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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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(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