There's a tune that you've probably heard throughout your life. It's nine notes long, and it's almost always used to signal that something vaguely Asian is happening or is about to happen.
You know what I'm talking about. The tune's most prominent role is probably in that 1974 song, "Kung Fu Fighting." It comes in right as Carl Douglas is singing that anthemic "Oh-hoh-hoh-hoah."
(Just for funsies, here are some of the song's lyrics: "There was funky China men from funky Chinatown/ They were chopping them up/ They were chopping them down/ It's an ancient Chinese art/ And everybody knew their part.")
It was in The Vapors' "Turning Japanese." It was in every cat lover's childhood favorite, The Aristocats. (Yes, before you even ask, it was in the outlandishly racist Siamese cat scene.) It even made an appearance in Super Mario Land.
The tune is ubiquitous. And like many things that are just in the air, few ever ask where it came from. But we did.
We're not the first to ask the question. Back in February 2005, on the Straight Dope message board, a person with a username "Doctorduck" asked:
"Where does that stereotypical 'oriental' song come from? You know, the one that goes dee dee dee dee duh duh dee dee duh. Featured heavily in braindead Hollywood flicks made by clueless directors who want to give a scene an 'oriental' feel. Also a variation of it can be heard in David Bowie's 'China Girl.' "
It was a question that confounded many. Trying to pin down this nameless tune and its place in history turned out to be difficult.
Across dozens of comments, people agreed 1) that the canonical example of the melody was in "Kung Fu Fighting," 2) the melody also appeared in many other places, and 3) it probably pre-dated Douglas' song. But for weeks, no one could name an incontrovertible pre-1974 example of the tune.
They even called in the experts. One user reached out to Charles Hiroshi Garrett, a professor at the University of Michigan. In 2004, Garrett had written an academic paper referring to the riff, which a user in the Straight Dope forum quoted:
"[The opening phrase from the song 'Chinatown, My Chinatown'] resembles an extremely well known trope of musical orientalism—one of the most efficient that the West has developed to signal "Asia" ... Such orientalist shorthand remains recognizable to twenty-first-century listeners, since these tropes continue to inhabit today's popular music. Thus, as clearly as the song's title captures its subject, the opening moments of 'Chinatown, My Chinatown' inform listeners that the song aims to fashion Asian difference."
But then, the trail turned cold. Radio silence for a year. Then, suddenly, in June 2006, a user named "mani" announced that he'd built a whole website devoted to the question:
"I got fascinated with this question, and for the past month I've done some research, mostly utilising various online archives of old sheet music and recordings whose copyright claims have expired. My findings soon became far to voluminous to fit in a single post, so I created a website dedicated to the "Asian riff": chinoiserie.atspace.com."
The user was Martin Nilsson, a web designer in Sweden. He'd been studying piano at a conservatory and had a lot of free time to devote to this "hobby research," as he told me over the phone. (It's "hobby research" that lots of different folks have cited, including music professors I chatted with, and bloggers at You Offend Me You Offend My Family.)
Nilsson found that the melody's roots went back way farther than "Kung Fu Fighting" — at least as far as the 19th Century.
Defining The Cliché
One of the things Nilsson was trying to discover was whether the melody was ever a reference to a real Asian tune — or if it was purely a Western invention.
"It doesn't come from Chinese folk music, really," Nilsson says. "It's just a caricature of how [Westerners] think Chinese music would sound."
While digging through American sheet music archives, Nilsson reached a point where the line between references to the riff and very similar ones got blurry. So he dubbed the similar riffs the "Far East Proto Cliché," based on specific musical characteristics. The definition: "Any melody with this particular rhythmical pattern and whose first four tones are identical" that usually uses a pentatonic scale, Nilsson wrote on his website. (Some melodies that fit this pattern make no reference to Asia whatsoever — you might recognize it in Peter, Bjorn and John's song "Young Folks.")
This nine-note tune and its cousins rely heavily on the pentatonic scale, which music from many East Asian and West African countries used.
"We get the sense of another culture when we hear the scale," says Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, an ethnomusicologist at Arizona State University. "It's worth thinking about the fact that the scale isn't necessarily something we would've been listening to in the United States in a significant way before the end of the 19th century, early 20th."
The pentatonic scale gained global popularity in 1889, during the Paris World's Fair. The French exhibition — along with other world exhibitions that were popular in that time — was where folks exchanged ideas and learned about other cultures. It was home to a range of exhibits, like the human zoo (also known as the Negro Village) and a Javanese gamelan showcase. The latter inspired composers like Claude Debussy, whose work often used the pentatonic scale.
But the "Far East Proto Cliché," Nilsson found, went back even further than that World's Fair.
The Backdrop Of The Riff
One of the first instances of the cliché Nilsson found was in an 1847 show called The Grand Chinese Spectacle of Aladdin, or The Wonderful Lamp.
And to understand the evolution of this riff, we need to look at the backdrop against which this tune emerged.
In the 1800s, men from China were coming to the U.S. to work in gold mines and on railroads. By 1880, there were 300,000 Chinese in the States — and a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment. And in 1882, the U.S. banned Chinese immigration with the Chinese Exclusion Act. It took until 1968 for such restrictions to be lifted.
Think about it: Most people back then had limited interactions with people from China and other Asian countries. So playwrights and writers had to come up with a shorthand way of saying, "This is Chinese; this is Asian."
This building of a viewpoint — a viewpoint that in many ways is still with us, that people of Asian descent are intrinsically foreign — is echoed time and time again in various cartoons from the early 1900s that feature the riff:
Someone, somewhere, decided that this short musical phrase — and others like it — could represent an entire region or identity. And it stuck.
A former Iowa state senator says he concealed money he took for shifting loyalty from Rep. Michele Bachmann to then-Rep. Ron Paul during the 2012 presidential campaign.
There's always a certain amount of weirdness in the Iowa presidential caucuses, and in the 2012 cycle the peak weirdness might have come just before New Year's. Republican state Sen. Kent Sorenson, the Iowa chairman for Bachmann's campaign, jumped to the Paul campaign six days before the voting — immediately setting off rumors that he had taken a payoff for switching sides.
Now Sorenson has pleaded guilty in federal court. Yes, he says, he switched sides. He got $73,000 from the Paul campaign to do so — mostly at $8,000 per month. Yes, the money was laundered through two companies to hide it from public disclosure; that's the first of two counts Sorenson pleaded to. And yes, he lied to an investigator from the Iowa state ethics commission; that's the other count.
Bachmann's White House hopes had already faded when Sorenson made his leap. He announced it at a Ron Paul rally in Des Moines, a few hours after attending an event for Bachmann. Bachmann finished sixth in the caucuses and quit the race. Paul initially finished a close third, but eventually wound up with the most convention delegates.
All along, there were those money rumors. Sorenson denied them. But there are also stories that he got similarly laundered payments from the Bachmann campaign, and that he was involved in the campaign's acquisition of a private mailing list. Sorenson resigned his state Senate seat in 2013.
The federal court hasn't yet set his sentencing date.
One question is still hanging. Since Sorenson says he was paid $73,000 by the Paul campaign, somebody presumably was paying him. Is the Justice Department investigating?
The Center for Responsive Politics has been following this thread for months and notes that "nobody has been indicted in connection with making the payments to Sorenson."
The DOJ says in the plea agreement it won't charge Sorenson or his "current spouse" with any other criminal offenses "arising from or directly relating to this investigation."
Marta Mendoza, a 47-year-old Mexican woman, had lived in the Los Angeles area illegally for 32 years. There, she raised six children, all U.S. citizens.
In July 2013, Mendoza, who has a history of mental health issues, was arrested for shoplifting at a pharmacy near her home. The American Civil Liberties Union says that while in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, she was pressured to sign "voluntary return" papers, which led her to be returned to her home country five days later.
"We didn't know where she was at," her daughter Patricia told NPR's John Burnett. "We had to go around looking for her with a picture. Who was she with, was she eating, did anyone take her? It was just a very scary feeling."
The ACLU sued on behalf of nine Mexicans, including Mendoza, who were living illegally in the country, as well as three organizations.
NPR's Burnett adds: "Other plaintiffs in the case — most of whom had been in the U.S. for years — were picked up: waiting at a bus stop, walking across a parking lot, and questioned in a traffic stop."
But under a deal announced today between the ACLU and the Department of Homeland Security, immigration officials must provide detailed information to immigrants in the country illegally about their right to a hearing before a judge.
Burnett, who is reporting on the story for All Things Considered, says the settlement also allows the immigrants to return to the U.S. and make their case to stay here.
"We have the government agreeing to give oral and written advisals of all the consequences of voluntary departure, which they weren't doing previously," Sean Riordan, senior staff attorney with the ACLU in San Diego and Imperial counties, told Burnett. "We have the government agreeing to set up a 1-800 hotline. And we have provisions that relate to people to contact the outside world when they're at a Border Patrol station or an ICE office being asked to make this critical decision."
The Obama administration has expelled more than 2 million people who came to the U.S. illegally. In the process of deporting some of those immigrants, federal agents violated their due-process rights, Burnett reports.
The Associated Press cited an ICE statement as saying officials use voluntary departures as an option, "but in no case is coercion or deception tolerated."
If agents allow everyone who is arrested on an immigration violation to get their day in court — as the law allows — it can take years.
"It does take time," Hiroshi Motomura, an immigration law expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Burnett. "Some of that reflects the fact that the immigration court system is woefully underfunded. And so there aren't enough judges to hear the cases."
Here's more from the AP:
"The settlement will require immigration agencies to give detailed written and oral information about their rights and to establish an information hotline about the options. It would prohibit officials from 'pre-checking' the box selecting voluntary departure on forms given to immigrants and would require agencies to allow people to use a phone, provide them with a list of legal service providers and allow them two hours to reach someone before making a decision."
Here's a fine topic for a graduate seminar in anthropology: What makes food culturally acceptable? Cue discussions of values and taboos, tastes and traditions.
Now make room for diplomats and lawyers, because this question has popped up, improbably, during international negotiations at the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.
The FAO's member nations are drafting voluntary guidelines for "responsible investment in agriculture and food systems." It's a response to concerns over "land grabs" — big-money investors buying up farmland, often in Africa, where ownership of land sometimes is unclear. In some cases, these investors have displaced small-scale farmers, leading to protests and even violence.
The new guidelines are supposed to clarify the difference between responsible and irresponsible agricultural investments. Responsible investments, according to the draft guidelines, will increase "sustainable production ... of safe, nutritious, diverse, and culturally acceptable food."
When this phrase went into the draft back in May, no one seemed to object. But by the time the talks reconvened in early August, it had set off a severe case of indigestion in the U.S. delegation.
The U.S. "was concerned that it could lead to some barriers to trade," says Doug Hertzler, who participated in the talks representing the anti-poverty group ActionAid. (Several U.S. officials didn't respond to our request for an interview. One wrote in an email that "these are ongoing negotiations so it would be premature for me to discuss them.")
According to others involved in the negotiations, U.S. officials did not say which foods they feared might be unfairly singled out as culturally unacceptable. Some speculated that the U.S. was worried about restrictions on genetically modified foods.
In any case, American negotiators demanded a definition of culturally acceptable, and they offered one: "For the purposes of this document, consumers, through the free exercise of their choices and demand, determine what food is culturally acceptable." In other words, as long as somebody wants to buy it, it's fine.
That market-based definition didn't go over well with others. ActionAid and other activist groups pushed for a definition that recognized the right of indigenous communities to maintain their traditions.
A representative from Uruguay described the importance of sheep herding in his country, suggesting that agricultural investments that undermined these communities might violate the guidelines. Meanwhile, some majority-Muslim countries in Asia and Africa "were concerned about pork" and potential pork production facilities, says Hertzler, who, as it happens, got his Ph.D. in anthropology.
In the end, the African delegations struck a deal with the U.S., and their language is in the current version of the guidelines, which are still under negotiation. According to this compromise, culturally appropriate food "is understood as food that corresponds to individual and collective consumer demand and preferences, in line with national and international law."
Elegant and memorable, it certainly is not. Heather Paxson, an anthropologist at MIT who teaches a course on food and culture, chuckled when she heard it. But Paxson is happy that government officials are recognizing, however awkwardly, that food is "much, much more than a nutrient delivery system."
Hertzler says that he and his colleagues barely noticed the phrase when it first appeared in the draft guidelines in May. They had other priorities. They wanted the guideline to focus, for instance, on the crucial role of investments by small-scale farmers, not just multinational companies.
But the phrase "seems important now," he says. It points out that food should be adequate "in a number of dimensions, one of them being cultural."
The guidelines will be discussed and perhaps approved at the next meeting of the FAO's Committee on Food Security in October.
The Department of Homeland Security is settling a lawsuit with the ACLU, which deals with immigrants who were improperly pushed to leave the country. The suit alleged that DHS agents coerced immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to take part in a process called "voluntary departure."
Clarification: Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies states in this story that the settlement would allow "hundreds of thousands" of immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally to return. The American Civil Liberties Union disputes that, saying the number of people who might be allowed to return "will only be a small fraction of the total number of people subjected to voluntary departure in Southern California during the relevant period."