Today features the most offensive recording I've ever posted! Why? Well...
With the eyes of the world fixed on China right now because of the Olympics, I thought I'd post some early recordings, from the first half of the 20th century, that reveal various Western attitudes towards the Chinese.
The earliest recording I know of regarding China or Chinese people (I'm no expert) is a comedy routine circa 1900-1 that is one of the most awful, mean-spirited examples of ethnic humor you're likely to hear. And it was one of the big hit records of the day! But it does provide insight into the place of the Chinese immigrant in century-old America - as lower class servants of mainstream society, toiling away in laundrys. Taken from the crucial collection The 1890s, Volume 1: Wipe Him Off the Land.
Cal Stewart "Uncle Josh in a Chinese Laundry"
The Chinese may have been initially treated as an exploited working class, but, man, those "Chinatowns" they were establishing in major cities like New York and San Francisco were pretty cool - a heady dose of "mysterious" Eastern culture rarely experienced on American soil. The song "Chinatown My Chinatown," written in 1910, was recorded about a bazillion times in the first half of the 20th century, from the days of vaudeville right up through the '50s exotica era. Al Jolson, one of the biggest stars of the day, was famous for his blackface routine, but here he plays it straight, swinging hard with groovy backup singer gals.
Al Jolson "Chinatown, My Chinatown"
Another popular feature of Chinese communities? Opium dens, where the jazz hepcats would hang out passing around an opium pipe - "kicking the gong around" - for days on end. Cab Calloway used that phrase in "Minnie The Moocher" with most people having no idea what he was singing about.
Louis Armstrong "Kicking the Gong Around"
If a cowboy came a-ridin' up to Chinatown on his horse, he might have been heard playing this version of "Chinatown, My Chinatown" on his gee-tar, from the collection Western Swing: Hot Hillbilly Jazz and Blues (1935 - 1947).
Milton Brown & his Brownies - Chinatown, My Chinatown
And then there's this song, from the album "Novelty songs (1914 - 1946) Crazy & Obscure," about, er, a yodeling Chinaman. I don't know why.
George van Dusen "The Yodeling Chinaman"