June 8, 2009

The musical cliché figure signifying the Far East.

We all know it, but where the hell did it come from? Is it from "Kung Fu Fighting"? Of course not. How could it say "Chinese" if we didn't already understand it? The evidence is traced meticulously at the link.

How racist/denigrating/offensive is that riff anyway? Should it be avoided in mainstream pop culture?
... I have a feeling that there might be some kind of connection between the development of a need for a distinct, somewhat comical, caricaturic musical way of signalling Asia, and the apparent desire for material that ridiculed Asians or "put them into place." (Although it is true that more or less ridiculous musical clichés have developed for pretty much everything during the 20th century, in connection with the rise of cinema and television and their usage of background music.)

But I am no musical sociologist or such and don't really feel capable to connect the threads and interpret what the bigger story is which the rise of this cliché-phenomenon tells. And this project is still in the stage of gathering the evidence.
(Via Metafilter.)

36 comments:

traditionalguy said...

When inscrutable Chinese meet Westerners seeking gold and wealth of the East, then some alert-sound must be given to the Westerners to tell them the Chinese/Japanese are close but are not yet conquered.

mcg said...

What an interesting article! Thanks for posting it.

EDH said...

How meticulous was the research?

And I thought Althouse Loves the 80s?

Turning Japanese...

I really think so.

By the Vapors.

Clyde said...

In the words of Sergeant Hulka, "Lighten up, Francis!"

Seriously, if culturally-insensitive music is the worst thing that the article writer has to worry about, then we've come pretty damn close to achieving Utopia.

EDH said...

Yikes, the questions run deep with the David Carradine-Asian connection.

The studio cast Carradine over Bruce Lee, a true Chinese, for the Kung Fu character Lee helped create. Lee later died while on location making a movie.

Carradine died in Bangkok, on location for a movie, evidently while masterbating.

And, the Urban definition of Turning Japanese?

Turning Japanese
1. Masterbation. Refers to the look that some men get on their face at the time of climax.

Guys sometimes turn japanese when they watch pornos.

2. Title of 1980 hit record by The Vapors, with a rhythm said to be suitable for masturbation. Title is a reference to the contorted face typical of a guy about to blow his load after a good tommy. The lyrics apparently tell the story of a guy in jail wanking over a picture of his girl.

'Turning Japanese' by The Vapors made it to number 3 in the UK chart in early 1980.

mcg said...

EDH, the article does indeed include that song!

bearbee said...

Probably because I saw it in a movie, I think of a rickshaw operator

Do the Chinese or other countries-people have particular 'racist/denigrating/offensive' depictions of Americans?

Americans seem to get stereotyped as any combination of uncultured, knuckle-dragging, greedy, fat, self-absorbed. red-necked, racists.

veni vidi vici said...

I think of "Give me Water" off Shania Twain's "UP" album. Has nothing to do with the far east, but figures as the intro phrase before the drum machine kicks in anyway.

I always figured it was that whole "far-eastern pentatonic scale music" thing summarized in a phrase even a monkey could play on a piano. Perhaps there are more ominous racist implications; it doesn't make me care enough to read the article, though.

EDH said...

mcg,

Woops, missed it. My fault.

dbp said...

"How racist/denigrating/offensive is that riff anyway? Should it be avoided in mainstream pop culture"?

Doesn't the method of telling a viewer "now we are dealing with something Asian" by playing this snippit, require it be something instantly recognizable by most people? If some actual bit of Asian music was played, but was unknown to the audience, it wouldn't do much for the narrative thread.

It would be a shame if PC considerations made what ammounts to a cinematic technique off-limits.

traditionalguy said...

Yes, the asian view of Americans is that we are brutal, uncivilized, monsters who murder without mercy and defile the bodies of more cultured asian victims. This appears to have come from having the USMC as their first real encounter with Americans, and that interaction caught their attention. They usually fail to see their own part in that early on dysfunctional relationship. The Marine's refusal to fight like the Chinese was a terrible shock to them. And then LeMay, Groves and Give um Hell Harry kept surprising the Sun God until he surrendered to the American Monsters.

rhhardin said...

The cliche starts ``Hindustan'' in the Sons of the Whiskey Rebellion version that Jean Shepherd used to play all the time.

wvhillbilly said...

There's also the American Indian one, like the FSU Seminole chant.

Joe said...

The problem with the article is that it doesn't do any comparative research with actual native music from the far east. Listen to some actual traditional Chinese music and you'll find out where the cliche comes from (even if, and that's definitely an if, it's over the top.)

PatCA said...

Then there's the one for the Islamic world, whether modern or ancient--that wailing voice starting with one long beat, then a riff. The answer is, that these things are in the audio files. It's like clip art.

Ron said...

And, gosh, look how the Go-Go's ruined the reputation of Vacations!

hdhouse said...

It isn't the rhythm it is the pentatonic scale and parallel 4ths (or 5ths if you hear it that way).

go sit at a piano and just play with the black keys..nothing else..you will evoke the same association.

the rhythm is purely a secondary association as that rhythmic configuration is used in all kinds of music from ravel and debussy, ragtime to sousa marches to gilbert and sullivan.

veni vidi vici said...

"There's also the American Indian one, like the FSU Seminole chant."

Don't forget that Tarzan cry, too.

wvhillbilly said...

This Betty Boop cartoon has the exact piece from 1935 at about 4:40.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ztdo_5dyb6w

Theo Boehm said...
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Theo Boehm said...
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Theo Boehm said...
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Beth said...

It's like clip art.

There you go - thanks, Pat. Exactly right.

Modern Otter said...

I remember the Carl Douglas 1974 hit. At the time, I though the "di-di-di-di dit dit" figure racist, but no more so than the line "But it was with expert timing." ("Expert timing = "Natural Rhythm"?)

Jeremy said...

I recall (as a child, maybe 25 years ago) a Sunday School performance of Jesus Loves The Little Children. There's a line that goes "...all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight..." And after each race, there was a brief, 5-second race-specific musical interlude (woo woos for red, ting tings for yellow, hip hop beats for black, and fiddley square-dancing music for white). It seems awful now, but at the time it felt very inclusive.

I would say that the music is unsophisticated or simplistic or ignorant even, but not particularly racist. I think it came from a time and place where we (Westerners) literally just didn't know much about the Far East.

Balfegor said...

Yes, the asian view of Americans is that we are brutal, uncivilized, monsters who murder without mercy and defile the bodies of more cultured asian victims. This appears to have come from having the USMC as their first real encounter with Americans, and that interaction caught their attention.

I don't know that that's the case. Many Japanese were quite positive about the US before WWII -- during WWII, of course, our widely publicised (by Japanese propaganda) habit of descrating the bodies of Japanese war dead, e.g. by making knife handles of bones (like one given to Roosevelt II), polishing skulls as keepsakes to be sent home to loved ones, or making necklaces out of Japanese teeth, did sort of swing the population against us, and may have contributed to a willingness to fight to the death. I mean, that is pretty barbaric stuff.

Modern stereotypes aren't quite so bad, though. There is a stereotypical "American" accent that gets used a lot, especially in Japanese cartoons -- it's sort of sing-songy, analogous to the stereotypical "Chinese" accent sometimes used by Americans (e.g. Rosie O'Donnell). In small doses, it's quite amusing. The "Chinese" accent used by Japanese, on the other hand, is basically just "aru" tagged on the end of every sentence (I don't know why). In both cases, more serious media portrayals will typically have actual Americans or Chinese speaking, so the accents come out right (although in at least one case, I'm sure they made the Chinese actress play up her mispronunciation for comic effect).

Balfegor said...

Listen to some actual traditional Chinese music and you'll find out where the cliche comes from (even if, and that's definitely an if, it's over the top.)


Really? It doesn't sound particularly like any of the Chinese music I listen to (mostly music for the erhu).

Ann Althouse said...

Jeremy said..."I recall (as a child, maybe 25 years ago) a Sunday School performance of Jesus Loves The Little Children. There's a line that goes "...all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight..." And after each race, there was a brief, 5-second race-specific musical interlude (woo woos for red, ting tings for yellow, hip hop beats for black, and fiddley square-dancing music for white). It seems awful now, but at the time it felt very inclusive. I would say that the music is unsophisticated or simplistic or ignorant even, but not particularly racist. I think it came from a time and place where we (Westerners) literally just didn't know much about the Far East."

We sang that song when I was a child too. That was *50* years ago. And there was no pause for racial cliche music. The main thing I remember was not understanding what the list of colors was about. Especially "yellow." Where were these people? I still don't think anyone looks yellow! We might have sung "brown" rather than black too or I'm sure I would have wondered where these "black" people were. I knew "red" referred to Indians, but I didn't really understand why it was supposed to refer to Indians. Just another mysterious thing about language that I had to take in stride back in the days when I barely understood anything. The idea of Jesus being "inclusive" wouldn't have occurred to me. Obviously, Christianity included everyone and the idea of excluding anyone was not something I'd ever heard of coming from anybody.

I heard the song as a statement of Jesus's special love for children. "Let the children come to me," etc.

blake said...

The main thing I remember was not understanding what the list of colors was about. Especially "yellow." Where were these people? I still don't think anyone looks yellow! We might have sung "brown" rather than black too or I'm sure I would have wondered where these "black" people were. I knew "red" referred to Indians, but I didn't really understand why it was supposed to refer to Indians.

Thank you, Althouse!

Were you disappointed? I mean, I was very disappointed when I realized Indians weren't really very red and, uh, far easterners wren't really yellow.

Ann Althouse said...

I wasn't disappointed. I was irritated. I have always tried to understand language and found it irritating when things were inaccurate or illogical. And in this case I didn't see the point of demanding that we see subtle skin tones such as yellow and red... and also "olive." What good was to be achieved by this effort to perceive these differences? (I wasn't taught that there was any point to classifying people by race, so it wasn't that you needed to learn this so you could discriminate.)

Jeff with one 'f' said...

The point of multiculturalism and identity politics is to enforce difference.

As for musical cliches used to denote ethnicity, two words: Dueling Banjos.

Kev said...

Responding to Theo's trifecta:

Now you know why I didn't become a Musicologist.

Same here, among plenty of other reasons (such as enjoying performance and teaching about, oh, a billion times more than research).

I'm sure there are dozens of dissertations on this and related topics, such as "Origins of Pseudo-Asian Clichés in the Cartoon Music of Bugs Bunny and their Relationship to Racist Stereotyping in 1940's Hollywood."

If only I hadn't abandoned my Ph.D, I could've probably wrapped myself around a topic like that. ;-)

Should "Musicologist" be capitalized, and "president of the U.S." not?

No, but musicologists (at least many of the ones I've encountered) probably think they're important enough that their title should be capitalized.

That reminds me of a faculty party I heard about in undergrad school, where, after many festive beverages, one of the musicology profs (a frustrated would-be concert pianist) managed to utter the following to one of her colleagues, an esteemed artist-in-residence on piano: "You're just a piano player. I'm a musicologist!"

Kev said...

And in this case I didn't see the point of demanding that we see subtle skin tones such as yellow and red... and also "olive." What good was to be achieved by this effort to perceive these differences?

Amen, Althouse! This needs to be shouted from the rooftops on a daily basis.

And thanks for linking this story; I plan to slog through the whole thing during one of these upcoming lazy summer days.

Synova said...

We did "Jesus Loves the Little Children" when I was a kid and someone felt compelled to change it on me/us from "red and yellow, black and white" to "red, brown, yellow, black and white" so that the brown people wouldn't be left out.

I was probably 10 and I thought it was stupid, mostly because I kept stumbling over the new version.


"There is a stereotypical "American" accent that gets used a lot, especially in Japanese cartoons -- it's sort of sing-songy, analogous to the stereotypical "Chinese" accent sometimes used by Americans (e.g. Rosie O'Donnell)."

My kids told me yesterday that the English dubbing for ethnic Okinawans in Japanese Animation is consistently done as a US Southern accent.

I was flabbergasted.

Synova said...

"But I am no musical sociologist or such and don't really feel capable to connect the threads and interpret what the bigger story is which the rise of this cliché-phenomenon tells."

And as much as hdhouse is on my sh*t list atm, he's right on this and the concerned IANAMS (I am not a musical sociologist) person is clearly also not a musical ethnicist, historicist, or any other sort of musical anything-ist.

Granted, the offending ditty probably shouldn't be used, but only because sloth is a sin and any number of other musical riffs can be used to signal "Asian" without sacrificing originality.

Jennifer said...

I'm with Balfegor, my unsophisticated ears have never heard anything approaching that particular tune in the actual Japanese music my grandparents listened to.

But, as a cinematic device, it's kind of like grape flavored candy. It doesn't taste anything like grape and it's never colored anything like the actual color of a grape, but all grape candy has that same non-grape flavor/color and we all instantly recognize it as "grape".

As far as skin colors go, when my son started asking about it, I didn't really want to go in to well these people are black and those people are white blah blah blah, so I let him run with his own brain. He decided that people break down into yellow (like he and I), pink (like his Dad and sister) and brown. When his sister started asking, he passed that on to her. I don't know why, but kids seem very interested in classifying and labeling. I guess it's a learning method. I should probably correct them at some point, but I kind of enjoy their interpretation.

My kids told me yesterday that the English dubbing for ethnic Okinawans in Japanese Animation is consistently done as a US Southern accent.

That's because Okinawans are hairy, stupid people who might possibly also smell. Very badly. lol I don't know why but my grandmother had a fierce hatred for all things Okinawan. It probably shouldn't amuse me but it always has.