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How 'Ching Chong' Became The Go-To Slur For Mocking East Asians

An album cover for Lee S. Roberts and J. Will Callahan's 1917 song "Ching Chong."
The Library Of Congress
An album cover for Lee S. Roberts and J. Will Callahan's 1917 song "Ching Chong."

When Kwok-Ming Cheng went to a Whole Foods in New York City to pick up some pre-ordered sandwiches over the Fourth of July weekend, he wasn't expecting to get tapped with a new nickname.

"Are you Ching Chong?"

That's the question Cheng said he heard from a customer service representative at the grocery store.

It's a slur I and many other Asian-American folks have heard at some point in our lives. But every time I hear it, I can't help but wonder, "How is this thing still around? And where did it even come from?"

Cheng, who works in finance, moved to the States from Hong Kong when he was 7. He said while racism was certainly nothing new to him, he was caught completely off-guard.

"I was mortified," Cheng told me. "Because the thing is, OK. I'm in New York, I've seen racism, and if I'm on the street, if someone goes 'Ching Chong', I'm like, You're just being stupid. And I'm going to let it go and I'm going to walk away. ... But I'm at Whole Foods, and the Whole Foods is literally right next to Chinatown."

(Since then, Whole Foods management has been in contact with Cheng. Randall Yip at AsAmNews has more about the situation.)

You can set your watch to it. Every few years — or if we're considering more recent history, every few months — we hear in the news of someone referring to a person of Asian descent with the age-old phrase "Ching Chong."

In 2003, Shaquille O'Neal tossed the phrase out when referring to Yao Ming. ("Tell Yao Ming, 'Ching chong yang, wah, ah soh,' " he said in a TV interview.) Rosie O'Donnell said it in 2006 when imagining a Chinese newscast of a drunken Danny DeVito. ("So apparently 'ching-chong,' unbeknownst to me, is a very offensive way to make fun, quote-unquote, or mock, Asian accents. Some people have told me it's as bad as the N-word. I was like, really? I didn't know that," O'Donnell said after.)

In 2011, University of California, Los Angeles student Alexandra Wallace posted a YouTube video where she ranted about Asian students using cellphones in the library. ("OHH CHING CHONG TING TONG LING LONG... OHH," she said. Actor and musician Jimmy Wong responded with this parody song: " 'Ching Chong,' it means 'I love you.' ")

And comedian Stephen Colbert received flak this past March when a staffer tweeted, "I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever," from the show's account. (The tweet was meant to echo Colbert's parody of a foundation Redskins owner Dan Snyder had created. It still drew the ire of many on the Internet.)

But "ching chong" hurled as an insult at Asian folks in the U.S. stretches back all the way to the 19th Century, where it shows up in children's playground taunts. (Because of some mysterious force, it just has to be this way: Kids' rhymes tend to have bleak roots that make us want to hit that "restart-world -from-the-beginning-of-time" button.)

A book by Henry Carrington Bolton from 1886 — The Counting-Out Rhymes of Children — tersely describes this rhyme:

"Under the influence of Chinese cheap labour on the Pacific coast, this rhyme is improved by boys brought up to believe the 'Chinese must go,' and the result is as follows: —

Ching, Chong, Chineeman,

How do you sell your fish?

Ching, Chong, Chineeman,

Six bits a dish.

Ching, Chong, Chineeman,

Oh! that is too dear!

Ching, Chong, Chineeman,

Clear right out of here."

(And that's no typo. In the book, there was no S in "Chineeman.")

The late 1800s were rife with "yellow peril" and anti-Chinese sentiment. The gold rush and the railroad industry had drawn many Chinese immigrants to the U.S. in the mid-1800s. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law, preventing Chinese laborers from immigrating to the States.

But even after the 20th century was off and running, the slur only got worse. Mary Paik Lee, a Korean-American writer, brings up a taunt from the early 1900s in her autobiography, one even more acidic than the rhyme Bolton recounted:

"Ching chong, Chinaman,

Sitting on a wall.

Along came a white man,

and chopped his head off."

That one doesn't even rhyme; it's just racist. (And the context is a depressing story about how Lee was greeted by her classmates with a hit on the neck.) But a young boy in John Steinbeck's 1945 book Cannery Row comes up with a rhyming variation: "Ching-Chong Chinaman sitting on a rail — 'Long came a white man an' chopped off his tail."

The term showed up again in Lee S. Roberts and J. Will Callahan's 1917 ragtime song, "Ching Chong":

"Ching, Chong, Oh Mister Ching Chong,

You are the king of Chinatown.

Ching Chong, I love your sing-song,

When you have turned the lights all down."

Mimicry, particularly for mocking Asian accents, is the default pejorative mode, according to Kent Ono and Vincent Pham in their book Asian Americans and the Media. The book points out that this form of mockery marks Asian folks as decidedly, unequivocally foreign, that Asians and Asian-Americans are the "other."

But how something so anachronistic has managed to cling to people's linguistic dictionaries is baffling. ("Ching chong," after all, is just a crude imitation of what folks think Mandarin or Cantonese sounds like. Urban Dictionary's first treatment of the phrase sums up how exhausted the phrase can feel. It's Urban Dictionary, so be warned: The language isn't safe for work.)

It's been used for more than a hundred years and doesn't seem to be slowing down. But as the number of Mandarin speakers in the U.S. rises, maybe one day we'll get a slur that's at least more phonetically astute.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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