The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The Chickencoop Chinaman opens in darkness. The audience hears sounds of a commercial jet in flight, then a man’s mischievous chuckle. Over the chuckle, a woman’s voice announces preparations for landing in Pittsburgh. An overhead spot comes on, revealing Tam Lum standing alone in a shaft of light. He describes his Hong Kong Dream Girl, and she appears onstage, a beautiful Asian in a drill-team uniform. Tam’s dream conversation with his Hong Kong Dream Girl, during his flight to Pittsburgh, constitutes scene 1 of the play. The girl wishes that Tam would do more than “pay lip service to [his] Cantonese heritage” and asks him where he was born. “Chinamen are made, not born,” Tam says. He weaves a fabulous tale of his creation as “THE NOTORIOUS ONE AND ONLY CHICKENCOOP CHINAMAN HIMSELF.” During his tale, Tam mimics various American accents and voices. Tam’s “normal” speech, according to the stage directions, employs a mixture of the rhythms and accents of black and white American English. After his creation tale, Tam tells the Dream Girl that he is “a Chinaman! A miracle synthetic!” He speaks “nothing but the mother tongues bein’ born to none of my own, I talk the talk of orphans.” Tam is about to kiss and caress his Dream Girl when he is awakened by the voice of a stewardess announcing the jet’s arrival in Pittsburgh early on a winter evening.

Scene 2 takes place in the apartment of Kenji, a research dentist and Tam’s friend since childhood. Kenji’s apartment is in the Oakland district, Pittsburgh’s black ghetto. During this scene, Tam becomes reacquainted with Kenji and meets two other major characters: Lee, a Eurasian woman whom Kenji has invited to stay in his apartment, and Lee’s twelve-year-old son, Robbie. Lee criticizes Kenji and Tam for “making fun of blacks” but expresses conventional prejudices against Oriental men: “All afraid of the pretty girls? But oh so anxious to do the right thing—avoid trouble—save face.” In this scene, though, first Kenji and then Tam reveal in monologues that since childhood their primary role models and heroes have been black men. In fact, Tam is writing and producing a film about Ovaltine Jack Dancer, a black fighter whom both he and Kenji idolized when they were young, and he is in Pittsburgh to interview Charley Popcorn, whom Tam calls Ovaltine’s “mighty daddy.”

The major conflict of act 1 is revealed through the interaction of Tam and Lee. Though attracted to each other, they disagree about racial stereotypes, manliness, and the importance of the Chinese experience in America. Tam and Kenji tell stories of growing up Oriental in California and describe their heroes. Tam criticizes ineffectual Chinese fathers and laments his own failure as man and father because of his “lack of ambition.” His deepest desire is to do something to prove himself as a man, as a Chinese, as an American. His film about Ovaltine Jack Dancer and his father is to be that thing.

The climax of act 1 is a “vocal athletic event” prompted by Tam’s parody of the Lone Ranger: The Chickencoop Chinaman. Venting their frustration, anger, fear, and self-loathing, Tam, Kenji, and Lee scream “Buck Buck bagaw,” while banging on pots and pans and leaping...

(The entire section is 1337 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Through a variety of devices The Chickencoop Chinaman dramatizes the struggle of the Asian American artist to acquire his voice. In the first scene of the play, for example, Tam Lum weaves a fabulous story about his creation. In the telling of this tale, he employs a deliberately incongruous mixture of American voices, including those of W.C. Fields and a Bible Belt preacher, while his “normal” speech pattern consists of a blend of white and black English. Through the device of multiple accents and voices, Chin reveals that Tam Lum has not yet discovered a unified voice or aesthetic idiom: “I am the natural born ragmouth speaking the motherless bloody tongue,” Tam says. “No real language of my own to make sense with, so out comes everybody else’s trash that don’t conceive.”

Metaphor reinforces the idea that Tam Lum lacks a native language. When he first appears in Pittsburgh, Tam is without language, “doing a lotta talkin, Yea . . . Mumbo Jumbo.” Then, a Helen Keller game with Kenji teaches him to speak. Shortly, as the Bible Belt preacher, he uses language at a high level of sophistication, though not naturally, to persuade.

Tam must slough off this skin of black and white language and culture, however, in order to discover the persona and voice in which to tell his stories. Hence he must go back to linguistic beginnings, Chin signals, as in the preverbal, primal sounds of the jungle with which act 1 ends, the only “language” in which Kenji, Tam, and Lee can begin to express their anger,...

(The entire section is 636 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Oakland. Principally African American district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the protagonist’s friend Kenji has an apartment, in which most of the play is set.


Chinatown. Chinese district of an unspecified American city. Tam Lum comes from California, so he may be from San Francisco or Oakland’s Chinatown districts. The “chickencoop” in the title refers to Chin’s perception of American Chinatowns as zoos or dirty, noisy, foul-smelling places 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, he sees it as a product of American racism, of discriminatory housing laws.

*Hong Kong

*Hong Kong. Chinese port city that was a prosperous British colony at the time this play was written. The play opens with Tam conversing with his “Hong Kong Dream Girl,” who appears on stage, a beautiful Asian in a drill-team uniform. Tam’s conversation with her during his flight to Pittsburgh constitutes the first scene of the play.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Suggested Readings

Chin, Frank, et al. Aiiieeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers. New York: Mentor, 1991. Contains Act I of The Chickencoop Chinaman and some biographical information.

Chin, Frank. “Confessions of the Chinatown Cowboy,” in Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. IV (Fall, 1972), pp. 58-65.

Chin, Frank. Interview by Roland Winters, in Amerasia Journal. II (Fall, 1973), pp. 1-19.

Chen, Jack. The Chinese of America. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980.

Davis, Robert Murray. “Frank Chin: Iconoclastic Icon.” Redneck Review of Literature 23 (Fall, 1992): 75-78. A brief analysis of many of Chin’s works, including The Chickencoop Chinaman.

Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982. Contains a synopsis and an evaluation of many of Chin’s works, including The Chickencoop Chinaman.

Kim, Elaine H. “Frank Chin: The Chinatown Cowboy and His Backtalk,” in Midwest Quarterly. XX (Autumn, 1978), pp. 78-91.

Li, David Leiwei. “The Formation of Frank Chin and Formations of Chinese-American Literature.” In Asian Americans: Comparative and Global Perspectives. Edited by Shirley Hune et al. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1991. Explains Chin’s reordering of Chinese American history and his application of that history to The Chickencoop Chinaman. Evaluates Chin’s impact on Asian American literature.

McDonald, Dorothy Ritsuko. “An Introduction to Frank Chin’s The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon.” In Three American Literatures: Essays in Chicano, Native American, and Asian-American Literature for Teachers of American Literature. Edited by Houston A. Baker. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1982. Probably the best critical analysis of The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon (1974).

Samarth, Manini. “Affirmations: Speaking the Self into Being.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 17, no. 1 (1992): 88-101.