Meaning of “China Girl” by David Bowie

The titular “China Girl” is actually a reference to a female the song’s co-writer, Iggy Pop, was smitten with at the time of its original penning. And for the sake of accuracy, it should be noted that said lady (Kuelan Nguyen) was not actually Chinese but rather Vietnamese. So in a broader sense it can be said this song is about the David Bowie’s feeling for a woman of East Asian descent.

Bowie himself is Caucasian and more or less lets such be known during the middle of the song. He makes some racially-sensitive statements not in the sense of offending the “China girl” but rather presenting himself as a foreign invader – if you will – whose love for her will inevitably change her life.

But despite the potentially off-putting undertone of this track, this is definitely a love song. It is based on the singer’s feelings for and relationship with a woman who is of, broadly speaking, Chinese descent.

Lyrics of "China Girl"

Writing and Production of “China Girl”

“China Girl” was written by David Bowie (1947-2016) and fellow rock star Iggy Pop. Pop actually dropped the song first, on his 1977 album The Idiot. However, it did not become a hit until Bowie released his own rendition, under EMI America Records, on 14 April 1983. He released it as part of his well-received album Let’s Dance. It has since been featured on quite a number of David Bowie compilation albums.

Bowie also produced this track along with Nile Rodgers. Rodgers intentionally gave this rendition an “ultra pop” sound as he “figured China Girl was about doing drugs”.

Music Video

The music video for “China Girl”, which Bowie intended to be a statement against racism, won Best Male Video at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards. Interestingly enough, that was actually the first edition of the VMAs ever held.

The video starred one Geeling Ng (who has since changed her surname to Ching), a New Zealander, as the titular “China Girl”. She acknowledged being featured in that piece as the moment that changed her life. Geeling was only 23 years old at the time she appeared in the video. Interestingly enough, she had no experience in acting when she was cast for the role. Bowie and Geeling eventually began a short-lived romantic affair shortly after the shooting of the video.

Chart Performance of “China Girl”

“China Girl” performed impressively around the globe. It peaked at number 2 on the UK Singles Chart and number 10 on the Hot 100 in the United States.  It also broke the top 10 in the following countries:

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Canada
  • Finland
  • Germany
  • Ireland
  • The Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland

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