Sunday, January 2, 2011

Old movie musings, part 8723

Mr Daisy is watching Fate Is the Hunter (1964) on Turner Classic Movies, featuring the very beautiful and talented Nancy Kwan. (at left, on the cover of LIFE MAGAZINE)

Kwan first hit the big time co-starring with William Holden in The World of Suzie Wong (1960), a movie I admit I loved as a little girl. (Yes, we all freely consumed racism and sexism with our breakfast cereal, didn't we?)

One of my favorite blogs, Restructure!, once addressed that signature "Chinese" riff that always pops up in old movies like Suzie Wong. Really a great post, and I just thought of it, so decided to link it now (better late than never!). Short version (but read it all): the little tune is a western invention. Who knew? I had always assumed it was from a real song, possibly a Chinese nursery rhyme (or equivalent):

This riff [click on link to hear sound file] appears in orientalist American and British pop songs like “Kung Fu Fighting” (1974) and “Turning Japanese” (1980). However, the “proto-cliché” or rhythmic pattern of “da-da-da-da, da da, da da, daaah!” originated in the 1800s, and has since been ubiquitous in pop culture to signify (and other) Asian culture or Asian people.
As I said in the comments of the post, my grandmother had an old music-box with a "china doll" figure that spun around, as a variation of the tune played. I was surprised to learn it was a westernized fake.

This in turn reminded me of the first record by Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra back in 1978, in which they made various "American sounds" (including a song that sounded like the well-known Marlboro cigarette commercial from the 60s). They imitated raucous American laughter, doing impersonations of white American male haw-haw-hawing. I was jarred by it and wondered if that was how Americans sounded to Asians? (I always wonder about stereotypes of Americans in other places.)


My blog has been linked again (oh goody!), but the comments are so uniformly hostile and negative, I've decided not to go back and read the rest of them. Sorry kids, grandma is sitting this one out.

Self-preservation in Blogdonia! I am learning, at long last. :)



I loved the world of susie wong..

D. said...

When I was growing up (or devouring movie magazines; take your pick), Asian-American actors tended to have one movie--two at most. The exceptions tended to be Sessue Hayakawa and Keye Luke, who'd had pre-WWII careers, however circumscribed. And Jack Soo, for the "non-black hipster" roles.

That riff: I had sort of noticed it as a cliche, enough to raise an automatic "Uh-oh!' when I hear it, much the way any quotation of "Jingle Bells" means "put this song in the Christmas ghetto," though "Jingle Bells" has nothing to do with Christmas.

The article that article links to, on "Chinese" food, is pretty good too (although the point of "Chop Suey" was that it was a made-up mishmosh of a dish)--though the General Tso's chicken I've run across is also spicy/hot.

I imagine that many Americans are offended by how others see us. There's a science fiction story in that.

Jim said...

"I imagine that many Americans are offended by how others see us."

Actually my experience in both Europe and China is that perceptions of us are a lot more positive than we tend to think. Maybe it depends on the place. I was amazed enough in Greece at the kindly way I was being treated that I finally asked, and the guy told me that I should remember who Americans were being compared to - insufferable German and French tourists. And we are a lot more sober than the Brits. What impresses people in China about us, other than the fact that we sound like ducks, is how egalitarian we are in interpersonal stuff - Americans tend to bus their own dishes, carry their own luggage, treat service people like human beings and that kind of thing. It's more Marxist than the Marxists in China, and that kind of emabarrases them - or used to, it's been awhile.

JoJo said...

I remember Nancy Kwan's Pearl Cream commercials from the 80's.

I knew exactly what "Chinese" riff you were talking about the second I started reading that sentence. It's so much a part of American culture's idea of Chinese music, I guess.