Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Cultural Appropriation War in Berlin Burlesque

The cultural appropriation debate in Berlin burlesque is blowing up in a very ugly way. (See below for the long back story...) I’ve been staying out of the conversation because I’ve been busy trying to survive and it’s just way too much, but I feel like I should perhaps chime in, being one of the only Asian-American performers in continental Europe.

What I see is a huge gap in understanding. At the cultural appropriation panel during Berlin Burlesque Week, I wanted to talk more about the history in the U.S. which has led to the current climate in the states. I am pretty certain, for instance, that most people in Europe don't know about the 1965 immigration act that got rid of the quota system and allowed more brown people to come to the U.S. so that now, in most of the major U.S. cities, the "minorities" are actually the majority. Non-hispanic whites are less than half the population in NYC (42%), LA (29%), Chicago (31%), and Miami (12%).

So while the U.S. is backwards in a lot of ways (healthcare, education…) it is ahead of Europe when it comes to race relations. We now have more than 60 years – 2.5 generations – of brown people born in the U.S. who are articulate and empowered enough to demand an end to being erased and belittled. We are also 2.5 generations after the Black Power Movement that began in the 1960s and Wounded Knee in 1973. The U.S. is at a transitional point where the old white, male, Anglo Saxon power structures are getting dismantled because, to be honest, the future is already here and it’s brown.

Europe isn’t there yet. We have to remember that Europe is where white people come from. It’s still largely homogenous. Germany is 89% European; Berlin is 82% European. Germany and Italy barely have a colonial history. This is all rather new to them.

(And let me digress a moment to clarify that I am speaking from the perspective of someone from the diaspora. There is a difference between Asian-Americans and Asians from Asia. Asians from Asia did not grow up treated as a barely literate outsider in a place that they were born. They were never belittled or humiliated for looking different. They were never told to go back to a country that they had barely any connection to. They were never a minority.)

So there’s that… and there’s the differences in how burlesquers view burlesque.

I think a lot of the problem is that burlesque isn’t entirely understood as an art form. In theatre, there is a long process of development called Research & Development (R&D). We do this in burlesque too, but we are much less articulate about it. I mean, we dream up the act, look around to make sure others aren’t doing the same thing, create a costume, rehearse, do a test run in front of an audience, and tweak it until we are satisfied. That’s much the same process as R&D in theatre. But in theatre, the research bit includes dramaturgy: delving into the history and social context, trying to be clear in your perspective, and precise in what you are trying to convey. That’s what I think a lot of burlesquers are missing: the understanding that they are on a visible platform and they have a responsibility as to what they are saying.

To be fair, burlesque is in such a funny place. I mean, at the root of it all, we are all making money by taking off our clothes. And a lot of European burlesquers are very commercial, with a rigid old-school idea of burlesque being a glamorous showgirl stripping off her glamorous costume. (My first big culture shock in Germany was hearing a burlesque dancer say, "Burlesque is not funny.") But the difference between stripping and burlesque is that a stripper is trying to get a rise out of a guy who can’t stick it in her, so he sticks a buck in her g-string instead. Whereas  in burlesque, the man (or the audience) is not the central impetus.

Yes, the performer directly teases the audience without any pretence of a fourth wall (which is one of the prime differences between burlesque and theatre). But a burlesque performer is not really trying to sexually arouse the audience. They are onstage to empower themselves and by extension empower others. The very word “burlesque” means to satirize or make fun of something. The power of burlesque is that a performer – usually a woman – is onstage declaring what they themselves think of sexuality or beauty or gender norms. For centuries, this has been taboo, with women being projected upon and told how to behave, how to dress, how to be attractive. Burlesque uses all the old colours in the palette to paint a radically different picture. The most common storyline is to take a stereotype and smash it to itty bitty bits. What many of the performers who are taking on a cultural trope don’t understand is that they are actually reinforcing the stereotypes and belittling a culture. This is the opposite of what burlesque is supposed to be about. This is the opposite of what an artist is supposed to do.

The painful arguments that are going on now can be an amazing moment for a sea change in Berlin burlesque. The whole world still looks toward Germany for its cabaret, little realizing how much of it was eradicated by the Nazis. Germany is still haunted by the extermination of Weimar Cabaret, cut off in its prime, at a time when it was important that it existed. And it was important because it was the opposite of glamorous or pretty; it was dark, sardonic, defiant, grotesque, and often a caustic social critique. The Nazis shut down the most subversive cabarets and turned the others into toothless state varietés that were nothing more than glorified dinner theatres. That’s where things still were in 2004 when the neo-burlesque movement arrived in Berlin.

Now that a decade has passed, it’s time that Berlin burlesquers consciously pick up the baton of their predecessors. Instead of digging its heels in the sand and maintaining the status quo, Berlin burlesque can blaze new paths as they once did in the 1930s. But to do this, we have to embrace burlesque as an art form and realize that we have a responsibility as artists to see where we've come from, understand where we are in the continuum, and pave the next part of the path.


The background to this essay is two recent incidents of blackface in European burlesque: one in 2016 and then another at the Toulouse Burlesque Festival in 2017. Since then, there's been an escalating debate about cultural appropriation in European burlesque. It's been very heated, with a lot of Europeans dismissing cultural appropriation as nothing more than censorship. 

Then at the last Berlin Burlesque Festival, the main producer did a Silk Road act, where she donned a hodgepodge of various Asian garb. The outcry resulted in a Berlin burlesque community meeting addressing cultural appropriation and then a Cultural Appropriation Panel Discussion during Berlin Burlesque Week. (Note that Berlin Burlesque Week is different from Berlin Burlesque Festival.) 

A few of the black dancers at the Panel Discussion mentioned that they felt unsafe at some European festivals, which led the organizer of Berlin Burlesque Week to start making a list of unsafe festivals. One of these was the Berlin Burlesque Festival. The producers of Berlin Burlesque Festival retaliated by defending their position, citing Equity's cultural appropriation policy. Equity Burlesque UK responded by reprimanding them for "distort[ing] the meaning of Equity's guidelines." Now the European burlesque community seems to be dissolving into a cacophony of shouts and accusations. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Dirt on DTLA

Downtown Los Angeles is a blight, asphyxiated by freeways and festering with neglect. I'm not exaggerating. Look on a map and you’ll see the freeway tightly circling the neighborhood like a noose. It’s a textbook case of all the horrors described by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Yeah, sure, people keep saying there’s a renaissance in the neighborhood but all I see are streets devoid of life, scores of homeless people, and callous pockets of ostentatious wealth. It's a huge culture shock after Japan, where the streets were bustling and immaculate, and I only saw three homeless people in two weeks. Well, okay, DTLA has great tacos. But it still smells like piss and desperation.

My chef friend Chris who is an L.A. native suggested that I check out Grand Central Market. That was the best advice I could’ve gotten. I swear I died and went to taco heaven. It was great to be reminded that underneath all the flashy Americana, Los Angeles is really Latino.

Grand Central Market neon. 

El Torres spices. So much chipotle and beans. 

Window into the Pupusería. It's the El Salvador version of arepas. After much deliberation, I decided to try a pupusa because they don't have these in NYC. And also, it seemed like a meal for just $5. 

Holy shit this was good. 

Across the street from Grand Central Market, I spotted Angel’s Flight and recognized the beautifully ornate archway from that amazing 1961 film The Exiles. (Here's the trailer if you've never seen this gem of a film.)

Standing all by itself surrounded by concrete buildings that look like tombstones, the truncated funicular was a sad reminder of what Downtown L.A. used to be. I flashed to the scenes in the film of Yvonne wandering through the busy streets of L.A., gazing longingly at fancy shop windows, passing by rollicking bars full of people grooving to the brawny sound of an R&B beat. Now the only people on the street are curled up under ugly velour blankets with a shopping cart next to them.

A still from "The Exiles" showing Angel's Flight in 1960. Omigod there was actually street life in L.A. once! 

Angel's Flight today. Bunker Hill was levelled in 1969 and the funicular was disassembled. In 1996, the city set it up again
 a block away from its original location. 

I spent three days in DTLA feeling more and more depressed. What's saddest to me is that a huge percentage of the homeless people are brown. Yes, there are a lot of homeless people who are mentally ill or have substance abuse problems. But a lot of them are just old and poor. I can't help but walk down the street thinking that one or two mistakes and I would be huddled under an ugly velour blanket too.

If you don't believe that the economic divide cuts across race lines, then all you need to do is get on a Los Angeles bus. It takes hours to get anywhere. You wouldn't be on a bus in Los Angeles if you had a freaking choice. You're only on a bus in Los Angeles because you can't afford more than $1.75 for transportation. And everyone on the bus is some shade of brown. Because if you're white, you can afford an Uber or a Lyft.

The only things that help with the bleakness of the city are the good people here, the food, and the natural beauty of the place. I keep stopping in my tracks in amazement at the botany here. The sun shines even in scrubby DTLA.

And to think, two weeks ago, I was in Japan where people have picnics under these trees. 

What even is this? It looks like it should be in the ocean with some yellow fishes hiding inside of it.

There are bushes of this crazy plant everywhere. The red tube-like things are stamen & they unfurl from little buds.

I'm trying to like this city but I hate it. I've got to make some money and get out of here.

For more about The Exiles and Downtown L.A., see this amazing series of blog articles with photographs comparing the locations in the 1960 film with the same places now. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Mahjong, Dumplings, & the Mambo Girl: Reflections on Crazy Rich Asians

SPOILER Alert! A meandering essay because I don't know any Asian-Americans in Berlin to talk to about this film. And maybe I should mention that I've not read the book so maybe some of my questions can be easily answered. 

After resisting Crazy Rich Asians for several weeks, I finally went to see it last night, girding myself for a syrupy, wealth porn, romcom that I would utterly hate. But I burst into tears the minute the movie opened. Then I pretty much cried off and on through the entire fucking film. I’m a skeptical New York snob who is really only moved by moments of authenticity. I’m shocked that this film delivers.

So what got me going was the opening song. Rose Rose I Love You dates from the 1940s. It’s the only Chinese song that ever became a hit in the West. Frankie Laine and Petula Clarke covered the song. David Bowie knew it. The song instantly telegraphed the film’s ambitions, set up a jaunty playfulness, and also relayed that this was going to be a rare Asian-American film that knows its culture. Cue the tear ducts.

Yes, the movie soundtrack does give in to Hollywood moments, with lush orchestral mood muzak over the Singapore skyline. But most of the music is utterly brilliant, eschewing current Mandopop or Cantopop hits (the easy choice) for a cheeky soundtrack that ricocheted from East to West and back again. Material Girl was sung in Cantonese. Money (That’s What I Want) had verses in Mandarin. And of course, there was the crazy heroic idea of turning Coldplay’s Yellow into a heart-tugging Mandarin ballad, reappropriating a word that has been used as a slur against Asians for centuries.

But what I loved most was the choice of several songs by Grace Chang, the Mambo Girl of 1950s Hong Kong movie musicals, including Wo Yao Ni Di Ai, her cover of the jump blues tune I Want You To Be My Baby. The Grace Chang music made me think of a conversation I had with a dance acquaintance who thought that there was no swing and jazz music in Asia in the 1950s. And it made me think of a party that I recently worked outside of Berlin, which was supposed to have some kind of 1920s Asian theme, but all the music sounded like tinkly New Age wind chimes in a minor key, as if no one had an inkling that they could just google “Music, Shanghai, 1920s.”

Grace Chang doing cha-cha with a bunch of teens in 1957.

Yes, white people, I hate to tell you that we Asians don’t live in a parallel universe. We aren’t just some exotic chop-socky “other”. We actually exist at the same time as everyone else. The popular culture of the time does come all the way to Asia. In fact, there was actually some pretty fabulous Asian cha-cha and jump blues and psychedelic garage music.

In this way, the film is similar to the central tenet of The Joy Luck Club. An Asian-American friend said that as he left Crazy Rich Asians, he heard a white woman exclaim, “Wow, Asians are just like us.” That’s something that would have likely been said after The Joy Luck Club too.

But I detest The Joy Luck Club for its dishonesty. No freaking Chinese mother would ever in a thousand years tell her daughter anything about her past. No Chinese family would ever cry and hug one another. Instead, a Chinese mom would show she loves you by telling you how sloppy you look and that you need to comb your hair and wear more makeup. And then she would shove some food in your face and scold you for being too skinny. But I know that why I hate The Joy Luck Club is exactly why other Asian-Americans love the film. It’s wishful thinking. It’s an Asian family behaving like an American family in a beige homogenous suburb like in all the American sitcoms.

Crazy Rich Asians has a mother/daughter pair that is similar to Joy Luck Club. The bonding scene between Rachel and her mother Kerry opens with Rachel jumping into her mother’s arms weeping. And then Kerry actually flops onto the bed as she tells her daughter something about her past. I can’t imagine ever trying to hug my mother. And my mother would never in a million years ever lounge in bed with me. I can hear her dying of laughter if I ever even suggested it.

But the mother/daughter relationship in Crazy Rich Asians is tempered by its direct contrast to the relationship between Singapore-born Nick and his mother Eleanor. The two of them stand awkwardly side by side, staring at some vague middle distance in front of them, neither daring to look at one another. The scene was cut, but if it was truthful, it would have been all pregnant pauses and trailing sentences, and then maybe a moment when someone finally has the courage to take the other person’s hand and squeeze it before they both let go in embarrassment because yeesh, too intimate.

With all these strong mothers in the film, though, I started to wonder where the men were. Nick’s father was ostensibly away on business and his grandfather was presumably dead. He also had no uncles. The older generation of men was completely absent, leaving nothing but a few geeks and lots of eye candy. Both Nick and his bestie Colin take off their shirt at different points in the film and the camera salivates all over their ripped abs, glistening with droplets of water. I wonder how deliberate was the homoerotic undertone between the two men. (Colin actually says to Nick, “If it weren’t for Araminta, I would’ve asked you to marry me.”) I’m sure the topless scenes are a deliberate response to the stereotype that Asian men are unattractive and effeminate. So it’s rather interesting that the power is still all in the hands of Asian women, though the film neatly evades the dragonlady stereotype, with Eleanor clearly struggling to maintain her place within the rigid heirarchal structures of Asian society.

There are other things in the movie that bear criticism. It’s true that Singapore seems to be entirely Chinese in the film, with not one Indian or Malay character except for the docile and silent servants. But then again the film is called Crazy Rich Asians, and in Singapore, all the money does belong to the Chinese. Beyond the invisibility of brown people, the biggest hole was the lack of Singlish with all its rich colloquialisms. On the other hand, it was very enjoyable to hear the upper classes speaking in Mandarin, while Eleanor (the outsider) spoke in Cantonese, and the nouveau riche family spoke Hokkien. And I laughed when Nick's super-wealthy family mentions that they are Methodist, because I know what that means in Taiwan.

It’s details like this that give Crazy Rich Asians a deeper resonance. The genius of the film is that by being so culturally specific, it evades the claptrap of exotica. Rachel and Eleanor don’t play mahjong in the film because they're Asian and that's just what Asian ladies do. There is a pointed significance to their seating arrangement (Rachel is in the West seat, Eleanor is in the East); the meaning of Eleanor’s hand (she tells Rachel that she doesn't belong, while collecting tiles that are all the same suit); and the winning tile that Rachel throws away (it’s lucky number 8 but it’s also Bamboo and Rachel is a jook sing or a hollow bamboo). I got most of that, but I am missing the significance of Eleanor’s dumpling fold… I wish I could bring my mother and ask her why the camera kept lingering on that one bad dumpling. (Was it just missing a fold? Does anyone know?)

And that’s a testament of the film’s success. I’ve never had the privilege of seeing a major film that made me want to ask my parents questions, that reflects the conflicted experience of being from two cultures and from neither. Crazy Rich Asians not only recognizes the divide between Asian-Americans and Asians-from-Asia, but it makes being Asian-American -- a hyphenate, a jook sing, a banana -- into something to be proud of. Rachel can take that bamboo tile and play it if she wants to. Or she can throw it away and go back to acing poker in New York. Because she's got game. Both games.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Edinburgh Post-Mortem 2018

Well, I'm finally back from travels & it's the end of summer, beginning of a new season. So I've been doing a lot of soul searching. Edinburgh was amazing in unexpected ways. I didn't anticipate that we'd be packed every single night. Especially after our experience in London. But wow, the audiences just kept coming! There was only one night where there were like two empty chairs. Most nights, there were people everywhere: on the floor, on the unused bar, standing several rows deep behind the seats. And what an audience! In 20 years of performing, I've never had the experience of coming out onstage to a huge cheering crowd. But 'm not sure what the future is. We didn't get any reviews. And although there were a few bites, I don't think any industry people came. Maybe this wouldn't matter, but after two years, I need to find a way to make the show pay off. I've been relying upon the generosity of one person to make the Full Moon happen every month & he's getting (understandably) a bit impatient at the drain on his finances. He also isn't really in the biz & doesn't believe that there is any way to make ends meet in the arts. So I hoped Edinburgh would lead to a fix guarantee tour or some reassurance that we were on track to at least breaking even. But here I am, back in Berlin & back to the same old worries about how to make things happen with such limited resources. And also, the bigger question to me is what I'm actually doing. Full Moon was always something a little more than a regular burlesque or variety show. Because I'm stupid that way. I never want to do anything that anyone else does. I'm always veering off in an unknown direction instead of following a clear path, no matter how tried & true. Perhaps I haven't been so good at articulating the bigger picture, but the biggest stress in this Full Moon production was me trying to get the small moments that would add up to a bigger arc. That's something more like theater. And maybe because the company is mostly comprised of solo performers who've never done theater, it was hard to get them to see what I was after. To them, I was being stubborn about negligent details. "You have to let go!" "Who cares?" And the worst thing you can ever say to a New Yorker: "Relax!" So maybe I should go back to doing theater instead, if that's what I keep trying to make happen. Or film. Where is this cabaret life going anyway, especially if it's not paying off? How much of a difference am I making? Does any of this matter? Maybe some of this existential crisis is my reaction to the death of two friends (both not much older) - one in April & one just last week. Life is so short. What am I doing?

Edinburgh 2016 Post-Mortem

I found this draft essay & I don't know why I didn't publish it back in 2016. It's an interesting read after I just got back from Edinburgh after doing Full Moon Cabaret there. I forgot that Full Moon Cabaret partly came out of my first sweet-but-sour experience at Edinburgh. 


“I’m asexual,” she announced, “Maybe you saw that on my profile. I’m actually XXY. I’ve got an extra chromosome.”

I looked up at Xena and realized this really might be true. When she first opened the door, I did think that either she’s a transsexual or a large and oddly proportioned woman. Not that this bothered me. What did bother me was her kitchen. It was beyond disgusting. A shopping trolley was parked in the middle of it with some random junk. The sink was surrounded by plates crusted up with dried pellets and streaks that must have once been food. There wasn't a sponge or any soap in sight. And Xena had just cooked something up in that kitchen that I was supposed to eat.

The food wasn’t too bad if you didn’t know where it had come from. I examined the pasta on my plate. Some kind of tortellini that was a bit overcooked but still edible. I dutifully chewed and swallowed, as Xena asked questions about burlesque. Being asexual, she couldn’t understand it. Later, she played the ukulele, somehow turning the instrument into a mini blues guitar with percussive slaps and thumps. I still don’t understand how someone who plays music like she does can be asexual. Music is sex.

This was my fourth night in Edinburgh and Xena was my couchsurfing host. For the first three nights, I had paid for an airbnb room that was quite nice but it was a 20-minute bus ride from the center of the city. This would be okay if you were a tourist, but I was performing at midnight and night buses only came once every half an hour. I was relieved to drag my luggage down a steep winding street off the Royal Mile to the invisible square where Xena’s flat was located. Putting up with her questionable housekeeping was a small price to pay for being a 10-minute walk from everything.

I was in Edinburgh for the last five days of the Fringe, during which time I did seven performances for three different Free Fringe cabarets. Two other cabarets had booked me but their venues cancelled on them. Apparently, this had not really happened in previous Fringes, but at this one, three different venues cancelled all the cabarets that had been booked. Roxy Stardust was the one who originally booked me but her show got cancelled after three performances at Malone’s. Similarly, Bar Bados cancelled all their cabaret shows and so did Chalky’s. The Secret Circus was at Chalky’s but they valiantly went ahead and found two other venues to perform at.

Thank heavens, because the Secret Circus was the only show where I made any money. They were also the smallest show I performed for and the average split between 7 or 8 performers amounted to £4. Possibly because their audience was still looking for them at Chalky’s.

My other two shows were at the Voodoo Rooms, which is one of the top cabaret venues at the Fringe. It was a gorgeous place, with rooms poshed out in gilded moulding and dripping chandeliers. I was expecting a little more of a split from these shows and was shocked to discover that they did not share the money they collected.

All the cabarets I did were part of the Free Fringe, which means the producers don’t pay for the venue and the show is free to the public. After the show, someone stands at the door with a wine bucket collecting donations. I naïvely assumed that the money in that bucket would be split with all the performers. But it seems that at most of the shows, the dough is split between the tech person and host, who also books the events. The performers just get exposure. Which always makes me think of a friend who quips, “You know, you can die from exposure.”

According to a cabaret friend who has done several Fringes, the policy is that if you're promoting a show you don't get any money, but if you're just performing, you'd get a split. Well, that isn’t what’s happening. Of the three shows I did, only one split the bucket. I spoke to one gal who did six shows and five of them did not split the bucket. The poor thing was working her tush off running between shows that didn't pay her. Even worse is that these shows aren’t all that up front about expecting people to perform for free. I wasn’t the only one who hung around after a show waiting for a bucket split that never happened.

This doesn’t sit right with me. I’ve been producing shows since I was 17 years old and I’m the poorest person I know. But I’ve always paid people some small amount: $25, $50, $100, whatever I had. Sometimes the payment came late when I was waiting on a donation, but everyone always got something. At very least, it’s a gesture of respect. Yes, yes, the MC has a harder job than the performers, and as producers, they have the booking and promotion to handle, which isn't easy. But then they should work out a bigger split. Even if they take half the box and share the rest with the performers, that would be way more fair than not sharing at all. It shocks me that these hosts don't feel like utter shits for not giving performers a dime. After all, without the performers, they wouldn’t have a show. And I am certain that the audience expects that their money will be shared between everyone.

I’m also surprised that more performers aren’t up in arms over this. I suppose they must be new and worried that they won't get bookings if they speak up.  But we all shelled out for our own flights and our own rooms. The very least would’ve been to get a bit of money that would pay for drinks and food. I had to get an advance on a writing project to stay afloat in Edinburgh.

So the Fringe was a mixed experience that left a bit of a sour taste. I departed from Xena’s wishing that I had had more money to buy her some cleaning implements to give her sink and bathtub a nice scrub. And I was rather depressed for several days, questioning why I was in burlesque. I don’t think I’ll go back to the Fringe unless I am invited for a top cabaret that is ticketed. Or for a theater production that is of my own making.

On the other hand, I did meet some producers who said they would book me if I ever made it to London. And after thinking about it, I’ve decided that if I have problems with the way burlesque is produced, then I should do it the right way myself. So I’ve started to work on a monthly variety show. And maybe I will go back to Edinburgh. With this new show. Which gives all the performers a piece of the pie that they helped make.

My advice to other burlesque dancers who are thinking of going to Edinburgh is to stay in a central location (free if possible) and ask about payment before accepting a booking. And as for all the hosts who aren't sharing the dough, seriously, is there some way for you to adequately compensate yourself without exploiting others? Yeah, it’s a hard way to make an easy living. But we're in it together. It shouldn’t be a hard way to make a hard living for others.