STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next we're going to talk about tunes that are so ubiquitous, they become a kind of cultural shorthand. Like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLARINET MUSIC)
INSKEEP: Just hear that much, and you may imagine a snake in a basket or a man in a turban. How about this?
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIACHI MUSIC)
INSKEEP: Imagine yourself with a sombrero. Those are stereotypes of course, and they're instantly brought to mind with just a few notes. So how does a short phrase of music become shorthand for an entire culture? Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team decided to try to find out by zeroing in on one of them.
KAT CHOW, BYLINE: OK, let's take this nine-note tune.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)
CHOW: I'm Chinese-American, and I've heard it a lot, especially when I was a kid. Here it is in the movie "The Aristocats," which I watched over and over when I was little.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ARISTOCATS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As unidentified cat, singing) Shanghai, Hong Kong, egg foo young, fortune cookie always wrong.
CHOW: That's a Siamese cat who's using chopsticks to bang out the tune on a piano while he sings. He's got buck teeth and a triangle hat. And back in the '70s when everybody was in love with Bruce Lee, it was in the song "Kung Fu Fighting."
(SOUNDBITE OF CARL DOUGLAS SONG, "KUNG FU FIGHTING")
CHOW: We even heard the riff in the videogame "Super Mario Land." It comes on when you reach a mystical Asian kingdom.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOGAME, "SUPER MARIO LAND")
CHOW: But where does that association come from? Expert after expert couldn't tell me for sure. And then I found this guy.
MARTIN NILSSON: Hello
CHOW: He's a Swedish web designer, and he was obsessed with the riff.
NILSSON: My name is Martin Nilsson.
CHOW: Back in 2006, Martin Nilsson studied piano at a conservatory, and he became caught up in the mystery of where this tune came from. So he spent a month scouring American sheet music archives. He even built a website dedicated to the riff.
NILSSON: It doesn't come from Chinese folk music really. So it's just a caricature of how they would think the Chinese music would sound.
CHOW: The first time where Martin Nilsson found anything that resembled the riff was from the 1800s. He noticed a similar tune to the nine-note phrase. He calls it the "Far East Proto Cliche."
NILSSON: If you have the modern variant it's (singing) do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do. But back in those days, it was just mainly those first four notes - (singing) do, do, do, do - and then it could go either way.
CHOW: Here's a snippet from a song from 1847. It's called the "Aladdin Quick Step."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALADDIN QUICK STEP")
CHOW: And this one is from the year 1900.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA'S CHINA TWINS ORIENTAL LULLABY")
CHOW: It's called "Mama's China Twins (Oriental Lullaby)." And one reason why we associate this with something vaguely Asian is the pentatonic scale. It's used in a lot of Chinese, Japanese and West African music.
NILANJANA BHATTACHARJYA: It would sound like (singing) 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1.
CHOW: That's Nilanjana Bhattacharjya. She's a professor at Arizona State University, and she researches the way music and ethnicity work together.
BHATTACHARJYA: We get this sense of another culture when we actually hear the scale.
CHOW: Bhattacharjya says that in 1889, the World's Fair in Paris helped popularize the pentatonic scale. It featured a gamelan group from Java.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAVANESE MUSIC)
CHOW: So let's think about the U.S. around this time - the federal government had banned Chinese immigration in the late 1800s, fearing that Chinese immigrants were going to take all the jobs. And back then, most Americans didn't really know any of these immigrants. So playwrights and composers had to come up with a shorthand way of saying this is Chinese. But where and when did that nine-note tune come from? The 1930s is a really good place to look. This is when cartoons began to pair the riff with a very specific image.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AESOP'S FABLES")
CHOW: You hear that? That's one of the earliest examples of our riff. "Aesop's Fables" is a short cartoon from 1930. And in the cartoon, there are characters who fit some of the common stereotypes about Asians. They're running a Laundromat; they have long braids down their backs; their eyes are thin and angled.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHOP SUEY")
CHOW: Here's another cartoon from 1930, with more stereotypically Asian characters doing laundry. It's called "Chop Suey," and this time around, they're selling drugs and smoking opium. So by that point, in cartoons at least, the nine-note tune clearly was a marker for an Asian stereotype. And Nilanjana Bhattacharjya says it still works in that same way.
BHATTACHARJYA: We all know what it means the minute we hear it.
CHOW: But that meaning might get lost in translation. I asked Anthony Kuhn, NPR's Beijing correspondent, to play the tune for people in China. Mostly people agreed with this guy...
ZHAO JUN: (Foreign language spoken).
CHOW: Zhao Jun (ph) is a chef from the Hunan province who listened to the theme Anthony played.
JUN: (Foreign language spoken).
CHOW: He says it's not familiar and that it doesn't sound like it's from China. Kat Chow, NPR News.
INSKEEP: You can read more about that riff on NPR.org and share your own examples in the comment section.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.