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The origins of that stereotypical Chinese nine-note riff
August 28, 2014 9:05 PM   Subscribe

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 (previously). 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".]

By 1930, 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.
posted by filthy light thief (46 comments total) 158 users marked this as a favorite

 
And if you wanted to know more about the academic paper referenced in the NPR article and on the Straight Dope board, here's a link to the first page, but it's on JSTOR so you have to have academic access.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:06 PM on August 28 [5 favorites]


The funniest use I've heard of those ethnic stereotypical musical cues (not only the 'asian' one, but there's a 'mexican' and a 'black' one as well) is in the awesome Nobody's Asian in the Movies, part of Commentary: The Musical (yes, the commentary track to Joss Whedon's musical Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is also a Musical).
posted by kandinski at 9:18 PM on August 28 [17 favorites]


Commentary: The Musical (yes, the commentary track to Joss Whedon's musical Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is also a Musical).Commentary: The Musical

Commentary: The Musical in its entirety on Youtube.

I actually like Commentary more than Dr Horrible's Sing Along Blog, although Dr Horrible is still great.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:30 PM on August 28 [15 favorites]


Other uses of the Asian Sting (or a variation on the theme at least) in musicals include It Sucks to Be Me, from Avenue Q.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:33 PM on August 28 [3 favorites]


Wow. Very interesting to learn that this all originates with Bill Murray.
posted by todayandtomorrow at 9:53 PM on August 28 [5 favorites]


Also heard in the Mighty Sparrow's "Oriental Touch."
posted by Rangeboy at 9:59 PM on August 28 [2 favorites]


On a related wavelength, Devil in the White City explains how the similarly stereotypical/fake generic "Middle Eastern" snake charmer riff (nuh-nah-nah-nah-NAH-nuh-NAH-nuh-nah-nuh-nah-nuh" was hastily whipped up the by the guy in charge of the midway at the Columbian Exposition in 1893 Chicago.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:12 PM on August 28 [23 favorites]


I actually like Commentary more than Dr Horrible's Sing Along Blog, although Dr Horrible is still great.

Agreed. The songs are stronger and have a real satirical bite (though the last tune in DHSABlog is still excellent).
posted by Sebmojo at 11:15 PM on August 28


Oh my gods. I never realised before, but...Heroes in a half shell. Turtle power! is a variation on the Asian Sting.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:35 PM on August 28 [21 favorites]


I remember that tune being one of the built-in loops in the Casio 100 Tone Bank keyboard back in the early 90s, except it went

dee dee dee dee duh duh dee dee duh
dee dee dee dee duh duh dee - gong! (repeat forever)
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 12:06 AM on August 29 [3 favorites]


In a similar vein: Ching chong (... ling long ting tong, which was written in response to this).
posted by gemutlichkeit at 1:18 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


I was going to post the bit about the 1893 exhibition. But of course MF is all over that already.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:26 AM on August 29


Here's what MeFi thought in 2005.
posted by zamboni at 3:15 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


Peter Bjorn & John also use this in "Young Folks".
posted by pxe2000 at 3:42 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


Wow, I was wondering about this not too long ago - it sounds so different than actual East Asian music. I thought it may have originated in the Mikado, but apparently it's a good deal older.

The conclusion about musical short-hand for cultures entire in just a few notes shouldn't be a surprise. Nine notes of "God Save the Queen" or "La Marseillaise" or "Kalinka" is enough to denote British, French or Russian - but these are actual musical pieces the cultures themselves identify strongly with.

The "Asian Theme" is apparently made of whole cloth, and an American wouldn't recognize the national song* of any given Asian country, simply because the "Asian Theme" is the only musical association popular culture has bothered to make. It's shockingly racist in that it erases actual cultures entire and replaces them irrevocably with something that doesn't even have the dignity of a caricature, and assigns it to everyone with certain physical characteristics, regardless of actual ethnicity or nationality.

(*not to be confused with the national anthem - the difference between "The Stars and Stripes Forever", the Americans' own musical short-hand for America, and "The Star Spangled Banner" which no-one much likes but almost everyone pays lip-service to.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:09 AM on August 29 [5 favorites]


When MST3k did the Coleman Francis epic "Skydivers", there is a concert during the last scenes with Jimmy Bryant that is actually pretty good. Of course, they also start off one of their songs with the riff (complete with ("Ah So!"), to which Crow responds by heavily sighing and saying, "Thank you. That's good. That's enough. THANK YOU."
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 5:15 AM on August 29 [4 favorites]


Of course, they also start off one of their songs with the riff (complete with ("Ah So!")

When I saw this on its initial airing, even knowing it was made in "different times," that scene gave me a physical cringe reaction.

Also, heck of a lotta glancing goes on in that movie.
posted by The Deej at 5:28 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


Also, I am a huge Bowie fan, but never liked China Girl, specifically due to that opening riff. In the recent Bowie documentary Five Years, Nile Rodgers, who wrote the riff, explains that he knew Bowie would understand it was "a joke."
posted by The Deej at 5:31 AM on August 29


Don't forget the SNL Christmas classic, "I Wish It Was Christmas Today"
posted by Strange Interlude at 5:58 AM on August 29


Great post!
posted by spitbull at 5:59 AM on August 29


Oh my gods. I never realised before, but...Heroes in a half shell. Turtle power! yt is a variation on the Asian Sting.

Written by Chuck Lorre, the creator of "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory".
posted by inturnaround at 5:59 AM on August 29 [5 favorites]


previously Blue, 2009
posted by fings at 6:03 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


Here's Dave Chapelle's take from 2001 (starting at the 3:35 mark)
posted by ericbop at 6:05 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


Of all the films my daughter has latched onto in her first five years, "The Aristocats" was the one I most enjoyed watching with her. And my favorite part was "Everybody wants to be a cat", which made it all the more painful when that short bit arrives in the middle of the song.

But I try to distract myself from this by wondering again why the French dogs sound like they're from Hooterville.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 6:11 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


Could there be a place somewhere in this genealogy for Emmanuel Chabrier's "Bourrée fantasque" (1893)? If Chabrier's piece really is a bourrée (that's a question for somebody who knows the ethnomusicology of the Auvergne), maybe its folk origin (pentatonic?) explains why the little motif comes in so handy for indicating the presence of something "foreign"?
And while we're at it, let's not forget Chet Atkins' version of "Chinatown."
posted by homerica at 6:17 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


One of the comments on the TMNT YouTube video is "I now 80's cartoon's are stupid but i like them BECAUSE their stupid." I cannot express how much I love that comment. It should be the opening line of a novel. Half of what you need to know about the narrator is right there in one sentence. Beautiful.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:18 AM on August 29 [13 favorites]


On a related note, xenophile recently pointed out the existence of "Pidgin English Sing-Song or Songs and Stories in the China-English Dialect" (1876; .pdf).
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:23 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


Bravo on the post, super excellent. Thanks!
posted by Wolof at 6:47 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


In a recent "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee", Aziz Ansari claims that people in India say "wash wash wash wash" when they're trying to sound like an American. I have no idea if this is true but I thought it was pretty amusing. Nothing close to the level of replacing an entire culture with nine notes, of course.
posted by montag2k at 6:48 AM on August 29 [7 favorites]


Previously, from 2009.

this post has more content though.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:53 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


Great article!

I have to beg to differ on one detail, though. Sléndro, one of the gamelan tunings, is a pentatonic scale, because there are five notes in it - but it is most certain not the pentatonic scale, the one we're talking about that's used to imitate Chinese music, because the relative tunings of the five notes are quite different - and I mean, "Enough different that non-musicians would think of it as completely different."

If Debussy used his experience of the gamelan in choosing scales, it's reflected in his use of the whole-tone scale (most famous example, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) - but that is decisively NOT a pentatonic scale - pentatonic in C would be C D F G A C, but the whole tone scale starting at C is C D E F# G# A# C.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 6:57 AM on August 29 [4 favorites]


Ha. I remember when this question was asked on ILX (mostly because of the Zach Galifinakis tangent). I spent part of yesterday reading Martin Nilsson's work on the question because that thread was revived.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:00 AM on August 29 [3 favorites]


Previously, from 2009.

this post has more content though.


Previously, from this thread.

Your comment has more content, though.
posted by zamboni at 7:26 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


Yup, I linked the previous post in the content, in the 3rd paragraph below the break. But the new NPR piece added some more to the story, with the note of the 1899 Paris expo, the origin of the dedicated website from the Straight Dope board question, and the piece (that was so interesting for me) on the thoughts and reactions from people in China.

Also, Martin Nilsson's website now has a bunch of dead links, including to audio samples on other sites, though it doesn't really detract from the thoroughness of his research and write-up.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:38 AM on August 29


the similarly stereotypical/fake generic "Middle Eastern" snake charmer riff (nuh-nah-nah-nah-NAH-nuh-NAH-nuh-nah-nuh-nah-nuh"

"The Streets of Cairo", better known to legions of schoolchildren as "There's A Place In France".
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:39 AM on August 29 [4 favorites]


I've been playing the C major pentatonic as C-D-E-G-A-C all this time.... ahhh man.
posted by id10tgary at 9:40 AM on August 29


Peter Bjorn & John also use this in "Young Folks" .

WOAH. That's one of those songs that at times has run through my head all day and I never even noticed that before.
posted by Hoopo at 10:51 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


I've always favoured Todd Monroe's Turning Japanese.
posted by juiceCake at 12:20 PM on August 29


For future reference, the theme is titled "Oriental riff" on Wikipedia.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:07 PM on August 29 [1 favorite]


Nine notes of "God Save the Queen" or "La Marseillaise" or "Kalinka" is enough to denote British, French or Russian

"Rule, Britannia!" and the "State Anthem of the USSR" are what do this for me.
posted by XMLicious at 3:18 PM on August 29 [1 favorite]


I've quoted it before, but I always love Anthony Burgess' famous diagnosis of what was wrong with British classical music at mid-century: "too much lark ascending, too much clodhopping on the fucking village green."

On a less tangential but still spurious note, there's an old joke among bar musicians (at least in the south) in which the singer announces "Now we will do an old Chinese number called 'Tu Ning.'" After which the band commences to tuning their instruments cacophonously (if the singer didn't make the joke to explain that the band was already tuning up), but the guitarist will usually do the "stereotypical Asian theme" as a punchline if the line gets a laugh. I used to hear it all the time in country music bars in the southwest in the 80s and 90s.
posted by spitbull at 3:36 PM on August 29


In a recent "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee", Aziz Ansari claims that people in India say "wash wash wash wash" when they're trying to sound like an American. I have no idea if this is true but I thought it was pretty amusing. Nothing close to the level of replacing an entire culture with nine notes, of course.

How in the hell does Jerry Seinfeld know how to drive a bus?

/derail
posted by jeoc at 4:57 PM on August 29



In a recent "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee", Aziz Ansari claims that people in India say "wash wash wash wash" when they're trying to sound like an American. I have no idea if this is true but I thought it was pretty amusing. Nothing close to the level of replacing an entire culture with nine notes, of course.


I saw that - that's a very Aziz specific comment about Indian parents in the US talking about white Americans - like "I saw your friend Steven's mom in the grocery store today, and she was like wash wash wash how is Aziz? Fifth grade will be fun! Wash wash wash"

I thought it was funny because also having Indian parents in the US I recognized it as a sort of accurate interpretation of a sort of voice people put on, but there's no comparison at all to the topic in this piece.
posted by sweetkid at 5:03 PM on August 29


I was telling somebody about this story yesterday, and then today I was telling somebody else about the Rolling Scabs 7". Sure enough they use the riff in "Around the World in 80 Seconds". It's the weakest song on the record.
posted by kendrak at 7:52 PM on August 29


I thought Aladdin Quick Step sounded like an awesome 80s platformer background song so I quick & dirty fake chip tuned it.
Aladdin Quick Step
posted by broken wheelchair at 5:08 PM on August 30 [2 favorites]


Wow, filthy light thief, what a superbly interesting, fun and thorough post. Enjoyed every bit of it. Thanks so much.
posted by nickyskye at 7:22 PM on September 1


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