The Null Device

Chopsticks At Dawn

Chopsticks At Dawn; a fascinating 30-minute BBC radio documentary, presented by comedian Anna Chen, exploring pseudo-Oriental motifs (such as the Oriental Riff) in Western popular music. These motifs bear little relation to any actual Chinese or oriental musical traditions (the closest link is their use of pentatonic scales, though even these are neither as exclusive to or common in the East as widely believed), but became stereotypically "Chinese" to Western ears by virtue of sounding exotic, and plausibly oriental to someone who is not overly familiar with the actual cultures in question. The foundations were laid by 19th-century composers naïvely trying to evoke the Orient; they took a more malignant turn with the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment in the west, rising from Britain's opium wars, and subsequent need to dehumanise the Chinese, as well as popular xenophobic panic about the "heathen Chinee") turning into a set of mocking, vaguely ridiculous caricatures. The most egregious of those stereotypes have been consigned to history, but the musical clichés running through them still lied sufficiently close to the surface to emerge in pop songs like Kung Fu Fighting and Hong Kong Garden, serving as musical shorthand for an entire region and set of cultures for Westerners.

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