Musical yellowface

by guest contributor Kai Chang, originally published at Zuky

musical yellowface chinky musicThe bare title of this post might already be enough to summon, in your head, the ubiquitous musical phrase that says “chinky!” with as much self-conscious gusto as bamboo fonts and gongs:

Having grown up in a music-loving household filled with both Chinese and Western classical music, this little melody has always annoyed me. It’s basically what white folks play every time Orientalism is invoked in a TV show, movie, or pop song. It’s so prevalent that I honestly suspect that many white folks unconsciously hear this ditty when they see me walk into the room.

Funny thing is, it’s neither Chinese nor even representative of Chinese music. It’s a white supremacist construction whose artistic purpose is to caricaturize, mock, and dehumanize Asians.

From Ask The A.V. Club:

Nilsson calls this “the Far East Proto-Cliché,” and documents its use in popular and light classical music back to the 1880s. Although it was used to signify generalized Asian exoticism (associated with places as far-flung as Persia and Egypt), by the early 20th century, it’s nearly omnipresent in music associated with “chinoiserie,” the fad for Oriental décor and dress.

Every two-bit jazz combo in the country seems to have recorded a novelty song with some version of the Proto-Cliché, from “Chinatown My Chinatown” to “Chong, He Come From Hong Kong” to “My Yokohama Girl.” The Walt Disney music department was especially fond of the trope. Versions occur in “The China Plate” (a Disney Silly Symphony in which painted figures on a piece of porcelain come to life), a few propaganda cartoons from the World War II period, and most beloved by The A.V. Club, the classic music-ed cartoon “Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom.”

Check out the exhaustive research piece by Martin Nilsson.