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November 20, 2010 / Katie

Chinatown, My Chinatown

Believe it or not, Chinatown has a little known theme song. Written by William Jerome and Jean Schwartz in 1910, “Chinatown, My Chinatown” celebrates that dreamy quality the neighborhood was imagined to have. More than anything, Chinatown was an exotic place one could escape to; perhaps the next best thing to taking the slow boat across the Pacific.

A friend turned me on to an offbeat cover of the song by Slim Gaillard, who was a jazz musician famous in the 1940s and 50s. He was known for his comedic musical routines and improvisational style. Many of his songs experiment with language and use onomatopoeias to mimic real life sounds.
An amusing example is his song “Cement Mixer” where the machine goes “put-ti-put-ti.”

I have to say, I’m pretty impressed with this Slim Gaillard character. He came from a sorted and mysterious background, to say the least, but was something of a musical genius. I could spend
all day watching clips of him on youtube.

Although Chinese was not one of the eight languages he spoke, it didn’t stop him from trying to imitate it in his version of the song. Some might call it racist, or simply crass, but if you can take off your 21st century, politically correct goggles for just a moment, I think you’ll find a completely different way of looking at it. Slim is able to capture something magical here–a lost sense of Chinatown as a place of possibility and adventure, where anything could happen. Imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, and for me, this song is both endearing and entertaining. It reminds me that Chinatown, real or imagined, is a place I want to go.

Listen to “Chinatown, My Chinatown” by Slim Gaillard

Chinatown, my Chinatown,
Where the lights are low,
Hearts that know no other land,
Drifting to and fro,
Dreamy, dreamy Chinatown,
Almond eyes of brown,
Hearts seem light and life seems bright
In dreamy Chinatown.


Leave a Comment
  1. Brad Farless / Nov 21 2010 12:35 pm

    People are definitely too sensitive these days.

    This made me think about how a place always seems more magical from the outside. When I hadn’t lived in NYC, it seemed like a magical place. Before I moved to and lived in Asia, it seemed like a magical place. The same for everywhere else I’ve been. Things tend to lose their shine and sparkle after extended exposure. It’s a shame really. It’s nice to have a magical place to dream about. Maybe that’s why fiction sells so well?

    • Katie / Nov 21 2010 1:09 pm

      Well said. I’m sure one day when I move away from Chinatown I’ll see everything from the rose-colored glasses of memory. We all have to escape to somewhere imaginary once in a while.

  2. Tamae Terai / Dec 3 2010 5:20 am

    Hi, Katie, I love your article on this old song “Chinatown, my Chinatown”. As I scour articles on the song for my husband, who is a jazz pianist to play it.

    We have been to NY Chinatown, or other Chinatowns in Japan where we live, neither of them are not that romantic. But your article has really made sence to me. Thanks to your writing now I can see my imagery Chinatown, and then a slow boat to China!

    • Katie / Dec 4 2010 2:14 pm

      Thanks for reading, Tamae! I’m glad the song has brought in a little romance to the way you see Chinatown.

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