London-born writer, performer, poet and broadcaster
Political analysis and cultural response by Anna Chen
Pioneering UK Writer Stands Up To The Narrative
“Whatever current western propaganda demands that you believe, we are capable of altruism, fellow feeling, critical thinking and original thought. Of course we are. We’re human.”
Anna Chen is a pioneering writer, poet and broadcaster, born and raised in Hackney, east London. The child of a Chinese father and an English mother, she grew up in the heart of two major civilisations at a historic crossroads. As a result, it was hardly surprising that she would end up as a cultural outrider.
Born into the belly of the imperial beast, she saw at a young age how no Chinese were positively reflected in the culture. Realising it was only supposed to be vampires who cast no reflection, she kicked up against the invisibility imposed on her from childhood.
She grew to recognise this erasure as a manifestation of a larger class conflict that required women and labour, as well as empire minorities, to submit to a grinding world order. One subsequent aim – to demystify and humanise the Chinese as a counterweight to the prevailing Yellow Peril stereotypes embedded in western culture – would turn out to be a matter of survival and solidarity.
Her writing at Madam Miaow Says was shortlisted in the 2010 Orwell Prize for blogs, and longlisted in 2012. She is a TED Speaker. A great believer in evidence-based Age of Enlightenment ideals, she is one of the longest-standing politically active Chinese Brits of the last few tumultuous decades.
With the refreeze into a new Cold War came the end of the brief “Golden Age” of British Chinese relations. In short, it meant curtains for anyone in the liberal media holding Anna’s critical values who refused to come to heel. Faced with the challenge, the clampdown has only invigorated her drive to replenish the soul, renew the spirit and free the mind as a full member of human society.
Anna Chen: Broadcast
Anna wrote and presented programmes for BBC Radio 4 as a freelance and presented her arts series, Madam Miaow’s Culture Lounge, at Resonance 104.4FM.
The BBC: Anna set out to break down sinophobic stereotypes and humanise east Asians in the media. Her programmes for BBC Radio 4 (produced by Mukti Jain Campion and Chris Eldon-Lee of Culture Wise) were regularly Pick of the Day or Week in the national press.
Her BBC work includes:
A Celestial Star in Piccadilly: Anna May Wong (2009) introducing a new British audience to the Hollywood legend and most famous Chinese woman in the world in the 1920s and 30s. Chopsticks At Dawn(2010) explored the familiar five-note musical trope cartooning Chinese music that subliminally reinforced the dehumanised image of Chinese in western culture. Madam Mao’s Golden Oldies(2012) looked 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 (2010, produced by Sally Heaven, BBC Bristol) pointed up China’s imminent transition from manufacturing our tat to high tech production, examining Chinese trade and the novelty goods we demand from Chinese factories. Found In Translation (2011), considered Chinese comedy and the universality of humour. Yoko Ono — A Life in Flux (produced and written by Lance Dann 1999 for BBC R3) was a refreshing profile of 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 (2011) shared Anna’s lifelong love of the Cornish artists’ colony. Photos here. The groundbreaking ten-part series, Chinese inBritain(2007),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. The series covered a wide range of unknown aspects of the history from medics, the forcibly deported seamen of the 1960s and theatrical success to the laundries and food of the mid 20th century.
She wrote and narrated the BBC Radio 4 play, Red Guard — Yellow Submarine (2005, produced by Pam Fraser Solomon), based on an extract from her memoir.
Anna wrote and presented Madam Miaow’s Culture Lounge, an arts series, for Resonance 104.4FM. (2013-2015), launching with “Oh Other, where art thou?” looking at yellowface, blackface and ethnic minority representation in UK culture.
Anna Chen: Theatre, Poetry & Press
THEATRE: Anna Chen broke new ground as the first Chinese British writer and performer to take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with the satirical trailblazer, 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. British theatre audiences had never seen the orientalist stereotypes of Chinese people taken apart by a Chinese woman before and it resulted in a slew of press.
A rarity among British Chinese poets and writers — a Chinese Brit 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 Royal National Maritime Museum and the British Academy. She hosted the British Museum Late event during the Terracotta Warriors exhibition (6th December 2007), and has curated various events.
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.
Anna Chen: Culture
Anna has appeared in a Bond movie, dated a rock legend, been drawn by the artist Patrick Heron, photographed by Bob Carlos Clarke and dressed by Vivienne Westwood. The UK’s first homegrown Chinese Brit punk before the movement was popularised in the media, Anna featured at the transition between rock and punk as pictured on the iconic Vicious But Fair album cover, wearing the catsuit Vivienne Westwood made for her. (Westwood invited her to represent her Kings Road shop, Sex, in Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World but, still at school, she turned it down due to exams coming up.)
She survived being mauled by a puma in her beloved Cornwall and swam with a shark (basking) in St Ives harbour. Blockbuster author Stan Pottinger based his character Tacoma Reed inThe Boss on her. She 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). She also read scripts for Palace Pictures, was a script doctor for the European Script Fund, and taught scriptwriting at Bournemouth Polytechnic/University.
Of her work, she says: “I always seem to end up grappling with issues of politics, class and race, 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 day.”
“Poetry can convey the underlying dynamics of how we work, the psychological truths of how and why people utilise power, which ultimately is what politics is about. Although I was born in London and my mother is white English, because I look like my dad and have his name I’ve been in a strange limbo land of being perceived and treated as Other while having undergone the formative experience of belonging. It’s been painful and, at times, almost a curse but it offers a unique view of who people are. The view is often not pretty and quite disturbing and yet I feel blessed and privileged, like having X-ray vision as your superpower.”
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” – Karl Marx
Anna Chen: Politics
POLITICS: Anna Chen innovated the British left from the late 1990s by introducing new skills championing the use of mainstream media and press relations. She organised and directed several publicity campaigns to hit national and international media including: the Chinese Foot and Mouth Disease smear campaign in 2001 and the Socialist Alliance in the London (2000) and general elections (2001), an alternative to New Labour’s rightward drift.
Against the odds, she established the press office for the moribund Stop the War Coalition. The anti-Iraq war protests (2001-3) took off, culminating in the million-strong London demonstration in February 2003. Investigative journalist Paul Foot called her the “best press officer in the country,” for her pioneering work in the left.
She was a member of the delegation that negotiated with Minister Nick Brown at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) in 2001 concerning the Foot and Mouth Disease smear. A few years later, she was invited to train up as a Parliamentary candidate to become Labour’s first MP of Chinese heritage. She politely declined.
In December 2023, Twitter/X deleted her 15-year old @MadamMiaow account with thousands of followers, the only continuous political and cultural commentary from a critical Chinese western perspective since 2008. This was despite no violations and no warning, and six appeals which fell on deaf ears. Her replacement account starts from scratch at @AnnaChenMiaow
Anna Chen: Teaching
Anna is a politically-informed artist who teaches narrative skills aiming to make visible the invisible and navigate a world in flux.
She set up and ran 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 also taught for the Orwell Prize Wigan Pier Workshops in 2013. She taught scriptwriting at Bournemouth University for two years as well as tutoring writers and producers.
WOMAN ON A MISSION It was simple, really. All I had to do was complete three missions in the 21st century. 1) Make sure the left didn’t bury the anti-Iraq War campaign the way they’d done all the others. As long as it didn’t end up as another forgotten walk in the park, we might stand a chance. Check. 2) Make visible the invisible and humanise the Chinese in the culture, on the BBC and in the rest of the media. Usher them out of the ghetto, where they were sitting ducks, before the war started in earnest. Nice try. 3) Stop World War 3. Still working on it.
Anna was a David Bowie kiddie, queuing up all night to get precious front row seats for the Kilburn State Gaumont and the Hammersmith Odeon. She can be glimpsed in D.A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust movie.
Anna hung out with the London S.S. (Social Security, ha!) which became half of The Clash. Singing in bands and dressed by Vivienne Westwood, she’s the UK’s first Chinese punk.