Although the album’s title track was the lead single and an international hit, Bowie’s first choice had been ‘China Girl’.
The truth is, I told Nile, ‘Why on earth you think that’s a single, I have no idea.’ I had serious doubts – I wanted ‘China Girl’ to be the first single. But he said to me, ‘No, you’re wrong. ‘Let’s Dance’ is the one.’ And he was absolutely right.
Blender, August 2002
The ‘China Girl’ single was issued on 31 May 1983, with another album track, ‘Shake It’, on the b-side.
A 12″ single of ‘China Girl’ was also released, with a remix of ‘Shake It’ that extended its length from 3:53 to 5:07.
In the UK it peaked at number two for one week from 14 June, held off the top spot by the Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’.
In the US it reached number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, one of Bowie’s better single performances.
‘China Girl’ also reached the top ten in Austria, Belgium, Canada, Finland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland.
The song has since become a regular inclusion on Bowie compilations, starting with 1990’s ChangesBowie. The most common inclusion is the single edit, which reduced the length from 5:34 to 4:18.
David Bowie played keyboards on tour with Iggy Pop in 1977. Versions of ‘China Girl’ from this era have appeared on various official and bootleg releases, including the live Iggy collections Where The Faces Thins: Volume 1, and 1977.
‘China Girl’ was performed by Bowie during the Serious Moonlight, Glass Spider, and Sound + Vision tours. It had been rehearsed for Bowie’s Live Aid appearance in July 1985, but was dropped due to time constraints.
On 19 November 1985, Bowie gave an impromptu performance at New York’s China Club, jamming a version of ‘China Girl’ with a band including Iggy Pop, Carlos Alomar, Carmine Rojas, Stevie Winwood, Ron Wood, and drummer Steve Ferrone. It was the birthday of Ferrone, who had played alongside Bowie on the Labyrinth soundtrack.
On 19 and 20 October 1996, Bowie played two shows to benefit the Bridge School for disabled children in Hillsborough, California. The second night saw a predominantly acoustic reading of ‘China Girl’.
‘China Girl’ made a return to Bowie’s setlist during the Hours Tour in 1999. Performances from that era can be heard on the VH1 Storytellers album and DVD, and the live albums Something In The Air (Live Paris 99) and At The Kit Kat Klub (Live New York 99).
Ahead of the Heathen Tour in 2002, Bowie performed a short set at New York City’s Battery Park on 10 May for MTV’s Tribeca Film Festival. The five songs played were ‘China Girl’, ‘Slow Burn’, ‘Afraid’, ‘Let’s Dance’, and ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’.
‘China Girl’ was also part of Bowie’s repertoire during his final A Reality Tour, from 2003 to 2004. The song appears on the album and CD of the same name, recorded in Dublin in November 2003.
Bowie’s final performance of ‘China Girl’ came on 25 June 2004 at the Eichenring in Scheeßel, Germany. This was his final full-length live show.