Act 1 begins with forty-year-old Fred Eng addressing a tour group in San Francisco’s Chinatown during celebrations for the Chinese New Year. Using a stereotypical Chinese American accent, he identifies himself as Chinatown’s best guide for a tour of the district’s exotic sights. He tells the tourists they make him feel good and he likes them. After his spiel, however, the cursing under his breath reveals his contempt for this work.
In the next scene, Fred’s sister Mattie (called “Sis” by family members) and her white husband, Ross, arrive at the Eng family apartment. The newlywed couple has traveled to the city from Boston to visit Sis’s terminally ill father (Pa) and promote Sis’s Chinese American cookbook—one of the projects of the couple’s company, Mama Fu Fu, Inc. Ma, Sis’s mother, only makes a slight reference to a seemingly unmovable Chinese woman—China Mama—who sits next to her luggage. This peasant woman had married Pa in China during the early 1930’s, but an immigration law prohibited her from coming to the United States with her husband. Without a wife in this country, Pa married Ma—who was then a fifteen-year-old American who risked losing her citizenship by marrying a Chinese alien.
Sis appears uncomfortable in the presence of China Mama and, after a fourteen-year-long absence, seems to regret returning to a place which forces her to acknowledge her ethnic identity. Later, she confesses her distaste for the Chinatown inhabitants, whom she characterizes as “[r]ats, goodie goods, cowards, cry babies, failures, [and] nice Charlie Chans.” In contrast, Ross relishes the opportunity to be in America’s most famous Chinatown and have a look at first hand at a culture that he had avidly studied for many years.
After a long day of impersonating the happy Chinatown tour guide for people he despises, Fred is (not surprisingly) hostile to his brother-in-law, who unabashedly admits that he tells his wife he seems more Chinese than she does. Despite Sis’s warnings, Ross appears to be oblivious to Fred’s attitude toward him. Instead, he continues to anger his brother-in-law with his insensitive cultural remarks. Nevertheless, Fred realizes that Ross is still the husband of his beloved sister; further, the...
(The entire section is 934 words.)