and the BBC newsreader woman). Then there are the enlightened BBC Radio 4 commissioners who occasionally allow me to make programmes for them. But these few swallows do not a summer make — and I prefer to spit.
The rest of it is effectively a nasty bit of social engineering: dehumanising us, excluding us from our own society and our culture, rendering us invisible, unknown and a bloody big target for when a collective scapegoat might be needed. And, with some major unpleasantness coming down the pipeline as a result of bankers’ greed and world recession, that situation had better be reversed, toot sweet. When you create a vacuum like this, you allow all sorts of horrors to fill up the space — the sleep of reason produces monsters. Bit by bit, we’re chipping away at the cultural coalface but, in a way, our work is done. China is set to be the world’s biggest and richest superpower and no-one, not the media, and especially not the advertisers, will be able to pretend for much longer that we aren’t here.
You can see me try out Anna May Wong Must Die! as a work-in-progess (I’ll be on-script) next month.
Anna May Wong Must Die!
Written and performed by Anna Chen
New Diorama Theatre
15 – 16 Triton Street,
London, NW1 3BF
7.30pm Thursday 10th & 8.30pm Saturday 12th November 2011 (plus Q&A session afterwards)
Part of the short “In The Mirror” season of Chinese one-woman shows.
Anna’s food blog here: