Poems, The Subvocal Zoo

Alan Chong Lau: “where the lights are low”

At the turn of the twentieth century, Tin Pan Alley in New York was the cradle of popular song. Songwriters became intrigued with the fantasy of distant lands and Asia, or the “Orient” as it was known, was a particular favorite. Unfortunately these songs often invoked racist stereotypes. Songs like “Heathen Chinee,” “Chinky Butterfly” and “Chinatown, My Chinatown” rolled off the presses in sheet music with exotic cover art. “Chinatown, My Chinatown” in particular has been covered dozens of times by jazz musicians and is considered an early jazz standard. Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers are just some of the musicians who recorded and performed this tune. Fortunately, many ignored the racist lyrics and improvised on the joy of the melody. (Lau)

Canton Alley running 1983-2where the lights are low

-for Louis Armstrong and his “Cornet Chop Suey”

where the lights are low
my filipino tennis shoes can’t stop dancing
shoelaces unlace, squirm
out of a straitjacket of holes
canvas tongues jump up and scat

doom’s business
falls in a rag pile
lined with bones of defeated dinosaurs
rats wait to devour what’s left

the music is a steamroller smoking
orange blades of joy
that slice open cantaloupes
gut the cheeks of tomatoes

the nastiest notes gouge me
behind the eyes
pepper me with innuendo
spilling sparks of fireflies
into the fabric of night

up against the wall
ready to wail
the words finally surface
through a melody sung like sandpaper
“chinatown, my chinatown
where the lights are low”

“chinatown, my chinatown
where the lights
are low”—

Musical accompaniment: Susie Kozawa (2X4 blocks, wood mounting pegs, spiral sticks)

Listen to this poem discussed during Alan Chong Lau’s conversation with J. W. Marshall for The Subvocal Zoo podcast.

Listen to a 1931 recording of Louis Armstrong and a 1914 recording of Billy Murray performing “Chinatown, My Chinatown.”

Alan Chong Lau‘s collections of poetry include Songs for Jadina, which won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation; Blues and Greens: A Produce Worker’s Journal, and no hurry. His work has appeared in anthologies such as From Totem to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas 1900-2002 and What Book!? Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop.

photo credit: Dean Wong (Lap ‘Baby’ Woo. Canton Alley, Seattle 1983)