BEIJING – There are many things about modern China that defy easy explanation: parents posing their children next to live tigers, the sight of grown women wearing furry cat-ear headbands while shopping, the performance-art-like spectacle of strangers napping together in Ikea display beds.
But no mystery is more confounding than that of China’s most enduring case of cultural diffusion: its love affair with “Going Home,” the 1989 hit instrumental by the American saxophone superstar Kenny G.
For years the tune has been a staple of Chinese society. Every day, “Going Home” is piped into malls, schools, train stations and fitness centers as a signal to the public that it is time, indeed, to go home.
One recent Saturday afternoon, as the smooth notes of “Going Home” cooed over the ordered chaos of Beijing’s famous Panjiayuan Antiques Market, hawkers packed up Mao-era propaganda ashtrays and jade amulets while shoppers headed for the gates.
To ensure no stragglers miss the cue, the tune plays on a loop for the final hour and a half.
According to a manager, Panjiayuan has used the tune since 2000. She did not know why. “Isn’t it just played everywhere?” she asked.
At 9:30 p.m. Monday, the Powerhouse Gym in central Beijing was a half-hour from closing. As usual, “Going Home” began looping over the loudspeakers, sending clients to the locker rooms. The manager, Zhu Mingde, followed, eager to lock the doors.
Zhu could not say when “Going Home” had become China’s adieu anthem. “All I know is when they play this song, it’s quitting time,” he said.
For a generation of Chinese youth, “Going Home” has featured prominently on the soundtrack of their lives.
Mao Xiaojie, a junior at the Communication University of China in Beijing, said, “They’d play it over and over again at wedding banquets.”
Kicked out of library
Her classmate Zhang Dawei had more academic associations. “This is what they put on when they’re kicking us out of the school library,” he said.
Emma Zhang first encountered “Going Home” in a cafe many years ago, and then at home, at school, in shopping malls and health spas.
“I used to think the tune was really nice and catchy,” she said. “But now I’m sick of it.”
On the Chinese video-sharing website Youku, “Going Home” accounts for four of the 10 most-played videos in the saxophone category, with 313,786 plays over the past three years.
No language barrier
“Nobody knows why the Chinese even like Kenny G so much,” said Jackie Subeck, a music and entertainment consultant from Los Angeles who has been doing business in China for 12 years. He is not paid royalties every time the song is played, she said.
Kenny G is not overwrought about that. Since the 1980s, he has sold more than 75 million albums worldwide. “Do I wish I could get paid for everything? Of course,” he said. “But I surrender to the fact that that’s the way things go there.”
Touring China in the 1990s, he heard “Going Home” in Tiananmen Square, in Shanghai, on a golf course and “in a restroom in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “It made me feel great to know there was no language barrier to connecting with music.”
He has performed in China many times, but he had no insight into his music’s popularity there. “I don’t ask questions because I like to leave some of the mystery,” he said.
Still, Kenny G is aware of the tune’s shepherding function and plans accordingly when he performs in China.
“I save it for last,” he said, “because I don’t want everyone going home early.”