David Bowie: Memories of 'China Girl'

The song my sisters liked was "China Girl." They were four beautiful girls -- eminently dateable -- and I was their youngest brother, their pet. They weren't allowed to go off with strange boys. My parents were very strict. But they dated anyway, secretly, and I was their alibi.
01/18/2016 12:40 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2017

David Bowie landed on the floating space debris of my consciousness with his big album "Let's Dance" -- the album that made him the kind of rock star that was no longer an asteroid but almost just a planet. Yes, I know the voice behind Ziggy Stardust was already big. Yes, I already had a passing acquaintance with his big hits through my college age brothers, but for me those albums were the music of the guys that used to terrorize me with threats and bullying and mean-ness. This album felt like it was a message in a bottle intended just for me.

We never had cable growing up (another way my parents abused us) but I encountered his music as a stranger in motel rooms when the younger half of us eight kids piled into the family Nissan and took one of my sisters on a road trip to medical school. Whenever we arrived to that place in the in-between, there he was -- an omnipresence -- with his electric voice and his neat-pressed neon suits. The music was so overproduced and shiney, it was like rich silk fabric spun with precious metals and we would sit on the edge of our beds and watch him sing for eternities.

The song my sisters liked was "China Girl." They were four beautiful girls -- eminently dateable -- and I was their youngest brother, their pet. They weren't allowed to go off with strange boys. My parents were very strict. But they dated anyway, secretly, and I was their alibi.

"I'm taking him to the library."

"I'm taking him for New Years for a fancy dinner."

"I'm taking him to see the fireworks."

The music in the car always seemed to be "China Girl" and then they would promptly ditch me with a few dollars in my pocket with instructions to stay put and never breathe a word of this to anyone.

It wasn't until many years later that I found out that "China Girl" was a remake of a song originally performed by Iggy Pop. And it wasn't until some time this year that I found out that "China Girl" is not about a Chinese girl at all but, rather, a French-Vietnamese girl that Iggy Pop met at a chateau. Her name was KueLan Nguyen -- most probably a Vietnamese refugee like my sisters who found herself only a few short years after being a stateless person, suddenly in different orbits -- in the sights of a rock star floating through the planetary ether.

Iggy Pop carried on an illicit affair with KueLan (behind her French boyfriend's back) and their liaison produced these lyrics that some in this PC world now find unsavory -- racist, even. "I'll give you television, I'll give you eyes of blue, I'll give you a man who wants to rule the world." And a case can be made -- a case has been made by people far smarter, more skilled than me -- to this effect.

But I do know that this was a song that my sisters loved and I loved because my sisters loved. And I do know that the guys they dated in our mostly white upper middle class community probably had "visions of swastikas in their head" and saw them, not so much as Vietnamese, but as Little China Girls. And I do know that they were probably okay with that up to a certain point, because these man-boys offered something -- something that expanded their worlds: music, experience, knowledge.

On the trip to drop my sister off at medical school, we were kicked out of the hotel by the manager. I'm not sure if he was a racist but my father was convinced of that. In my memory, he was a Vietnamese War Vet who was suffering from PTSD, but childhood memory is tricky and I can't trust its reliability. I just remember the feelings of anger, of fury, of turbulence as we stood in the parking lot with our hastily packed bags. The crazy manager-guy screamed at us to leave the premises and he didn't mistake us for Chinese. He got the nomenclature right. He called us "gooks."

As we drove off, my Dad turned on the radio full blast. On came that song with its ching-chong opening. And I remember thinking that David Bowie's electric body was left behind in that hotel room and I would never see it in my house but his voice would always be with me -- haunting and resonant.