Chinatown, My Chinatown

Lyrics by William Jerome and music by Jean Schwartz, 1910

Why did Chinese immigration increase in the second half of the 1800s?

What are "Chinatowns"?

How are Chinatown and Chinese immigrants portrayed in "Chinatown, My Chinatown"? What stereotypes are present in the lyrics?

Do you hear instruments and/or melodies that are supposed to sound Chinese to the white listeners who were the primary target audience of the song? Are these sounds authentic to Chinese music? These sounds are very loosely based on specific Chinese musical practices. The idea that they are representative of all of China, or even all of Asia, is a Western convention. As such, these musical stereotypes can be called "orientalist."

Based on the stereotypes present in the music and lyrics, who do you think was the intended audience of this song?


"Chinatown, My Chinatown" performed by Billy Murray, © 1914. Available on YouTube.

Billy Murray (1877–1954) was one of the most popular singers in the United States in the early twentieth century. While he received star billing in vaudeville, he was best known for his prolific work in the recording studio, making records for almost every record label of the era.

This recording incorporates "Chinese" elements, like the gong (preceded by the male singers shouting "Now!") and a flute doubling the melody during the first verse.

Another recording by the Mills Brothers is available via Spotify.

View the lyrics for "Chinatown, My Chinatown."

View the published score.

William Jerome and Jean Schwartz
William Jerome and Jean Schwartz

William Jerome (1865–1932) was a third-generation Irish immigrant who worked in minstrelsy and as an actor. Jean Schwartz (1878–1956) was an immigrant from Hungary who first worked as a song demonstrator at a department store and later as a staff pianist and song plugger at a publishing firm. Both Jerome and Schwartz produced songs that capitalized on ethnic and racial stereotypes, which was very popular at the time. Most of their songs made fun of immigrants, but some, such as "They're All Good American Names" (1911) and "If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews" (1912), did not degrade but rather portrayed the Irish and Jewish in a positive light.

Chinese immigration accelerated in the nineteenth century following the 1848 discovery of gold in California, and then as Chinese laborers were also used as farmworkers and railroad laborers in the West. As railroad development slowed and immigration laws became more restrictive in the late nineteenth century, Chinese immigration was curtailed, but existing communities continued to grow, particularly in large urban areas such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and New York. The American "Chinatowns" in these cities became attractive destinations for tourists, reflecting the growing fascination with the Chinese immigrant population. Representations of the Chinese in popular culture became more abundant, and several Chinese stereotypes appeared in literary, dramatic, and other cultural forms. Chinatown came to represent the exotic Orient, as well as poverty, vice, and opium use.

"Chinatown, My Chinatown" was written for the Broadway musical Up and Down Broadway (1910). The show tells the fantastic tale of a visit to Manhattan by the gods, who descend from Mt. Olympus to reform Broadway. One of the many places they visit is Chinatown, to which they are introduced by a policeman acting as a tour guide singing "Chinatown, My Chinatown."

The first verse introduces Chinatown and its citizens ("the festive Chink") and evokes the lazy and dreamy ambience created by the haze of opium smoke. The second verse introduces a typical visitor from Wall Street, who comes to escape reality where "pipe dreams banish every care." Stereotypes are abundant in the song: pigtails, almond shaped eyes, and the dreamy haze that enshrouds Chinatown, where "hearts seem light and life seems bright" due to the drug-induced stupor of those who live there. Musical stereotypes are also present, including the song's pentatonic melody and the frequent parallel motion between simultaneous lines of music.

Up and Down Broadway was not a hit musical, but "Chinatown, My Chinatown" became very popular. It was recorded in 1915 by Billy Murray and performed by Chinese-American vaudevillians in English and Cantonese. These performers helped establish the song as a standard, and it went on to be recorded by numerous jazz artists, including Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Lionel Hampton, Tommy Dorsey, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and many others.