Funky Chinatown and the Asian riff

'Kung Fu Fighting' featuring the classic Asian riff

This article is by Peter Micic. You can see an archive of his other writings on Danwei about music, language and culture here.

We've all heard it and know it has a name. Some of us have heard it and don't know it has a name. At worst, it can be interpreted as a musical parody, a musical construct of the 'Orient' or 'Asia.' At best, it covers too much area to mean very much at all.

The melodic phrase goes by several names: 'The Asian Riff', 'The Chinese Melody', 'The Stereotypical Oriental Tune', 'The Asian Jingle.' It was around long before 'Kungfu Fighting' and 'Turning Japanese' appeared, but the huge success of 'Kungfu Fighting' in 1974 definitely put it on the map. Its associations are so powerful that we only need to hear the riff to instantly convey an 'Asian' context.

The Asian riff

I have always wondered how the 'Orient,' the 'Far East' or 'Asia' could be distilled in one musical phrase, but then again the 'Orient' is a construct, a homogenized Asian continent that has little or no relationship to a specific place, people or culture. And because it is not 'real,' there is no attempt to represent it as such. [1] An imagined construct of the 'other' was eloquently put forward in Edward Said's Orientalism:

[W]e need not look for correspondence between the language used to depict the Orient and the Orient itself, not so much because the language is inaccurate but because it is not even trying to be accurate. What it is trying to do... is at one and the same time to characterise the Orient as alien and to incorporate it schematically on a theatrical stage whose audience, manager, and actors are for Europe, and only for Europe. [2]

Sheet music cover art

A number of fascinating questions present themselves in any discussion on this most celebrated of 'oriental' riffs. Does the riff actually have any connection with an 'Asian' song or tune? How is the riff used that might parody or caricature a people or culture? What role has the riff played in moulding Asian stereotypes? How do we explain its lingering presence in live performance, recordings, film, television, cartoons, advertising, computer games? Can we know when this melodic phrase gained currency?

We can pinpoint its musical construct, as nearly as significant event can be, to popular music in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But to find it would require us to comb early Disney and Max Fleischer cartoons and the hundreds of Asian-themed popular songs associated with Tin Pan Alley, parlour songs, ragtime tunes, and early Broadway musicals. By searching for all possible variants of the riff we might eventually stumble across it. And when we do, it's very possible that we can find an even earlier version of the riff. One of the earliest examples can be found in a 1935 Fleischer brothers cartoon called Betty Boop Making Stars.

The riff means many things to many different people. It is a musical phrase that creates a sound world that is 'distant' and 'exotic', drawing the listener into a realm of fantasy and make-believe. Another way of saying that is to suggest that the riff is fictionalized so it can always be free to speak in its own manner and accent, far removed from the 'real' place. Composers have long been aware of its associations and used them intentionally and listeners have become familiar with it. Its associations, however, have become so familiar that in the minds of many listeners, the riff, to a large extent, has become very real and non-fictionalized.


Fantasy and make-believe aside, the riff and its many guises speaks in a language that goes way beyond the music, a language which has manufactured all kinds of offensive and lamentable stereotypes. Perhaps one of the spurs to musical constructs in the late nineteenth century was the growing presence of Chinese immigrants in goldfields in the US and Australia. Stereotyping any people or culture can be seen as a strategy of control, but as Scott-Maxwell writes, the racist elements found in Tin Pan Alley, parlour songs and other oriental-style songs 'may have also served to negate or at least minimise perceived threats and fears.' [3] The forces at play in the production and consumption of such stereotypes is a topic not to be treated lightly and deserves a lot more space then I can provide here.

There is nothing new about musical orientalisms. They have been around for centuries in musical theatre, popular song genres and western art music. [4] When a Turkish craze swept Vienna and Europe in the late eighteenth century, the music was inspired by the Janissary military bands of the Ottoman sultan who had marched into Vienna in 1683. By then, the the music had moved away from the battlefield and filtered its way into popular culture. Music alla turca, as it was called, was essentially drums and cymbals. Viennese piano makers of the day responded enthusiastically to the Turkish craze by inventing specially-designed pianos with built-in bells, tambourines, cymbals, bass drums, and other noise-makers designed to create a 'Turkish' effect. Some of the best known examples of music alla turca include Mozart's Rondo alla turca (Turkish March) with its distinct rhythmic and timbrel patterns and the Janissary chorus from Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio.

In the days of silent movies, music was composed for all kinds of scenes. Music publishing houses created folios of mood music that was suited specifically for silent films and the theatre and musical phrases representing different cultural backgrounds. The pianist had a number of stock musical motifs for any particular setting or character. One film music folio brought to my attention by Bill Edwards and dated 1913, includes the following tunes all penned by J.S. Zamecnik (1872-1953), a prolific composer who wrote for silent movie theatre orchestras:

• Festival March
• Indian Music
• Chinese Music
• Oriental Music
• Mexican or Spanish Music
• Death Scene
• Church Music
• War Scene:
Part 1 (In Military Camp)
Part 2 (Off to the Battle)
Part 3 (The Battle)


These musical devices formed part of library or dictionary of 'labelled' tunes. As Rodney Sauer writes on the music composed for the Sam Fox Publishing Company in Cleveland:

Most musicians, realizing that they would be playing for thousands of films, would not invest in music that was only useful for only one picture that would be gone in a week. They wanted a permanent library of useful pieces from which they could compile their own scores to any movie. The classical repertoire and the popular music of the day were heavily used, but were not adequate for certain kinds of scenes. The Sam Fox Moving Picture Music series was designed to fill this need. [5]

Oriental exoticism in popular songs provides a fertile ground to examine formulaic musical devices. It was not just the music that was 'highly conventionalized and formulaic,' but all aspects of the sheet music production—titles, cover art, subject matter and lyrics. [6] The primary concern of the music publishing houses in New York, collectively known as Tin Pan Alley, was to sell music. Tin Pan Alley songwriters were required to churn out songs across a wide range of genres and compose to deadlines, and 'this undoubtedly contributed to the superficial, generic, almost parodic treatment given to many of the songs and the lyrics.' [7]

These songwriters and many others were not music anthropologists and they were certainly not hit over the knuckles for geographical inaccuracies in the final stages of publishing. Stated, simply, it was all about commercial success [8]. We can find examples in these songs where the setting and subject matter are all jumbled up. One parlour song called 'In China', composed in 1919, has a Geisha maid in China waiting for her 'melican' man.[9] Whether the place corresponded to a real or imagined setting, songwriters 'still had to find for each song some special feature, quality or gimmick that would somehow characterize the song and distinguish it from others.' [10]

The musical devices or gimmicks used to represent Chinese scenes and characters include parallel fourths and fifths, passages based on a pentatonic scale, short melodic phrases repeated at different pitch levels, and repeated staccato rhythms, all of which are 'in gross parody of spoken Chinese.' [11] and the way Chinese people presumably speak English.

The sonority created by parallel fourths and fifths, once the staple of medieval and renaissance music, stand out. These sonorities have long been considered 'awkward' and 'clumsy' in traditional four-part harmony and counterpoint. Parallel chord motion, however, was a late romantic device and explored by a number of nineteenth and early twentieth century composers (Puccini's Turendot, Debussy's Sunken Cathedral and John Carpenter's Little Indian readily come to mind). 'Chopsticks' which first appeared in 1877 in London and Glasgow as 'The Celebrated Chopsticks Waltz' also uses parallel chords.

Musical instruments are also used to represent different races of people, characters or settings. There are too many examples to enumerate here: drums for native American Apaches, brass fanfares for cowboys, and the cor anglais (English horn), that archetypal instrument used to paint exotic distant lands be they palm-fringed lagoons, deserts, opium dens, snake charmers or almond-eyed maidens. A website devoted to film music clichés includes 'digeridoos for Australia, cymbals for anything Oriental, a trumpet for Mexico and of course a whistle for Ireland.' [12]

We are all familiar with how a single melody appears into different forms or variations and how performers have the freedom to improvise a melodic phrase. In terms of pitch, melody and rhythm, the 'Asian riff' can appear in a number of different guises, but we still recognize it as the same tune. In Chinese music, the term 'qupai' ('labelled tune') refers to a stock melody that is freely borrowed and manipulated into many forms. [13]

Our celebrated riff is based on a five-tone pentatonic scale. 'Turning Japanese', for instance, is often thought to be based on a minor tonality 'because its phrase suggests the D and A are strong notes' [14], but the three pitches are based on a natural pentatonic scale. When Carl Douglas sings 'whoa-ho-ho-ho' in the opening of 'Kungfu Fighting', he is using 'a major-inflected, rising, natural pentatonic scale' [15]. In a similar fashion, the riff that follows takes it cue from a major, descending natural pentatonic scale.

There is a popular misconception that pentatonic scales are sui generis to 'Asian' music as though 'Asia' and the five-tone scale are velcroed together. Any scale that uses five tones within an octave is a pentatonic scale. If we look at scales around the world just as British physicist A. J. Ellis did in his seminal article in 1885 titled 'On the musical scales of various nations', we can find pentatonic scales almost everywhere from the folk songs of Ireland, Scotland, Hungary, Poland, to the songs of aboriginals in North America and Australia. Major and minor pentatonic scales are also used in jazz and rock music.

Alice Moyle, who wrote the first PhD dissertation on Aboriginal music in Australia at Monash University in 1974, devoted a considerable part of her study to the subject of the pentatonic scale observing the descending five tone A-G-E-D-C progression is 'typically Australian.' Her study also demonstrated that pentatonic, diatonic, chromatic, even microtonic progressions existed side by side in aboriginal songs across the Australian continent. Why a pentatonic scale in Japan, for instance, will sound different from a pentatonic scale in China, Myanmar or Hungary, essentially lies in the pattern or sequence of intervals in the scale. How people and cultures throughout history constructed particular scales, intervals and tuning systems—favouring some while eschewing others—is fascinating, but that’s another topic.

Tin Pan Alley publishers were quick to see the commercial value of packaging oriental exoticism for a mass audience employing textual, visual and music language that was highly formulaic and conventionalised. Musical orientalisms didn't exist until Western composers invented them. Within the commercial world of music publishing, they formed a musical library of tunes performed to accompany silent films, live theatre or the soundtrack for film scores or animation. These tunes were not the sole property of any recording studio or publishing house, but freely used by performers and composers alike. As Bill Edwards writes:

It is true that much of the oriental or Asian or Arabic or similar forms of music heard in film and recorded media from the 1910s to the 1960s were influenced by a very few Anglican writers who took a basic snippet of what they heard and extrapolated on it. While it is not accurate in many cases, the intent was there. In some cases, genres were invented based on a simply motive. There was no such thing as "western music" (as in American West of the 1880s) until the movie composers invented it, Elmer Bernstein being one of the finest in that genre. [16]

Footnotes, Links and Sources
  • 1. Aline Scott-Maxwell, 'Oriental Exoticism in 1920 Australian Popular Music', Perfect Beat, vol. 3, no. 3, July 1997, p. 45.
  • 2. Edward W. Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985, originally published London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), pp.71-2.
  • 3. Scott-Maxwell (1997:51).
  • 4. For an excellent overview of musical orientalisms see Derek B. Scott, 'Orientalism and Musical Style', at: See also Scott-Maxwell (1997:28-57).
  • 5. Rodney Sauer 'Sam Fox Moving Picture Music,' p. 24. The entire Fox folio can be viewed at:
  • 6. Scott-Maxwell (1997:38) .
  • 7. Scott-Maxwell (1997:44).
  • 8. Scott-Maxwell (1997:44).
  • 9. See: 'Away Places With Strange Sounding Names: Tin pan Alley Goes To Asia,' See also 'Parlour Songs: Music About Asian Places
  • 10. Scott-Maxwell (1997:5)
  • 11. Scott-Maxwell (1997:40)
  • 12. 'Film music cliches,'
  • 13. See Bell Yung, 'The Nature of Chinese Ritual Sound,' in Harmony and Counterpoint: Ritual Music in Chinese Context, edited by Bell Yung, Evelyn S. Rawski, Rubie S. Watson. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996, p. 30.
  • 14. Eli Marshall, personal communication, Beijing, April 28, 2008.
  • 15. Eli Marshall, personal communication, Beijing, April 28, 2008
  • 16. Bill Edwards, personal communication via e-mail, March 20, 2008.
There are currently 16 Comments for Funky Chinatown and the Asian riff.

Comments on Funky Chinatown and the Asian riff

"Turning Japanese" by The use, no contest.

Gilbert and Sullivan's theme (Miya sama) for the Mikado has a similar quality to it, and is supposedly lifted from a Japanese song. Could be the inspiration if not the source.

went to the piano aux jacobins concert on sunday evening... the pianist did a bunch of fantastic improv jazz stuff and in one of the early pieces the 'asian riff' made an appearance. :)

Great article Peter! The latest popular use of the Asian riff is 'Young Folks' by Peter, Bjorn & John. Most interesting to me about their appropriation of it is there is no obvious reference at all to Asia. Check it out, I'd be curious to know what you think about it.

GK, I am aware of the 'Asian riff' in 'Young Folks' by Peter, Bjorn & John. It's fascinating to see how any melodic phrase, in this case, a very limited one, has been used and retained throughout its history and how its borrowers have the freedom to manipulate the material and mould it into many forms, even extrapolating it outside of its familiar context.

When a tune or snippet of one is taken out of its familiar surroundings and used by someone else to create a new musical product, the tendency is to focus unduly on where the borrowing has come from (with all its associations and baggage), distracting us from the unique musical product. Perhaps Peter, Bjorn & John have used the 'Asian' associations intentionally and then asked the listener to contextualize the riff in a new setting away from its familiar and conventionalized context.

Chopsticks! Of course! It's one of these things you learn when you're too small to have developed an orientalism sensor.

Really great piece.

Perhaps Peter, Bjorn & John have used the 'Asian' associations intentionally and then asked the listener to contextualize the riff in a new setting away from its familiar and conventionalized contextitalic

The Steely Dan song "Aja" is a great example of this as well... a group of people lisening to Chinese music at a dude ranch (presumably in LA)

What amuses me most of all is that when I played a song that had the riff in it to my dancers (all Chinese girls) and explained to them that this is the music that people think of when they think of Asia, etc. None of them had ever heard that tune before and thought I was very weird. Ha. ;)

That's interesting Elyse as I've had essentially the opposite experience plucking away at my guitar in public here in China.

If I pluck out something that I think of as "cliched 'Eastern'" then people respond far more readily to it that if I play something based on good old "CFG7".

Often, I'm asked "What's that song?" -- and people are very puzzled when I say I just made it up. They're sure they'll be able to think of the name in a minute... and of course the name never comes.

Playing 12-bar blues improv. I never get asked that.

But maybe I'm just not very good... ;)

Fantastic topic, Peter. This bit is puzzling, though:
"The musical devices or gimmicks used to represent Chinese scenes and characters include parallel fourths and fifths, passages based on a pentatonic scale, short melodic phrases repeated at different pitch levels, and repeated staccato rhythms, all of which are 'in gross parody of spoken Chinese.'"
I don't really see what any of those musical qualities have to do with spoken Chinese, except perhaps the rhythms.

What an unbelievably great post. Posts like this are why Danwei rules!

Interesting topic, though the essay seems like a higher-grade undergraduate paper. It has a good topic and starts off well, then quickly admits that finding the answer to the question proposed would take too much work. Then it begins a discussion of musical orientalism more broadly, interspersed with details (like the nice bit about silent movie musicians) that seem like they might pertain to the original topic, but to which they are never explicitly linked. B+/A-.

Best use has to be the theme music to 80's beat 'em up "Way of the exploding fist". As for the theme, in seems like a stand-in for using the first few bars of the national anthem.

I have to agree with ambivalentmaybe, mostly. It's a fun topic, and you have a lot of interesting information, but there are some big problems. You say that you can pinpoint it's "construct" to the late 19th / early 20th century. A span of several decades is hardly a point. And if you don't actually pinpoint it, then it's silly to say that you can.

Another thing. The "Asian riff" is minor, but "Turning Japanese" is very major. If it's "often thought to be based on a minor tonality", then whoever's doing that thinking is thinking wrong.

To be fair, I should point out that contrary to what ambivalentmaybe said, the silent movie musicians creating music libraries is directly related to your topic. The "Asian riff" is generically Asian, so it might likely have originated in those silent movie music libraries.

You mentioned Betty Boop using the riff; why not link to it? The riff comes in at 4:10.

You ripped the picture of the melody right off of Wikipedia. According to the Creative Commons license, you're supposed to say where it's from. I didn't check the other pix.

This melody is obviously a hot topic. If you want to be a superstar, go to a library that has a lot of old silent film sheet music and find something that predates the Boop. You may even be able to find something on YouTube. Maybe Krazy Kat or something like that.

Anyway, I enjoyed your post, and hope to see more. :)

Oops! "pinpoint _its_ "construct".

does anyone know where on the net I can get an mp3 or mp4 of a plain PIANO version of the oriental riff? just plain piano no backing music etc.

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