David Bowie with Iggy Pop wrote the hit single “China Girl” while in Berlin together. The song first made its public appearance on Iggy’s 1977 album, The Idiot, but it did not become successful until Bowie performed it on his hit album Let’s Dance, and made an award-winning music video to go along with it. Although banned in several countries, in 1984 Bowie’s “China Girl” music video won MTV’s Video of the Year award, and Best Male Video, making it 32 years old! The song and music video tackle political issues between East and West, and interracial dating, all in one four-minute session.
The subject of the song is a girl from China, possibly inspired by Iggy Pop’s relationship with Kuelan Nguyen, a lovely Vietnamese woman who happened to be staying with Iggy at the studio, and whose relationship together Bowie encouraged. The “China Girl” also represents traditional Chinese culture, and possibly even heroin, as “China White,” a lyric in the song, is also slang for the drug. The lyrics warn China, and the lover, that her culture will be eliminated by the invasion of Western values such as materialism and superficial, Hollywood-type beauty. “I’ll give you television, I’ll give you eyes of blue / I’ll give you a man who wants to rule the world,” Bowie sings over a montage of him and his Chinese lover romping in bed, on the beach, and in the streets of Sydney’s Chinatown.
In the music video, directed by David Mallet, Bowie’s “China Girl” is played by a waitress and model from New Zealand named Geeling Ng. They later started dating in reality until the pressures of life in the public eye became too much for Geeling to handle. In the music video however, they get on just fine, despite Bowie’s warnings against fatal Western influences. She is featured in Western clothing, modern Chinese clothing, and traditional Chinese clothing, all the while receiving doting kisses and embraces from Bowie. He charmingly fumbles as he attempts to eat Chinese food with his girl, making her giggle. Despite it’s heavy subject, the video is pretty playful for the most part. In fact, the most suggestive symbolic image featured in the music video involves a shot run backwards of Bowie in turn-of-the-century tophat and tails, walking up to a flag-bearing China Girl, petting her on the head and then miming shooting her in the temple with his hand – thus the death of Chinese culture. Bowie later said the music video was “a very direct, very simple statement against racism.”
Musically the song is a prime example of 80’s music done the right way, as much of Bowie’s work from that era is. Produced by Nile Rodgers, the track is a smooth mix of classic 80’s synth keyboards, trumpet and saxophone, with a little bit of funk provided by Stevie Ray Vaughn on guitar, adding just the right amount of edge to the tune. Though written by Iggy, Bowie delivers the lyrics with a steady calm that belies the earnest message of lines like “visions of swastikas in my head,” while still managing to let the words soar during the appropriate moments. The one major flaw of Bowie’s music video is that the girl isn’t given a personality or voice of her own outside of one line that allows her to shush him (and the West). Of course, any further character development and we would have a short film on our hands instead of a succinct music video message.