Frank Chin Essay - Chin, Frank (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Chin, Frank (Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Frank Chin 1940-

(Full name Frank Chew Chin Jr.) American playwright, novelist, short story writer, television writer, and editor.

The following entry provides an overview of Chin's career through 1998.

Chin has played an important role in the development of Asian-American literature. His works seek to promote the unique identity of Asian Americans, acknowledge Chinese history and culture, and to subvert the stereotypical representations imposed upon Asian Americans by white society. Chin has pursued this goal through his involvement in critical inquiry and through his plays, novels, and short stories.

Biographical Information

Chin was born on February 25, 1940 in Berkeley, California, and was raised in the Chinatowns of Oakland and San Francisco. He spent the first six years of his life living with an older white couple on an abandoned gold-mining site. His father was hiding Chin from his maternal grandmother, who disapproved of her fifteen-year-old daughter's involvement with the older man. At the age of six Chin moved to Oakland's Chinatown district to live with his parents, and throughout his literary career he has explored his feelings toward Chinatown and its inhabitants in his work. He attended the University of California at Berkeley and won a fellowship to the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa before receiving his bachelor's degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1965. After graduation, he took a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad, becoming the first Chinese American brakeman in the company's history. Chin left the railroad in 1966 and began writing and producing documentaries for KING-TV in Seattle, Washington. Chin began his dramatic career in the early 1970s, staging The Chickencoop Chinaman in 1972 and The Year of the Dragon two years later. Both plays were produced off-Broadway by the American Place Theatre, making Chin the first Asian American to have work presented on a mainstream New York stage. In 1973 Chin formed the Asian American Theatre Workshop in San Francisco, and he remained its director until 1977. His first novel, A Chinese Lady Dies, won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award but was never published. His second novel, Charlie Chan on Maui, was rejected by publishers when the owners of the Charlie Chan copyright threatened legal action. Told by publishers that his work was not commercially viable, Chin did not publish his first novel, Donald Duk (1991), until after the success of his short-story collection, The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R. R. Co. (1988). Since the 1980s Chin has had little involvement with theater, preferring to write fiction and essays on Chinese and Japanese history, culture, and literature. He has taught courses on Asian American subjects at San Francisco State University, the University of California at Berkeley, Davis, and Santa Barbara, and at the University of Oklahoma at Norman. He has also received a number of awards and fellowships throughout his career.

Major Works

Chin's works grapple with questions of Asian-American identity, history, and culture. Many of Chin's fictional tales are coming-of-age stories that reflect the author's own experiences and questions of cultural and ethnic identity. In Chickencoop Chinaman, Tampax Lum searches for a new identity outside the narrow confines of the Chinatown in which he was raised. The play proposes that Chinese Americans cannot find their culture by imitating anyone else; they should not be forced to choose between being Chinese and being American; and they should not allow themselves to be used as a model upon which all other minority groups are judged. The play also deals with the question of Chinese-American manhood but gives no answers as to how the Chinese-American male may find his identity and sense of his own manhood. Several characters in the short stories collected in The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co. struggle with feelings of angst, helplessness, and confusion as they realize that part of their culture and history is dying as the Chinese-American community changes. In the short story “Yes, Young Daddy,” the protagonist, Freddy, temporarily takes on the role of father to his young cousin, Lena, as both characters share feelings of alienation from Chinatown. The role is short-lived, however, as Freddy is uncomfortable during his visits to Lena in Chinatown, and realizes that he cannot assume the role of father and role model for the youngsters in his old neighborhood. In “Goong Hai Fot Choy,” from the same collection, the main character, Dirigible, watches and waits as his mother dies. Her impending death becomes a metaphor for the decline of Chinatown itself. Dirigible gradually realizes that neither her death, nor the death of Chinatown, will be mourned, since both have become masks of their original selves. In the novel Donald Duk, Chin tells the story of the title character who is ashamed of his Chinese-American heritage after being told in history class that the Chinese who came to this country in the nineteenth century were “passive and nonassertive.” He begins to have dreams about working on the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869 and sees incredible feats performed by his ancestors. Armed with newfound pride and this “documentary” evidence, Donald goes back to his history class to set the record straight.

Critical Reception

Chin is recognized as an important voice in Asian-American drama, even though he has withdrawn from active participation in the theater. His withdrawal has caused some reviewers to be put off by the bitterness of his outlook, and to characterize his plays as strident. Other commentators interpret Chin's ambivalence as reflective of his own internal conflicts, and believe that the opposing character viewpoints in his plays represent Chin's own warring Chinese and American identities. Many feel the humor in Chin's fiction to be unrelenting; others, however, have difficulty locating any humor in Chin's work at all. Elaine H. Kim asserts, “One is never quite sure whether or not to laugh at Chin's ‘comic manifestations of Asian-American manhood’” and she is bothered by the jarring metaphors, devastating stereotypes, and feelings of distress within his work. Even critics who praise Chin's biting humor and his skill as a storyteller often are confused by passages in his work that seem forced or meanspirited. Much of the critical discussion of Chin's work revolves around his desire to maintain the purity of well-known Chinese stories. Several scholars point out the rift between Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston regarding their use of these Chinese “myths”; Chin has expressed a desire to retain all the original elements of these stories, and he accuses Kingston of liberally adapting them to collude with white racist stereotypes and to invent a “fake” Chinese-American culture that is more palatable to the mainstream. Feminist critics take exception to Chin's desire to return to a heroic tradition, which they believe glorifies male aggression. In general, critics praise Chin's ability to bring characters and their predicaments alive, and laud the author's ability to paint vivid portrayals and infuse his polemic and parodic works with a great amount of humor. Frank Abe contends that Chin has succeeded in “developing a stream-of-consciousness language crammed with goofy wordplay, unexpected imagery, and exhilarating, liberating hyperbole,” all elements which make his work worth reading.

Principal Works

Seattle Repertory Theatre: Act Two (television documentary) 1966

The Year of the Ram (television documentary) 1967

The Chickencoop Chinaman (drama) 1972

Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers [editor with others] (anthology) 1974

Gee, Pop! … A Real Cartoon (drama) 1974

The Year of the Dragon (drama) 1974

America More or Less [with Amiri Baraka and Leslie Marmon Silko] (drama) 1976

Lullaby [with Silko] (drama) 1976

American Peek-a-Boo Kabuki, World War II and Me (drama) 1985

The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co. (short stories) 1988

Flood of Blood: A Fairy Tale (drama) 1988

The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature (anthology) 1991

Donald Duk (novel) 1991

Gunga Din Highway (novel) 1994

Bulletproof Buddhists, and Other Essays (essays) 1998


Elaine H. Kim (essay date Autumn 1978)

SOURCE: “Frank Chin: The Chinatown Cowboy and His Backtalk,” in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XX, No. 1, Autumn, 1978, pp. 78-91.

[In the following essay, Kim discusses Chin's bleak portrayal of Chinatown and its inhabitants in several of Chin's short works and in Chickencoop Chinaman.]

By far the most prolific Chinese-American writer to emerge during the movements of ethnic identity and cultural awakening in the 1960s and early 1970s is Frank Chew Chin. Chin and the group of writers around him have been leading a movement to uncover, preserve, publish and perpetuate works of Asian-American literature and culture. Chin is an active promoter of Asian-American art, a...

(The entire section is 4207 words.)

Douglas Sun (review date 1 January 1989)

SOURCE: “Memories of a Chinese-American Boyhood,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 1, 1989, p. 6.

[In the following review, Sun praises Chin for avoiding the pitfalls that commonly plague ethnocentric literature in his The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co.]

When I think of some friends of mine from the old neighborhood (all of whom had the proper ethnic credentials, let me assure you), one thing I remember is our wariness of what we called “I Have a Problem” literature. By that, we meant literature of ethnic experience at its most tiresome: brooding, Angst-ridden story-polemics, crammed to the gills with resentment and righteous anger,...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

Tani E. Barlow (review date Spring 1989)

SOURCE: A review of The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co., in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. XIII, No. 4, Spring, 1989, pp. 9-11.

[In the following excerpt, Barlow discusses Chin's use of “mythic historiofiction” in The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co., but complains about his sexual politics.]

“We are among the pioneers of this city,” said Phil Choy of the Chinese Historical Society recently, about the newly unearthed archaeological site in Chinatown, “a fact that is often obscured.” Choy knows that his history is abjured because, in an old trick of logic, “A white horse is not a horse”; “pioneer” means white, and...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

Robert Murray Davis (review date Summer 1989)

SOURCE: A review of The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co., in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 3, Summer, 1989, pp. 487-88.

[In the following review, Davis lauds Chin's The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co.]

Frank Chin's stories [in The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co.] are another skirmish in his long campaign—conducted in his dramas, his fiction, and his journalism—against all the writers and critics, white and yellow, who make careers out of turning Asian America either into sociological data or into what he calls “Ornamental Orientalia,” the sentimentalization and reduction of Asian culture to satisfy white...

(The entire section is 267 words.)

Ellen Lesser (review date Autumn 1989)

SOURCE: A review of The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co., in New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, Vol. XII, No. 1, Autumn, 1989, pp. 98-108.

[In the following excerpt, Lesser calls Chin's The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co. an “angry funny, sexy, deeply moving romp through one man's Chinatown.”]

After Stanton's measured Midwestern music, Frank Chin sings a jazzy, tumbling rhythm out of the Chinatowns of San Francisco and Oakland, careening along the rails of The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R. R. Co. (1988), which collects eight stories about an immigrant experience very different from that of the second– and...

(The entire section is 654 words.)

David Leiwei Li (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “The Formation of Frank Chin and Formations of Chinese American Literature,” in Asian Americans: Comparative and Global Perspectives, edited by Shirley Hune and others, Washington State University Press, 1991, pp. 211-23.

[In the following essay, Li traces Chin's attempt to recount Chinese Americans' historical involvement through his fiction.]

Frank Chin is an apparently fading figure on the Chinese American literary stage he has helped construct. Such an act of fading is typified by the institutional ignorance and the consequent under-read status of his works. The phenomenon is instructive: it exemplifies the tenacity of the hegemonic process in effacing...

(The entire section is 5482 words.)

Michael Harris (review date 14 April 1991)

SOURCE: A review of Donald Duk, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 14, 1991, p. 6.

[In the following review, Harris praises Chin's Donald Duk as “a polemic with more than its share of humor, written in a prose that rings like gongs and pops like a string of firecrackers.”]

Donald Duck is, of course, a duck. Donald Duk is a 12-year-old boy growing up in San Francisco's Chinatown [in the novel by the same name]. He hates his Disney-cartoon name. He dislikes being Chinese. Chinese immigrants in the 19th Century, his private-school teacher tells him, “were made passive and nonassertive by centuries of Confucian thought and Zen mysticism. They were...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Robert Murray Davis (review date Autumn 1991)

SOURCE: A review of Donald Duk, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 4, Autumn, 1991, p. 715.

[In the following review, Davis calls Chin's Donald Duk “a lively and masterful piece of storytelling.”]

The style and structure of Frank Chin's first published novel [, Donald Duk,] are more accessible than in most of the stories of The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co. (1989) or in the plays (The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon) which first brought him attention as an angry young Chinese-American surrealist. However, the method and message are essentially unchanged in the story of Donald Duk, a...

(The entire section is 305 words.)

Frank Abe (interview date September 1991)

SOURCE: “Frank Chin: His Own Voice,” in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. II, No. 6, September, 1991, pp. 3-4.

[In the following interview, Frank Chin discusses his mission to promote the truth about Asian-American history, culture, and art.]

“Life is war. All individuals are born soldiers. All behavior is tactics and strategy. All relationships are martial.” Frank Chin smiles more pleasantly than demonically as he calmly ticks off the elements of the heroic tradition in Chinese literature that sustain him and his writing. “The war that every Chinese fights is a war of maintaining and perfecting personal integrity.”

In the heroic tradition, good...

(The entire section is 4638 words.)

Manini Samarth (review date 1992)

SOURCE: “Affirmations: Speaking the Self into Being,” in Parnassus, Vol. 17, No. 1, 1992, pp. 88-101.

[In the following excerpt, Samarth traces how Chin reclaims Asian-American identity in Donald Duk, but asserts that the book is essentially a novel about male identity.]

Calcutta, 1967

A memory: a rush of summer air flirting the leaves into consternation; sunlight boiling off the tarmac; a comma-row of crows deepening telephone wires—black punctuation, visual speech; the roadside littoral of gnarled tree roots in frozen spasms; open manholes breathing fevered stench; traffic snarled in crazy geometry; peeling houses like yellowed...

(The entire section is 2083 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 June 1994)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 June 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Gunga Din Highway, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXII, No. 12, June 15, 1994, p. 789.

[In the following review, the critic complains that Chin's Gunga Din Highway fails to hold the reader's interest.]

With his brilliant first novel, Donald Duk (1991), playwright Chin accomplished what Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan could not: used Chinese-American culture as a springboard into original and hilarious art. What next?

Eccentric movie star [in Gunga Din Highway,] Longman Kwan can frequently be seen playing Chinese, Japanese, Koreans,...

(The entire section is 331 words.)

Ben Pleasants (review date 18 December 1994)

SOURCE: “Life with a Hyphen,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 18, 1994, pp. 3, 9.

[In the following review, Pleasants lauds Chin's Gunga Din Highway as “a complex and compelling work that takes us deep into the multicultural fabric of America.”]

Frank Chin's new novel, Gunga Din Highway, is not an effort that fits comfortably into any fiction category. Labeling it a Chinese-American rite of passage is too simplistic; calling it cultural satire is too limiting.

The surrealist opening in Honolulu is more like comic opera. Longman Kwan, whose movie roles have earned him the nickname “The Chinaman Who Dies,” is on a...

(The entire section is 769 words.)

Robert Murray Davis (review date Spring 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Gunga Din Highway, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 360-61.

[In the following review, Davis praises Chin's Gunga Din Highway.]

Frank Chin's ideal reader will have seen every movie at least from M to Wild in the Streets and be able to imagine some he makes up, like Charlie Chan in Winnemucca, Night of the Hollywood Living Dead, and, most important, Anna May Wong, featuring an all-Chinese bomber crew, ethnics as heroes; he would also be fully acquainted with Sun Tzu's Art of War, The Water Margin, all of Chinese mythology, and Cantonese opera, and would know enough...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

Wen-ching Ho (review date Fall 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Gunga Din Highway, in Amerasia Journal, Vol. 22, No. 2, Fall, 1996, pp. 158-61.

[In the following review, Ho praises Chin's Gunga Din Highway, asserting that, “Chin adroitly weaves his ideological design or agenda into an intriguing saga of two generations of the Kwan family.”]

Three years after the publication of Donald Duk, Frank Chin turned out an ambitious novel of satire and protest pointedly called Gunga Din Highway. While Donald Duk attempts to reconstruct an alternative history of early Chinese Americans' heroic deeds concerning railroad construction, Gunga Din Highway deals mainly with Chinese...

(The entire section is 1616 words.)

Patricia P. Chu (essay date Autumn 1997)

SOURCE: “Tripmaster Monkey, Frank Chin, and the Chinese Heroic Tradition,” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 3, Autumn, 1997, pp. 117-39.

[In the following essay, Chu analyzes the critical relationship between Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston and their differing ideas about the role of Chinese texts in Chinese-American literature.]

The reason he had the radio on was that whenever he stopped typing, he heard someone else nearby tapping, tapping at a typewriter, typing through the night. Yes, it was there, steady but not mechanical. … An intelligence was coming up with words. Someone else, not a poet with a pencil or fountain pen but a...

(The entire section is 8826 words.)

Jinqi Ling (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Performing the Margins: Ethics and the Poetics of Frank Chin's Theatrical Discourse,” in Narrating Nationalisms: Ideology and Form in Asian American Literature, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 79-109.

[In the following essay, Ling traces Chin's use of the theater to dramatize his ideas and concludes, “Despite its ‘remarkable oversight’ about women and its polemical efforts to confine ‘Asian American cultural integrity,’ Chin's use of the theater remains viable and productive, its significations open to heterogeneous possibilities, as well as to ideological revision, rearticulation, and rearrangement.”]

A given...

(The entire section is 15821 words.)

Robert Murray Davis (review date Fall 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Bulletproof Buddhists and Other Essays, in Western American Literature, Vol. 33, No. 3, Fall, 1998, pp. 316-17.

[In the following review, Davis lauds Chin's collection of essays, Bulletproof Buddhists.]

The student who tried to insult Frank Chin by calling him a “‘Literary Conservative’ for saying texts do not change” (417) failed, partly because Chin has much higher standards for insults and partly because the phrase is accurate—and not only about Chin's approach to literature. Although Chin once referred to himself as an anarchist, only a conservative could get and stay angry about many of the same things for a quarter of a...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

Further Reading


Dean, Kitty Chen. Review of Bulletproof Buddhists, and Other Essays. Library Journal 123, No. 10 (1 June 1998): 108.

Dismisses Chin's essays as inferior when compared to his novels.

Morton, Edward Current Biography 60, No. 3 (March 1999): 17.

Discussion of Chin’s criticism of white Americans' perception of cultural minorities.

Ricci, Claudia. Review of Gunga Din Highway. The New York Times Book Review (29 January 1995): 16.

Review of Gunga Din Highway.

Rubin, Merle. Review of The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese...

(The entire section is 167 words.)