Since this is a story about a musical phrase, it's one that's best heard. Give it a listen.
There's a tune that you've probably heard throughout your life. It's nine notes long, and it's almost always used to signal that something vaguely Asian is happening or is about to happen.
You know what I'm talking about. The tune's most prominent role is probably in that 1974 song "Kung Fu Fighting." It comes in right as Carl Douglas is singing that anthemic "Oh-hoh-hoh-hoah."
(Just for funsies, here are some of the song's lyrics: "There was funky China men from funky Chinatown / They were chopping them up / They were chopping them down / It's an ancient Chinese art / And everybody knew their part.")
It was in The Vapors' "Turning Japanese." It was in every cat lover's childhood favorite, The Aristocats. (Yes, before you even ask, it was in the outlandishly racist Siamese cat scene.) It even made an appearance in Super Mario Land.
The tune is ubiquitous. And like many things that are just in the air, few ever ask where it came from. But we did.
We're not the first to ask the question. Back in February 2005, on the Straight Dope message board, a person with a username "Doctorduck" asked:
"Where does that stereotypical 'oriental' song come from? 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.' "
It was a question that confounded many. Trying to pin down this nameless tune and its place in history turned out to be difficult.
Across dozens of comments, people agreed 1) that the canonical example of the melody was in "Kung Fu Fighting," 2) the melody also appeared in many other places, and 3) it probably pre-dated Douglas' song. But for weeks, no one could name an incontrovertible pre-1974 example of the tune.
They even called in the experts. One user reached out to Charles Hiroshi Garrett, a professor at the University of Michigan. In 2004, Garrett had written an academic paper referring to the riff, which a user in the Straight Dope forum quoted:
"[The opening phrase from the song 'Chinatown, My Chinatown'] resembles an extremely well known trope of musical orientalism—one of the most efficient that the West has developed to signal "Asia" ... Such orientalist shorthand remains recognizable to twenty-first-century listeners, since these tropes continue to inhabit today's popular music. Thus, as clearly as the song's title captures its subject, the opening moments of 'Chinatown, My Chinatown' inform listeners that the song aims to fashion Asian difference."
But then, the trail turned cold. Radio silence for a year. Then, suddenly, in June 2006, a user named "mani" announced that he'd built a whole website devoted to the question:
"I got fascinated with this question, and for the past month I've done some research, mostly utilising various online archives of old sheet music and recordings whose copyright claims have expired. My findings soon became far to voluminous to fit in a single post, so I created a website dedicated to the 'Asian riff': chinoiserie.atspace.com."
The user was Martin Nilsson, a Web designer in Sweden. He'd been studying piano at a conservatory and had a lot of free time to devote to this "hobby research," as he told me over the phone. (It's "hobby research" that lots of different folks have cited, including music professors I chatted with, and bloggers at You Offend Me You Offend My Family.)
Nilsson found that the melody's roots went back way further than "Kung Fu Fighting" — at least as far as the 19th century.
Defining The Cliche
One of the things Nilsson was trying to discover was whether the melody was ever a reference to a real Asian tune — or if it was purely a Western invention.
"It doesn't come from Chinese folk music, really," Nilsson says. "It's just a caricature of how [Westerners] think Chinese music would sound."
While digging through American sheet music archives, Nilsson reached a point where the line between references to the riff and very similar ones got blurry. So he dubbed the similar riffs the "Far East Proto Cliche," based on specific musical characteristics. The definition: "Any melody with this particular rhythmical pattern and whose first four tones are identical" that usually uses a pentatonic scale, Nilsson wrote on his website. (Some melodies that fit this pattern make no reference to Asia whatsoever — you might recognize it in Peter, Bjorn and John's song "Young Folks.")
This nine-note tune and its cousins rely heavily on the pentatonic scale, which music from many East Asian and West African countries used.
"We get the sense of another culture when we hear the scale," says Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, an ethnomusicologist at Arizona State University. "It's worth thinking about the fact that the scale isn't necessarily something we would've been listening to in the United States in a significant way before the end of the 19th century, early 20th."
The pentatonic scale gained global popularity in 1889, during the Paris World's Fair. The French exhibition — along with other world exhibitions that were popular in that time — was where folks exchanged ideas and learned about other cultures. It was home to a range of exhibits, like the human zoo (also known as the Negro Village) and a Javanese gamelan showcase. The latter inspired composers like Claude Debussy, whose work often used the pentatonic scale.
But the "Far East Proto Cliche," Nilsson found, went back even further than that World's Fair.
The Backdrop Of The Riff
One of the first instances of the cliche Nilsson found was in a show in 1847 called The Grand Chinese Spectacle of Aladdin, or The Wonderful Lamp.
And to understand the evolution of this riff, we need to look at the backdrop against which this tune emerged.
In the 1800s, men from China were coming to the U.S. to work in gold mines and on railroads. By 1880, there were 300,000 Chinese in the States — and there was a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment. In 1882, the U.S. banned Chinese immigration with the Chinese Exclusion Act. It took until 1968 for such restrictions to be lifted.
Think about it: Most people back then had limited interactions with people from China and other Asian countries. So playwrights and writers had to come up with a shorthand way of saying, "This is Chinese; this is Asian."
This building of a viewpoint — a viewpoint that in many ways is still with us, that people of Asian descent are intrinsically foreign — is echoed time and time again in various cartoons from the early 1900s that feature the riff:
Someone, somewhere decided that this short musical phrase — and others like it — could represent an entire region or identity. And it stuck.
Where have you heard this nine-note tune? Let us know in the comments.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next we're going to talk about tunes that are so ubiquitous, they become a kind of cultural shorthand. Like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLARINET MUSIC)
INSKEEP: Just hear that much, and you may imagine a snake in a basket or a man in a turban. How about this?
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIACHI MUSIC)
INSKEEP: Imagine yourself with a sombrero. Those are stereotypes of course, and they're instantly brought to mind with just a few notes. So how does a short phrase of music become shorthand for an entire culture? Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team decided to try to find out by zeroing in on one of them.
KAT CHOW, BYLINE: OK, let's take this nine-note tune.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)
CHOW: I'm Chinese-American, and I've heard it a lot, especially when I was a kid. Here it is in the movie "The Aristocats," which I watched over and over when I was little.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ARISTOCATS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As unidentified cat, singing) Shanghai, Hong Kong, egg foo young, fortune cookie always wrong.
CHOW: That's a Siamese cat who's using chopsticks to bang out the tune on a piano while he sings. He's got buck teeth and a triangle hat. And back in the '70s when everybody was in love with Bruce Lee, it was in the song "Kung Fu Fighting."
(SOUNDBITE OF CARL DOUGLAS SONG, "KUNG FU FIGHTING")
CHOW: We even heard the riff in the videogame "Super Mario Land." It comes on when you reach a mystical Asian kingdom.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOGAME, "SUPER MARIO LAND")
CHOW: But where does that association come from? Expert after expert couldn't tell me for sure. And then I found this guy.
MARTIN NILSSON: Hello
CHOW: He's a Swedish web designer, and he was obsessed with the riff.
NILSSON: My name is Martin Nilsson.
CHOW: Back in 2006, Martin Nilsson studied piano at a conservatory, and he became caught up in the mystery of where this tune came from. So he spent a month scouring American sheet music archives. He even built a website dedicated to the riff.
NILSSON: It doesn't come from Chinese folk music really. So it's just a caricature of how they would think the Chinese music would sound.
CHOW: The first time where Martin Nilsson found anything that resembled the riff was from the 1800s. He noticed a similar tune to the nine-note phrase. He calls it the "Far East Proto Cliche."
NILSSON: If you have the modern variant it's (singing) do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do. But back in those days, it was just mainly those first four notes - (singing) do, do, do, do - and then it could go either way.
CHOW: Here's a snippet from a song from 1847. It's called the "Aladdin Quick Step."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALADDIN QUICK STEP")
CHOW: And this one is from the year 1900.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA'S CHINA TWINS ORIENTAL LULLABY")
CHOW: It's called "Mama's China Twins (Oriental Lullaby)." And one reason why we associate this with something vaguely Asian is the pentatonic scale. It's used in a lot of Chinese, Japanese and West African music.
NILANJANA BHATTACHARJYA: It would sound like (singing) 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1.
CHOW: That's Nilanjana Bhattacharjya. She's a professor at Arizona State University, and she researches the way music and ethnicity work together.
BHATTACHARJYA: We get this sense of another culture when we actually hear the scale.
CHOW: Bhattacharjya says that in 1889, the World's Fair in Paris helped popularize the pentatonic scale. It featured a gamelan group from Java.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAVANESE MUSIC)
CHOW: So let's think about the U.S. around this time - the federal government had banned Chinese immigration in the late 1800s, fearing that Chinese immigrants were going to take all the jobs. And back then, most Americans didn't really know any of these immigrants. So playwrights and composers had to come up with a shorthand way of saying this is Chinese. But where and when did that nine-note tune come from? The 1930s is a really good place to look. This is when cartoons began to pair the riff with a very specific image.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AESOP'S FABLES")
CHOW: You hear that? That's one of the earliest examples of our riff. "Aesop's Fables" is a short cartoon from 1930. And in the cartoon, there are characters who fit some of the common stereotypes about Asians. They're running a Laundromat; they have long braids down their backs; their eyes are thin and angled.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHOP SUEY")
CHOW: Here's another cartoon from 1930, with more stereotypically Asian characters doing laundry. It's called "Chop Suey," and this time around, they're selling drugs and smoking opium. So by that point, in cartoons at least, the nine-note tune clearly was a marker for an Asian stereotype. And Nilanjana Bhattacharjya says it still works in that same way.
BHATTACHARJYA: We all know what it means the minute we hear it.
CHOW: But that meaning might get lost in translation. I asked Anthony Kuhn, NPR's Beijing correspondent, to play the tune for people in China. Mostly people agreed with this guy...
ZHAO JUN: (Foreign language spoken).
CHOW: Zhao Jun (ph) is a chef from the Hunan province who listened to the theme Anthony played.
JUN: (Foreign language spoken).
CHOW: He says it's not familiar and that it doesn't sound like it's from China. Kat Chow, NPR News.
INSKEEP: You can read more about that riff on NPR.org and share your own examples in the comment section. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.