At the time, the “China Girl” video was a marvel. It depicted the gender bending Bowie as a hypermasculine protagonist in a lush, interracial romance. It was also rife with stereotypes. The lyrics indicated a desire to conquer — and offered a threat of racial violence.
I stumble into town just like a sacred cow
Visions of swastikas in my head
Plans for everyone
It’s in the white of my eyesMy 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 man who wants to rule the world
Bowie’s new fans — those who flocked to him after the success of the 1983 “Let’s Dance” album — may have thought they were getting a salacious pop single served up with a taste of Asia, but older fans from the ’70s knew better: Bowie was donning the role of a racist womanizer not only to decry racist womanizing but to condemn the West’s demeaning view of the East as a whole. “China Girl” was a parody of racism and stereotyping.
“The message that they have is very simple,” Bowie said. “It’s wrong to be a racist!”
“If you ever took Bowie for what was on the surface, you were missing something,” said Tiffany Naiman, whose work on Bowie was published in “David Bowie: Critical Perspectives.” “I think he was well aware of his elite cosmopolitanism. He was able to move through different cultures because of his privilege but he understood otherness and wanted to highlight that.”
But Ellie M. Hisama, a professor at Columbia University, contended that the video does more harm than good by presenting stereotypes with little explanation. In a 1993 paper, she criticized the portrayal of the “China Girl” as a woman without any identity or self-determination.
“When the Western man laments to his little chinagirl that he will ‘ruin everything you are,’ he takes on admirable step towards realizing he is appropriating her. Yet she remains nameless, reduced to a sex and a race,” Hisama wrote.
Without context, could “China Girl” succeed as satire? Did anyone get the joke?
“I doubt many did,” said Shelton Waldrep, author of “Future Nostalgia: Performing David Bowie.” “Maybe some of [the joke] comes through in the music video if you interpret it as ironically as Bowie meant it to be interpreted.”
It didn’t help that “China Girl” was actually based on a real relationship co-writer Iggy Pop had with a Vietnamese woman, Kuelan Nguyen. In Iggy’s 1976 version, it comes off like a genuine love song – albeit kind of a twisted one. Another complication: Bowie’s reported affair with Geeling Ching, the 23-year-old who played the “China Girl” in the video.
But to understand Bowie’s work, Waldrep said, it’s necessary to take the long view. Before “China Girl,” Bowie cast Aboriginal and white Australians in the “Let’s Dance” music video to critique racism in Australia. After the “China Girl” release, Bowie went on to question MTV for its lack of diversity and also star in the film “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” as a troubled prisoner-of-war — a role that reversed the Western machismo he took on in “China Girl.”
During the 1980s, a decade of spectacular and unprecedented fame for Bowie, pushing politics through art was “trying to have his cake and eat it too,” Waldrep says. “A lot of ‘China Girl’s’ message was subtle — a failure on Bowie’s part. He put layers of meaning in there hoping that people would get it.”
Whether Bowie’s politics were understood was beside the point commercially. “China Girl” peaked at No. 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and beat Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” for “Best Male Video” at the very first MTV Music Video Awards ceremony in 1984. At shows, whenever the guitar riff parodying the Asian pentatonic scale began playing, it brought cheers.
While interpretations of the song vary widely based on listeners’ familiarity with Bowie’s other work, there’s one thing many agree on in the wake of his death: The world could do with a little more of his experimentation. Some artists today push envelopes the way Bowie admired. In his last years, Bowie drew inspiration from rapper Kendrick Lamar, industrial hip hop group Death Grips and electronic duo Boards of Canada.
But is there anyone today that matches Bowie’s level of social critique?
“Perhaps Kanye West,” Waldrep said, citing one of his own favorite musicians. “The ‘Black Skinhead’ stuff is really great and his version of ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ is very self-conscious about culture.” He added: “But I don’t know someone who could mobilize that subversive content we saw from Ziggy Stardust.”
With today’s “call out culture” and the push for “authenticity,” subversiveness might not be possible the way Bowie tried to do it. Who in this age would consider acting like a racist to criticize racism? Acting misogynistic in order to denounce sexism? Exuding wealth to critique income inequality?
“People still try to do it but the pushback is very intense,” Waldrep said. “[Artists] have to be very aware of the complexity of what they’re trying to critique. You’re talking about a meta-level of self-consciousness.”
Ruth Tam is a Washington writer and a producer for “The Kojo Nnamdi Show”