Update 11 a.m. Thursday, May 2: According to GM spokesperson, the ad is no longer in existence. "We pulled this ad off the air and online completely yesterday," a spokesperson e-mailed us.
Amid a global rollout of its new mini-SUV, General Motors is pulling an international television commercial for its Chevrolet Trax — an ad featuring a song including the lyric "ching ching, chop suey," plus other references that offended Asian viewers as well as dated depictions of the Middle East. Perhaps the strangest part of the scandal is that each of those references offended different markets in the rollout in a different way, leading to bifurcated self-censorship by one of the largest car companies on Earth.
You can watch the spot below — the lyrics in question arrive about 22 seconds in:
The Chevy Trax isn't being sold in the U.S. but in Europe and Canada, where the ads were also being shown. Its television ads are being shown, where the cars are being sold— in Europe and Canada.
As our cousins at Quartz point out, the song in the commercial is by Parov Stelar, an Austrian DJwho samples a 1930s song called "Oriental Swing" by Lil Hardin Armstrong, the second wife of Louis Armstrong. "The lyrics include references to China as 'the land of Fu Manchu' where girls say 'ching, ching, chop-suey, swing some more!' The song also references racial stereotypes of Arabs, Gypsies and Japanese," writes Quartz's Adam Pasick.
Here's that track:
Say what you will about that beat, but things were different in the 1930s — mocking the Chinese language and people was accepted, for some reason, and apparently so were lyrics like "Arabs sheiks on the burning sands commanded their harems and clapped their hands."
GM Canada communications director Faye Roberts told the South China Morning Post's Ian Young that the motor vehicle giant "received some negative feedback regarding the lyrics in the commercial's soundtrack," and she acknowledged that the people were offended with the song: "As the goal of advertising is to engage an audience and draw their attention to a featured product and it is never our intention to offend the audience, we made a decision to edit the advertisement."
Though GM Canada's spokesperson didn't outright mention what kind of "negative feedback" the song's lyrics garnered, the words in the Armstrong sample refer to the Fu Manchu villain stereotype — and the "ching ching chop suey" phrase is similar to the derogatory phrase "ching chong," which is used to mock people of Chinese heritage. The San Jose Mercury News's L.A. Chung eloquently explained why this phrase is so offensive back in 2006, explaining its significance here in the U.S.:
Because "ching-chong" isn't just "ching-chong."
It comes from an ugly place deep in this country's history, when Chinese were viewed as strange interlopers, the "heathen Chinee," an economic and social scourge. Those words once accompanied violence and lynchings. "Ching-Chong Chinaman" rhymes dating to the 19th century weren't just schoolyard taunts.
And, well, we'll just let Stephen Colbert explain what's so offensive about mocking a language:
The Morning Post's Young adds that the offending commercial has been pulled in some places, like all of Canada — but the beat remains in a lyric-less version elsewhere:
The television spot for the Chevrolet Trax SUV, which had been running in Canada since early April and was posted to Chevrolet’s European website, disappeared from Canadian TV screens about a week ago, and was replaced with a new edit of the ad without lyrics.
Videos including the lyrics can no longer be found on websites devoted to any of Chevrolet’s English-language markets. However they were still visible on Wednesday morning on Chevrolet Europe’s website and the Chevrolet Quebec YouTube channel, as well as elsewhere on the internet.
The UK version (apparently the video above) obscures the Fu Manchu lyrics, while Italian TV appears to have run the full version uncensored — a possible indication that different European markets found the ad problematic in different ways. "As a company, we are reviewing our approval processes for advertising to ensure that it is appropriate for airing in multiple, global markets," GM Canada's Roberts said. The Trax is mid-rollout in various worldwide markets; it's currently on sale in South Korea, and the mini-SUV will be hitting European and Canadian soil soon, the BBC reports.