That time I was interviewed about Shah Rukh Khan…

Full disclaimer: This is not my area of expertise.

Which is why Ada Tseng and Brian Hu asked me to join them for the first episode of season six of their amazing Saturday School Podcast. The podcast is an exploration of Asian American pop culture, that gets into the nostalgia, the talent and the amazing people who have brought us to this powerful place, this “Crazy Rich Asians,” Mindy Kaling, Hasan Minhaj, “Fresh Off the Boat” era. This season, Ada and Brian are revisiting films from Asia that portray the US, starting with the 2003 classic “Kal Ho Naa Ho.”

I can’t remember the first time I saw a Bollywood film, but I do know that I spent a lot of time actively disliking them. It took Ada and Brian, two Taiwanese American friends, to show me the virtues of Indian blockbuster films — and more specifically, to show me the glory of Shah Rukh Khan.

(Aside: For those uninitiated in SRK, here’s a story Ada wrote for Global Nation that serves as a good primer. While this piece might send you down a rabbit hole that makes you miss your deadlines or your family obligations, it’s probably more efficient than searching the internet and scrolling through 100 Buzzfeed listicles. Unless, of course, you’re like many SRK fans and are looking for that sort of thing.)

I have a complicated relationship with Bollywood, one that is about immigration, shame, pride, joy and family all at once. Ada and Brian really got me to dig deep and tell that story. And laugh with me (at me?) along the way.

To my desi friends, my immigrant friends, to anyone who has ever felt like an oddity in the US, maybe you can relate. Is there something in your pop culture history that was really uncomfortable when you were young but became inexplicably empowering as you grew older? I’d love to hear about it.

logo for Saturday School, blue and pink text with the "oo" of "school" made with a VHS cassette.

Here’s where you can subscribe to Saturday School, which is part of the awesome Potluck Podcast Collective. It’s a wonderful, joyful journey to be part of!

Saturday School is in its sixth season — amazing! If you’re looking for a new podcast where you can show your love, check out Naomi Gingold and Jacky Ahn Yang’s startup long form narrative podcast about Asia: Not the Hello Kitty Show. (Audiophile journalist friends, they’re looking for pitches too!)

Global Lives #3: Anka Lee’s Hong Kong Perspective on Tiananmen Square

Anka on Star Ferry
Anka Lee on the Star Ferry in Hong Kong

It’s June 4th today. 20 years ago, in Tiananmen Square in Beijing a huge protest movement was violently suppressed. The numbers are disputed, but hundreds, if not thousands were killed in clashes with the military. Tiananmen Square Massacre, June 4 Incident, or just Six-Four — whatever you call it, the event had a big impact on Anka Lee. He was just a kid then, but he remembers the day well. He was born in Hong Kong and was nine years old that summer in 1989. He talks about his memories and the city where he was born in this episode of Global Lives.

Anka wrote an essay about Tiananmen and his Hong Kong connection. You can find it on the back page of Time magazine’s June 8 international editions. UPDATE: Time put Anka’s story online here.

You can easily subscribe to this podcast or share it on your own blog or website.

Global Lives #3: Anka Lee’s Hong Kong Perspective on Tiananmen Square

Global Lives #2: Anil Kapoor

Anil Kapoor told me I have a “lovely smile.” My mother was pretty excited.

Anil Kapoor

And that says a lot. This 30-year Bollywood veteran is now the kind of star in America who draws attention on a red carpet in Hollywood. Kapoor made his international debut as the dubious host of India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire.

In this, my second Global Lives podcast, I’m examining Kapoor’s take on “going global.” Since the success of Slumdog, he has found a willing international audience. He’s traveled with the film to the Golden Globes and the Oscars, and recently was cast in the eighth season of the Fox series 24. But Mr. Kapoor was thinking about the global film marketplace long before Slumdog‘s success. Last weekend at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles he debuted an English-language version of a Hindi film he produced called Gandhi, My Father.

This episode of Global Lives was co-produced by Asia Pacific Arts, with insight and recordings from Ada Tseng.

You can easily  subscribe to this podcast or share it on your own blog or website.

Global Lives #2: Anil Kapoor

Global Lives #1: Project Kashmir

I did a story about the documentary film Project Kashmir for Asia Pacific Arts. You can see the story and all of APA’s coverage of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in their website. I also made my first attempt at making a podcast start-to-finish. I hope these will become more engaging as I keep practicing.

I’m working on getting my buggy website to work with a player, so for now you can listen and subscribe directly from my site on mypodcast.com. UPDATE: It works now!

Here’s the intro:

Welcome to the first episode of Global Lives, a show about the kinds of people who make the whole world their home. Today, I’m talking to Senain Kheshgi and Geeta Patel, the filmmakers behind the much acclaimed documentary Project Kashmir.

For more information about the film, visit projectkashmir.org. This episode is co-produced by the online magazine Asia Pacific Arts, asiaarts.ucla.edu. You can discover more Global Lives on my website, angileeshah.com.

You can easily subscribe to this podcast or share it on your own blog or website.

Listen to Global Lives #1: Project Kashmir

Orientalism or chinoiserie?

turandot300.jpg
Marketing material for the 1926 Milan premeire of Turandot on the left, and for the 2008 Singapore staging on the right.

Like most people, I don’t know where I first heard the famous aria Nessun Dorma of Puccini’s Turandot. But my interest in the opera has certainly been revived several times recently.

Maybe it was Pavarotti’s triumphant (if staged) performance of the aria at the 2006 Torino Olympics. Or maybe it was the recent Beijing staging of the opera, with a new ending that revisited Puccini’s version of a Chinese folk song instead of recapitulating Nessun Dorma.

Both of these revivals, for me, took place (via YouTube and podcasts) in Singapore. It’s an interesting vantage point, to see how an Italian opera set in “legendary China” — Peking more specifically — is interpreted in Asia. Some criticize Puccini’s work at worst as Orientalist, and more diplomatically as chinoiserie. So when I read that the Singapore Lyric Opera is staging a production at the Esplanade, I bought a seat (back, center) to see how they would interpret it.

While the quality of the music was not awe-inspiring (though, Nessun Dorma takes my breath away under almost any circumstance), the staging was interesting and rich. Along with the simple but grand sets, came sometimes grammatically awkward English translations on two side screens, as well as Chinese translations below. The audience laughed heartily at the wise-cracking ministers, Ping, Pong and Pang, and other elements of the show most often criticized as stereotypical.

China had banned Turandot for 70 years. Its brutal title character, a steely princess who has her suitors beheaded for not answering riddles correctly, was not an ideal heroine. The opera was, however, an inaugural piece for the Beijing National Center for the Performing Arts, with its new ending by a Chinese composer. Puccini died before completing the opera and the most commonly staged ending is by his contemporary, Franco Alfano.

It’s interesting that the Hong Kong-born director of Singapore’s production, Lo King-man, has also endeavored to localize the opera by adjusting for Chinese sensibilities, though he sticks with Alfano’s version of the end. “For us Chinese, to see it being set in the Qing Dynasty [1644-1911], we lose that exotic and remote and fairy-tale and legendary feeling that some time there could have been such a woman like this,” he told Time Out Singapore. Lo took a darker approach, using bronze metallic colors and simple, peasant costumes for the chorus, instead of the flashy Qing and Ming Dynasty costumes and sets of more famous stagings of the opera. It was meant to look older than the Qing Dyanasty, Lo said.

These kinds of adaptations create cultural webs — Italians interpreting Chinese, then Chinese interpreting Italians interpreting Chinese — that say a lot about how cultures get appropriated and reappropriated, by the West, East and every multinational production (such as Singapore’s) in between.