The co-star of Bowie’s 1983 video, "China Girl," New Zealander Geeling Ching, spoke out today about how her turn as the legendary rock star’s love object — which transcended video magic as a real-life romance — absolutely changed her life.
Ching was a 23-year-old waitressing at a Sydney cafe when the living whirlwind that is Bowie swept her off her feet, AP reports. "There was something quite other-worldly about him. He was beautiful. Just beautiful,” Ching told AP.
But has “China Girl” aged well? It’s been maintained for decades that the racial stereotypes blatant throughout the video were always intended as satire. Bowie himself was an admirably progressive proponent of racial diversity and inclusion. That much is evident from this clip, wherein he called out MTV for essentially segregating black artists for fear that the channel would alienate their largely white viewership.
Popular culture and media are more often held accountable for cultural appropriation today than in the 1980s, to be sure. The video ostensibly parodies southeast Asian stereotypes that, sadly, still persist today, perpetuating the Western world’s fetishization of Asian women. Still, when Bowie pulls at the corners of his eyelids, then laughs, one can’t help but cringe.
In critical texts, “The ‘China Girl’ Problem” has been scrutinized not as a negative reflection on Bowie (or Iggy Pop, with whom “China Girls” was written, first appearing on 1977’s The Idiot) but as something inevitably problematic regardless of how well-intentioned the song’s message was. “Though Bowie may mean to parody what people say about 'China girls', the video seems, by so clearly endearing the stereotypes, to be in danger of supporting them by not critiquing them enough, or by making the critique too subtle,” according to a new book, David Bowie: Critical Perspectives, released last year. “By shifting the song's intention from personal romance to something like politics or ideological critique, Bowie opened the text to multiple interpretations, but also destabilised meaning in the song, creating possibilities that he was perhaps not able fully to anticipate or control."
What we all loved about David Bowie was just that: he was unafraid to make a statement, however divisive it might be to a whitewashed media fueled by the unenlightened attitudes of the American (and European) public. And, in retrospect, he was very likely aware that some people wouldn’t get that “China Girl” was a parody. But this justification for the work only applies within this specific context. If we didn’t know Bowie better, “China Girl” would look like an egregiously racist video today. It goes to show that Bowie was a visionary in ways we may not have even considered until now: He practically foresaw the advent of Poe’s Law.