Sunday, May 31, 2009

Anna May Wong: Celestial Star of Piccadilly, BBC R4

I asked one of my favorite bloggers Madam Miaow, to contribute to my blog a post about her heroine Anna May Wong. Her profile says, "Poet, writer, broadcaster and all round trouble-maker. Madam Miaow casts a sharp eye over the political and cultural landscape and takes a scalpel and a shotgun to the guilty parties.

“Just imagine, the whole place being upset by one little Chinese girl in the scullery.” (Piccadilly, 1929)

Anna Chen aka Madam Miaow writes and presents A Celestial Star In Piccadilly, a half-hour profile of Hollywood's first Chinese movie star for BBC Radio 4.
Broadcast 11:30am, Tuesday 13th January 2009.
Pick of the Day in Guardian Guide, Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.


While I was growing up in Hackney, there were few east asian women in the culture reflecting anything like my appearance. Those that did slip through were not necessarily an inspiration. Yoko Ono was unfairly reviled in the media as a hate figure, although – far from breaking up the Beatles –she was a respected Fluxus artist in her own right and famous among the avant-garde cognoscenti way before John Lennon was anything more than a pop star. The twin horrors of my childhood, Suzy Wong and Juicy Lucy – happy hookers who migrated from popular literature onto the screen – were always there to define me in the eyes of a society without any other reference points. There were powerful women, too, but they came in the shape of Jiang Qing (Madam Mao), the kleptocratic Imelda Marcos and, in fiction, the evil daughter of Fu Manchu. Her I quite liked.

I wondered who the young Anna May Wong had to look up to. She grew up as third-generation Chinese born in a youthful America when Native Americans were safely out of the way on their reservations and former slaves were consigned to ghettos and plantations. Chinese-Americans were about as low as you could get; depicted as so much of a danger to working men and decent citizens that the US government introduced legislation specifically designed to curb the ambitions of the Yellow Peril within. Their ambitions may have been humble — earning an honest dollar for one's labour, living in safety and security, bringing up families of their own — but the owners of capital tolerated them only as cheap labour, while much of the labour movement in both the Britain and the USA (Wobblies excluded) saw the Chinese as more of a threat than as fellow workers.

Various schools of thought say that Asiatic humans first walked over the Beriing Straits 10,000 years ago and populated the Americas down to their southernmost tip. Others contend that Imperial Chinese ships arrived in the 15th century, predating Columbus by decades; or that they initially landed in California on Portuguese ships carrying silver from mines in the Philippines.

What we do know is that in the mid-19th century, the discovery of gold at Sutters Mill in 1848 drew first a trickle and then a flood of Chinese who joined in the Gold Rush, populating the west coast and working the mines in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The next wave of immigration was brought in as cheap coolie labour by Charles Crocker in the 1860s to build his Central Pacific railroad which would link Sacramento with the East and bring the West into the Union during the Civil War. Conditions were harsh and they were paid less than their white counterparts.

But not all Chinese would submit and conform to the role of coolie; there was one major strike with thousands laying down tools as they busted through granite mountains and worked in 20-foot snowdrifts. It was a strike that had the potential to unite all workers, and ever since I found out about it in the early 1990s while working with Sinophile author Martin Booth on his film script The Celestial Cowboys in 1993, it has inspired me, especially as there are those who insist that Chinese are genetically bourgeois and incapable of working-class consciousness. The strikers were eventually starved back to work with a few concessions but they had shown they they weren’t all pushovers.

Many miners and railworkers settled in the US and formed America’s first Chinese communities. These were Anna May Wong’s roots.

In a world bereft of role models, Anna May carved out an acting career in the early days of the Hollywood film industry. She started young, as an extra on the streets of Los Angeles, learning her craft and gaining proper roles in defiance of her traditionalist father, who wanted her at home in the family laundry.

By 17, she was starring in Hollywood’s first technicolour movie, The Toll of the Sea, as the Madame Butterfly character, “marrying” an American who promptly dumps her when he returns to his homeland and a white wife. She dies tragically at the climax, beginning a pattern that would endure for most of her career.

Trapped in Dragon Lady or Lotus Blossom roles, she grew tired of being demeaned, insulted and limited. Anti-miscegenation laws meant she wasn’t allowed to kiss a romantic lead if he was white, even if he was a white actor playing a Chinese. Your sexuality got you killed, at least symbolically.

In the late 1920s she came to Britain, where she was already a huge star and made the black and white silent feature film Piccadilly for the German director E A Dupont. This was perhaps her greatest starring role, but she still had to die at the end. Death was the fate she had to endure for the crime of being attractive. I take a closer look at this movie in the programme as there’s a plethora of prejudice leaking at the edges, some of it hilarious, much of it still extant today.

Anna May was the toast of Europe: mates with Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich and, strangely, Leni Riefenstahl. Such was the contrast in Europe with what she’d experienced back home that she once stated there was no racism in Germany. And that was in the Thirties, which gives you some idea how bad it must have been if you were a minority in the Land of the Free.

She starred with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, acted with a greenhorn Laurence Olivier on the London stage. Philosopher Walter Benjamin had a major crush on her. She dined with royalty and was adored by her fans. Eric Maschwitz wrote the classic song “These Foolish Things” about her.

Yet Hollywood still refused to lower the drawbridge and give her the starring roles she deserved. Those still went to white actresses in Yellowface. Myrna Loy as evil Daughter of Fu Manchu? Loy, Katherine Hepburn, Luise Rainer and Tilli Losch were all considered better at being Chinese than Anna May Wong.

These things take their toll and she died in 1961, at the unnervingly early age of 56.

But isn’t everything different today? Nope, it’s still with us. The form has mutated but the content lives on. A Celestial Star in Piccadilly is one case study in how minorities are rendered invisible in the culture and as producers of culture, while the fruits of their labour are appropriated by those who sit at High Table.

And the danger of that is it’s the sleep of reason where monsters are born.

Hmmm, sounds familiar and rather too close to home ...

Interviewees include:
Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Anna May Wong's biographer, Laundryman's Daughter
Diana Yeh, historian
Alice Lee, writer and actress who performed her one woman show about Anna May Wong, Daughter of the Dragon
Elaine Mae Woo, director of Frosted Yellow Willows about Anna May
Ed Manwell, film producer, Frosted Yellow Willows
Neil Brand, composer of the new score for the BFI Southbank rerelease of Piccadilly on DVD
Jasper Sharp, east Asian film expert
Kevin Brownlow, legendary film historian and filmmaker
Margie Tai and Connie Ho, who remember Anna May Wong visiting their Limehouse neighbourhood when they were kids

Produced by Chris Eldon Lee for Culture Wise Productions
Many thanks to Mukti Jain Campion of Culture Wise for giving me latitude and for her wonderful feedback

Thanks to Socialist Unity for carrying this post here

Harpy Marx has reviewed it here.

Anna on Anna May Wong and Chinese in Hollywood. The Good Earth review.

Anna started writing her novel, Coolie, on the Transcontinental strike by Chinese workers since 1994, taking longer than construction of the railroad itself


Monday, May 25, 2009

Socialism Only Way Forward for Sri Lanka’s Tamils

By Camilo Cahis in Toronto Monday, 25 May 2009

The Sri Lankan government has declared victory over the Tamil Tigers, but this does not remove the question of the rights of the Tamil people. The solution lies in a struggle for a socialist Sri Lanka where the rights of all peoples would be respected, including the right to their own homeland if the Tamils requested it.

The Sri Lankan government, along with the bourgeois press, is loudly celebrating the apparent defeat of the Tamil Tigers and their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. The government is saying that the long civil war in Sri Lanka that has killed as many as 80,000 people is finally over and that peace and prosperity can finally return to Sri Lanka's people, including its Tamil population. Many Tamils, rightfully, feel that this is not the case - especially in the context of the present world economic crisis ‑ and that their situation in Sri Lanka will not improve.

Read The Rest of The ArticleHERE



Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Charlie Chaplin's Speech from The Great Dictator

I'm sorry but I don't want to be an Emperor, that's not my business. I don't want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible, Jew, gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another, human beings are like that. We all want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone and the earth is rich and can provide for everyone.
The way of life can be free and beautiful. But we have lost the way.

Greed has poisoned men's souls, has barricaded the world with hate;
has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.

We have developed speed but we have shut ourselves in:
machinery that gives abundance has left us in want.
Our knowledge has made us cynical,
our cleverness hard and unkind.
We think too much and feel too little:
More than machinery we need humanity;
More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.

Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.

The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me I say "Do not despair".

The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress: the hate of men will pass and dictators die and the power they took from the people, will return to the people and so long as men die [now] liberty will never perish. . .

Soldiers: don't give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel, who drill you, diet you, treat you as cattle, as cannon fodder.

Don't give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts. You are not machines. You are not cattle. You are men. You have the love of humanity in your hearts. You don't hate, only the unloved hate. Only the unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers: don't fight for slavery, fight for liberty.

In the seventeenth chapter of Saint Luke it is written:
"The kingdom of God is within man"
Not one man, nor a group of men, but in all men; in you, the people.

You the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy let's use that power, let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age and security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie. They do not fulfil their promise, they never will. Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfil that promise. Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness.

Soldiers! In the name of democracy, let us all unite!

. . .

Look up! Look up! The clouds are lifting, the sun is breaking through. We are coming out of the darkness into the light. We are coming into a new world. A kind new world where men will rise above their hate and brutality.

The soul of man has been given wings, and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow, into the light of hope, into the future, that glorious future that belongs to you, to me and to all of us. Look up. Look up.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

The State of Blogs and Blogging/Open Thread

I'm curious how people feel about their personal blogs, in this period when Twitter and Facebook are so popular. Potentially you can reach more people than with your blog.

I think it is a hard period to just start blogging. I think if you have a new blog, you should visit other blogs, and recruit an audience.

I think trading links is important. The more you are linked to, the higher you are on Google. I try to plan ahead my posts. If I know an event like elections in El Salvador are coming up, I'll post on the elections. People will be Googling the elections.

Is debate important to you?

This is an open thread. Ok to raise any topic.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ted Grant and The Chinese Revolution

I was asked to have a discussion on this blog, about the differences between Maoism and Trotskyism, or the difference between the Maoist concept of mass line as opposed to the Trotskyist transitional program. The Maoist method is synthecizing opinion into an action program. The transitional program is raising demands that bridge reform demands with revolution demands. An example is the slogan Peace, Land and Bread during the 1917 Russian Revolution. Peace meaning end Russia's involvement in WWI, Land meaning land to the peasants, and Bread meaning better worker's lives. transitional demands challenge capitalism. That doesn't mean reform demands are ignored.

This is an excerpt from the writings of Trotskyist Ted Grant. What is remarkable, is that it was written before the victory of the Chinese Revolution.

Two Sides of the Coin

While supporting the destruction of feudalism in China, it must be emphasised that only a horrible caricature of the Marxist conception of the revolution will result because of the leadership of the Stalinists. Not a real democracy, but a totalitarian regime as brutal as that of Chiang Kai Shek will develop. Like the regimes in Eastern Europe, Mao will look to Russia as his model. Undoubtedly, tremendous economic progress will be achieved. But the masses, both workers and peasants, will find themselves enslaved by the bureaucracy.

The Stalinists are incorporating into their regime ex-feudal militarists, capitalist elements, and the bureaucratic officialdom in the towns who will occupy positions of privilege and power.

On the basis of such a backward economy, a large scale differentiation among the peasants (as after the Russian revolution during the period of the N.E.P.) aided by the failure to nationalise the land: the capitalist elements in trade, and even in light industry, might provide a base for capitalist counter-revolution. It must be borne in mind that in China the proletariat is weaker in relation to the peasantry than was the case in Russia during the N.E.P. owing to the more backward development of China. Even in Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries similarly, where the capitalist elements were relatively weaker, nevertheless the danger of a capitalist overturn existed for a time. The fact that the workers and peasants will not have any democratic control and that the totalitarian tyranny will have superimposed upon it the Asiatic barbarism and cruelties of the old regime, gives rise to this possibility. However, it seems likely that the capitalist elements will be defeated because of the historical tendency of the decay of capitalism on a world scale. The impotence of world imperialism is shown by the fact that whereas they intervened directly against the Chinese revolution in 1925-7, today they look on helplessly at the collapse of the Chiang regime.

However, it is quite likely that Stalin will have a new Tito on his hands. The shrewder capitalist commentators are already speculating on this although they derive cold comfort from it. Mao will have a powerful base in China with its 450-500 million population and its potential resources, and the undoubted mass support his regime will possess in the early stages. The conflicts which will thus open out should be further means of assisting the world working class to understand the real nature of Stalinism.

Read The Whole Article


Friday, May 08, 2009

More Food and Blogging

Another episode of this blog's nod to blogs and good food.

I asked several bloggers, to send me recipes; preferably easy to prepare, common ingredients, ethnic etc. In addition if I print the recipe, I'll plug your blog. Send recipes to me at the email address at my profile. I was going to print them all in one post, but I acquired too many. Political agreement doesn't matter. Atleast every month I'll continue this series. Leave comments about food, the blog, restaraunts etc. Everyone who sent recipes, will eventually have them published. I'm going in random order.

Who'd expect this revolutionary socialist to plug a recipe and blog of a Christian conservative? Nanc has two blogs, one is It's Curtains For You..., and the apolitical OH BOO" moments.... During a certain bitter political clash I was involved in, where I was attacked personally, Nanc stood up for me. Nanc is a good cook, except for anything involving tea bags.

Now The Main Event

Poor People's Dolma (vegetarian)

1. prepare and set aside one-two cups cooked brown rice (be sure to salt water)
2. chop one small onion and set aside
3. chop one cup of whatever type mushrooms you'd like

in a skillet, saute in two tablespoons of olive oil #2 and #3 ingredients - just before they turn brown, add a quarter cup of raisins and a quarter cup of craisins (cranberry raisins) - as they're about to plump, add your prepared rice and you may now add some garlic powder and cayenne to taste - mix well, turn off heat and cover.

ahhhhhhh, the grape leaves - you can buy them prepared in a jar - take about 20 of them and layer them out flat on paper towels to soak up the liquid on them. in the middle of each leaf place approximately one quarter cup of the cooked mixture or less depending upon the size of each leaf. fold two sides toward the middle and then roll one end over and continue to roll up until it looks like a short green eggroll.

make as many as you have grape leaves and mixture.

place these fold side down into a shallow baking dish and drizzle with a mixture of a half cup of your favorite vinaigrette and a quarter cup fresh lemon juice. place into 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes. remove from oven and eat warm or place into sealed container in the refrigerator and have as a cool appetizer - me, if i eat all 20 - i call it a meal!

if you're wondering why i call this "poor people's dolma" it's because true dolma is made with bulghur, lamb and currant filling


Monday, May 04, 2009

Is The Consciousness Of The Masses Too Low? Or Is The Problem One Of Leadership?

By Josef Falkinger Monday, 04 May 2009

It is fashionable among some layers on the left to blame the workers' "low consciousness" for the lack of a genuine left alternative emerging within the labour movement internationally. This is utterly false and represents a lack of understanding of how the working class moves historically. The working class is fully aware of the situation it is in. What it requires is a leadership up to task of leading the class in its struggle to change society.

"Der Feind, den wir am meisten hassen,
der uns umlagert schwarz und dicht,
das ist der Unverstand der Massen,
den nur des Geistes Schwert durchbricht."

"The enemy, that we hate most,
Who besieges us black and densely,
It is the masses' stupidity
broken only by the sword of the ghost."

(Ferdinand Freiligrath, German poet and friend of Marx)

Like the poet Freiligrath in the 19th century, many on the left today are of the opinion that the so-called "low consciousness of the masses" is the reason why we have not seen successful revolutions, or major movements of the working class in recent years. These people constantly complain about how deeply people are indoctrinated and manipulated by so-called "neoliberal" ideology. This actually reflects the "low consciousness" of these "lefts", and their total lack of understanding of the working class and its organisations.

Revolutionary Marxism has a completely different approach to this question. It is the leadership of the traditional mass organisations of the working class and the Left, not the masses, that is in an unprecedented crisis. Revolutionary Marxists distinguish themselves from all other tendencies on the left with their approach to the question of political mass consciousness and its inner dynamics.

Read the rest of the article