Chopsticks at Dawn


Anna Chen looks at how politics and culture mix at unconscious levels, shaping the way we think.

Chinese decorative arts are revered in the West. From Willow pattern dinner plates to the Brighton Pavilion, their designs are regarded as beautiful and sophisticated. But for the past two centuries European composers and musicians have had no qualms about mercilessly parodying what they thought of as ‘Chinese tunes’.

“I always wondered how it was that those cartoon strains of cod Chinese music used to have me running for cover when I was growing up. Siouxsie And The Banshees’ Hong Kong Garden, David Bowie’s China Girl, Carl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting, they’re only a few examples of the sort of orientalism in music that was the bane of my young life. Who needed crude verbal epithets when a few bars of plonkery could do the job?”

She asked Dr Jonathan Walker, a musicologist, how certain configurations of a few notes could be so potent in their effect. They take us on a fascinating journey through the development of a musical trope that was loaded with meaning.

Listen to the programme on BBC Radio 4 here, it is available until Saturday:

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18 comments on “Chopsticks at Dawn

  1. Karen Elliot on said:

    ‘Oriental Theme’ Top Ten (from site linked above)

    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!“

    What! No ‘Hong Kong Garden’?

  2. neprimerimye on said:

    She always shows up when I’m up
    But she never shows up when I’m down
    But she’s under arrest
    ’cause I might guess
    The Sheriff of Hong Kong
    Then she goes up in a flash
    I bite the end of her sash
    Then I’m long gone
    To Hong Kong Kong

    She never makes a taste mistake
    She’s the Sheriff of Hong Kong
    Now I’m the Sheriff of Hong Kong
    Now she’s the Sheriff of Hong Kong
    Long gone gone
    To Hong Kong Kong

    Whoa I’m long gone
    To Hong Kong Kong

    Long gone gone
    To Hong Kong Kong
    Ad hu
    And uh zing hu
    I don’t know who I am
    Do you?
    Ohhh ahhh oooh

    There’s a string and bat dangle
    Black and white bat and cat panda
    And uh
    She’s the Sheriff of Hong Kong
    And uh
    Ad hu
    And uh zing hu
    I don’t know who I am
    Do youuuu?

    Now she’s the Sheriff of Hong Kong gone
    I bite the end of her sash
    And she’s off in a flash
    And we’re long gone gone
    To Hong Kong Kong

    There’s a string and bat dangle
    Black and white bat and cat panda
    And uh
    She’s the Sheriff of Hong Kong and uh
    Ad hu
    And uh zing hu
    Whoa-ohhhh ohhh ohhh

    wai ni sha yeh
    wai ni sha yeh
    she say
    ohhh – ohh

    Ad hu
    Zing hu
    wai ni sha yeh
    wai ni sha yeh
    Ad hu
    Zing hu
    She’s the Sheriff of Hong Kong
    Zo hu
    Zing hu
    Aah ohhh
    Aaaah oh
    Ad hu
    Zing hu
    Ahhh me and you

  3. Howard Kirk on said:

    China Girl is a cowritten by Iggy Pop and David Bowie in 1977.

    The superior Iggy Pop version (with David Bowie playing keyboards)on The Idiot did not have the Chinese sounding intro and recurring motif.

    I saw an interview with Nile Rodgers (who produced the Bowie version) and he said that coming from a soul/funk background, it was the case that the title and the sound of music was more literal ie, if a song had China in it then it better sound Chinese hence the intro etc which he introduced to it.

  4. Charles Dexter Ward on said:

    The Bowie version’s crap. I could never understand why he decided to trash the excellent songs he had written for Iggy. Pure laziness is my guess. As for Siouxsie, what do you expect from someone who thought it was cool to wear a swastika and slag off the Jews? But then does it really pay to be so sensitive about such things? A friend of mine went to China in the ’80s and had people running up to touch her. She found it amusing.

  5. Marka Bane on said:

    Siouxsie wore the swastika 30 years ago as a young punk girl trying to piss off her elders. She later went on to wear the star of david, cross, crucifix, etc. She mixed symbols and provoked, something Madonna went on to do 10 years later and earned millions doing so. It’s stupid Siouxsie’s even mentioned here. Siouxsie is an advocate for equality, expression and acceptance. She’s a pioneer among women who blazed trails for all kinds of marginalized people to follow. FYI Hong Kong Garden was named after a Chinese restaurant Siouxsie loved – she often defended the Chinese staff there from racist punks.

  6. Karen Elliot on said:

    #6: I well remember the widespread misunderstanding of Siouxsie Sioux’s lyrics. I can’t see how anyone could make this mistake, given how eminently sensitive and respectful the lyrics are:

    while the population feeds
    junk floats on polluted water
    an old custom to sell you daughter
    slanted eyes meet a new sunrise
    a race of bodies small in size
    Chicken Chow Mein and Chop Suey
    Hong Kong Garden Takeaway

    No wonder Bob Dylan went into retirement shortly after the release of this record.

  7. I think that Anna’s programme is fascinating, and you still hve a chance to listen to it, for another 24 hours.

    An issue that is too big fr the scope of a 30 minute prog is the way that musical steroetypes are used for a number of nations, without there necessariliy being a chauvinictic intent; it is just a motif that feeds into an unconscious recognition that we are dealing with a different culture.

    Fr example, the father of a wrk colleague of mine some years ago was a prfessional acordian player who litterly made a living out of BBC rules against recorded mucic in live drama (that may have changed now), and he played short accorodian airs every time a programme was set in France

  8. Marka Bane on said:

    SATB’s wrote Hong Kong Garden in the 1970’s, they were in their late teens/early twenties. Those were different times, different standards. It’s unfair to judge someone based upon one song or an instance of shock. Now if only Dylan had stayed retired!

  9. Andy Wilson on said:

    #9 “Those were different times, different standards. It’s unfair to judge someone based upon one song or an instance of shock”

    Standards were not any different then. I went to see the Banshees (before they had released any records) on a trip organised by Rock Against Racism, so it’s not as if no one was aware of the issues of racism in music. In fact it was RAR and the ANL that galvanised the situation, so that people like Siouxsie Sioux had to stop toying with fascism and fascist imagery if they wanted to keep their audience. If it hadn’t been for such political interventions she may well have carried on Sieg Heil-ing her way to fame, and other groups like Sham 69 might have stayed on their right wing trajectory.

    Clearly you are fond of Siouxsie and her music, but don’t let that blind you to how politically ambivalent she was to start with.

    “The National Front had won 40 per cent of the votes in the spring elections in Blackburn. One month earlier an Asian teenager, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, had been murdered by a gang of white youths in Southall. ‘One down – a million to go’ was the response to the killing from John Kingsley Read of the National Front. Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux were sporting swastikas as fashion statements. David Bowie, who three months earlier had been photographed apparently giving a Nazi salute in Victoria Station, told Cameron Crowe in the September 1976 edition of Playboy ‘… yes I believe very strongly in fascism. The only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that’s hanging foul in the air… is a right-wing totally dictatorial tyranny…’ “ Pop, Rock and Race

    Of course, Siouxsie and Severin had always been big Bowie fans, and this sort of casual racist shit was in the air – hence the significance of the exemplary response of RAR. It is only with hindsight that musicians such as Siouxsie tried to pass off their flirtation with fascism as mere youthful indiscretion.

  10. #9

    ” It’s unfair to judge someone based upon one song ”

    Ok. so let us judge her on another song as well

    “Too many Jews for my liking”

    sanitised out of later versions of Love in a Void, but a large part of why Siouxsie couldn’t get a record deal, IIRC.

  11. Marka Bane on said:

    Siouxsie and the Banshees were not racist or supporters of fascism. Your judgement conveniently skims the surface to present a false reality of the band.

  12. #12

    Din’t Sid Vicious when he was the drummer in the banshees have a problem with the Clash refusing to play with them after he described their manager as “that jew Bernie” ???

  13. Marka Bane on said:

    Sid Vicious was a troubled young man who played drums for the Banshees once at their very first gig, he was not “their drummer”. Your grasping at straws now Andy. Obviously you have something against SATB and will spread false information to appear right. I’m done here, good bye.

  14. #14

    “Obviously you have something against SATB and will spread false information to appear right. ”

    i have nothing aginst Siouxsie, and I have not sperad any false information, by your own admission everything I have siad is true.

    Hong Kong garden uses racist stereotypes of Chinese people
    “Love in the Void” had the line “too many jews for my liking”
    and sid vicious, who did play drums for the banshees, used derogatory language about Bernie Rhodes.

    Now this paints a picture of people, admittedly young and confused, who were prepared to flirt with racism

  15. Evan on said:

    I sympathise (and empathise) with Andy’s position here, even though I know his attitude to the punk scene is coloured by that book by the obnoxious Julie Birchill and the muppet Tony Parsons, The Boy Looked at Johnny

    My friends and myself were into punk big time in the late 70s.
    * group of them created a fanzine which interviwed Siouxie on the eve of their first album coming out and I remember going straight to the shop and buying it- it was brilliant.
    – also remember at the same time selling rock against racism badges and temporary hoardings, the RAR fanzine.

    There were bands I felt completely comfortable about being into because of their stance on racism and fascism but I certainly don’t remember the Banshees as being one of them.

  16. Just found this thread has revived, Andy.

    When I was a young punk hanging out at Westwood’s Sex in Kings Road, shopping in the supermarket wearing my PVC catsuit and doing stuff with my fellow London punks, I remember the debate well. It was intense. Especially that song and her statement, “There are too many Jews for my liking” which was all over the music press. A lot of punks thought wearing swastikas was stupid. I’ve never heard Siouxsie recant, unlike Bowie. She led the mini-wave that was enamoured of the film Cabaret and the Weimar Republic which was really shock tactics without a lot of thought behind it. As Orwell said of something else, a kind of playing with fire by people who have not yet grasped that fire is hot.

    London SS, who I and Loved One knew, had a meeting when Bernie Rhodes tipped a duffel bag of Nazi memorabilia on the table and said that if they wanted to continue using the name they’d have to defend this sort of stuff and what it represented. Even though London SS referred to Social Security (!) they decided to drop the name. Subsequently, members formed The Clash, Generation X and The Damned.

    BTW I posted a video at mine of The Bermondsey Joyriders’ great gig at the 100 Club the other night with Rat Scabies on drums.

  17. Omar on said:

    I’m no great fan of Siouxie, but did she not,perhaps to counter her previous bad rep, release the single “Israel” in the 80’s which I remember reading was a “testament to the survival of the Jewish people” or some such rubbish?