Chopsticks At Dawn: BBC R4 Tuesday 8th June 2010 for 7 days

Anna Chen – 7 June 2010

Photo of Anna, Jane Ng and Ben Chan at BBC Broadcasting House

Chopsticks At Dawn: another groundbreaking programme in 2010

Written & presented by Anna Chen with Dr Jonathan Walker

Chopsticks At Dawn: orientalism in Western music
13:30 Tuesday 8th June 2010
BBC Radio 4
Presented by Anna Chen
Written by Anna Chen with Dr Jonathan Walker
Produced by Chris Eldon-Lee and Culture Wise
More here

“The cuddly face of dehumanisation. A bit like golliwogs.”

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?

I asked my friend Dr Jonathan Walker, a musicologist and damned fine pianist, how certain configurations of a few notes could be so potent in their effect. What he told me led to a fascinating journey through the development of a musical trope that was loaded with meaning, much of it not very positive.

From its basic building blocks of pentatonics (the black notes) and parallel fourths all the way to Debussy and Ketelby, Jonathan reveals how, had Western music begun to represent other cultures at an earlier stage in history when Chinoiserie was greatly admired, we might have ended up with a musical equivalent of the willow pattern crockery, or the Brighton Pavilion. As it is, it coincided with the Opium Wars and Yellow Peril fever, so the results were hardly complimentary.

Typeface says it all … (See film title sequence below)

You can see how this all pulls together in the arena of propaganda in the opening title sequence of the movie Inn Of The Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman as missionary Gladys Aylward, and Curt Jurgens as the Chinese General (!). Made in 1958 during the Cold War, when Japanese fascism was replaced as a threat in the western psyche by Chinese communism, various motifs in Malcolm Arnold’s score merge with the visuals to create a subtext, climaxing in the dramatic appearance of the film’s title in vivid scarlet text reminiscent of American takeaway menus (see title sequence below), and accompanied by billowing clouds of steam that could be opium smoke or dragon’s breath. Listen out for the “cruelty” chords as associated with ancient Rome and the mysterious Orient. It’s brilliant and quite funny.

Anna with Chi2 – Liz & Sarah Liew

I was joined by academics Professor of Music Derek Scott of Leeds University and Professor Rachel Harris of SOAS who help to find out exactly what was going on with the representation of Asian Pacific people — and Chinese in particular — in the culture. Chi2 funsters Liz and Sarah Liew add their childhood reactions to the mix. And musicians Ben Chan (Big Yellow Band) and Jane Ng, who wrote Pagoda Of Dreams, show us how they merge East and West in their compositions.

Professor Scott noted that Puccini had borrowed from an actual Chinese piece of music, The Jasmine Flower for his 1926 opera, Turandot. But as he was conjuring up a representation of another culture rather than imitation, it didn’t really matter. Dr Walker says the birth of the pentatonic musical cliche was cumulative over decades ever since the earliest example located by Martin Nilsson in Aladdin from the 1840s. It isn’t until the simplistic repeated staccato notes are combined with the interval of the 4th and taken up widely that a critical mass builds until the cartoon motif explodes in, of all things, a 1935 Betty Boop cartoon, Making Stars. The earliest recorded example we could find was right at the end of George Formby’s affectionate “The Wedding of Mr Wu” in 1933. Still, rather safe Mr Wu than Fu Manchu if you like being petted.

The musical Chinese trope can be heard at the end of George Formby’s, “The Wedding of Mr Wu”, 1933

Timing is everything. While Dr Walker observed that, had the motif developed earlier when China was admired, it might have been the equivalent of the willow pattern or the Brighton Pavilion, Professor Scott thought that, having defeated China in the Opium Wars and occupied their land, Britain was now free to be triumphalist and could rule with a stern hand.

Turn of the century yellow peril fears pumped out in pulp fiction and the yellow press in Britain and America turned human beings into cartoons. “The respected Chinese were now ant-like Chinamen, turning up in Western ports and threatening to take your jobs and your women.”

It’s not even as if Chinese music is limited to five notes in the pentatonic scale. As Rachel Harris pointed out, there’s a lot more going on in Chinese music and her students are surprised to find seven pitches in traditional Chinese music.

So it’s all stewing away in the background during Britain’s Opium Wars and colonisation of China’s territory until emerging as the world tumbles into World War 2 in the 1930s, bringing us the dehumanisation of Jews in Europe with a dash of Jim Crow in the United States.

The cliche is finally cooked.

Check the opening title sequence of The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness

BBC preview and Listen Again for seven days here
(Pic of Anna at BBC page by Sukey Parnell)

Pick Of The Day: RadioTimes, Observer, Sunday Telegraph, Time Out, Mail On Sunday. Also daily choice in the Times, Telegraph and Independent, Tuesday 8th.

Anna Chen reflects, through gritted teeth, on representations of Chinese music, the ingy pingy clichés as used by everyone from George Formby to David Bowie, demeaning a culture which, in other fields, we respect. This isn’t a dreary sermon, though. It’s a lively, rueful journey through aural conditioning. Why do some sounds suggest the Orient to us? She listens to Ravel and has the pentatonic scale (as played on a piano’s black keys) explained to her as a short cut to something that to Westerners signals “east”. But there’s more to it than that.

Daily Telegraph

Recording with bronchitis


So you think you know CHINA

Shakedown: an epic timeline of America’s 21st century war on China

14 thoughts on “Chopsticks At Dawn: BBC R4 Tuesday 8th June 2010 for 7 days”

  1. It must be infuriating.
    I'm fascinated by the recent (to me) knowledge that the superiority of Chinese china actually hampered the advance of the civilisation out of the feudalism in which it still prospers.
    By never having to bother with glass, as happened in the west, China deprived itself of lenses, with the result that firstly, its academics had a shorter working-life, being able read and research with their own ageing eyes. But also that the telescope and microscope with all their revolutionary effects were denied to Chinese science.
    Strange how small things make a huge difference over time.

    ( )

  2. I didn't know about the absence of lenses, amjamjazz. Thanks very much.

    BTW, I misread the title of your blog and got VERY confused. 🙂 Good write-up.

  3. Just listened to your broadcast. I thought it was brilliant – providing real insight into how a culture can be manipulated and debased. How "popular" art forms can be used to further underpin an attitude of one nation towards another.
    Great stuff 🙂

  4. The negative connotations, 100+ years on, do not go away. That is the horrible thing. You can, as a person of Chinese descent, be put in any situation where you have all the cards, you are on the winning argument – then someone mocks you with that little ditty. Or uses one of the many simple derogatory racial terms affiliated with Chinese people. Oh, humiliated once again.

    I do hope in China and the Far East there are arts, music and culture folk who are ridiculing whites and creating negative stereotypes. They deserve it, and then some.

    Unfortunately, all I see is praise and sucking up to them.

  5. Crass mention of George Formby as the "face of dehumanisation".
    The entire program contradicted itself by at once decrying the pentatonic as a stereotype, then saying the last track played (Rose something, a cover of a chinese song) went unnoticed in the UK chart, yet it used the pentatonic and made much mention of "malayan flower"!
    MM… no doubt you lack the courage to post a critical comment. For shame.

  6. Mantecaunt, this is the last comment of yours that I am publishing as it is one of the milder examples of a blizzard of increasingly unpleasant personal attacks flaming me here and elsewhere. Your accusation that I "dehumanise all Jews" is frankly bizarre. I don't know why you have developed such an unhealthy obsession, but for the the sake of your own dignity, perhaps you should give it a rest.

    By way of farewell: on the subject of the pentatonic scale in the Frankie Laine, it is not the pentatonic itself that is the issue. After all, as my interviewees pointed out, the five-note scale is used in a range of music including Scottish and blues. So are parallel fourths. But what was interesting was how, when some of the "markers" are combined, they can be so loaded. Perhaps it is a matter of taste, but my guest Derek Scott found the Laine quite sweet and so did I.

    As I said of George Formby, this was 70 years ago (when we didn't know any better). Effectively, "Mr Wu" is the "cuddly face of dehumanisation" even though I don't believe Formby meant any harm. It was innocent for its time but nevertheless demeaning to those it depicts as mere buffoons.

    All of which was made extremely clear in the programme.

    Now say your name backwards and return to your home dimension.

  7. I'll give it a listen some time this week.

    There had better be gongs, mind, and lots of them.

    Radio4's 'History of the World in 100 Objects' had an interesting programme on the importance of bells in ancient China.

  8. H wrote: 'I do hope in China and the Far East there are arts, music and culture folk who are ridiculing whites and creating negative stereotypes. They deserve it, and then some.'

    i've read your blog rules. Surely Madam Miaow the above is an aggressive incitement to be racist. H is encouraging the Chinese to create negative stereotypes f white people to get their own back. This has to be racist. Yet you allow it to remain. Why? is it because you only think racism is when it is against Chinese and non-whites. Really I think you should ban H … its so obviously racist and aggressive.

    Shame on you for allowing it .. it is completely against your own policy.

  9. Recognising irony under provocation from H, rather than a literal incitement, it stays. As a literary device, it illustrates quite neatly the absurdity of whites ridiculing Chinese.

    If all you can do is badger, Francis, and have nothing constructive to offer, please don't bother coming back.

  10. Hello Madame Miaow, I'm new to your blog.

    I followed a link to the BBC4 piece and thoroughly enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so much I just had to look up who the lady was with the beautiful voice and witty thoughts.

    As an American of African descent, I run up against stereotypes and cliches often in the United States so much, I sometimes become desensitized to the insensitivity.

    However, I can relate to your cringing when hearing western representations of Asian music.
    I spent 8 years in Japan and was exposed to many different musical styles from China, Korea and Vietnam. So much so that when I hear a "Chinese" or "Japanese" ring tone, I want to take the phone and smack the owner over the head with it and ask them what are they thinking?

    Great article and blog!

  11. Thanks, Murasaki. Americans are way ahead of us in deconstructing the way culture works in this way. In some respects we are still scratching the surface. Glad to have entertained.

    BTW, thanks for the warm words about my voice – I was in the middle of a bout of bronchitis when we recorded it last month, and there was much dosing up with Lemon & Ginger tea with honey, and Lockets. Not to mention a LOT of coughing between takes. So it's very pleasing to read your comment.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top