“Heathen Chinee” and other Anti-Chinese Old West Songs

It’s a personal tradition of mine to spend July 4th studying American history. For research on the Old American West for my Cowboy Ninja series, I went on a road trip to the site of the Donner Party tragedy, Donner Lake, where, in its quaint little dusty gift shop, I found a wonderful historical music book called “Moving West Songbook” by Keith & Rusty McNeil.

At first, I was just excited to find the book full of Old West songs coupled with historical tidbits for each. What better way to tap into the soul of an era than through music? What thrilled me, though, was when I found songs in it about Chinese Americans of the time. Talk about a gold mine for my story about a Chinese American in the Old West!

As you might expect, the songs aren’t exactly flattering, since they are songs that White Americans sang about the “heathen celestials” from the Far East.

The first song in the book about Chinese Americans was “Heathen Chinee”, which you can listen to streamed online on the website of the publisher of this book. Clearly written upon a racist and ignorant foundation, this song is from the perspective of a White worker telling the tale of how a heathen Chinee named Ah Sin tricked him and his friend in a game of cards.

I looked up at Nye, and he gazed upon me,
And he rose with a sigh and he said, “Can this be?
We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor!”
And he went for the heathen Chinee.

The next song is entitled “John Chinaman“, basically a song expressing the hate for the Chinese that pervaded the West Coast at the time.

John Chinaman, John Chinaman but five short years ago,
I welcomed you from Canton, but I wish I hadn’t though,
I imagined that the truth John you’d speak when under oath,
But I find you’ll lie and steal too, yes, John you’re up to both.

You can listen to the audio stream of that one in this link.

8A-2013-07-04-MovingWestSongsFinally, there’s a song that tries to sympathetically tell the story from the Chinese perspective called “John Chinaman’s Appeal“, ending with the Chinese man leaving the U.S. and going back to China in disgust at life in America.

Oh, now my friends I’m going away from this infernal place, sir,
The balance of my days I’ll spend with the celestial race, sir.
I’ll go to raising rice and tea, I’ll be a heathen ever,
For Christians all have treated me as men should be used never.

In exploring the website of the book publisher, I found another song about Chinese in the Old West in their book California Songs, “John Chinaman, My Jo“, lamenting the “suffering” of the Whites at the huge inflow of Chinese immigrants working on the railroads.

John Chinaman, My Jo, John you’re coming precious fast
Each ship that sails from Shanghai brings an increase on the last
And when you stop invading us I’m blessed now if I know
You out number us poor Yankees, John Chinaman, my Jo.

Hope you enjoyed listening to some racists songs from the past on ID4.
Happy Independence Day from 8Asians!

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About tinabot

Tinabot is a writer, teacher, and ninja. She and her students write and publish their work. Her debut teen kung fu romance novel The Legend of Phoenix Mountain is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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