Frank Chin, essayist, novelist, short-story writer, and playwright, is probably the most prolific Chinese American writer of the late twentieth century. In The Chickencoop Chinaman, he brings together his ideas on the history and position of Chinese Americans in the society, history, and culture of the United States. In the first scene of The Chickencoop Chinaman, Chin establishes the play’s themes: the absence of a Chinese American identity, the lack of respect for Asian women, and the emasculation of Asian American men by American culture. Chinese Americans, according to Chin, are not born. Instead, racists using various parts of the culture of the Western United States created them. He writes that Americans manufactured Chinese American identity in a chicken coop “ . . . nylon and acrylic . . . a miracle synthetic!”
The chicken coop in the title refers to Chin’s perception of Chinatown as a zoo or a dirty, noisy, foul-smelling place occupied by people who speak an unintelligible language. In many of his works, Chin depicts the Chinese of Chinatown as insects or frogs. He does not regard Chinatown as an ethnic enclave where the Chinese congregated to preserve their culture. Instead, Chin sees it as a product of American racism, of discriminatory housing laws.
The Chickencoop Chinaman depicts the cultural and historical dilemma of Tam Lum, who is insecure in his cultural identity and his place in American history and society. Chin uses Chinaman, an offensive term to some, because to him Chinese American suggests a split personality, half Chinese and half American; the phrase Chinese American also symbolizes assimilated Chinese Americans, not those who are aware of their history and culture.
The action takes place in Oakland, the mainly African American section of Pittsburgh, in the 1960’s. This period was a time of protest against the inequities in...
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