[MUSIC] Exposing Historic Musical Racism
- Exposing Historic Musical Racism
Posted: June 4, 2003 at 6:53 p.m.
SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) -- Darren Brown was a young master's candidate
at San Francisco State when he stumbled into a collection of sheet
music in which he would find his thesis. He called it, 'The Heathen
Chinee' from the earliest piece in the collection, a Bret Harte poem
"What first hit me," Brown says, "I saw how a lot of these songs
offered a kind of social commentary on what was happening at the
time. For example, Bret Harte's 'Heathen Chinee', I knew it was a
poem, I never knew it was set to music."
As Brown began digging deeper, he found a river of racism embedded
in the sheet music bought primarily by well to do whites.
"They purchased these songs as a result of seeing them performed in
vaudeville theater," Brown explains. "And at the time, vaudeville is
before TV and mainstream of movies, it was the way how you get your
ideas across. "
The ideas in this collection were stereotypes at best, ugly racism
at worst. Take the song, 'Since Ma is Playing Mah Jong'. On the
surface, it's a decorative cover that features a picture of Eddie
Cantor, one of the most popular entertainers of the time.
"It's about a non-Chinese family that's corrupted by mah jong,"
Brown explains, " and it turns the wife into a Chinese, and she
wears a kimono, which is not Chinese, plays mah jong, starts cooking
Chinese food and it drives the husband so crazy that he wants to
In these pieces of music, Chinese are seldom referred to with
respect. In addition to the title piece, there is 'The Artful
Chinee' which appears to show a man stealing a pig.. There
is 'Chinky Chinee Bogie Man', in which a peaceful hamlet is
threatened by the caricature of a Chinese man. There is 'Ching,
Ching Chinaman' with Lon Chaney made up to look Chinese.
It is a recurring American theme, that those who were already here
claimed the right to discriminate against those who came later. So
people wrote the songs in this collection on Tin Pan Alley with
names like Billy Rose and Con Conrad, Eve Unsell and Louis
Gottschalk, all playing the same tune.
"That Chinese are not American," Brown explains, " that they don't
contribute to society in positive ways."
This, although the people being portrayed had built the railroads,
grown the produce, mined the gold. But by the mid-1870's, with more
than 50,000 Chinese workers in California, sentiment turned against
them. And that social current is reflected here, in the music.
"In Bret Harte's 'Heathen Chinee', there's a line that says the
country's ruined by Chinese labor. So right there, it's obviously
It would be nice to think that all of this is a songbook nobody
sings from anymore. But Darren Brown says that's not true. In fact,
he is finding some of the same stereotypical images of Chinese-
Americans in music being written today.
"You see videos on MTV," Brown says, "that utilize a lot of
stereotypes of Chinese or Asians in general that have been around
How ingrained the attitudes are was highlighted not long ago when
superstar basketball player Shaquille O'Neal uttered a racial slur
against newcomer Yao Ming of China. Or when trendy retailer
Abercrombie and Fitch marketed t-shirts that outraged Asian-
It's that kind of casual, thoughtless racial attitude that Darren
Brown hopes might become the topic of conversation because of his
"It's a sad situation," Brown says, "but hopefully shows like this
can begin a dialogue on the process of how stereotypes arise and how
they are used."
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