Monday, 17 August 2009

Racism and cultural insensitivity: the cornerstones of any carnival

So the Crop Over festival has just come to an end, and we're all in the process of shaking off the carnival vibe and trying to appear like normal human beings again. It was a good season, although I did think for a minute there that we would be doomed to party to the brilliant stylings of the likes of Salt and Stabby all season long. But eventually, the true talent of the festival became manifest, and musically, it turned out to be quite a productive year.

I have to make the obligatory disclaimer here: I like silliness in music too. I'm a Moxy Fruvous fan, after all. And my parents bred in us a healthy appreciation for the Clown Prince part of the calypso competition. Calypso music is not just about cutting, insightful, social commentary and pioneering mixes of steel, drums and brass; it's also about the comedy of clever lyrics, and sometimes just plain tomfoolery in the style of Malik, Cubba and even Contone and Pong at their best. But there's farce and then there's plain, old offensive idiocy. Salt was toneless and unremarkable, but at least brought back in his lyrics a bit of Bajan parlance that people seemed to really respond to: "see me and don't see me" is just one example of the sweet economy and poetry of Bajan English. Infusing the song with an actual melody would have been useful, but I suspect Salt knows his limitations in that regard. Stabby was...well...the man's name is Stabby. Let's not expect too much. I wasn't a fan of the work of these two, but I suppose there's a place for it, although I'd like us to keep that place very, very, very small.

Chow Mein, on the other hand, with his song The Chinese Connection, provided a healthy dose of that offensive idiocy we just mentioned. Here is this young man, dressed as what I assume he envisions a Shaolin master to look like, or at least to have looked like in 1972 when the film the Chinese Connection was made, complete with fake beard and a ridiculously sing-songy and mocking 'Chinese accent'. Now the premise of the song itself, in terms of some of its lyrical content, is not without merit, at least on the surface. He speaks as a Chinese man (the first glaring mistake, yes, but we'll come back to this) and sings of the disdain he encounters from people who stand in contempt of Chinese people. It's not an unfamiliar dynamic here in Barbados, where starting some years ago, we've been seeing significant numbers of Chinese workers mainly in the construction sector, along with quiet - and sometimes not so quiet - anti-immigrant rumblings among those who consider themselves newly disenfranchised as a result of this immigration. So his point is that while some may claim to want nothing to do with the Chinese, we still benefit from a large majority of imported goods from their country.

But his defense of Chinese people is weak and disingenuous, and is in fact only being used to encourage listeners to point and laugh at these outsiders with the strange outfits and funny accents. Were he sincere, he would have focused on some actual issues, or at least done a better job of satirizing the absurd reasons that people ridicule the Chinese. Instead, it is these very absurd reasons on which he relies for his punchline. with lyrics like "I don't eat dog," and "everybody knows that Chinese __ real small". The word that's missing there is penis, or some approximation. Because ridiculing an entire ethnic group based on the comparative size of their genitalia is the stuff of great comedy. The song is completely lacking in irony, which I'm actually hoping it was trying to achieve and simply failed. Irony would have made the bigots - rather than the object of their bigotry - the butt of the joke. Instead, he just comes off as a simpleton making fun of the Chinese, just another version of a black-face minstrel.

And even then, all the irony in the world does not give one leave to get into 'costume' as a Chinese person, because that act itself assumes stereotypes and makes a caricature out of a group of people based on nothing else but ethnicity, and a limited, racist understanding of the people and culture.

The chorus of the song manages to offend on other levels, because its not-really-Chinese hero is now exacting justice for the discrimination against him, with his battle cry being "you...want Chinese in you!" followed by the typical sound of kung-fu blows. So we should respect Chinese people not because they deserve respect and fair treatment, but because if we don't, they'll kick us to death. 'Chinese in you' in this instance seems to refer to a beating. But after the second verse, which talks about being scorned by women because of the size of his penis, the threat of "you...want Chinese in you" takes on another meaning, albeit a familiar one: a woman who rejects a man can expect sexual aggression as his response. A cranky, contrary, uninterested woman can be made agreeable by at least one sure thing: a penis, whether consensually or not.

And perhaps the most horrifying part of the whole fiasco is that the Bajan public has embraced this song with squeals of delight, even obeying Chow Mein's invocation at the start of his live performance to yell 'nyong', which to him means nothing in particular, but probably sounds Chinese enough. I suppose 'nyong' is the racially insensitive man's 'yeah yeah' or 'throw your hands up'. Some of my friends - my otherwise intelligent, socially conscious, culturally sensitive, beautiful friends - have been lost to fandom of this mess, and I must confess that I don't understand it. One of them said to me: "I don't think anyone believes he's really speaking for Chinese people." Well that's hardly the point. We know the man is not an ambassador for actual people from China, but that's the selling point of his joke; that in fact is the problem. He can't speak for Chinese people, because he's not Chinese. And worse, he's revelling in this false representation and using it to reinforce and glorify stereotypes. Others have said: "but it's funny!" To which I can only blink in response, because the act is so decidedly unfunny it makes me drool from boredom, once the incredulity has passed. It's an ill-conceived, poorly-delivered, racist, toneless, not at all clever portrayal, and I think those who find it funny should question the things that amuse them, and what that says about who they are.

Now it occurred to me that Chow Mein might be of Chinese heritage, in some part, and therefore feel justified in this. But really, that would hardly make it better. In fact, it would probably make it quite a sight worse. We have had comedic calypso acts get into character as people from other cultures; there's a way to do it, and this Chinese Connection of which everyone seems so enamoured is clearly not it. It seems we've become so comfortable with our intolerance of the Chinese, Guyanese and people from African nations who live with us that we now consider it something to be celebrated, rather than eradicated, and that realization has, for me, been the saddest part of this crop Over festival.
ETA: A reader pointed out that he might be encouraging people to say 'ni hao', which is 'hello' in Mandarin. I thought that until I saw him live, and realized that (1) it doesn't really sound like 'ni hao'; (2) even if that were the case, no one in his audience understood that it means something; and (3) it still wouldn't make up for all the ching-chonging throughout the rest of the song. But yes, it could be 'ni hao'. In fact, I kinda hope it is.


  1. This is nothing new. Over the years, as a community, we've shown equal cultural insensitivity to all groups that share the rock. Indians, Muslims, White bajans...the list continues with each new generation. But let anybody say ANYTING bout black bajans...wooooh! Is it hypocrisy? Yes. Is it going away anytime soon? Not if our generation (now that we're of child rearing age & circumstance) doesn't step up now.

  2. S.Toe i thought the same exact thing when i was reading this article.

  3. I too am left wondering at the "humour" in this "calypso"...and trust me I use the term here only because my fingers refused to type the word song! After reading about the young performer in question acceptance at Julliard, I am left to believe this was his "surest" means of accumulating funds to help with his education!! Which of course sadly reflects poorly as you rightly commented on our determination of what is entertaining. Thankfully, I never saw him live, so I always had the option to turn my radio off, which I did!


Creative Commons License
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence