Monthly Archives: October 2013

PS: Pondering 1920s set tv programs

Incidentally, after yesterday’s Fu Manchu blog, where I mentioned Anna May Wong in a 1920s period tv show I remembered one of my favourite photographs of all time. Which is this…

Paul Robeson, Anna May Wong and Mei Lanfang outside Claridges Hotel, London 1935

Paul Robeson, Anna May Wong and Mei Lanfang outside Claridge’s Hotel in 1935.  Ok, so a bit later than I immediately remembered. But my point is that here is cosmopolitan London, with three iconic, global, stars of their time, and they aren’t all white, or black. The thing I love about this photo is that it really speaks to cross-racial coalition, friendship, and stardom – in a time supposedly less progressive than ours. Robeson also supported the cause of Welsh miners and a few years later would star in The Proud Valley about mining life in the Rhondda Valley. And yet, this kind of diversity, this intercultural exchange that actually existed, is not present in our mainstream media. Producers, look at this photo and take note….

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The Fu Manchu Complex

The Fu Manchu Complex by Daniel York at the Ovalhouse in London: the first full staging of a brand spanking new British East Asian play for how long? (I think 5 years since Yellow Earth Theatre’s Running the Silk Road). I’ve been waiting – watching various readings, seeing the short plays and now voila! Bona fide production! Hurrah! Even if you don’t read any more of what I have to say: go see it! It’s really good fun!

The Fu Manchu Complex is a satire on incredibly persistent stereotypes of the Chinese – stereotypes that permeate society, attaching themselves to anyone of British East Asian descent, and indeed, to most stories about contemporary China. Dr Fu Manchu is the greatest “Oriental” villain ever created: sinister, lithe, ruthless, cunning, slipppery, intelligent, the mastermind criminal of Sax Rohmer’s imagination. In the novels Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie are constantly thwarted by him, as just when Fu Manchu is cornered, he always manages to escape at the very last moment. Fu Manchu is the ultimate villain who can match, and supersede, the intelligence of white British men, and thus epitomises the Yellow Peril stereotype. He is the Chinese man the West fears but cannot know.

Set in late Victorian/early Edwardian Britain, The Fu Manchu Complex parodies the novels, with Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie brilliantly played as plummy and camp by Paul Chan and Andrew Koji. It has to be said that their comic timing is excellent and the physicality of Koji’s performance ramps up the ridicule of Imperial Britain’s “great, white men”. Smith realises that Fu Manchu has captured the colonialists and developed a serum that manages to turn them into Chinese people. Becoming this subhuman group is, of course, the ultimate kick against the horror and revulsion associated with attitudes to the Chinese – in this era especially.

The play debunks a whole series of stereotypes with its ironic humour, from the inability for minority groups to be perceived as British, the mis-reading of ethnicity, the disgust towards anything different, the use of white masks taken off when the characters become “assimilated” into a dominant culture. Yet the excessive performativity of the actors in playing the stereotypes is one of the key ways that the production gains a critical edge. This is not ‘straight up’ performance, it is knowingly tongue-in-cheek, with the racial pretence emphasised to destabilise the stereotypes in operation. When lines from Rohmer’s novels appear – not least in the infamous description of Fu Manchu himself – their racism and ridiculousness is made apparant. Fu Manchu’s revelation to the audience as a towering figure, glaringly pantomime, makes it hard to take this villain seriously. Indeed, the fact that these characters are played by British East Asians (of all stripes) only adds to the mockery of popular and degrading imagery. The play’s contextual setting also side-steps the exoticism often imposed onto China, Chinese characters or British East Asians by rooting itself in the Vaudeville music hall/Victorian BRITAIN (neatly illustrated by the staging, with its gilded frame and gas uplighting). BEA actors in period settings – another swipe in itself. (By the way, with Downton Abbey or Mr Selfridge, wouldn’t it be great to – oh I don’t know – have the biggest film star and most erudite woman of that time, ANNA MAY WONG appear, alongside the black jazz singers?)

I laughed and thought it was fun, although many mainstream reviewers seemed to have missed the point see (here) and (here). It isn’t perfect, it has a structural style and a point it repeatedly plays with and both run out of steam a little towards the end. However, I think it is a production that everyone needs to see to be reminded of the politics of racial stereotyping, and if you aren’t BEA, to be able to laugh at ourselves, because isn’t that one of the things the Brits are good at? It reminded me a lot of Sung Rno’s work and racial humour from a Korean American perspective and the audience had that same ‘laughter of recognition’ as Dorinne Kondo calls it in About Face. And for BEAs, I think this is landmark, for precisely that reason – they get the joke, and importantly that joke is on the dominant perceptions and structures that condition their mainstream theatrical representation. It is validating. And that is hugely important.

Prior to the performance I saw, Lucy Sheen and BEAA organised a panel discussion on ‘How do we move away from exotic curio to become integrated into British theatre?’ This was a really interesting event that considered the differences between British East Asians and their Black or South Asian counterparts, and discussed if the same routes should be followed. There was a panel of 6 speakers, poetry performances from Anna Chen (including the wonderful Anna May Wong Must Die!) and a public discussion chaired by me: Paul Hyu discussed his proposal to Equity that all EA parts should be played by EA actors, anticipating the possibility of yellow face in Miss Saigon, Dr Diana Yeh discussed the problems surrounding emerging hierarchies of racism and the multiple experiences and histories of racism and migration, Sonny Leong of Chinese for Labour said we all need to write to our MPs and lobby arts institutions and organisations, Jennifer Lim discussed self producing, Justin Audibert (the director of Fu Manchu Complex) discussed Black British theatre and  supported Paul’s ideas and I had my own little ramblings too. This has been filmed and no doubt placed somewhere on line….

Much is happening in the BEA sector at present, lots of plays, including this home-grown one, EA mixed race audition days, the next round of new writing Dim Sum Nights…. onwards onwards. For anyone interested, I’ve pasted my 4 min speech for the panel below.  Please quote me properly if you use it and remember it’s a stimulus to discussion:

The purpose of the debate is to discuss the idea and the reality of diversity, social and cultural inclusion for British East Asians in the arts and why unlike their colleagues of Black African-Caribbean or South Asian heritage, East Asians have not achieved similar recognition and visibility. Why are East Asians still subject to such demeaning and racist practices as Yellow Face?

I want to preface my comments by highlighting that many Black and South Asian artists still feel discriminated against and that there is some way to go in terms of equal representation. However, why haven’t British East Asians achieved similar levels of recognition and visibility?

Four things:

1) Black artists in particular speak out. We all see regular features where prominent practitioners discuss experiencing a lack of opportunities, being asked to perform stereotypes. This discussion is being held in a public way by leading figures. Since the Orphan of Zhao, this is starting to occur more and more now for East Asians. I think that is all to the good because there needs to be more social awareness and argumentation – which I will come to more in a minute.

2) That brings me to my second point which is that Black and South Asians work collectively. Idris Elba said he didn’t want to be the only black guy in Luther. So there is a collective agenda to help each other – if you know someone who could do a great artistic job from your own community or who needs a break, you suggest them. Asian Americans have been good at doing this as well in terms of giving each other opportunities. I know that this does happen, but it has to be for everyone.

3) Relatedly, thirdly, I feel that there is a real need to create a British East Asian voice and that will intrinsically be diverse. Black and South Asian communities have provided their own opportunities and their own image. You can question the extent to which that has actually worked and the types of representations that’s always produced, but on the other hand BEAs certainly couldn’t have the equivalent of Walk In The Light at the National. I worry about what happens when the mainstream has had its fling with China? Keep using Asian American works? The current swathe of plays is great – but is it a stepping stone to something else, or are those plays simply keeping EAs in the box? I also think there needs to be multiple avenues or outlets because it’s hard to support or serve everyone’s artistic orientation so it can’t just be the mainstream, it can’t just be the ethnic specific theatres. The other thing is that socially and politically, multiculturalism is losing currency as an idea, it’s said to be dying, but I think that might create opportunity to make the BEA theatre landscape really varied.

4) Finally, British East Asians need a popular and academic discourse. The Black and SA communities benefitted from the fact that their presence helped instigate the idea of multiculturalism, whereas now EAs are coming into prominence at a time when multiculturalism is on the wane. Black and South Asians shaped our understandings of race and multiculturalism in Britain, and wrote themselves into the social fabric in the process – famously the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham with people like Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy There Ain’t No Black…. Kobena Mercer, Angela McRobbie, as well as Lord Parekh’s report on Multiculturalism in Britain – these people created the discourse. Do those narratives automatically apply to British East Asians? I am on the fence, but BEAs need that wider cultural discourse too, popularly and academically, that needs writing and it’s a joint responsibility. It’s noticeable that there are literally a handful of articles on BEA theatre and many are focused on the same productions (YET’s Lear) so it is a self perpetuating circle that needs breaking.