‘foreign sounding’: asian racial stereotypes in popular music

October 22, 2008

“Plinky plunk, A Chinese Elopmement” sheet music from 1930s USA

The “Oriental Theme”

Sun Ra the black liberationist, spaceman and jazz musician in “Overtones Of China”(1957)  unconsciously perhaps, repeats the old tradition of exotic stereotyping in defining musical Chineseness as wood blocks, gongs and pentatonic piano stabs. In essence the piece is an evolved jazz version of the ‘Oriental Theme’ that serves to evoke Orientalism in the western imagination. The tune, a nine note phrase, is found throughout modern popular music most famously in the introduction to Carl Douglas’s ‘Kung fu fighting‘ , The Vapour’s ‘Turning Japanese’, and David Bowie’s “China Girl”:

Oriental Theme MIDI File

When ‘Kung fu Fighting’ came out in 1974 the ‘Oriental theme’  was well known enough as a ‘Chinese’ motif  through comedy, cartoons and musicals to be immediately recognisable. The theme is now so firmly embedded in the western mind that it is considered by many to be an example of genuine oriental music. However the history of the ‘Oriental theme’ and racial stereotyping in popular culture was well established in the 1900s having develop as a genre during the first western close contact with Chinese and other racial groups in mid 19th century America.

Before the large migrations of Chinese to the USA and the Europe ‘Chineseness’ was portrayed in western art as an exotic and romantic ideal – Chinoiserie and Orientalism was a whimsical stylistic vogue during the Eighteenth century which portrayed China as a distant misty land where mandarins frolicked with their concubines in bamboo pergolas. The first large scale contact between a white western population and ‘real’ Chinese people came in the 1850s when  hundreds of thousands of Chinese labourers migrants moved to the west coast of America to work on the new Railroads. The post civil war slump saw a rash of politically inspired animosity towards the Chinese community from groups such as the ‘Supreme Order Of Caucasians’, ‘Asiatic Exclusion League’ and ‘Anti-Coolies Association ‘ – anti-Chinese groups  who organised boycotts, enforced segregation and organised attacks on Chinese run business.

“One can hardly help laughing at the strange race, they seem such a queer sort of patch in the mottled quilt of California life. They do everything in such a comical way! They never walk, but jog; they never run, but trot. If they ride horseback, as they are fond of doing, they sit so near the horse’s tail, they are in constant danger of going off behind. When they wish to rest in their journeys afoot, they squat down, three or four often in a row, in the most ridiculous attitude imaginable. “

These events culminated in the Los Angeles ‘Chinese Massacre’ of 1871 – where 23 Immigrants were killed and hundreds of Chinese businesses and homes were destroyed and finally in the ‘Chinese Exclusion Act’ of 1882. This Act, the first immigration control in the united states, banned unskilled Chinese immigrant labour on the basis of the Chinese being an inferior and ‘undesirable race’. The Act designed to last ten years was finally repealed in 1943.

During the 19th century the oppression of the Black African-American population was propagated and normalised through popular culture using racist genres such as ‘Blackface’,  ‘Coon Song’ and Minstrel shows. Similarly ‘Yellowface’ became a way of ridiculing and disseminating ideas of racial subservience and white supremacy. ‘Yellowface’ began as Chinese entertainers performing Chinese themed Vaudeville acts but as with blacked-up minstrel shows, became the sole domain of white performers who would ‘yellow-up’ and perform comic acts ridiculing Chinese culture. Part of these acts would be humorous renditions of Chinese music exaggerating the perceived atonality of Asian music or songs sung with high pitched voices and mock ‘Chinese’ accents and it’s here that we find the ancestor to the ‘Oriental Theme’.

Probably the first published version of the them was from the somewhat racially confused “Alladin Quick Step” (MIDI File) from “The Grand Chinese Spectacle of Aladdin, or, The Wonderful Lamp” (1847 T.Comer). The theme is developed in “The Chinese Gallop” of 1871 and “Tommy Polka” (MIDI File) of 1860.

By the 1900 the ‘genre’ begins to combine a variety of co-existing Asian stereotypes; The perfidious humorous buffoon/yellow peril/Fu-Manchu persona with the ‘China Doll’ sexually available Asian woman stereotype to produce a new sub-genre of light music, for example, “My Little Hong Kong Baby” (John  Bratton 1902) and “A Chinese Maiden” (1903 Harry L. Stone) “Japloo Baby” (1916) and “Me No Sabbee. An Army Episode in China” (Theo. Northrup, 1904), all of which use versions of the ‘Oriental Theme’

"Chinatown, My Chinatown"
(William Jerome / Jean Schwartz,   1910)
When the town is fast asleep, 
And it's midnight in the sky, 
That's the time the festive Chink
Starts to wink his other eye, 
Starts to wink his dreamy eye, 
Lazily you'll hear him sigh.

Strangers taking in the sights, 
Pigtails flying here and there; 
See that broken Wall Street sport
Still thinks he's a millionaire, 
Still thinks he's a millionaire, 
Pipe dreams banish ev'ry care.

The first major Chinese cliché genre hit was Jerome and Jean Schwartz’s “Chinatown My Chinatown” in 1915. The success of this piece triggered a slew imitations including amongst many others “Blinky Winky Chinky Chinatown” (Jean Schwartz, 1915) and “Chong, He come from Hong Kong” (Harold Weeks, 1919). The use of the theme continued throughout the twentieth century by artists as diverse as George Formby, Django Rienhart, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Zappa ( a near-exhaustive list analysis of the theme’s development can be found here) …

I went to Chinatown
'way back in old Hong Kong
To get some Egg Foo Yung
And then I heard a gong
Ling ting tong tried to sing that song
Called Tie-ess-a mo-cum boo-die-ay
Tie-ess-a mo-cum boo
Ling ting tong,
he would never be wrong
Go on and sing your song,
a-ling ting tong And I looked around
The lights were going down
And this is what I found
A back in Chinatown

“ling Ting Tong” (Mabel Godwin) Otis Williams & The Charms – 1955

Despite the theme’s unavoidably racist past, the ‘Oriental Theme ‘ for some reason is still considered an acceptable form of indicating ‘Chineseness’. This has reached a point where the creation of an ‘orientalist’ piece of music requires no actual knowledge of the orient –  a simple knowledge of oriental stereotypes is sufficient. This situation is symptomatic of the relatively recent unacceptability of Asian racism compared to say, Afro-Caribbean racism; imagine a return of the ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’ or modern pop music using ‘Coon song’ parody and fake negro plantation speech over a disco beat…yet the asian equivelant is alive and kicking in current contemporary ‘serious’ music as well as popular culture.

‘Oriental Theme’ Top Ten

  1. Desmond Decker “The Face of Fu man Chu”
  2. David bowie ” China Girl’
  3. The Vapours (1980) ” Turning Japanese”
  4. Carl Douglas (1974) ” kung fu Fighting”
  5. The Coasters (1964)  “Bad Detective”
  6. Rush  (1976) “A Passage to Bangkok”
  7. Horace Silver (1965)  “Tokyo blues”
  8. “Betty Boop in Making Stars” Cartoon (1935)
  9. Peter Bjorn and John (2006) “Young Folks”
  10. The gaylords (1960) “Ah-So!







Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s–1920s. By Krystyn R. Moon. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

Jim Crow Museum of Racist memorabilia

An Indepth musical history of the “Asian Riff”: http://chinoiserie.atspace.com/index.html

“Postcolonialism on the Make: The Music of John Mellencamp, David Bowie and John Zorn” Author(s): Ellie M. Hisama Source: Popular Music, Vol. 12, No. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 91-104 Published by: Cambridge University Press

“Chinatown, Whose Chinatown? Defining America’s Borders with Musical Orientalism” Author(s): Charles Hiroshi Garrett Source: Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Spring, 2004), pp. 119- 173 Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the American Musicological Society

7 Responses to “‘foreign sounding’: asian racial stereotypes in popular music”

  1. Andy Wilson said

    Your intellectual model here seems to be that any reference to the orient that is merely indexical is inherently racist (it ‘points to’ the orient through a cliche rather than reflecting it’s actuality.) But that depends on a weirdly essentialist idea of orientalism (and of racism) to start with. In many cases, indexing imperfectly may at least an attempt to positively identify with a ‘foreign’ culture that remains ‘other’ only due to imperfect knowledge – but it represents a reasonable first pass on the problem of opening up to different music. Sun Ra’s ‘exoticisms’ may be such a case. It seems glib to look back on the music of the past and critique it simply for not knowing what we know now. It would be better to see it in it’s particular place and time and judge from that point of view whether it helped overcome musical-cultural incomprehension or reinforced it. From any reasonable point of view, Sun Ra was a master at opening people out to other cultures, whatever the ‘limitations’ of his solution from an abstractly more inclusive position that is conveniently available to us today.

    And anyway, it’s hard to take seriously the argument that it is racist of people not to appreciate or understand ‘oriental music’ when it comes from someone who routinely argues that both the blues and jazz are inherently boring :-)

  2. crab said

    Hi Andy,
    I do say re Sun Ra ” unconsciously perhaps, repeats the old tradition of exotic stereotyping” which implies imperfect knowledge rather than being directly racist – so we agree. However i would argue that it is weak musicianship to use pre-established tropes (racist or not) to denote – in this instance – orientalism.

    ” It seems glib to look back on the music of the past and critique it simply for not knowing what we know now”…the whole point of the article is to point out that this is current behaviour with an explainable past – not simply a critique of ‘past mistakes’. i think it’s perhaps interesting to investigate why Sun Ra (and others) ‘didn’t know’ at the time when he was deeply involved in race issues

    “it’s hard to take seriously the argument that it is racist of people not to appreciate or understand ‘oriental music’ when it comes from someone who routinely argues that both the blues and jazz are inherently boring” – meaning: I can’t take anyone seriously if they disagree with me? getting a bit Stalinist again andy!

  3. Andy Wilson said

    “getting a bit Stalinist again andy!”

    heh. Actually, Stalinism would be better characterized as opposing modernist gestures such as collage, irony, ‘inauthenticity’, parody, etc., etc., and insisting instead that musicians followed the native folk traditions of their country without deviation – just as you are insisting here, comrade Crab ;-)

  4. jenny tucker said

    hey, really appreciate your writing, just stumbled onto your blog after a week no joke immersed in the 120 years of electronic sound thing and the various researches it gave birth to fer me….

    that bean said, do you have any more meat on the gaylords? i could not dig anything up and that song wrecks my brain

    my mail
    psychedelicum @ gmail.com

  5. zahadum said

    @ andy:

    thanx for calling out the P.C. jaberwocky!


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