Friday, December 13, 2019

How The Racist Rhyme "Ching Chang Chinaman" Evolved To Certain Contemporary Non Racist Children Rhymes (Part I - History, Early Examples, & Comments)

Edited by Azizi Powell

Update: Feb. 11, 2020: Read Excerpt #6 that documents the use of the words "Ching Chang Chinaman" in 1897.

This is Part I of a two part pancocojams post series focuses on the racist children's rhyme entitled "Ching Chang Chinaman" and how it evolved to certain non-racist children rhymes.

Part I of this series presents the history of, early examples of, and comments about the racist rhyme entitled "Ching Chang Chinaman".

Click for Part II of these presents some examples of contemporary non-racist rhymes that partly have their source in the "Ching Chang Chinaman" rhyme. Update: Feb. 11, 2020- The title for that post has been changed to "Contemporary Children's Rhymes With The Line "Tryin To Make A Dollar Out Of 15 Cents".

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

Excerpt #1: Information about the words "Ching Chong" (with early examples of the rhyme "Ching Chang Chinaman"
"Ching chong and ching chang chong are pejorative terms sometimes employed by speakers of English to mock or play on the Chinese language, people of Chinese ancestry, or other East Asians or Southeast Asians perceived to be Chinese. Several public commentators have characterized the term as derogatory, noting that assaults or physical intimidation of East Asians are often accompanied by racial slurs or imitation Chinese.[1][2]

Historical usage
The term "ching chong" is based on how Chinese supposedly sounds to English speakers who do not speak it. The "ch" reflects the relative abundance of voiceless coronal affricates in Chinese...

While usually intended for ethnic Chinese, the slur has also been directed at other East Asians. Mary Paik Lee, a Korean immigrant who arrived with her family in San Francisco in 1906, writes in her 1990 autobiography Quiet Odyssey that on her first day of school, girls circled and hit her, chanting:

Ching Chong, Chinaman,
Sitting on a wall.
Along came a white man,
And chopped his tail off.[3]

A variation of this rhyme is repeated by a young boy in John Steinbeck's 1945 novel Cannery Row in mockery of a Chinese man. In this version, "wall" is replaced with "rail", and the phrase "chopped his tail off" is changed to "chopped off his tail":

Ching Chong, Chinaman,
Sitting on a rail.
Along came a white man,
And chopped off his tail.

Excerpt #2
WARNING: This page includes lots of racist content.

"Discussion: sing the popular "ching chong chinaman" song!
"In 1917, a ragtime piano song entitled "Ching Chong" was co-written by Ted Baxter and Max Kortlander. Its lyrics are listed below for your enlightenment about US history....

..."Ching Chong, Oh Mister Ching Chong,
You are the king of Chinatown.
Ching Chong, I love your sing-song,
When you have turned the lights all down;
Ching Chong, just let me swing long"...
Sometimes "ching chong" is combined with another anti-Chinese slur,
that of "Chinaman;" the combination is often used in nursery-style
rhymes, such as:

Ching Chong Chinaman sitting on a fence,
Trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.
Along came a choo-choo train,
Knocked him in the cuckoo-brain,
And that was the end of the fifteen cents.
z***, 2005

Permalink: ching chong china man working on the rail along comes a cowboy and
chopped off his pony tail.

the early generation are so racist kkk bunch”...

Excerpt #3
From "Controversial Title" By Michelle Kung, Apr 4, 2010
" "When you use a phrase like 'Ching Chong Chinaman,' you'll always run into segments of the population that don't think the phrase should be used," says playwright Lauren Yee, who says she went back and forth over whether or not to use the racial slur as the title of her thesis play at Yale University."For younger generations of Chinese Americans, the phrase seems archaic, because they don't encounter it as frequently. For older generations, because they have memories of being called the term, they don't understand why you'd want to revisit the term.""...

Excerpt #4: Pancocojams Editor's Note
[These editor's notes were written in 2013 and slight revisions on December 13, 2019 as part of this pancocojams post: "Anti-Asian Rhymes - I Went To A Chinese Restaurant" ]

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 hand clap games, and other childhood singing games. Some of these websites/Facebook pages included demographic information which identified those contributing these examples as being from the United States, Great Britain, or Australia. I later published material that I collected from that informal review on a page of, my cultural website that I voluntarily deactivated in 2014. Unfortunately, I didn't retrieve that page.

Those examples included what is now commonly known as "the n word". However, an overwhelming majority of the rhymes contained 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 sound of the Chinese language and included racist references to Chinese people such as "Ching Chong". Some of those rhymes also described Chinese people doing demeaning actions (such as peeing outside) and/or ridiculed the physical appearance of Chinese people or Japanese people and 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 these rhymes are from White children and White adults, I'm including this subject in this pancocojams blog which focuses on Black cultures throughout the world. I do so because some non-offensive examples and some offensive examples of "I Went To A Chinese Restaurant" and some versions of "Ching Ching Chinaman" (albeit with different titles such as "Shimmy Shimmy China" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang") appear to have become a part of the cultural body of playground rhymes in the United States and in some other English language nations. And these rhymes appear to be chanted in the United States (if not in other English speaking nations) regardless of the children's race or ethnicity (with "ethnicity" having the United States meaning of "Latina/o").

Notice that a link given below to another pancocojams post includes a video of two young Black women who preface their performance of several hand clap rhymes by saying that they remember reciting "I Went To A Chinese Restaurant" during 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.

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 hand clap 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 comment that I wrote in July 14, 2014 on the discussion thread for that pancocojams "Anti-Asian Rhymes" post [given with corrected spelling:

"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 possibly 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."

*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 curiosity 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.

** Two young African American women demonstrate "old school" hand games, including "I Went To A Chinese Reataurant":
Fun hand games
fatcat123455, Dec 24, 2011

Except #5
the old dog Lv 7; asked in Education & ReferenceTrivia, 2009
a. "Long lost "ditty"; my dad used to sing this old ditty about a smart China man and it started like this ...?
"Chicka Chick China man sitting on a fence, trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents" ...

That's all I remember of it as he used to sing it in the early sixties and I can't remember the rest. It was about an astute and cunning China man and how he made "one dollar" out of fifteen cents.

Does anyone know about or heard this story? Can you remember or recite it for me because it's been on my mind for a while and I'd like to know it again. Has anyone ever heard this and do they remember it? Would anyone know where I might be able to find a copy?

Dad died about twelve years ago and this childhood memory of him keeps cropping up the last few months.

Anyone have any help in finding it?

b. Vincent S, 2014
"Ching chong chinaman sitting on a fence trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents, along came a chinaman hit him in the head, ching chong chinaman fell down dead."

c. A, 2015
"Yeah, its a little more racist than that. Its chinky chinky chinaman. ***** is the old war dogs name for the asians that rob everyone by selling cheap **** for a high proffit."
This is how this rhyme was written in that discussion page. By the way, I'm not the commenter "A" who shared that example.

There are additional examples of that rhyme on that page.

UPDATE: Feb. 11, 2020
Excerpt #6
From "Ching-Ching Chinaman" (1897) and American Folklore Society

"A MONOLOGUE UPON CATS.; With Several Incidental Digresions to Other Subjects.
New York Times (1857-Current file). New York, N.Y.: Dec 12, 1897. p. 14 (1 page):
[Illegible--ed.] she was a little girl, that was at the time when the children wore their hair braided down their backs and my little niece called after a little girl on the street, "Ching, Ching, Chinaman!" and all about a pigtail, and the little girl hit her, and she fell down and hurt her hip.

(GOOGLE) [Pancocojams Editor's Note: This link is no longer viable.]
"Ching Ching Chinaman sitting on a fence Trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents. Along came a Chinaman and hit him on the head. Ching Ching Chinaman fell down dead."

(GOOGLE) [Pancocojams Editor's note: This link is no longer viable.]

However, this link works:
"Rhyming Verses: Tippy recited verses to accompany his dancing.The purpose seemed to be two-fold: while maintaining the rhythm of his dance with these stanzas, Tippy added to the overall comic nature of his performances. Some of his rhyming verses were comic variations of standard folk rhymes like:
[End page 37]

Ching, Ching, Chinaman, sittin' on the fence,
Tryin' to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.

Which became:

Ching, Ching, Chinaman, sittin' on the fence,
If you ain't got a dollar give me fifteen cents"
Here's another portion of that document:
"Tippy" Rhodes: A Black Street Dancer in Charlottesville, Virginia
This study is the result of several months of investigation, interviews, and recorded conversations concerning the life of Clarence Harris Rhodes, who, for approximately fifty-five years, danced on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. During these years, Rhodes' dancing was confined to a three-block area of Main Street in commercial downtown Charlottesville, although he made many trips uptown into the University of Virginia area, and several journeys to other cities in Virginia. In the areas of Charlottesville where he danced and worked, literally everyone knew him. If you asked specifically for Clarence Rhodes, however, it is very doubtful if anyone downtown would have known the name; for as long as Rhodes or anyone else can remember, he has been known simply as "Tippy." In Tippy's own words, the name refers "to the way I tips my hat all the time, that, or I'm always asking for a tip."...
That study indicates that "Tippy Rhodes" danced in the streets in Charlottesvile, Virginia in the early 1970s. Notice the reference to "Ching Ching Chinama"/tryin to make a dollar out of fifteen cents" as a "standard folk rhyme."
-end of update-

"I used to do a chant/clap game similar to that with my friends in elementary school when I lived in Indiana, it went something like this:
Down, down baby, down by the rollercoaster
Sweet, sweet baby, too sweet, I'll let you go
Shimmy Shimmy coco pop
Shimmy shimmy down
Shimmy Shimmy coco pop
Break down, break down
Two Chinese, sitting on a bench,
Tryin' to make a dollar outta 15 cents
You miss, you miss, you miss like this
This is how me and my boy friend kiss
Like this

Looking back on it now, years later, it seems racist, but I didn't really think about it when I lived in an area that was virtually just Caucasian, even though I, myself, am hispanic."
-Guest ,Alexis; ; Lyr Add: Down Down Baby-Race in Children's Rhymes
Here's a comment that I wrote in response to Guest, Alexis comment about this version of that rhyme being racist:
As I noted in my previous comments, there's no doubt that versions of "Down Down Baby" (with their "sitttng on a bench -or fence- and trying to make a dollar out of __ cents) came from the racist Ching Chong rhymes. However, I believe that simply mentioning a race in a rhyme or elsewhere means that that rhyme has racial content, but that rhyme isn't automatically racist. That said, the "trying to make a dollar out of __ cents, can be interpreted to be mocking those persons' lack of understanding of United States money. Or it might be scornful of those persons' engaging in "hustling" and trying to get more for less.

This concludes Part I of this pancocojams post.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. Criss-cross feet song sung at the elementary school playgrounds in Milwaukee, WI, circa Mid-Sixties:

    "Chinka, chinka chinaman, sitting on a fence;
    tried to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.
    Went to the store and bought a pipe;
    when he got home, he gave it to his wife.
    He missed, he missed he missed like this."

    I had no idea what any of it meant. The kids didn't analyze the game songs, and the teachers never commented on the racist content of the song.

    1. Anonymous, thanks for sharing that example and thanks for including demographic information for the folkloric record.

      The shame is that many teachers may not have recognized the racist content of this example or may have been okay with it.

      Hopefully, that has changed or is changing now, in part because many people have read about the recent violent consequences of Anti-Asian racism in the United States.

      Thanks again!

  2. The poem I always heard --- little girls on the school playground would chant it while they were jumping rope --- would be, "Chin-chin-China, sittin' on a fence, tryin' to make a quarter outta fifteen cents." Like others here have remarked, I knew nothing as a child of the song's being racist or disrespectful of Asians; to me and my fellow small and innocent-minded classmates, it was just a silly "kiddie-rhyme" to gleefully recite in order to maintain the rhythm of the jump-rope's being twirled, similar to how a sea-chantey was intended to keep sailors in time when rowing, pulling in an anchor-chain, or performing other teamwork-based activities on a ship.

    1. Hello, Quackso.

      I agree with what you wrote. However, I hope that in our "more enlightened time" more people realize the negative effects that some words from certain children's rhymes and singing games had and still can have (not only on Asians and other People of Color, but also among White people who hear/d or chant/ed these rhymes.

  3. Looked this up because I remember how as a child me and other children used this rhyme all the time , I’m from Ireland and this is how we used to sing it “ch**g ch**ng chinaman, sitting on a frying Pan, tryna make a dollar out of 59 cents, he missed, he missed , he missed like this, have you ever seen a China man dressed like this “ so odd

    1. Thanks Kylie for adding to the folkloric record of by sharing an Irish example of that rhyme.

      Best wishes.