Frank Chin Essay - Critical Essays

Frank Chin American Literature Analysis

Chin is centrally concerned with the psychological effects of assimilation on Chinese Americans who were born into the United States after World War II. He argues that the adaptation of Chinese Americans to their home was distorted by critical problems that Chinese immigrants have had since the nineteenth century in being accepted as equal to the children of European immigrants. Chin shows how real Chinese contributions to American life, such as the building of the railroads, have been downplayed or purposefully forgotten and how, in the place of real history, Chinese Americans have been saddled with degrading stereotypes.

This stereotyping plays into a second major problem Chinese Americans face, which involves their economic place. Either they do the real work of society—as laborers, cooks, and so on—and their activity is ignored, or they get high-profile jobs peddling the very stereotypes that disempower them. A character who holds this last type of job is Fred Eng in The Year of the Dragon. He gives tours of Chinatown and finds that, to make his business lucrative, he must repeat to his clients the same distortions they have heard about Asians from the media.

Chin is not a literary preacher who uses his work as a soapbox from which to make judgments; he is concerned with tracing the human effects of stereotyping and subordination. His views on the fate of Chinese Americans serve as a background to his portrayal of individuals and their families who are damaged by the roles that they are forced to play in white America’s reality and dreams.

A special quality of Chin’s work is that he stresses the disastrous effects of prejudice more on the relations between family members than on individual psyches. Above everything, Chin focuses on the relations of fathers and sons. (Although Chin can portray vivid female characters, these are decidedly secondary to his interests.) This is why, of all the popular caricatures of the Chinese, the one to which Chin reverts over and over is that of the fictional detective Charlie Chan, because central to this representation was the display of Charlie’s relationship with his servile sons and the fact that the detective himself was played by a white actor. In Gunga Din Highway, the whole first section of the novel is devoted to this topic as the (fictional) last white actor to play Charlie Chan is sought out by his last film son, a Chinese American with hopes to be the first Asian to portray Chan.

Chin’s discussion of stereotyping is a complex one. It is not so much that Charlie Chan films, for example, promoted the picture of Chinese sons as passive buffoons. Though this was bad enough, the real problem was that American-born Chinese sons, with no other available images of Chinese boys, began to believe in the stereotype. Thus, the protagonist of Donald Duk, who is sent to an American school where such stereotypes are promulgated, begins to hate other Chinese boys, who he thinks are physically weak and passive. The hero of The Chickencoop Chinaman is driven to despair by the parade of stereotypes in the media until he invents a Chinese role model, the Lone Ranger, a cowboy hero who never removes his mask—because, as the Chinese boy believes, he is concealing his Oriental eyes.

This second example suggests that Chinese sons do not simply submit to the endless negative images but may revolt against them, often putting them at odds with their uncomprehending fathers. Immigrant fathers, such as Pa in The Year of the Dragon, cannot sympathize with the feelings of the sons; the fathers are too steeped in original Chinese tradition to be really affected by American culture, and they are too impressed with the material success available in the United States to care about their images.

A division between the generations occurs because each requires a different degree of integration into their new society. The fathers are satisfied with economic acceptance, while the sons, who are necessarily more familiar with American ways, yearn for an unobtainable cultural acceptance. These disparate goals make for strife and misunderstandings in the family unit.

There is a clear change in Chin’s attitude over the years. His earliest writings, his theater works, are unrelentingly bleak, showing protagonists who are painted into a corner by their own inabilities to either ignore or escape debilitating social strictures. In his later fiction, Chin does sketch avenues of psychic survival, ones that involve an honest appraisal of the Chinese place in America, a continued respect for the Chinese customs that can be salvaged in the new environment, and the choice of a career that can mediate between American and Chinese society. By the end of Donald Duk, for example, the twelve-year-old protagonist has grasped these essentials. He has learned of the Chinese contribution to building the transcontinental railroad, has come to appreciate the significance of the traditional Chinese New Year, and has seen the viability of his father’s choice of occupation. His father is a chef who is popular with Americans but who also makes time to be involved in sustaining his own ethnic community—as when he closes his restaurant except to his friends so that he can create dishes only the Chinese palate can properly savor.

Chin’s style is protean. His writing becomes especially lyrical and surreal when describing media fantasy worlds, as when the Lone Ranger or Charlie Chan appears, but can be matter-of-fact and prosy when describing the everyday lives of immigrants. Nevertheless, his virtuoso handling of varied styles is subordinate to his continued focus on the perils facing the Chinese American boy who strains to adapt to an American system that has little regard for his people’s history and less for his present need for self-validation.

The Chickencoop Chinaman

First produced: 1972 (first published, 1981)

Type of work: Play

A Chinese American filmmaker comes to Detroit, ostensibly in search of material but really looking for his own identity.

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....

(The entire section is 2968 words.)