The Internet will be awash with remembrances and tributes to David Bowie over the next few days. Many serious think pieces will be written on the enormous influence Bowie had on pop culture, music, fashion, and social values. But since this is a China blog, I thought I’d limit my tribute to the wonderful absurdity that is his 1983 ode to Yellow Fever, “China Girl.”
Let’s go to the tape:
The video opens with a riff that guitarist Niles Rodgers hopes we know is a parody.
From Song Facts:
According to Rodgers, they had finished recording the song "Let's Dance," and Bowie game him a recording of the original "China Girl," explaining that it could be a hit if they could come up with a hook. Rodgers went literal, playing off the word "China" to come up with the riff, which he knew bordered on parody. Said Rodgers: "David was either going to hate this so much he would fire me, or he was going to get the comedic value of writing this silly little poppy thing."
The riff plays over a woman in a pan-Asian costume obscured by barbed wire. In case you miss the point, which will be banged into you over the next four minutes with the subtlety of an MDA-crazed Hells Angel, this video is about liberation. Of an Asian woman. By a thin white duke. Write your own Sanlitun joke here.
We get our first clear view of the eponymous China Girl, played by New Zealand model and TV presenter Geeling Ng. Ng’s bob and black workers outfit are either a metaphorical evocation of Maoist era repression or simply how an Australian costume designer on a music video shoot in 1983 assumed all Chinese people dressed at the time. To be fair, the Reform and Opening era was only in its fifth year and not everybody outside China (or inside China for that matter) had gotten the memo that the Mao years were over.
Now things get a little surreal. It is, after all, a Bowie video. Here is our China girl running through the Australian desert waving a red flag. She looks determined and Maoist.
Ng pushes her nose up to imitate Bowie’s Western schnozz. Get it? Foreigners have big noses.
Bowie reciprocates by taking his fingers and slanting his eyes in different directions. This really happened. Worth noting that 1983 was the same year US Secretary of Interior James Watt described his staff as: “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent!”
Weren’t the 80s awesome?
Bowie is being charming in a Chinese restaurant. Sipping tea and clumsily eating noodles with a chopstick. Westerners love to confuse lack of social graces with liberation.
Back in the desert. We’re marching, with an officer in shorts, while wearing a tuxedo? Yay, drugs! Bowie uses his magic to raise the China Girl from her desert tomb…onto her knees.
Cut to a city shot. Is Sydney posing as China? The video was shot mostly in Sydney’s Chinatown and there’s a quick glimpse of the Opera House before we cut to our China Girl still running with her red flag waving.
Bowie. Still in another tux, racing to rescue his love from…
…A bowl of rice. Or modernity encoded in a bowl of rice which Bowie throws all over the street. Bowie saves her from the dangers of modern life by dressing her in some kind of "Asian Princess" outfit, like somebody rolled Disney's Mulan in glue and then tossed her in a barrel of stripper glitter. Bowie was always adamant that the message of the video is “anti-racism,” but it’s pretty hard to escape the Orientalism here. In the book Future Nostalgia: Performing David Bowie, author Shelton Waldrep places the video in the context of Edmund Said:
In its construction…the Orient is depicted as “irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, ‘different’; thus the European is rational, virtuous, mature, ‘normal.’” Therefore Said explains, “knowledge of the Orient, because generated out of strength, in a sense creates the Orient, the Oriental, and the world.” The give and take between the China Girl and Pop/Bowie seems to comment on this complex dynamic. On the one hand, there is some truth in the construction of the Orient via the West; on the other hand, Bowie never really allows the Orientalized subject to speak, perhaps inadvertently commenting on the power dynamics that the romantic relationship replicates, including offering the illusion of symmetry in a situation that is far from equal.
Now in her princess outfit she is a suitable romantic partner. It’s at this point where Bowie sings the famous line:
My little China Girl
You shouldn't mess with me
I'll ruin everything you are
I'll give you television
I'll give you eyes of blue
I'll give you men who want to rule the world
She is a subject to be both liberated and protected. It’s pretty classic Orientalism until she tells Bowie — in his own voice, not hers — to just shut his mouth.
(Aside: Bowie looking shocked at Ng waking up screaming reminds us that not only were the 1980s a decade of acceptable casual racism but also a time when pop stars thought they could act. (See: Labyrinth, Dune, Desperately Seeking Susan, Glenn Frye and Phil Collins guesting on Miami Vice. Moving on...)
This is my favorite part of the song. Bowie saw Stevie Ray Vaughan play at the 1983 Montreux Jazz Festival and invited the Texas guitar slinger to play on the Let’s Dance Album. Yep, that blistering guitar solo that plays while Ng and Bowie roll around naked on a Sydney beach is Stevie Ray.
The same shot of the two seemingly in coitus was so controversial at the time that the video was banned in some countries. Compared with videos from today — or even your basic perfume ad — it seems pretty tame.
Ng later remembered the shoot:
Can I point out, contrary to popular belief, David and I did not have sex on the beach! It was shot at 5am; the water was freezing and wasn't a great lubricant and we were being watched by a film crew and joggers passing by. Not very romantic."
Yeah, but she did end up dating Bowie for awhile so…
Like many of my generation, I’m still trying to process the death of David Bowie. My direct connection to Bowie was tangential at best. I played rugby with his son in college and Bowie and his wife Iman attended my graduation ceremony. But David Bowie loomed so large on the musical soundscape of my life that it seems impossible that he could be gone. His ability to stay relevant over the decades made me believe that he was a kind of artistic immortal.
If you haven't already, check out the video for Lazarus, which Bowie shot just days before his death. In terms of poignancy, it is the equal of Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt," and Glenn Cambell's "I'm Not Gonna Miss You."*
He is gone too soon.
Most people know that the original song — minus Niles Rodger’s fortune cookie riff or Stevie Ray’s solo — was written and recorded first by Iggy Pop. Apparently it was inspired by an Iggy Pop infatuation with Kuelan Nguyen, a beautiful Vietnamese refugee Iggy hooked up with in Germany. Of course, since it’s Iggy Pop there’s also a 6-5 chance that the song might just be about heroin…
*Postscript II (Updated January 13):
Several people on Facebook have reminded me that I left Warren Zevon out of my pantheon of poignancy. Not sure how this happened. I love Warren Zevon to the point that my recent Opium War series for The World of Chinese was subtitled "Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money." His video for "Keep Me in Your Heart" is crushing. My bad for leaving him off the list.