Ching, chang, WHAT?

The other Tuesday I’m doing the washing up to Radio 4’s “Word of Mouth”, presented by Mike Rosen, when I nearly drop the antique Woolworth’s teamug I’m scraping clean.

Today’s subject being schoolyard rhymes, an “expert” (white, male, natch) has just described in avuncular fashion how the kids have a jolly rhyme to accompany a game of “Paper, Scissors, Stone”, that starts, “Ching, chang, wally”. To him, the words sounded “a bit zen”.

For most British Born Chinese those words are a potent reminder of the misery we experienced when our peers wanted to target our Chinese “otherness”. Nothing that starts “Ching chang”, whether it’s uttered by Ricky Gervais’s character in “Extras”, kids in the playground, or Rosen’s “expert” will be anything other to most of us than the crude and cruel belittling it was always intended to be. Mockery of those in power is a wondrous thing to behold – taking the rise out of the sound of the language of a foreign minority with little social power is not. The original goes, “Ching, chang, chinaman”. These are not benign, innocent words – they are loaded with meaning.

I asked two Chinese, one black, and one Jewish person what they thought about it and each one was stunned that the item could be broadcast with no comment or challenge from the presenter.

How many Chinese kids heard the programme with dismay that one of the weapons in the fledgling racist’s armoury has now been legitimised by the BBC?

They’re laughing at us, Mike, not with us. I’d like to see if Rosen would present so eagerly a rhyme that went, ooh, off the top of my head, “Eeny, meeny, miney, mo, Catch a tiger by it’s toe”, only not with “tiger”. Or some of the charming People’s Poetry that zipped round the East End in the days of the skinhead about the wave of Bangladeshi immigrants, only they weren’t called Bangladeshis in the poems.

I did contact the programme to explain the significance of those words which they evidently don’t get. I’m still waiting for a reply.

What makes this unconscious racism very sad is that Mike Rosen is a lefty of long-standing who would never deliberately hurt a minority. I just wish he’d wake up and have the humility, as one who does the commentating, to learn from those who are doing the experiencing.

As for sounding “zen”, I’m speechless. And not in a “zen” way.

STOP PRESS: Americans slate Rosie O’Donnell for “Ching, chong” comments. Click here.

Madam Miaow says … visit Anna Chen’s website here:


Anna’s food blog here:

15 thoughts on “Ching, chang, WHAT?”

  1. I agree with all the points in your reply.

    There is now a kids playground rhyme based on Aqua's 'Barbie Girl'. I am sure 7 years old singing it, or the song itself, are completely unaware of the sexual innuendo in the song.

    (And I was wrong, as you point out, in confusing ker-ching for ching ching).

    Southpawpunch (not azurehirizon)

  2. Au contraire, azurehirizon. The sound of a money-making idea is generally vocalised as "Ker-ching!" (as in an old-fashioned cash register), while "ching, ching," along with a slap of one's pocket, denotes loose change.

    I'm aware of that "ching" has various meanings. In the context of the kids' rhyme as heard on the programme, paired with "chong" or "chang", it has a single specific one as it derives from an origin of racist use.

    On a one-to-ten scale of racism it probably doesn't rate that high nowadays, and no doubt there are kids who use it quite innocently. However, I would expect the BBC to understand its provenance and be aware that it still has the potential to be hurtful when the intention is there.

  3. Ludicrous.

    Ching isn’t just a derogatory term for someone Chinese.

    ‘Ching, ching’ for example is used as a catchphrase in youth TV programmes, as the sound of a cash machine register going 'ching' to denote when someone has a moneymaking idea.

    There’s no reason to think the school rhyme is anything other than a play on sounds although, yes, it could arise from racist terms.

    And actually I wish racist terms were used by characters in TV etc, never mind have accurate reporting of what actually kids do say in the playground (whether racist or not).

    I saw a clip of the original 'Till Death Us Do Part' (Alf Garnett) a few months ago – I was surprised by how realistic I think it was about life in the East End 40 years ago, not least through using some ‘hate’ words as well as the use of the socialist character, played by Tony Booth, to undermine and counter the many bigotries of Alf.

    Crap like EastEnders will never be good but, it and others like it, would improve if characters actually used the language that some people in the East End use now – racist, homophobic and the rest – instead of being some sanitised parody of life that the ilk portray.

  4. Madam Mao – she of the six model operas and the Cultural Revolution – was indeed the inspiration for this alter (altar ego, by way of Catwoman.

    Madam Mao was ba-a-ad but, just as certain tribespeople devour their monsters to make them safe, so I've ingested MM for satirical purposes.

  5. Thanks for the advice. I'll do my best. The reason why you had more editorial control for your series is because you were a 'star' presenter. As presenter of 'Word of Mouth' I'm part of the system that produces 'core programming'. It's the programme that has the identity not the presenter. In fact, it preceded me and will continue after I'm gone.

    I do hope that you post a comment on this on the Word of Mouth messageboard. I think it will stimulate a really good debate.

    By the way, why did you call yourself 'Madam Miaow'? I'm presuming (please correct me if I'm wrong) there's an ironic gag there to do with Mao Dze Dung/Tse Tung's wife? and/or Cat woman? Any other cultural references I've missed?

  6. Thank you for engaging on this topic, Mike, and for sharing how your programme is put together. It's a little different from my own experience where the producer on my ten-part R4 series on the history of the Chinese in Britain ran them past me prior to broadcast .,

    "I just wish he'd wake up and have the humility, as one who does the commentating, to learn from those who are doing the experiencing."

    Possibly a useful principle to apply to all areas of a person's weblife and not just this one.

  7. Actually, the best place to take your comments is the BBC messageboard, as you should get support for what you're saying. Go to, then, 'radio' then 'radio 4', then 'messageboards' then 'word of mouth' and you'll see a lively debate going on there to do with language.

  8. To folow this up, the example you give of 'tiger', Madam, is where the 'n' word has become so taboo that you won't hear this on playgrounds. In fact, it has been replaced by many different words, some also full of prejudice, eg 'tinker', which implies anti-traveller, anti-Irish feeling.

    In case my brief comment above, reads as if I'm trying to evade responsibility, I should perhaps explain a little more how programmes get put together. I do interviews and then do 'links' between the interviews so that the programme is put together. The editorial decisions are made by the producer and the editor and the editor above that. As this was a live situation in a playground, there were no 'links' to do afterwards, so all the 'material' of the programme was collected at that moment, my comments too, and I had no input after that. As I say, because I thought the issue of racism in children's rhymes had already been raised, I didn't think it needed to be raised everytime a rhyme was sung. And even if I had, it could still have been cut.

    In other words, if you think I shouldn't do this kind of work becuase it cedes too much control to others, you have a point. If you're worried that I (or no one else there)talked of the racism in some children's rhymes, then you'd be mistaken.

    I take your point about the rhyme itself. By the way I think they said, 'ching chang cholla' not 'ching chang wolly'. I don't this makes it any better. Not one jot. And yes, I do think a comment was needed. If the previous comment about racism in rhymes was taken out, then that's a pity, because it would have put that one in context. I will talk to the producers about it and ask whether they've commented on your letter, MM.

  9. Mike,

    I didn't want to hijack Madam Miaow's thread, but your comments here just prove it again.

    one minute you're a bright individual, very savvy and next you are defensive, obtuse and incapable of responding to the arguments being placed before you.

    So forget about Atzmon, forget about JSG etc for the moment, and why not address Madam Miaow's points more comprehensively rather than a throwaway comment of "Yes, of course it's racism. "

    try to be expansive and engage with her point, please.

  10. I do the interviews for the programme, I don't edit it. In the live situation of the programme one of the contributors mentioned the racism of another rhyme that talks about Chinese restaurants. I haven't heard the final cut of the programme. I didn't think, at the time, to re mention this, in the live situation. Yes, of course it's racism. No, modernity, I haven't changed my line on Atzmon. See a long interview with me about him in Jewish Socialist magazine. Folk literature such as children's songs are often problematic. I'm in the middle of making a programme about jack and the Beanstalk and have discovered that the very first written version has the person who sells Jack the beans, as a Jew with funny accent. I don't think I need to say to the audience that this is antisemitic.

  11. Mike Rosen is a strange one, I can't work him out, sometimes he's smart and witty, then it is like he's taken the extra special SWP lobotomy, and back again.

    Mike's a bit weird on anti-jewish racism too, as he changing attitude towards Atzmon at Marxism points out.

    still you could email him directly, if you like

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