Enter the phrase "Chinese fire drill" into YouTube and you'll find page upon page of videos of a classic car prank that's been popular since the 1960s.
For the uninitiated, a "Chinese fire drill" can be described as a form of vehicular musical chairs. Here's how it works: A car full of people, usually teenagers, stops at a red light. Everyone then gets out and runs around the car until just before the light changes back to green, with all participants jumping inside the closest door. Anyone who fails to get back into the car is left behind as the rest zoom off. One of the most famous pop culture references to the game appears in the opening of the early seasons of the classic 1970s sitcom Happy Days, in which Richie Cunningham and friends can be seen racing around his car, holding up traffic in the process.
As car culture reached its height in the 1950s and 1960s, the expression "Chinese fire drill" developed two meanings. The first was the aforementioned prank. The second was a reference to a traffic accident that a December 1962 issue of American Speech described as "an accident scene of great confusion, such as a school-bus or cattle-truck upset."
But the question remains: What exactly is "Chinese" about either of these definitions? While a 1996 post on the Random House Word of the Day blog states that "Chinese here is not necessarily a racial sentiment," its hard to see how that's true. Starting around World War I, the descriptor "Chinese" began to be frequently added to phrases to describe situations that were confusing, incomprehensible and messy.
These included a "Chinese ace," which referred to an incompetent pilot; "Chinese national anthem," to describe an explosion; and "Chinese landing," which was used by pilots to refer to bumpy, dangerous touchdowns because the aircraft had "one wing low" (a cringeworthy joke about what Asian languages sound like that should sound a bit familiar). Interestingly, Chinese landing and the one wing low pun were both so entrenched in military lingo that they were included in the 1944 edition of The Official Guide To The Army Air Forces.
Note how all of the above phrases refer to things that are negative and inferior in some way. It's also important to remember that anti-Asian sentiments had existed in the United States for decades before World War I and that the United States government did everything it could to keep Chinese and other Asian immigrants off American shores. In fact, the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional Usage traces the first pejorative use of "Chinese" to around 1880.
The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese laborers like the ones who built the Transcontinental Railroad from immigrating to the United States for 10 years, and several other laws that followed were aimed at preventing Chinese people from entering the country. By 1924, these laws had extended to all Asians (a rule that was upheld until the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act).
After the two world wars, "Chinese" continued to be used as a descriptor to indicate things that were hasty, cheap or amateur. The late New York Times columnist William Safire noted in his book I Stand Corrected that in the 1940s and '50s "Chinese home runs" referred to home runs that were either high pop-ups or ones that exited the park just along the foul line. And schoolchildren used to play "Chinese whispers" instead of the game Telephone because the messages would quickly become garbled and lost along the way.
The phrase "Chinese fire drill" became popular once again with the military during the Vietnam War. In fact, several books written by former soldiers after the war used the phrase in their titles or descriptions of combat. In his 1967 book The New Legions, which was sharply critical of the war, Donald Duncan quotes a fellow soldier as saying, "It must have looked like a Chinese Fire Drill back on the river as the shooting started." A veteran quoted in Craig Howes' Voices of the Vietnam POWs also used the phrase while describing a particularly chaotic battle in August 1964. And the mystery writer Michael Wolfe titled his 1986 thriller about Vietnam-era POWs The Chinese Fire Drill.
Aside from the occasional reference to the car prank, the phrase "Chinese fire drill" has mostly faded from everyday use today. Perhaps it is time to rename the 1960s-era prank? Suggestions are welcome in the comments.