Kat Chow, with NPR's Code Switch, put together a short piece on the history and the prevalence of the well-known nine note "stereotypical Asian theme."
As described in a 2005 Straight Dope forum question
: You know, the one that goes dee dee dee dee duh duh dee dee duh. Featured heavily in braindead Hollywood flicks made by clueless directors who want to give a scene an "oriental" feel. Also a variation of it can be heard in David Bowie's "China Girl."
One point of entry goes back to the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, where western audiences (including the then young Claude Debussy
, who beginning to make himself known and get his first compositions published) first experienced the pentatonic scale and other elements in a gamelan
, from the Java exhibit, which featured a model Kampong, or village, that included traditional music from the region. The gamelan includes two key two scales, or laras
: sléndro (5 note) and pélog (7 note)
But as noted in the NPR piece, one Straight Dope member who went by the handle ligeti, then mani, latched onto this question
and did some seriously extensive research by "utilising various online archives of old sheet music and recordings whose copyright claims have expired." He shared his research in a website under the title The Musical Cliché Figure Signifying The Far East: Whence, Wherefore, Whither?
and included the notes and MIDI
files of the particular samples.
Martin Nilsson, the Swedish web designer who went by mani in the Straight Dope forum, found "proto" examples of the theme going back to 1847
). But the first really strong example of the proto-Asian theme is found in "Chinatown, My Chinatown"
, first made famous for the recording by Billy Murray and the American Quartet
from 1915, but Nilsson noted that various recordings of the song might have removed the riff all-together (as done by The Mills Brothers
), or even mores strongly emphasized it (as heard from Tommy Dorsey and his Clambake Seven
[An interesting tangent in the 1915 to 1929 period: the cross-over of Native American "Indian" themes and "Oriental" themes
, as heard in "Indianola"
and "The Japanese Sandman"
, the choppy pentatonic scale style is firmly set as "Asian," as heard in "Sing Song Girl," performed by LeRoy Shield's Orchestra
, then with cartoon caricatures of Chinese culture being set to the stylized music, as seen and heard in The China Plate
(Disney Silly Symphony, 1931), Chinaman's Chance
(Ub Iwerks cartoon, featuring Flip the Frog, 1933). Also from this period of the 1930s: "Oriental Shuffle" by Django Reinhardt
Jump ahead, and we have the theme tucked into the Disney wartime cartoons, Out of the Frying Pan into the Firing Line
and The New Spirit
, and featured more prominently in Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom
, scoring a caricature of a Chinaman (alongside other stereotypes), and used in a similar vein in Lady and the Tramp with "We Are Siamese."
And then again, there's the Chinese cat
in The Aristocats "Everybody Wants to be a Cat."
Back to music in various forms, it was oddly added on as an intro to Benny Morton's All Star version of "Limehouse Blues"
, and more obviously included in
"Ling Ting Tong" by The The Five Keys
. A variation was included throughout "Chow Mein" by The Gaylords
, not to be confused by The Gaylads and "Ah So"
, a rock and roll track that apparently included Jerry Lee Lewis on the "Chinese" piano chops.
Frank Zappa even threw it into "Cheepnis"
, well into that song
, probably released before the 1970s really got into that theme
, starting with Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting"
in 1974 joined by "Bad Detective" by the New York Dolls
(and Hong Kong Phooey
, the animated super dog). Rush had "A Passage To Bangkok"
in 1976, and "Turning Japanese" by The Vapors
came out in 1979.
By now, those nine little notes are well known in the western world, but is it known and associated similarly elsewhere? Anthony Kuhn, NPR's Beijing correspondent, played the tune for people in China and asked them what they thought. Most people were not familiar and that it doesn't sound like it's from China.