Themes and Meanings
The Chickencoop Chinaman addresses the cultural, historical, and aesthetic dilemma of the Asian American writer. In a general sense, Tam Lum’s is a prototypical story of youthful rebellion, as well as a story of the adjustment of immigrants and their children to life in the United States, a story often repeated in American experience. Tam, however, is more than rebellious youth and the typical third-generation Chinese American. He represents the young writer cast loose from his Chinese heritage, displaced from mainstream American culture, obsessed with creating a unified artistic identity and discovering an appropriate voice and language in which to tell his stories. Tam’s struggles as a writer parallel the struggle of all American writers, but for Frank Chin’s generation, The Chickencoop Chinaman presents the particularities of the challenges facing writers of Asian ancestry in the United States in the 1960’s.
Chin’s play can be viewed, therefore, as a metaphor for the Asian American writer’s struggle to discover artistic and personal identity in the materials of his Chinese and American heritage and experience. Tam’s dream in act 1, scene 1 establishes the primary symbol of this ideal: the Chickencoop Chinaman, “a miracle synthetic!” Yet Tam’s “Chinaman” (as distinguished from the assimilated Chinese American) is an ideal to which he aspires, one that appears further and further from achievement as the play progresses. While Chin shows Tam rejecting both his Chinese heritage and his identity as a wholly assimilated American, he believes that the artist must create for himself a new identity from all the diverse elements that have combined to create him, including, in Tam’s case, the vigorous Chinese and American experiences of his ancestors. Much of the play’s action reveals Tam rejecting his Chinese American heritage, yet only when he understands its power to shape his stories will he begin to grow as an artist.