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 smash-hit instrumental by the American saxophone superstar Kenny G.
For years the tune, in all its seductive woodwind glory, has been a staple of Chinese society. Every day, “Going Home” is piped into shopping 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 their Mao-era propaganda ashtrays, 1930s telephones and “antique” jade amulets while the last bargain hunters headed for the gates.
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To ensure no stragglers miss their cue, the melody 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.
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 the weightlifters and treadmill runners fleeing for the locker rooms. The manager, Zhu Mingde, followed, eager to turn off the lights and lock the doors. Zhu could not pinpoint when “Going Home” had become China’s adieu anthem, nor could he identify the famous musician behind it. But despite its lack of lyrics, he understood the melody’s cultural significance.
“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.”
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 bookstores, shopping malls and health spas, and on the street.
“I used to think the tune was really nice and catchy,” she said. “But now I’m sick of it.”
On the popular 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.
“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. She first heard “Going Home” in China in 2002, when it was blasting on her hotel television. At the time, Subeck was trying to help establish a music-royalty-collection process in China, so the popularity of “Going Home” was more bitter than sweet.
“That song’s on nonstop play and doesn’t collect a penny,” she said.
Not that Kenny G, a graduate of Seattle’s Franklin High School who plays two shows at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley on Sunday, is overwrought about the unpaid royalties. Since the 1980s, he has sold more than 75 million albums worldwide. (Little-known fact: In 1997, he earned a place in Guinness World Records for playing the longest note ever recorded on a saxophone: 45 minutes and 47 seconds.)
“Do I wish I could get paid for everything? Of course,” he said in a telephone interview. “But I surrender to the fact that that’s the way things go there.”
Touring China in the 1990s, he heard “Going Home” playing 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 since performed in China many times, including on a five-city tour last fall. But he could provide no further 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 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.”