Sunday, July 14, 2013

Anti-Asian Rhymes - I Went To A Chinese Restaurant

Edited by Azizi Powell

WARNING & DISCLAIMER: This post includes racially pejorative referents for folkloric, sociological, and educational purposes. I don't condone the use of such references for other purposes.

In 2009 I conducted an informal, unscientific review of pejorative, ridiculing, and/or mocking racial references or gestures in English language playground rhymes that were posted to facebook pages or other websites.*

Those facebook pages in particular and some of the other websites served as a place where people could share their childhood memories of handclap games, and other childhood singing games. Some of these websites/Facebook pages included demographical information which identified those contributing these examples as being from the United States, Great Britain, or Australia. I later published this page about playground rhymes in part from material that I collected from that informal review:
Those examples include what is now commonly known as "the n word".

However, an overwhelming majority of the rhymes containing racially offensive words that I found on websites of children's rhymes & on facebook pages included references to Chinese and/or Japanese people.

Those examples of playground rhymes consisted & still consist of rhymes whose lyrics and/or whose accompanying gestures intentionally or unintentionally mocked, ridiculed, "imitated" the the sound of the Chinese language, included racist references to Chinese people such as "Ching Chong", and/or described Chinese people doing demeaning actions, and/or ridiculed the physical appearance of Chinese people or Japanese people (and therefore, by extension, other people of East Asian descent). To be clear, although I conducted that review in 2009, these types of playground rhymes still are chanted today, with seemingly little to no recognition that there is anything wrong with them.

Two titles (first lines) of these rhyme are "Me Chinese Me Tell Joke"**, and "Ching Ching Chinaman" (sittin on a fence)*** However, versions of "I Went To A Chinese Restaurant" (much less often given as "I Went To A Chinese Bakery") were the most frequently given examples of anti-Asian playground rhymes.

Although most of the video examples and, presumably, also most of text examples that I've found of this rhyme are from White children and White adults, I'm including this subject in this blog that focuses on Black cultural indices because non-offensive and some offensive examples of "I Went To A Chinese Restaurant" appears to have become a part of the cultural body of playground rhymes in the United States and in some other English language nations to a large extent regardless of children's the race/ethnicity. Note that a link given below to another pancocojams post given includes a video of two young Black women who indicate that they remember reciting this rhyme in their childhood. Also, there are people with Black/Asian (or Asian/Black) descent in the United States and elsewhere. Therefore, this topic is quite suitable for a blog about Black culture & customs in the United States & throughout the world.

*I've not included web addresses for the sites that I included in that review of racism in online playground rhymes. Nor am I posting any numerical figures about that review. Besides the fact that this was an informal review to satisfy my curiousity on the subject, I found out months after conducting that review that it was very difficult to re-locate the Facebook material which was a large part of that review. That said, it seems to me that this topic would be an interesting subject for formal study. I hope that such studies would be conducted & shared online.

**Click for an example of & commentary about this rhyme.

***Click this pancocojams post for examples & commentary about this "Ching Ching China Sitting On A Fence/Tryin To Make A Nickel Out Of 15 cents" family of rhymes

Like many other playground rhymes, "I Went To A Chinese Restaurant" may include floating verses from one or more stand alone (independent) playground rhymes. And many of these versions and their accompanying performance activity aren't at all offensive- unless you consider the handclap partners' attempts to tap or poke each other on the forehead or stomach during the rhyme and/or at the end of that rhyme to be problematic.

Here's a video of a non-racist example of "I Went To The Chinese Restaurant" which happens to feature two Chinese girls.
[Video examples of this rhyme are labeled as Example #1, #2, and #3]

Example #1: I Went to a Chinese Restaurant Hand Game

Ann Leung, Uploaded on Aug 4, 2011

One of my girls' favorite hand games.
Here's my transcription of the rhyme that those girls recited:

I went to a Chinese restaraunt
To buy a loaf of bread bread bread
And when they asked what my name was
This is what she I said said said
My name is
E i E i nicka lie nickali
Pom pom ???
Willy willy whiskers
My name is
Elvis Presley
Boys are messy*
Sittin in a hot tub
Eatin lots of Pepsi
My name is poke!
*This is often given as "boys are sexy", which is an earlier version of that phrase. That said, I've seen other examples of "boys are messy". That version may have been given because the word "sexy" might be considered to risque. Also, "eatin lots of Pepsi" is probably a folk etymology form of "drinkin lots of Pepsi" which is how that phrase is almost always given.

The words to several other non-offensive and offensive examples of this rhyme are given in that video's viewer comment thread.

Another non-offensive example is:

my version is:
I went to a Chinese restaurant
to by a loaf of bread bread bread
I rapped it up in a ten pound note and this what I sayed x3
my name is Andy pandi sugery candy
rolli polli chocolate chip
I can do the can can
I can do the splits and the hoolahoops
just like this
bow to the king
curtse to the qween
show your knickers to the football team
-erynfraser2001 2 months ago

[Note: I've reformated examples in this post in poetry line formation and I've made no typo or spelling corrections.]

That same video's viewer comment thread contains this example which contains some clearly racially offensive words:

Our version is:
I went to a chinese restaurant
to buy a loaf f bread bread bread this lady asked me whats my names and this is what i said.
I said a ching chong chati
I can do karate unch u in yo body
oops im sorry chinese japanese dirty knees
look at these.
criss cross apple sauce.
do me a favor and get lost
-paris porter, 2013·
The phrase "ching chong chati" is probably a folk etymology form of "Ching Chong Charlie", "ching chong" being a way of ridiculing the way that the Chinese language sounds. I believe that the reference to the martial art of karate (which orginated in Japan) is given after the reference to Chinese is an example of conflating these two Asian nations. Furthermore, I believe that the phrase "dirty knees" following the referent "Japanese" refers to the stereotype that most Japanese are "bow legged".

It's important to consider that the words to examples of "I Went To The Chinese Restaurant" may appear to be non-offensive, but those words might be accompanied by the gesture of holding the skin at the ends of both eyes to mimic a squinting look. And while there should be no question that gesture is offensive, it clearly is something that children have to be made aware of, even if they don't intend to be hurtful or otherwise cause offense.

Here are two videos of "I Went To A Chinese Restaurant" that include the squinty eye gesture:

Example #2: Maci and Taylor went to a chinese restaurant

martellonis, Uploaded on Nov 8, 2009
Comments were disabled for this video.
What I call "the squinty eye" gesture is at .037-.038.

It's my position that including dramatic miming (imitative actions with spoken words) along with handclap movements explains why children consider this rhyme fun to do. Also, read my comment under Example #3 about another possible reason why these rhymes may be popular.

Here's my transcription of that version of this rhyme:
I went to Chinese restarount
To buy a loaf of bread bread bread
They asked what my name was
This is what I said said said
My name is
E i E I nicka nye nicka nye
Pom pom poodle *
Willy willy whiskers
My name is
Elvis Presley
Boys are messy*
Sittin in a hot tub
Drinkin lots of Pepsi
My name is
Chinese, Japanese
Punch you in the stomach.
Oops, I'm sorry.
I'm calling mommy.
Mommy's mad.
I am sad.
My name is
The squinty eye gesture occurs in this video around .039. In my opinio, the "punch you in the stomach" line & mime obliquely refers to Asian martial arts of "karate" which originated in Japan and is an example of conflating the East Asian nations/people of China & Japan.

Notice the opportunity for dramatic (mime) play that this rhyme presents. I think it's a shame that it contains a gesture with such a racist past & present.

*This line is usually given as "pom pom cutie". I think that phrase refers to female cheerleaders.

Example #3:
I went to a chinese restaurant. (: Kendall and Jenna

kenndall33, Uploaded on Nov 7, 2009

Jenna and I were bored so we decided to make this handshake. My little 8 year old brother taught us this. No haters, please? (:
The "Chinese Japanese" portion is found at .026 and .027

Here's my transcription of that rhyme:

I went to a Chinese Restaurant
to buy a loaf of bread bread bread
He asked me what my name is
And this is what I said said said
My name is
L i L i
Pickoli pickoli
Pom pom cutie
Extra cutie
Don’t drink whiskey
It’s too risky
Dirty knees
Look at these.
"Look at these" refers to the girls sticking out their chest to show their breasts. In my opinion, that mildly risque action, or the opportunity to show off your knickers (your panties) in some versions of "I Went To The Chinese Restaurant", and the opportunity in some of these examples to hit, punch, tap, or poke your partner explain the popularity of these rhymes.

A number of the examples of this rhyme that are posted in that video's viewer comment thread contain offensive words, although the intent probably wasn't to be offensive. Here's another example of this rhyme that includes offensive words:
I went to a Chinese restaurant
to buy a loaf of bread bread bread
the waitress took my order and this is what she said
my name is Ching Chung Charlie
punch you in the body
oops I'm sorry
better call your mommy
Chinese Japanese
Japanese Chinese
oo Ching Chung Ching
-Lexi Gomez, 2013

Another example of that squinting eye gesture can be found at of a video which I showcased on this pancocojams post: "Ten Playground Rhymes Performed By Two African American Women"

[The "I Went To A Chinese Restaurant" rhyme begins at 3:36. The Chinese Japanese gestures are found at 3:53-3:54.]

That post includes excerpts from that video's viewer comment thread including a comment chiding the poster about including the squinty eye gesture, the poster's response that she was just presenting how that rhyme was done "before she knew that gesture was offensive". I also included a comment about that subject which I posted on to that video's viewer commeent thread.

In some examples of "I Went To A Chinese Restaurant" the Chinese and Japanese referents are followed by "Indian chief". My sense is "Indian chief" is a referent to American Indians and not South Asian Indians. It's my position that the phrase "Indian chief" is also problematic since only the leaders of Indians and Africans are referred to as "chiefs". Other ethnic groups have kings, emperors, and leaders. Think about it.
Isn't that dismmissive of those populations to only refer to their leaders as "chiefs"?

Update: June 19, 2017: The initial form of this post included references and links to my website. I voluntarily deactivated that website in November 2014 and I have deleted some references & links to that websitg in pancocojams post.]
-end of update--

This post includes a number of readers' comments, including one that I wrote. The post is a mother's response to her daughter's recitation of "I Went To The Chinese Restaurant" and the daughter's concern about that version of that rhyme's accompanying eye stretching gesture.

This leads me to ask "Is the Chinese mother who posted the first video to this post and wrote that "I Went To A Chinese Restaurant" is her daughters favorite hand game unaware that some examples of this rhyme include that squinting eyes gesture? If she is aware of it, shouldn’t she warn her daughters that that gesture is often done with this rhyme & some examples of that rhyme include offensive language? And shouldn't other adults let children know that these forms of that rhyme are unacceptable & why?"

Thanks to all those whose examples or comments are included in this post. Thanks also to the publishers of these videos on YouTube.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. Here's the central message of this post:

    Unfortunately, some adults don't "get" that it's racist to label any Black male wearing a hoody as a thug. And posssibly even more adults don't realize that it's racially offensive & it's emotionally hurtful to say things like "Ching Chong" and to pull your eyes in a squinty gesture that is suppose to imitate or represent Chinese people and by extension, other East Asian people.

  2. I just came across these two comments in this YouTube video discussion thread about the rhyme "I Went To A Chinese Restaurant: "Cool Hand Games"

    jj nb1 year ago [2013]
    "girls i dont mean to be rude but please make another video of chinese restraunt and this is how you can do it its kinda racist. when i went to a chinese restraunt to buy a loaf of bread dont say chinese japanese indian freeze just say freeze after cause im chinese thx."

    Ione Koenig [2013]
    "i agree with u too cuz i am japaneese and it hurts and it is not nice "

  3. I remember playing this clapping game at our elementary school. Our version was:
    I went to a chinese restaurant to buy a loaf of bread bread bread, the waitor asked me whats my name and this is what I said said said, ching chong charlie, i know karate, punch you in the body, oops Im not sorry, Chinese Japanese dirty knees look at these, criss cross apple sauce do me a favor get lost, while your at it drop dead, in the morning got no head.
    I woke up reciting it for some reason out of the blue, after decades of not hearing it. Funny how the brain works. As i woke up repeating it in my head I started to wonder how no adults, nobody ever questioned or told us the words were so creepy and offensive. I see there are "nicer" versions of it. Our version was weird and just seems all wrong for 6-9 yr olds to be reciting.

    1. Hello, Eli.

      Thanks for sharing your version of "I Went To A Chinese Restaurant."

      I'd never heard that ending before. For the folkloric record I'd love to know where (what city/state) and when (what decade) you remember it from.

      And I agree with you that children shouldn't be reciting those words.
      As I indicate in this post, the "Chinese, Japanese" words in this rhyme reflect the negative attitudes toward Asians that is deeply rooted in the United States. And -it seems to me- that part of the appeal of the "I know karate/punch you in the body" and the "Do me a favor/get lost" etc. ending is that those words allow kids to test the limits of bravado and being risque with very little consequences- partly if adults don't hear these words or if adults just dismiss them as "just kids playing".

      Hopefully, nowadays, if adults hear children reciting these words, they can explain to children why they aren't acceptable.

  4. from the akron, ohio area in the early 1990's.

    I just asked a friend about a hand clapping rhyme, where all I remembered was "hot fudge sundae," which is the same rhyme discussed here. I don't think we did the first part of it, but this is what she told me:

    I went to the Chinese bakery
    To buy a loaf of bread, bread, bread
    They asked me what I wanted
    And this is what I said, said, said

    My name is
    Kay Lie Pickle-eye
    Pickle-eye Kay Lie
    Hot fudge Sunday
    Covered in cherries
    Chinese chopstick
    Chow! (I think we just did a double hand clap here)

    I learned, separately, the "dirty knees," rhyme. at "look at these," we would tuck our knees up into our shirts, to look like huge breasts.

    there was another rhyme, similar to the dirty knees rhyme, that I learned as well. it makes fun of children with a parent who is Chinese and a parent who is Japanese, and ends with "and i'm a mixed up child---" complete with the squinting of the eyes. We had two Asian-American children at my school who had been adopted, and we had some kind of exchange student from China in the 3rd grade -- and somehow it never occurred to any of us (or teachers?!) that it was offensive.

    1. Thanks for sharing those examples and comments, anonymous.

      Hopefully, nowaways we are more enlightened and aware about the subtle and not so subtle immediate and long term impact these kinds of rhymes have on Asian children as well as on non-Asian children who chant them or hear them.

  5. This is the version I learned when I was younger, from Oklahoma City, around 2010:

    "I went to a Chinese restaurant
    To buy a loaf of bread bread bread
    They asked me what my name was
    And this is what I said said said:

    I know karate (put hands in fists)
    Punch you in the potty (mimic punch to the groin)
    I'm so sorry (hand to mouth, fake shock)
    Don't call my mommy (hand to ear as a "phone")
    Haiiii-yah! (pretend to karate-chop each other)"

    My school was really white, but I don't think this version was meant to be racist, just weird elementary school humor.

    1. Thanks Anonymous for sharing that example with demographics.

      Sometimes "just weird elementary school humor" can be racist, regardless of intent. I don;t think this example is racist, but some people might disagree with me about that.

      Best wishes.