China in Britain #3

Yesterday, I went to a conference as part of the AHRC funded research network project ‘China in Britain: Myths and Realities’. I was invited by the project’s investigator Dr. Anne Witchard to attend after I met her a week or so to discuss a photographic project that I recently bid for to curate – Between East and West by Mike Tsang (I’ll discuss this is another post). Number three in the series, the conference was entitled ‘Performance/Theatre and Media’ and took place at The Old Cinema at the University of Westminster on Regent Street in central London. The venue was chosen as it is where the first ever film was shown in the country in 1896, known as the birthplace of British cinema, also in the same building as the first ever photographic studio. A particularly special place to experience.

Through ‘China in Britain’, they aim to look at cultural translation, Sino-British cultural understanding, in the way of film, theatre, visual arts, cybernet culture and more, and how influential and crucial they are to the way we think about China in Britain…looking at historical and contemporary perspectives and the way history impacts on the contemporary. The first speaker was Dongshin Chang from Hunter College and the City University of New York, who presented ‘Representing China on the Historical London Stage: Research and Beyond’. He focussed on the textual, visual and aural realms of theatrical productions…what makes a costume Chinese or not Chinese?…the idea of the Chinese theatrical spectacle and the social commentaries that go hand in hand with this national identity when placed in Britain. He also referenced his own performative practice, ‘A Banquet for Two’ (2010) and ‘Finding a Portrait’ (2012) and how certain movements can be used in a way that is meaningful and powerful. “I try not to judge the productions in relation to authenticity but judge them on their purpose and what they are trying to do…try and find these necessary traces whilst remembering the bigger picture.”

Next was Simon Sladen, a PhD researcher from the University of Westminster who was examining was ‘Did you ever see such a succulent dish of Chinese takeaway?: Peter Nichol’s Poppy – Political Panto at the RSC’. The paper explored the reasons why Poppy is set in Victorian Britain, and looks in detail at how Nichol’s uses the genre of pantomime to make a political statement, paying attention to representations of China, the play of audience participation, whilst questioning it as an outcry against Thatcherism versus Nationalism in the celebration of Britain’s colonial past. “The way we represent the past on stage is very much how we interpret the present.” In the Q&A session points raised included “Pantomime is being used to reflect on itself and is perhaps not always so successfully…More recently people have complained about British education and the lack of knowledge on the Opium Wars, do you think pantomime would have confronted this? What are they trying to say here?…Pantomime is patriotism. Western theatrical practice is directly affected by Chinese theatrical practice. To stress pantomime was a mistake, to the great British public it is something to not think about, it is fun, nothing is authentic whatsoever. Poppy hasn’t helped the Chinese perception of theatre or pantomime. Pantomime is the issue. The question of English humour in pantomime, is English pantomime humourous and not to be taken seriously, is Poppy a comment, if it something about Black irony that is almost using pantomime to impropagate imperialist agendas, is it definitely about humour that can’t actually take a joke. You have to be careful of the lense through which you read pantomime. We only take away what we are fond of…are we fond of the imperial past? Used as a mode of subversion, it became so established at that high Victorian moment that it can no longer be….Poppy re-establishes all the stereotypes. You can never control how the audience will react. There is not a common social perception of what China is…there is no basis of what is truly Chinese, a cypher or a stereotype…you’re being asked to question a stereotype, which is a lot for an audience to do.”

After the break was ‘The Happy Hsiungs: Performing Race, Sex and Class in the Chinese Diaspora’ by Dr. Diana Yeh from Birbeck College and the University of East London. She highlighted the lack of research into “interethnic relations” of the Chinese communities in Britain by recovering the lost histories of the husband and wife Shih-I and Dymia Hsiung. “Identities forged within unequal power relations…How Chinese people fit into British ideas of race, nation, sex, gender, family, class and aesthetics, where it was difficult for Chinese people to create their own identities in Britain as it was hard for Britons to do the same thing at that time…Sino-phobic attitudes…The greatest impact on Britons came from Chinese art..” She referenced ‘Lady Precious Stream‘  where Britain at that time was “hungry for something really Chinese”. “The Chinese played a key role in the Western imagination…helped in reconfirming the modernity of the West…represented absolute difference versus “universalist” ideas…construction of identities in the world of politics…stereotypical and patronising perspectives…”I went all Chinese recently”…Who was authorised to present and voice “Chineseness” in the 1950’s?”

Next was ‘Post-modern Chinese Opera: Re-citing China in Monkey: Journey to the West (2007)’ by Dr. Ashley Thorpe from the University of Reading. This presentation immediately captured by attention as it looked into post-modernism thought in relation to popular culture, commercialism and Buddhism in relation to ‘Monkey: Journey to the West‘ from 2007, which I’ve actually seen. Thorpe questioned “How is it possible to create theatre that is this offensive? It is a double-edged approach to reading performance that confirm and challenge stereotypes…Monkey offered a commercialised, stereotyped presentation for the consumption by a White-British audience.” He focussed on the involvement of Gorillaz and Damon Albarn and how this changed the nature of the performance. “If you write about performance you are either with the post-modern or not…What form should opera take or not?…It is an attempt to connect with mass cultural forms…Monkey is a transient simulation symptomatic of popular culture…looks into capitalism, industrial enterprise, religion and spectacle and the basic tenants of Buddhist teaching…all things are composite, all things are transient and open to sorrow, no being has chance of salvation until they understand the three…the core concepts of Buddhism and simulations of popular culture…Is Monkey a piece of didactic theatre?…understanding of “space as a practiced place” in relation to the performance venue(s). Thorpe questions as to whether it is lazy, dense with clichés, tongue in cheek, a commercial spectacle ironic, housing cultural touchstones or being used as a kind of cultural diplomacy. A very varied sense of perspectives. He questioned authenticity and depiction of identities and the frustrations if you are from the origin as to how authentic it…is it so wrong to have such a Western depiction or is it mirrored through the British sensibility? As long as it’s not crass?…It is a problem…no funding for British-Chinese performance enterprise…There are those trying to contest these tropes but the funding isn’t there for that, so it is a big problem. It is difficult to contend against these big budgets…Monkey was supposed to have been taken to China. How different would it have been received in an urban Chinese city? Rejection of capitalism?…The issue of identity is a vexed one…Monkey was talked of as a “British Project” when in reality it was a Asian-American-British project with Chinese actors in it. Structurally it was drawing upon Jinju opera performance styles, Western opera and British pantomime.”

The afternoon began with actors David Lee-Jones and Lucy Sheen who conducted an ‘In conversation’ presentation speaking of their mutual experiences of how their Asian heritage has influenced their acting careers. After introducing his career and recent roles, David spoke about the expectations and conventions of theatre in relation to his heritage, and perceptions of race and gender, including referencing imasculine and gay roles. “The assumptions about race that are there within Britain and in the audiences where plays take place – largely middle class white British…playing against these assumptions…need to try to address these assumptions.” He questioned why East Asian actors can’t play romantic leads. ” We need to confront the issue about race…I was the first British-East Asian to play one of Shakespeare’s Kings…a dichotomy of playing the conventions and subverting them at the same time…Still today Britain doesn’t know what to think of China let alone the Chinese people living in Britain…We still do not have that bank of writers who are homegrown who are writing about what it means to be a human being that is Chinese and a resident of Britain…we need to have a bigger impact on the cultural stage in this country and until that happens things will not change…we need more representation politically…The idea of being East Asian rather than Chinese…for years the term “Oriental” was used, but in America you can’t use it at all, its offensive. “East Asian” is a term used in acting circles to define certain roles. It is useful to have a solid term but I don’t know how that changes…it describes a casting type rather than a unity of communities…because we are quite outspoken in theatre circles, we use these terms when they don’t actually help….I have dual nationality, my Mother is American-Chinese, and my Father is White-British…you have to appear as “multi-cultural property” otherwise the audiences won’t come to see you… you need critical mass, we have large communities but are not strong enough in vocal terms yet. What Chinese theatre would you like to see? The ghetto-isation…as artists we push to be seen and do work, but not necessarily for Chineseness or East Asian-ness to be seen first, these terms are pushed onto us…Perhaps it is a contentious statement to make but there are not enough good British east Asian actors, until that changes, then there is a reasonable perception that we cannot do the job…it is maybe beginning to change.”

Next was actor David Yip who immediately noted that because of academic endeavours like today, because they are getting involved in these types of discussions, people will take notice of the issues we were discussing. We can only hope right? That’s the whole point of my research! He spoke very honestly about the relationship with his father and how this informed the development of his new work ‘Gold Mountain’. “The idea of voice, where does voice comes from? It comes from us.”

Following David was Zoe Baxter, DJ and broadcaster for Lucky Cat radio programme on Resonance FM. Currently in her 6th Series, she spoke about the content of her radio shows focussing on the Chinese Diaspora to Jamaica and also the Chinese contribution to reggae music. At this point she started to make me smile as she spoke about Clive Chin, who I saw play at The Shelter in Shanghai in 2010, ChaCha and AM444 (who I’ve seen play many, many times), the Shanghai reggae scene and it’s development, Long Shen Dao and The Shelter as a music venue…The Shelter where I’ve ended up at many times until the sun comes up. Zoe then discussed her shows ‘Seven Singing Stars of Shanghai’, ‘Grasslands Music (Mamer and Hanggai)’ and ‘British Chinese Talent’. I’ll definitely be downloading podcasts to listen to from the Lucky Cat blog.

The final person to speak was Anna Chen, a performer, writer broadcaster, slam poet and blogger Madam Miaow. Between songs, she poetically and articulately spoke about a range of serious issues and topics that she has kindly listed on her blog with full links. The fourth in the series of ‘China in Britain: Myths and Realities’ is taking place in early December and will focus on “translating China”…very appropriate to my research so Anne has kindly invited me to speak. Let’s see where I’ll be in the world…fingers crossed I’ll be back in the UK during that time to take part and share my thoughts. I hope my musings will be as good as some of the speakers I heard that day. On with London adventures…


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