Anna Chen: London-born writer, performer, poet and broadcaster
Political analysis and cultural response
Pioneering Chinese Brit Anna Chen carves out new ground
“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 cultures. She 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. Her blog, Madam Miaow Says, was shortlisted in the 2010 Orwell Prize for blogs, and longlisted in 2012. She is one of the longest-standing politically active Chinese Brits of the last few tumultuous decades.
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 has 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 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). She read scripts for Palace Pictures and was a script doctor for the European Script Fund, as well as teaching scriptwriting at Bournemouth Polytechnic/University.
Anna Chen: Broadcast
She 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.
BBC: Anna Chen’s 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. She set out to demystify and humanise the Chinese as a counterweight to the prevailing Yellow Peril stereotypes embedded in western culture.
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) examined 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 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 aspects of the history from medics, seamen and theatre 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
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. She debuted on British television, in Stewart Lee and Richard Herring’s show, Fist of Fun(BBC2) in 1995. Other plays written and performed by her include I, Imelda (1998),Anna May Wong Must Die! (2009) andTaikonaut (2005-6). Education was served when her play, The Steampunk Opium Wars, debuted at the Royal National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to mark the opening of their new Traders Gallery in 2012. Hardly anyone in the audience had even heard of the Opium Wars.
POETRY & EVENTS: At 14, Anna Chen’s poetry was first published in the Jonathan Cape anthology Fire Words. She won the Farrago Poetry Zoo Award for Best London Performance in 2013. Her first collection of poetry, Reaching for my Gnu, was published in paperback in February 2013 by Aaaargh! Press. (Poetry videos here) Her second volume, Chi Chi’s Glorious Swansong, was published in 2021. 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.
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 was one of the few east Asian women of colour visible in the media. Her first column for Asia Times appeared 14 August 2023.
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.
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 and 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.
Anna Chen: Teaching
A politically-informed artist, Anna 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.