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.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Shaking a Spear at Delta and Bank of America

I've been out of the loop with theater in NYC for a lot of complex reasons which I may write about one day... but I feel compelled to write about Delta Airlines and Bank of America withdrawing sponsorship from the Public Theater for their production of JULIUS CAESAR.

For my friends in Europe, you might not know that the Public Theater is where HAIR, A CHORUS LINE, and HAMILTON premiered. (No, Broadway is NOT where plays premiere; it’s where plays go to cash in on their success.) If you've ever enjoyed the songs "Tits & Ass" or "Age of Aquarius" you owe something to the Public. In fact, if you've enjoy any American theater in past 50 years, you owe something to the Public. It's one of the theaters that birthed the American nonprofit theater system for better or for worse. It’s where Meryl Streep got her start. It’s where New Yorkers have seen Shakespeare with stars like Streep (and Al Pacino and James Earl Jones and John Lithgow, etc. etc.) for FREE every summer for nearly 60 years.

Like any great theater, the Public would naturally mine JULIUS CAESAR for what the play has to say about the world today. Thank GOD the Public has a freaking perspective on the play instead of just tossing together another dusty old toga party. That’s what art is supposed to do, for chrissakes – give us perspective, context, a lens through which we can see the world from an angle we hadn’t considered. If it’s safe and reassuring, then it ain’t art.

I’m posting this because the theater community is teensy and we’re always preaching to the converted. But I’m in Europe where no one knows what the Public Theater is. I haven’t heard people here talking about boycotting Delta. (Bank of America doesn’t exist, so they can’t boycott it here...)

It's a slippery slope. Theater doesn't have enough funding as it is and corporate sponsorships is one of the hardest money to come by. The Public is probably doing okay with HAMILTON raking it in on Broadway but the summer Shakespeare productions are free to the public. Entirely kostenlos except for like 50 seats that are impossible to come by. And we all know that a company of 10+ union actors and stagehands, not to mention sets, lights, and costumes ain't cheap. So the entire summer season needs to be subsidized somehow.

Delta and Bank of America pulling out absolutely bites. If they're being swayed by Fox & Breitbart, then people who give a shit about art should give them a piece of their mind.

-- Here is an article about the debacle in The NewYork Times, which repeats incendiary quotes by Fox News and Breitbart, but gives the reader very little idea about the actual Public Theater production. 

-- In contrast, here is what a smart friend of a friend says, who has actually seen the play. He makes the very good point, “If there ever were an ANTI-assassination play, this is it.”

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Celebrating Silvester, Whoever He Was

I've been writing for Berlin Loves You and they asked me to write up an alternative guide to New Years Eve. I started with an introduction to why New Years is called "Silvester" in Berlin, but it was too long for the article. I cut it down but in the final article, it got cut even more. I thought maybe some people would be interested in the full expanded trivia, so here it is, expanded even more with annotations and everything. The Berlin Loves you article can be found here in case you're curious about the cut or looking for last minute non-techno things to do in Berlin for New Years. 

In America, Sylvester is a tuxedo cat with a bad lisp. Sylvester is an Eye-talian knucklehead who made a couple of boxing films. But in Berlin, Silvester is what the locals say when they mean New Years Eve. So who the heck is this Silvester guy? I finally looked it up and it turns out that he was the pope who converted the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity.

If you google this Pope Silvester guy, you'll immediately turn up rumors that he and Constantine were both rampantly anti-Semitic but that’s just hearsay. There's plenty of evidence of anti-Semitism in the middle ages so I have no idea why an alt-right website feels the need to make this up. Maybe the writer is a sourpuss who wants to pour cold water over New Year celebrations? (I went on a google dive and apparently there are conflicts in Israel over Rosh Hashanah vs. everyone else's New Year.) You'll also find a source that says Silvester was black and a few other sources about him slaying a dragon. So if you believe everything that's on the internet, Silvester was the first black man to slay a dragon and became pope. That's a way better rumor to spread around and I'm very happy to help you do that. But sadly, it doesn't serve anyone's agenda, so I doubt if it will gain much traction.

The truth is that no one knows anything about Sylvester except that he was too sick to attend the Nicean Council and he happened to die on December 31. That was right in the middle of a 12-day pagan festival to banish evil spirits called the Rauhnächte. Germanic tribes throughout Central Europe believed that during those “Rough Nights,” the sun slowed down to a crawl while Wotan led a band of bellicose ghosts on a wild hunt through the dark skies. In response, the Teutons filled their houses with smoke, banged kitchen utensils, beat on trees with flaming cudgels, and rolled burning wooden wheels down mountainsides. Good times. Naturally, sourpuss early Christians disapproved and they set about convincing pagan Germans to fête Silvester instead. In the late 1500s, Europeans countries began to move the first day of the calendar to 1 January and the feast day for Silvester gradually turned into celebrations for a new year.

  Like in NYC, there are a billion things to do in Berlin tonight. I might lay low after two days of going out and performing. But everyone keeps telling me that Warschauer Strasse is like a warzone of fireworks. That sounds amazing to me after 20 years of fireworks restrictions in NYC. And my dad comes from Yanshui, a small town in Taiwan whose claim to fame is that it hosts the craziest fireworks festival in the world. People literally wear full face helmets and hazmat suits. I've never been to Asia during Lunar New Year and I probably would hate Yanshui's fireworks, but I am all about down home street celebrations. Maybe I will go and take some photos of Berliners making a big ruckus for Silvester like it's 330AD.

Running out now to get groceries before all the grocery shops close for two days. Leaving you with this video of Joshua Samuel Brown in Yanshui a few years back.