The Year of Dragon is an anguished depiction of a Chinese American man and his family, in conflict between the younger generation’s urge towards assimilation and the older generation’s obsession with tradition. Set in the late 1960’s in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the play represents Frank Chin’s artistic expression of his view that historically Chinese America is doomed. The play begins with Fred Eng, a tour guide in Chinatown, welcoming a group of tourists and wishing them happiness in the Year of the Dragon. He speaks like Charlie Chan but he wants to drop his phony accent and just be himself. Fred cannot be just himself; he knows that tourists expect a Chinese American to speak like Charlie Chan.
Fred wanted to be a writer and went to college, but his ailing father, Wing Eng, called him back to Chinatown to take over the father’s travel agency and care for Fred’s mother, Hyacinth, and two younger siblings, Mattie and Johnny. The ensuing scenes show that Wing has gathered his family, including his first wife from China, so that he can die as a Chinese would like to, surrounded by a happy family and assured that Fred will stay in Chinatown to care for his two mothers. Wing’s family is by no means happy. His first wife, who has just arrived from China and whose expected presence causes resentment from others, seems to feel out of place in her husband’s home. Hyacinth frequently escapes to the bathroom to sing her lullaby. Mattie, who has “married out white” like many other Chinese Americans, cannot stand her father’s home. She urges the family to “forget Chinatown and be just people.” Johnny is a juvenile delinquent still on probation, and Fred is torn between his obligation to his father as a son and his sense of himself as an individual. He plans to stay in Chinatown for a while but have everyone else leave for Boston after his father dies. He urges Johnny to marry a white girl.
Wing vehemently rejects Fred’s plan, insisting that Fred and his two mothers should stay in Chinatown. He dies amid a violent argument with his son while the festive sounds are floating into the house. At the end of the play, Fred appears like “a shrunken Charlie Chan,” welcoming tourists to Chinatown.