Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Chickencoop Chinaman established Chin’s success and became the first play by an Asian American to be produced on Broadway. Yet the work is not one that would seem to recommend itself to the average theatergoer, given the play’s dark theme, its depiction of the irreparable loss of a father, and its irresolute climax.
Ironically, of all Chin’s works, this piece, which established his credentials as a Chinese American writer, is the one least concerned with the Chinese American experience. Rather, the play portrays the extravagant heterogeneity of the United States. Each character’s life is an unstable ethnic mélange. The protagonist, Tam Lum, a Chinese American, was raised in a black area of Los Angeles. Now, as a young man, he devotes his energy to making a film about his idol, an African American prizefighter.
The play does not celebrate this diversity. Instead, it counts the cost in unhappiness for those who have no clear-cut allegiances: These characters, who have lost their natal culture, have not been able to attach themselves to any other tradition. Tam is making a film to prove himself, but at bottom, he is not sure what he is proving or to whom he has to prove something.
If The Chickencoop Chinaman were a conventional play, its plot development would probably concern how the characters recontacted their base cultures and relocated their fathers. In Chin’s alternative dramaturgy, however, the...
(The entire section is 435 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
The Chickencoop Chinaman is a subtle depiction of the experiences of a Chinese American writer who loses and then regains his racial identity and cultural heritage. Laced with historical allusions to legislative and euphemized discrimination against Chinese Americans, the play centers on a visit the writer, Tam Lum, makes to Pittsburgh to collect materials for a documentary film about a famous black boxer. The events that take place during his visit make him realize that what he should do is pursue the lonely mission of telling stories to the unassimilated children of the Chinese railroad builders and gold miners.
The play begins with Tam telling an airline hostess that he was born to be a writer for “the Chinamans sons of Chinamans.” As the ensuing scenes show, he has never had a chance to write about the heroism of his people. When a boy, he used to sit in the kitchen, listening to his grandmother’s stories of the Chinese railroaders, but he heard no such stories on the radio. In his desperate search for a hero of his own race, he imagined that the Lone Ranger with his mask was a Chinese American in disguise. To his dismay, the Ranger turned out to be a decrepit white racist who ordered Tam to go back to Chinatown to preserve his culture.
Ironically, there was no Chinatown to which Tam could return to preserve his culture, for the old people there were trying to forget their history in order to survive. They urged him to...
(The entire section is 425 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Tam Lum, a Chinese American filmmaker and writer, goes to Pittsburgh to interview Charley Popcorn for a documentary film. Tam believes that Popcorn is the father of famous light-heavyweight boxing champion Ovaltine Jack Dancer. In Pittsburgh, Tam Lum stays with his childhood friend, “BlackJap” Kenji, a research dentist. Living in Kenji’s apartment are Lee and her son Robbie. They are awaiting the arrival of Lee’s latest fiancé, Tom, another Chinese American. Tom is currently at work on his latest book, a cookbook entitled Soul on Rice (a play on Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, 1967).
Lee accuses Tam, a caustic character, of hating his Chinese heritage, a charge that he immediately denies. She also accuses Kenji of being prejudiced against African Americans. Tam answers that this is untrue because he and Kenji attend school with African Americans and Mexican Americans. If they do not dress and behave like the other students, they would be beaten every day. Now this antagonistic behavior toward African Americans and Latinos has become normal for them. Kenji joins the conversation, saying that he is not imitating African Americans. He lives with them and participates in their culture because he is as unsure of Japanese American culture as Tam is of Chinese American culture.
Although Tam pretends to hate everything that is part of the white culture, Lee reminds him that his former wife, Barbara, is white and that his children are biracial. She believes that his marriage to a white American is a further attempt to erase his Chinese identity.
Tam then declares that he does not like being part of the “model minority.” This designation is yet another stereotype, though a positive one. Tam sees Asians as the type of immigrant...
(The entire section is 730 words.)