An Appreciation of David Bowie’s “China Girl”

Before I begin this paean on the exquisite pop/rock masterpiece “China Girl,” I thought I’d mention that some consider Bowie’s 1983 hit racist because he portrays a diminutive Asian female in stereotypical ways, and, [throat clearing], the sexualization of Asian females has been a Western European/North American thing for centuries.[1]

Take Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, for example, in which the narrator Fowler and his antagonist Pyle clash over the possession of Phoung, a Vietnamese husband-hunter who doesn’t even rate a name in Good Reads’ summary. There she’s merely “Fowler’s beautiful Vietnamese mistress.”

Anyway, Bowie considered “China Girl” a “very simple, very direct statement against racism.”

For an opposing view, here’s a link to “An Asian’s Take on ‘China Girl'”:

Anyway, whether it’s racist or antiracist[2], the song itself, its dynamic progression from the bubbly pop of the first verse through the escalation of the narrator’s increasing angst, is masterful as it gradually morphs from a Jackson-5-like pop tune into an echo chamber of Weimer Republic decadence. Throughout, Bowie’s phrasing is pliant as he adjusts his voice to the narrator’s successive moods as he transitions from the sunshine of verse one to “visions of Swastikas” in verse four.

The song begins with a riff that Jonathan Kim (the author of the linked article) describes as a “little plunky Asian-style riff” that “is the musical equivalent of someone saying “Ching chong ching.”

On the other hand, it’s catchy, cheerful sounding and segues into the first verse where the narrator’s calm baritone contemplates his Chinese lover.

I couldn’t escape this feeling with my China girl
I feel a wreck without my little China girl
I hear her heart beating, loud as thunder
Saw these stars crashing

In the second verse, the mood darkens slightly, but Bowie’s voice remains relatively upbeat.

I’m a mess without my little China girl
Wake up in the morning, where’s my little China girl?
I hear her heart is beating, loud as thunder
I saw these stars crashing down

After the chorus, in the third, stanza, a sense of anxiety shadows the vocal as the tempo increases. Also, Bowie renders a sort of rock-a-billy hiccup with the line “I could pretend that nothing really meant too much.”  A hiccuppy muffled semi-sob sort of.

I’m feeling tragic like I’m Marlon Brando
When I look at my China girl
And I could pretend that nothing really meant too much
When I look at my China girl

What follows is an instrumental interlude in which the thumping of bass and drums replaces the tinkle-tinkle lightness of the verse two verses, which then leads to what I called above “a Weimer decadence.”

I stumble into town
Just like a sacred cow
Visions of swastikas in my head
Plans for everyone
It’s in the white of my eyes

My little China girl
You shouldn’t mess with me
I’ll ruin everything you are
You know
I’ll give you television
I’ll give you eyes of blue
I’ll give you a man who wants to rule the world

The narrator sees himself as a negative influence, as a potential dictator perhaps, a man with some sort of dark mission, but when he gets into one of these moods, his Chinese lover soothes him, tells him to “shut his mouth.”

And when I get excited
My little China girl says
“Oh, baby, just you shut your mouth”
She says, “Ssh”
She says “Ssh”
She says
She says

A 25-second guitar solo replaces “ssh” as the direct object, and then the verse is repeated two more times before we come full circle and return from the realm of rock to bubbling pop as the playful Chinese riff returns, the bass stepping aside, out of the way.

Supposedly, Bowie adapted an earlier Iggy Pop version, and gives him co-writing a credit.

Obviously, I really admire the song, think it transcends the typical arc of a pop song yet remains, as they used to say on Bandstand, “danceable.”

[1] I struggled with what noun to use to describe the chronic Western sexualization of Asian females. I tried “predilection” and then “propensity” and finally “tradition” before opting for “thing,” the weakest of words that can describe anything from belly button lint to the resurrection of Jesus. Sometimes, though, you have to choose sound over sense.

[2] After all, as my bosom buddy Hamlet sez: “There’s nothing neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so.”

3 thoughts on “An Appreciation of David Bowie’s “China Girl”

  1. Wow. The older I get, the better Bowie sounds. When the video came out, my feeling at the time was that it seemed very progressive. Asians were rarely seen on American television in those days.

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