Referring to China as "the land of Fu Manchu", where people say "ching-ching, chop suey", might have been considered acceptable, even amusing, when the lyrics were originally penned in the US in the 1930s.
But the distinction between modern norms and those of the swing era seemed to have been lost on General Motors' advertising executives, who featured the lyrics in a worldwide marketing campaign for its new Chevrolet Trax SUV.
The giant carmaker is now pulling the advertisement from worldwide markets, saying it had received complaints about the "offensive content".
The TV spot for the Trax, which had been running in Canada since early March and was posted to Chevrolet's European website, disappeared from Canadian television screens about a week ago, and was replaced with a new edit of the ad without lyrics.
China is a key market for GM, where it sold more than 2.8 million vehicles last year and where it has 55,000 employees.
In response to queries from the South China Morning Post, GM Canada communications director Faye Roberts said the advert "received some negative feedback regarding the lyrics in the commercial's soundtrack".
"Once the issue was called to our attention, GM immediately removed the offensive content from the commercial," she said by e-mail on Tuesday. "As the goal of advertising is to engage an audience and draw their attention to a featured product and it is never our intention to offend the audience, we made a decision to edit the advertisement."
Videos including the lyrics can no longer be found on websites devoted to any of Chevrolet's English-language markets. However, they were still visible yesterday on Chevrolet Europe's website and the Chevrolet Quebec YouTube channel, as well as elsewhere on the internet.
After receiving the Post's questions, Roberts said the ad would be removed from all Chevrolet sites worldwide. Chevrolet parent GM had previously made no public comment about the advertisement.
The retro-styled advertisement, titled "After Midnight", features the toe-tapping song Booty Swing by Austrian "electroswing" musician Parov Stelar. The lyrics go:
"Now, in the land of FuManchu,
The girls all now do the Suzie-Q,
Clap their hands in the centre of the floor
Saying 'ching-ching, chop suey, swing some more'"
Booty Swing is based on Oriental Swing, recorded by Lil Armstrong and her Swing Orchestra in 1938. That song's lyrics also refer to Arab sheikhs in their harems, and Japanese geisha girls who want to "swing it like Amelicans [sic]".
The incident comes at a sensitive time for Chevrolet, which is rolling out the Trax around the world this year after its launch at the 2012 Paris Motor Show. It is Chevrolet's first compact SUV.
Car websites reported last October that GM had applied for patents for the Trax in China, but Roberts said there were no plans to launch the Trax there.
The Trax hit roads in South Korea, where it is being manufactured, in February. It is arriving in Europe and Canada this spring, then Australia. It will not be sold in the US, where it would have competed with existing mid-sized GM models.
Before the original ad disappeared from Canadian screens, it had been released in multiple versions in Europe. The UK version muffled the "Fu Manchu" lyrics while the Italian version, for instance, did not. Roberts said that to her knowledge the offending version had not hit television screens outside Canada.
Roberts said: "As a company, we are reviewing our approval processes for advertising to ensure that it is appropriate for airing in multiple, global markets."
"Fu Manchu" is a stereotypical Chinese villain, the embodiment of the "yellow peril", who has been described as one of the most racist characters in literature and cinema. He was created by British author Sax Rohmer, who wrote a series of novels based on the depraved master criminal, beginning with 1913's The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu.
The 1932 film The Mask of Fu Manchu features the villain, played by Boris Karloff in slant-eyed "yellow face" make-up, telling his followers to "kill the white men and take their women". The character was played for laughs by Peter Sellers in 1980 in The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu.
The films are rarely screened on television because of concern about their racist content. But the Fu Manchu character has inspired similar Asian villains, including Ming the Merciless from the Flash Gordon comics, James Bond's nemesis Dr No, and The Mandarin of Marvel Comics.
GM's brands include Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and Opel, as well as the Chinese badges Wuling, Jiefang and Baojun. It says it has been the leading global carmaker in China, by sales volume, for eight consecutive years.