Yellow Pearl

Chris Kando Iijima, Nobuko JoAnne Miyamoto, and William "Charlie" Chin, 1973

What did the term "yellow peril" refer to? In what context was it used? How is "yellow pearl" a play on that term?

The songwriters describe the Asian American community as a tiny grain of sand "in the belly of the monster"—the monster being the United States. Based on your reading of the lyrics, why do you think they thought of the United States as a monster?

The songwriters wanted to turn the United States into a socialist state. What is socialism? How are socialist ideals reflected in the lyrics?

Why do you think the songwriters wanted a socialist revolution? Do they suggest the revolution will be quick or slow? How do they think it will unfold?

"Yellow Pearl" is nearly fifty years old. In what ways did the revolution they envisioned come to be? In what ways did it fail to materialize?

"Yellow Pearl" performed by Chris Iijima, Nobuko Miyamoto, Charlie Chin on A Grain of Sand, ©1996. Available on Itunes and on YouTube.

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult this online source

"Yellow Pearl" is the opening song on an album widely recognized as the first album to give voice to the concerns of Asian Americans, A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America. The trio of performers, all second-generation Asian Americans, take a revolutionary stance. In a lengthy essay included in the liner notes, they condemn US imperialism and its inherent propaganda, arguing for the importance of music to call attention to the plight of the marginalized and exploited. The notes conclude with a call for the "final defeat of capitalism, racism and sexism" and the "building of a socialist state."

19th century cartoon example of Yellow Peril
19th century cartoon about Yellow Peril.

The title "Yellow Pearl" references the racist term "yellow peril," which was used in America and Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to express an irrational fear of Asia. The song begins with a spoken explanation of the album title: the "grain of sand" is hidden and quietly growing inside an oyster, a metaphor for the Asian community in America. The song asserts, "We will kill the oyster."

The group's countercultural message is not only communicated through the lyrics but also through the musical styles employed. The influence of the folk-music revival, which began in the 1940s, is heard in the group's use of acoustic instruments. Folk-inspired music was commonly seen as distinct from "commercial" pop and was thus appealing to artists and listeners opposed to capitalism. Furthermore, the tone of Miyamoto's voice displays the influence of the singer Grace Slick, who performed in Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship, bands associated with the countercultural scene in San Francisco.

Compare this song to other songs about Chinese Americans in Unit 6:

"Chinatown My Chinatown"

"Ching-a-Ling's Jazz Bazaar"




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