" Madam Miaow Says

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

A banker, a worker and an immigrant walk into a bar … TED Talk by Anna Chen

My TEDxEastEnd talk has just been posted on You Tube.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

My TEDxEastEnd talk: Migration and Diversity, mirrors and diversion

I had a great time last Saturday as one of the speakers at the TED x East End event. I talked about migration and diversity, mirrors and diversion, looking at how politics and economics distort the history of human migration since we all walked out of Africa 60,000 to 120,000 years ago.

A banker, a worker and an immigrant are sitting at a table ...

The link is here: http://new.livestream.com/tedx/eastend/videos/74841242

Books by participants at this year's TEDxEastEnd Talks, including mine.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

BBC Newsbeat crocodile tears over anti-Chinese racism

Michael Wilkes of the British Chinese Project

While it is always uplifting to see the wicked repent and mend their ways, the BBC Newsbeat item — acknowledging how racism against Chinese Brits is largely ignored — is in danger of providing the corporation with bleeding-heart cover in the absence of measures to rectify the injustice.

The Newsbeat article quotes Michael Wilkes of the British Chinese Project as saying:
"Essentially Chinese people don't like to worry other people. There's a mindset within the Chinese community that we need to keep our business within ourselves, within our own family unit. I'm saying to young British Chinese people now that we can speak out. It's our responsibility - when you're being prejudiced against, you've got to speak up."

Well, that's a powerful get-out-of-jail-free card, allowing the protectors of Jeremy Clarkson's Top Gear petri dish to wriggle off the hook. Blame the victims and take a bow.

It's hard to ignore the utter hypocrisy of the publicly-funded BBC (barring a few enlightened individuals fighting the good fight for genuine balance and justice). The corporation notoriously runs its employment of women along the lines of Logan's Run, where we're mostly bumped off at 50, but also renders east Asians invisible. It declines to cast us in normal roles, which would show us as part of the fabric of British society — which is exactly what we are.

I mean, no regular Chinese characters in Eastenders? Really? Still?

There are plenty of examples of the establishment's fear and loathing of East Asians in general and the Chinese in particular. In Beebland, we are either invisible and excluded or else we turn up once in a blue moon to embody the ugly stereotypes lurking in the fantasy world of the white-bread powers ruling that particular roost.

Their nadir for many was the  Sherlock: The Blind Banker episode: a vivid illustration of the routinely-ignored racism against us. Instead of acknowledging and tackling the glaring and hateful dehumanisation contained therein, they gave the creeps a BAFTA.

The BBC is a BIG part of the problem, rather than even a part of the solution. If the corporation was sincere, there would be east Asians on their channels every night, depicted as normal folks alongside everyone else. The media are lagging way behind the advertisers, who've included increasing numbers of us in the past years because the ad men and women understand that we are not only human beings deserving of equal treatment and representation, but also (in purely monetary terms) a worthwhile slice of the market.

Our absence reflects the prejudice of media gatekeepers, management strata and the theatre establishment (hello, Royal Shakespeare Company). When you create a vacuum, this in turn creates space for nightmares: a blank canvas for the most ghastly of projections. The sleep of reason produces monsters and the BBC has played its part.

It's encouraging to see journalists, editors and producers finally taking this on in the Newsbeat article. However, in context, that piece is a sop thrown to the youth market (which has a more enlightened attitude towards issues of race, gender and sexuality, as well as growing numbers of east Asians) by one hand, while the other ensures the continuation of the conditions that allow such racism to maintain its foothold. Enough of the crocodile tears. Let's see some action.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

How St Ives came to be one of Britain's foremost art communities

St Ives in Cornwall romps home as the ideal town where most of us would like to live. 'Fonly it wasn't also the most expensive.

Here's a piece I wrote about the artists' colony and Number One desirable seaside resort for the recent First Great Western magazine (Sept-Dec 2014).

Anna Chen on how St Ives came to be one of the most important art communities in the country

It was the sunshine that did it, and not just because it gave you a tan, either. The late Patrick Heron, renowned British painter, claimed that the unique quality of the light in St Ives helped turn a fishing town up the far end of the British Isles into, not only one of our best-beloved seaside resorts, but also a magnet for some of our finest artists.

The most famous among them included the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, whose studio and sculpture garden you can visit tho this day, and her husband, painted Ben Nicholson.

St Ives sits on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic. The higher than normal level of ultra-violet reflected off the ocean creates a bright, luminous quality that has attracted artists for over two hundred years, ever since 1811, when JMW Turner — acclaimed for his ethereal landscapes — first arrived with his charcoal and water-colours.

St Ives in Turner's time had grown wealthy as a major fishing port, benefiting from abundant shoals of mackerel, herring and pilchards drawn to the red run-off from the tin-mines, with the pilchards pressed for oil and mostly exported to Italy. You can still see signs of its once-thriving industry today in the fishermen's nets and brightly coloured buoys in the yard of the Porthmeor Studios, although many of the former pilchard cellars are now holiday homes.

Fashionable British artists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries would have traditionally visited France to paint their favoured French landscapes. But with the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars in 1803, they were soon deprived of their annual sojourns, and looking for an alternative to the rugged Brittany coastline, artists turned to the rocky headlands and high cliffs of Cornwall.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Royal Albert Bridge, which spans the River Tamar, connecting Devon with Cornwall, opened in 1859 and flung wide the floodgates for a new generation of British and international artists wanting to follow the great Turner's footsteps. By the time the Great Western Railway connected St Erth with St Ives on 1st June 1877, artists were flocking to the fishing town. Artists such as Walter Sickert and the American JAM Whistler visited in 1884, drawn to the mild weather, wild landscape and, of course, that extraordinary light.

The arrival of the railway not only brought swathes of artists to the area, but also helped bring new opportunities to the town, which was falling into decline in the second half of the 19th century, due to a collapsing fishing industry. The improved transport routes connected the ailing town directly with London Paddington, opening it up as a tourist resort and an outpost for creative types.

The burgeoning artists colony started taking over the abandoned fish cellars and sail lofts, turning them into studios, with the first ever recorded conversion being a sail-loft on Carncrows Street converted by the Right Honourable Duff Tolamache in 1884. The north-facing Porthmeor Studios in Back Road West, overlooking the beach, were particularly well situated, as the light is evenly dissipated, with none of the harsh distorting shadows of a southerly aspect. More to the pojnt, they enjoy a glorious uninterrupted view of the sea and the setting sun over Clodgy Point.

James Lanham opened the first gallery in St Ives in 1887, and the inaugural School of Painting opened the following year, founded by painters Julius Olsson and Louis Grier. Special trains were laid on to bring painters and audiences to exhibitions, assuredly putting St Ives on the map as an international arts hotspot.

The best-known local artist, Alfred Wallis, was discovered painting in the doorway of his home in Back Road West by artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood in 1928. He was a scrap merchant and fisherman who painted straight onto board and bits of metal. They were struck by his unschooled "primitive" naive style and did their best to promote him. Nevertheless, despite their efforts, he sold few paintings in his lifetime and died in the workhouse. His simple grave in Barnoon Cemetary next to Tate St Ives is adorned with ceramic tiles by the potter Bernard Leach.

Leach himself had studied pottery in Japan and brought his techniques to St Ives in 1920 where, with Shoji Hamada, he established the Leach Pottery on the Stennack River. Utilitarian and functional as well as beautiful, his pioneering style earnt him the title "Father of British studio pottery". He died in 1979, but there remains a working Leach studio and gallery celebrating his life and work, as well as showcasing its produce and training a new generation of potters.

Leach received the Freedom of the Borough of St Ives in 1968, the same year as another giant of British art accepted that very accolade — the Modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth.

Hepworth moved from London to St Ives with her husband Ben Nicholson and their triplets at the outbreak of the Second World War. She lived in the town until her death in 1975, and was the centre of an influential group of abstract artists, including Nicholson, Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham, Peter Lanyon, John Wells, Patrick Heron and sculptor Nuam Gabo. Their exciting and experimental movement, while on the whole largely abstract, still remained rooted in nature, thus giving it a broad appeal.

With a resident art community now in place, other artists were encouraged to visit the town. The Irish painter Francis Bacon worked in studio 3 in Porthmeor Studios between September 1959 and January 1960, also visited for three days in 1959. Other artists include Roger Hilton, Terry Frost, Paul Feiller and Sandra Blow who worked from Porthmeor Studios from 1994 and then Bullens Court.

In 1993, the Tate St Ives gallery opened to the public, sealing the town's reputation as a world class centre for art. The gallery continues to have an extensive programme of exhibitions and events, and for the next seven months will be home to some of the best photography from the Tate collection in a new exhibition entitled The Modern Lens: International Photography and the Tate Collection.

The Tate also runs the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Scupture Garden (her former home and studio) at the Trenwyn Studio, as well as offering a multimedia Ben Nicholson tour.

For over 200 years, St Ives has been attracting some of the best British and international artists to its rocky shores. Drawn to the unique quality of its light, painters and sculptors settled in the town where they created and exhibited theirnwork while raising families and contributing to the community. They made full use of everything the area had to offer, and while there, undoubtedly got a bit of a tan too.

* * *

ARTISTS: Alfred Wallis, Borlase Smart, Patrick Heron (worked at Studio 5, Porthmeor Studios), Francis Bacon, Sandra Blow, Patrick Hughes, Naum Gabo, Turner, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, John Wells (discovered Alfred Wallis), Bernard Leach, Peter Lanyon, Sven Berlin, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Bryan Wynter, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, Roy Walker. And living: Anthony Frost, Bob Devereux, Keir Williamson, Breon O'Casey, Zoe Eaton, Clare Wardman, Roy Ray, Sax Impey.

Artist Bob Devereux helped start the St Ives Arts Festival some thirty years ago and keeps the tradition alive with the May Litarary Festival which takes place for a week in May.

Art classes can be found at the St Ives School of Painting as well as the Bernard Leach pottery. There's always somthing for children at Tate St Ives.

POTTERY: Aside from the Leach Pottery, the best ceramics shop outside London has to be St Ives Ceramics in Fish Street which carries not only contemporaty work, but also pieces by Leach and his great friend Hamada Shoji, as well as his late widow, Janet. Another pottery well worth visiting is the Gaolyard where you can watch the nine resident potters working.

Patrick Heron occupied Studio 5 Porthmeor Studios. He designed scarves form the age of 14 for his father's textile factory in St Ives. Lived in St Andrew's Street and then Eagles Nest on the road to Zennor. Designed the stained glass window on the ground floor of Tate St Ives: Window For Tate Gallery St Ives 1992–3

Virginia Woolf wrote her novel To The Lighthouse inspired by Godrevy Lighthouse. The Stephens family spent summers at Talland House in Talland Road until Virginia was 13 years old.

Art classes:
St Ives School of Painting
Learn to draw and paint or just keep your hand in at St Ives's oldest art school, established in 1938.

Porthmeor Studios, St Ives, Cornwall
TR26 1NG
t: 01736 797180
e: info@schoolofpainting.co.uk

The Leach Pottery
Beginners and professionals can take short courses in throwing clay throughout the year.
Higher Stennack, St Ives TR26 2HE
Tel: 01736 799703

Ultramarine Studio

Back Road Artworks

Back Road East

St. Ives
TR26 1NW

+44(0)1736 791571

Knit One Weave One
Make an eye-popping fabric picture or a vibrant felt hat with Jo McIntosh's textile art classes.
01736 797122

St Ives Arts Club
As well as holding exhibitions and staging performances in their 120-year old theatre, the club also hosts art classes. Check the website for more info.
Westcott's Quay.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Council estate "chinky bird" urges restaurateurs to piss in Nigel Farage's prawn balls

This council estate-raised "chinky bird" is making a heartfelt plea for all the magnificent Chinese restaurateurs and takeaway caterers of the British Isles to piss in Nigel Farage's prawn balls if ever he shows his dinosaur face near their establishments. Of course, they won't because they're too nice: much nicer than the bigots that Ukip appeals to. Nevertheless, I live in hope.

Nigel Farage has defended the antediluvian 'chinky bird' comment made by former Ukip activist Kerry Smith, asking: "If you and your mates are going out for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?”

Personally, I'd say we were going out for a Chinese. Or an Indian, Japanese, Thai, Mexican, Italian … whatever.

Racism and sexism all rolled up in one tiny two-word phrase of hate. That's an impressive economy of bile for you.

He then compounds it by writing off working-class people as racists and excusing Kerry Smith, Ukip's former parliamentary candidate for South Basildon and East Thurrock who made the offensive "chinky" and "poofter" comments, because he was a "rough diamond" raised on a council estate.

“He’s a council house boy from the East End of London, left school early, and talks and speaks in a way that a lot of people from that school and background do."

I've heard as much, if not more, racism and general bigotry from the bourgeoisie who inhabit the virtually all-white areas that Farage and his Ukippers court.

On my council estate — the Gascoyne estate in Hackney — only the most ignorant used hate language as callously and casually as Farage's former candidate. It was a long time ago, well before these issues started to be properly addressed. Decent white working-class people already knew that such language hurt people. Others took a while longer to realise what effect they were having on their neighbours. Gascoyne's residents were made up of a healthy mix of backgrounds and I felt safer there than in some of the white-dominated milieux I've subsequently seen.

Nowadays, only the deeply disturbed and terminally/deliberately thick insist on keeping it up. They're trying to bring back the bad old days when non-whites and other minorities were excluded and marginalised from the British society to which we all belonged.

It shouldn't be necessary to reiterate that it's not immigrants who crashed our economy, and currently still treat it like a big roulette game or a flutter on the gee-gees. It's not immigrants who decided to stop building housing for the mass of the population or make it necessary for the state to subsidise the corporations in rent, low-pay, zero-hours and rail fares.

Oh, yes, we say things like "milieux", Nigel: we snobbish elite London council estate gals who left school at 16.

There's a whole wide world out there from which the brighter among us can draw. I know you know this, Nigel, because being an MEP evidently has its perks. So stop exploiting popular prejudice like a Poundshop Enoch Powell (copyright Russell Brand's chest-hair):  for a man who prides himself on thinking outside the stale old box, you don't half talk some scheisse.

Full vile throttle at 21:50

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Being Human Festival: Anna Chen talks about Chinese comedy in culture debate

Being Human Festival: Ha ha ha? Laughter and Humour Across Languages and Time.

Had a lovely time last night talking at another event in the Being Human Festival.

Laughter is generally regarded as something quintessentially human: being human means being able to laugh (or so Aristotle claimed). However, the things that make people laugh can vary quite considerably, and these differences may be magnified across time, languages and cultures.

In this session of Café Culture, UCL academics Geraldine Horan and Seb Coxon and comedian Anna Chen aim to take a closer look at this issue. Join them to find out whether humour can ever really be a serious subject, and to debate such questions as: How do jokes work? Can jokes be translated from one language to another? What is the history of joking? To what extent are we able to understand jokes from another historical period or culture?

I talked about the history of Chinese comedy and my attempts to challenge stereotypes in my own writing and stand-up. The Chinese are said to have invented the political joke — 4,000 years of repression and hierarchy will do that to you. Under Confucianism (2,500 years ago), comics were looked down on and mocking the sovereign earned you the death penalty. This soon applied to all authority until what was required for survival was "gravity in speech and manner."

Despite this, texts in mediaeval times are full of Chaucerean mockery of authority and the big-heads who like their power over other human beings a bit too much — and also of the idiots who fell in line (nuthin' changes). Corrupt officials and country bumpkins bore the brunt of contemporary cynical wit.

This venting used the Crosstalk form which has been popular since the middle-ages: the two-hander: a straight man and a funny man.

It lost its momentum during the early communist era, especially in cultural revolution China, after 1966. The authorities demanded that practitioners cut out the satire and use their skills to praise, instead. This repression gave rise to an explosion of cynical humour under communist rule, but in private.

Although there's a strong tradition of clowning, the Chinese don’t do silly. So Monty Python, which requires a ditching of personal dignity, does not go down well. Humour that demonstrates smartness and quickness of wit, such as Monkey, is what's favoured.

Chinese tend not to use set-up and punch structure. In popular comedy, it's more scatalogical — which is understandable in a nation where death has been harshing your mellow for centuries in civil wars, wars against imperialist aggression, extreme poverty and famine. For the masses — and especially for Cantonese like my father — a farting, pooing human being is at least a live human being.

Today, authority is very much in the comics' crosshairs, especially the despised internet censors. The Grass Mud Horse phenomemon is a crude jibe at the Chinese Government's attempts to limit access to the world wide web, and plays with some very offensive double-entendres, mostly concerning yo mama's birth canal.

Comedy is now a massively popular branch of the Chinese entertainment industry. Performers like Zhou Libo are huge stars, entertaining the snotty Shanghainese, making gun of the rural "garlic-munchers". Not much comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in evidence there.

Here's a modern joke I found that features Chinese and isn't fuelled by hatred:
There are four blokes on a plane; an American, a Brit, a Chinese and a Japanese. The plane cuts out and starts to plummet but there’s only on parachute. The American is brave so he jumps out yelling, “God Bless America”. The Brit jumps out, shouting, “God save the Queen.” The Chinese yells, “May China live ten thousand years,” and kicks out the Japanese.

I interwove my own stand-up throughout my talk, giving examples of how I unercut and subvert stereotyped expectations. Where I attempt a high-wire act, treading the fine line between subversion and reinforcing the stereotypes, do I succeed? If not, why not? Do I need to refer to my ethnicity at all? Or will it always be the elephant in the room until I acknowledge it and then move on? The tension between the expectations of an audience fed a limited and distorting set of representations of east Asians (when they are not being rendered utterly invisible) and my efforts to set them straight do make for a rich seam of comedy to mine.

In the end, a writer has to write about what he or she wants to write about, and go where the energy is.

The ability to create comedy demonstrates an understanding and a facility with the cultural codes. Once a minority (ethnic, gendered, sexuality and disabled) can do comedy, you are firmly embedded at a deeper level in society and it's harder to keep you marginalised. That's why ethnic minorities always produce smart-arses who want to express a view of the world refracted through the prism of their own experience, rather than what's being projected onto them from outside.

Crossing the divide between being "other" and embedded in the culture  means you belong to society as a participant, observer, commentator, consumer and a producer of meaning. We don't want to be dismissed as "Other". It's our world, too, and we can laugh at it — and at ourselves within it if we choose to do so — but strictly on our own terms.