What’s So ‘Chinese’ About A Chinese Fire Drill?

In the beginning of the early seasons of the iconic 1970s sitcom Happy Days, Richie Cunningham and his pals can be observed speeding around his automobile, causing traffic congestion in the process. One of the most renowned references to this activity in popular culture can be found in the show, where a “Chinese fire drill” is depicted as a version of vehicular musical chairs. A vehicle carrying a group of individuals, typically teenagers, comes to a halt at a red traffic signal. Subsequently, everyone exits the car and dashes around it until just before the signal turns green, at which point all participants scramble to enter the nearest door. Those who fail to reenter the car are left behind as the remaining group accelerates away.

“A chaotic accident scene, like a school-bus or cattle-truck overturning, was depicted as a representation of a traffic accident in a December 1962 publication of American Speech. The second mentioned incident was the aforementioned practical joke. The phrase “Chinese fire drill” acquired two connotations as car culture peaked in the 1950s and 1960s.”

The frequent addition of phrases to describe situations as “Chinese” began to make the description incomprehensible and messy. It is difficult to see how “Chinese” is necessarily a racial sentiment here, as stated in a post from 1996 on the Random Word House blog. The question remains: What exactly is the definition of “Chinese” in either of these contexts?

The 1944 edition of The Official Guide To The Army Air Forces contained both the Chinese landing and the one wing low pun, both of which were deeply rooted in military jargon. These terms referred to rough and perilous landings due to the aircraft having “one wing low” (a somewhat familiar and cringeworthy joke about the sound of Asian languages). They were utilized by pilots. Additionally, the guide included a term called a “Chinese ace,” which denoted an inept pilot, and the term “Chinese national anthem,” which described an explosion.

Around 1880, the first usage of the pejorative term “Chinese” can be traced back to the Unconventional and Slang Dictionary. It is noteworthy that, prior to World War I, the United States government did everything it could to keep Asian immigrants, including those from China, off American shores. It is also important to remember that there were existing anti-Asian sentiments in the United States for decades before the war. Additionally, it is worth noting how all of the phrases mentioned above refer to things that are considered inferior and negative.

The Exclusion Act of 1882 aimed to prevent Chinese laborers, similar to those who built the Transcontinental Railroad, from immigrating to the United States. Several other laws were enacted for a period of 10 years, also aimed at preventing Chinese people from entering the country. These laws were extended to all Asians by the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, a rule that was upheld until 1924.

After the two world wars, the descriptor “Chinese” continued to be used to indicate things that were amateur or cheap, as noted by William Safire, a late columnist for The New York Times, who referred to home runs as “runs” home in the ’40s and ’50s. It is said that schoolchildren used to play the Telephone game using Chinese “whispers” instead, quickly losing and garbling messages along the way.

During the Vietnam War, the phrase “Drill Fire Chinese” once again became popular among military personnel. In fact, several books written by former soldiers after the war used this phrase in their descriptions or titles, which sharply criticized the war. In his 1967 book “The New Legions”, Donald Duncan quotes a fellow soldier as saying that shooting on the river felt like a Chinese fire drill. Similarly, Craig Howes’ 1986 thriller “Voices of the Vietnam POWs” quoted a veteran describing a particularly chaotic battle in August 1964 and also used the phrase “Drill Fire Chinese”. This phrase became a critical aspect of the war, as highlighted in Michael Wolfe’s mystery novel about Vietnam-era POWs titled “A Chinese Fire Drill”.

Aside from occasional references to the phrase “prank car,” comments and suggestions in the 1960s era are welcome. Perhaps today it is time to rename it to the “fire drill” prank, as this term has mostly faded from everyday use.