Orientalist Soundscapes, Barred Zones, and Irving Berlin's China.

Author:Higgins, Shawn M.
Position:From Here to Shanghai - Critical essay

Through a close lyrical reading of Irving Berlins 1917 tune "From Here to Shanghai," this article exposes how the popular music of Tin Pan Alley, through its unprecedented proliferation via sheet music, theater shows, and the burgeoning technologies of motion picture and radio, promulgated an "Orientalist soundscape." Tin Pan Alley echoed and amplified anti-Asian sentiment and the national politics of exclusion that were embedded in the contemporaneous cartographic prohibitions of the 1917 Asiatic Barred Zone Act. Songs such as "From Here to Shanghai" built a sonic environment that pervasively created, remixed, and promoted images of China and other Asian nations and their peoples, one that lives on today in the strategic use of pentatonic scales and lyrical symbolism. This article argues that writing songs for the Orientalist soundscape served as a form of cultural citizenship and a way of performing (White) American identity, particularly for the newly arrived Jewish immigrants who became Tin Pan Alley's most prolific lyricists.


Tin Pan Alley, the name given to the built spaces and to the business of popular music making in the United States from 1880 through 1953, (1) solidified the modern-day sonic tropes of what I call the "Orientalist soundscape," or the sonic environment that pervasively appropriates, creates, and disseminates sounds meant to signify the Orient and its imagined peoples. To begin, I agree with Joseph Lam's assertion that music is "an American site in which cultures and ethnicities are being multivalently negotiated." (2) Importantly Lam recognizes that this site includes "much more than what immediately reaches the ear and meets the eyes." (3) What Lam suggests here is a facet of the soundscape, a term pioneered by R. Murray Schafer to describe "events heard not objects seen," which in turn serve as an indicating "means of fixing social and even political events." (4) Sound events require a source, a landscape and medium through which sound waves travel and get shaped, and a witness to their happening lest a tree fall in the woods without anyone around to hear it. In this physical journey from attack to sustain to decay to release, multiple entities negotiate the nature of these sounds in multiple ways.

One way we negotiate the nature of sounds is in the naming and labeling of sound types or genres. In particular, culture makers in the United States and elsewhere have labeled sounds such as metallic harmonious tones or the bang of gongs as "Asian" or as originating from "the Orient." Per Edward Said's insight, I understand that this discursive work of signifying the Orient draws upon "representative figures, or tropes." These tropes are identified as "alien" and then schematically incorporated into the domains of the operator, such as in prose, on a theatrical stage, or in music. (5) Just as tropes and the language of which they are comprised shift over time, so do their discursive environments. It is with this realization in mind that I take Tin Pan Alley as my environment of study and Irving Berlin, one of the United States' most prolific and loved composers, as my wordsmith of interest. Specifically this paper examines Berlin's song "From Here to Shanghai" (1917) not only for how it contributes to the discursive work of the Orientalist soundscape but also for its historical liming and thematic elements that are still important for contemporary discussions about immigration.

The labeling of certain sounds as "other" during tenuous immigration policy periods can function as a form of cultural nationalism. As the century-long dominant music form of the United States, Tin Pan Alley dictated who or what belonged. It was commercial, rooted in a minstrel tradition that formed the popular music soundscape ever since the 1820s, and was strongly wedded to the emerging art entertainment industries of printed sheet music production, audio recording, theater shows, radio, and film. For these reasons, Tin Pan Alley was a powerful tool of artistic propaganda and reflected the cultural and political views of its White consumers. While merchants and consumers had long been interested in Asia for its unequal trade opportunities and products, U.S. legislators at the federal, state, and local levels historically felt the need to argue whether immigrants from Asia were desirable and/ or admissible as potential citizen-residents or not. Tin Pan Alley, as the music form that sounded these national tensions about race, religion, political dogma, and the stigma of unassimilability, played a huge rule in the popular understanding of foreign cultures and peoples. Behind its soapy and cliche lyrics, Tin Pan Alley's true power was its ability to create cultural hierarchies by amplifying minstrel soundscapes. In synchronicity with Tin Pan Alley's heyday was the increased targeting and excluding of Asians from the U.S. body politic via legislation such as the 1917 Asiatic Barred Zone Act. Not coincidentally Tin Pan Alley imagined and drew in to the national cultural fabric caricatured versions of Asia that were distant, foreign, and excluded, in lieu of the "real thing."

On February 5, 1917, the 64th U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed the Asiatic Barred Zone Act (H.R. 10384), (6) also known as the Literacy Act, a gatekeeping piece of legislation that enacted a literacy test and placed an $8 tax (7) on any immigrant over the age of sixteen immigrating to the country. It also denied undesirable persons under sweeping categories like "idiots, anarchists, and prostitutes," rejected all potential contract laborers, and ostensibly barred all Asians who were not from areas possessed by the United States. (8) The fact that the 1917 Act barred Asians not from countries politically controlled by the United States makes clear that race, after citizenship, becomes the material evidence through which we can see how political representation and economic systems have historically benefited from the exclusion of many different groups. Lisa Lowe importantly identifies this genealogy of racialized legal exclusion "as a genealogy of the American institution of citizenship." (9) To be clear, Lowe deftly defines race "not as a fixed singular essence, but as the locus in which economic, gender, sex, and race contradictions converge." (10) I prefer this definition of race as something malleable, not a static categorical branding. (11) An understanding of racial formation is critical to understanding how citizenship and nationalism have historically evolved in the United States. Nationalism--that multifunctional tool/weapon combination--functions as a significant discursive site for scholars of Tin Pan Alley and the Orientalist soundscape when we recognize how culture wields subject-making power. Indeed, cultural nationalism can function as a kind of collectivizing tool when power structures wield it in pursuit of national political projects and in debates over citizenship.

This article makes clear the connections between this kind of cultural nationalism and Tin Pan Alley by exposing how these popular tunes promulgated an Orientalist soundscape throughout not only the United States and its empire but also the entire world. Importantly this soundscape created potential arenas for racially inflected music ways amid the increasing technology of sheet music production and performance, theater shows, moving pictures, and radio. This acoustic perspective examines degrees of distance, nostalgic notions of space, and commodified notions of "Asianness." The sound profiles of these Tin Pan Alley tunes helped create and proliferate many of the common "Asian music" stereotypes that persist to this day, such as the ubiquitous use of woodblock rhythms, polyrhythmic triplets, and cante fable-style speak-singing vocals. (12) Through an extended close reading of the lyrics, sounds, and images of Irving Berlin's "From Here to Shanghai" (1917), this paper exposes Tin Pan Alley's echoing and amplifying of anti-Asian sentiment and the national politics of exclusion that were embedded in the contemporaneous cartographic prohibitions of the 1917 Asiatic Barred Zone Act. Berlin's song, via Tin Pan Alley's established soundscape, promulgates an idealized cosmopolitanism in the face of increasing isolationism. (13) The way the song's narrator encounters China and Chinese subjects makes visible an Orientalist soundscape not only at the narrative level but also in the cultural ways imperialistic contact with Asia is imagined and re-created. While there are library shelves dedicated to studies of Irving Berlin and his music, this article is the first to focus specifically on "From Here to Shanghai." (14)

In his comprehensive work on Jean Schwartz and William Jerome's Tin Pan Alley standard "Chinatown, My Chinatown" (1906), Charles Hiroshi Garrett mentions "From Here to Shanghai" and even begins analyzing its elements of "musical orientalism." Garrett defines "musical orientalism" as something "neither static nor stable, but dynamic and mutable--born in the past and surviving to the present, but transforming over time." (15) To take part in musical orientalism is to register a "distinctive set of cultural attitudes held toward a specific immigrant community at a precise historical moment." (16) Building upon Judy Tsou's work, which studies how American popular sheet music of this era demasculinized, exoticized, and dehumanized Chinese and Chinese Americans, (17) Garrett ultimately reveals how these musical fantasies "bear important marks, however partial, of the lives, experiences, and treatment of Chinese in America." (18) An important difference between "From Here to Shanghai" and "Chinatown, My Chinatown," the jazz standard that Garrett takes up as the focus of his incredibly astute study, is how Berlin's song ultimately faded into the forgotten amid all the composer's more memorable tunes. While "Chinatown, My Chinatown" was kept...

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