Donald Duk presents characters in positions similar to the ones they occupy in Chin’s earlier works, but the novel reverses the characteristics of those that hold the positions. Specifically, his short stories and plays show a young Chinese American man who is constructing a viable tradition to put in place of the soul-destroying one given him by America; this construction is interfered with by a father figure, who may be a media image, such as Charlie Chan, who perpetuates the hurtful culture. In Donald Duk, however, it is the father who has located the viable, laudable tradition and the son who fights against it.
This change in who plays what role can be seen as accounting for the changed tone and even changed writing style of the novel. Chin’s earlier works, which showed protagonists battling tenaciously but mostly unsuccessfully for an acceptable heritage while being dragged down by their American cultural baggage, moved spasmodically and ended inconclusively. Donald Duk, in which a workable Chinese American identity has already been established by the father and his peers, has a more linear, progressive plot, with the leading character following a clear trajectory.
The hero of the book, Donald, has been turned against Chinese traditions by the influence of the nearly all-white special school that he attends. He is so indifferent to his ethnic culture that he wantonly destroys one of the model planes his...
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Donald Duk is a psychologically realistic depiction of a fifth-generation Chinese American boy who, by learning his family history and his cultural heritage, frees himself from the trauma caused by the racial stereotyping of his people. Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown during a New Year’s celebration, the novel delineates the initiation of its protagonist, Donald Duk, in a manner that interweaves history, legend, surrealistic dreams, and psychological realism.
Donald is troubled more by his racial identity than by his funny name. Repeatedly he has heard people at school and in the media say that his people are traditionally timid and passive, introverted and nonassertive; therefore, they are alien to American heroism and pioneering spirit. He is thus filled with self-contempt and tormented by everything Chinese. With the Chinese New Year approaching, he becomes more and more depressed and withdrawn, for the New Year will provide another opportunity for his schoolteachers to repeat in class the same thing that everybody else says about his people.
The New Year during which Donald completes the first twelve-year cycle of his life (there are twelve years in the Chinese zodiac) is the right time for the elders in his family and in the community to tell him what everybody has chosen not to say about his people. From these elders he learns that his people came from a land that had produced its own Robin Hoods, and that Chinese railroaders, his great-great grandfather among them, blasted their way through Nevada, lived in tunnels carved in deep frozen snow for two winters, set a world record in track-laying, and went on strike for back pay and Chinese foremen for Chinese gangs. He is so fascinated with these railroaders’ heroism and pioneering spirit that scenes of their toil and struggle appear one after another in his dreams.
Through careful library research, Donald determines that his dreams are actually flashbacks to the real events that have been excluded in history books by the majority culture. With his newly gained understanding of the cultural heritage of his people, he is eager to go back to school to challenge the stereotype of his people with his story about their courage and assertiveness.
Donald Duk deals with the identity crisis of a twelve-year-old Chinese American boy living in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The protagonist gradually comes to discover himself and his cultural heritage through ritualistic participation in the Chinese New Year celebration and through a series of surrealistic dreams about working on the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869.
The novel contains eighteen chapters and an epilogue. Chin uses an omniscient point of view to tell the story dramatically in the present tense. He strategically blends history, myth, and folklore with the narrative discourse to explore the forging of the Chinese American identity. The narrative is animated by the sights and sounds of Chinatown.
The opening of the novel delves into the mind of the young protagonist, Donald Duk, and brings out his deep sense of cultural disorientation. He hates not only his ludicrous name but also everything Chinese, including his looks. Contemptuous of his ethnic heritage, he wants to be recognized as “American.” He goes to a private school and avoids the other Chinese students there. His best friend is an all-American white boy, Arnold Azalea, and his ideal hero is the white tap-dancing film star Fred Astaire. Donald seeks to emulate Astaire by taking tap-dance lessons from Larry Louie.
Donald’s father, King Duk, a famous chef who owns a Chinese restaurant, is making elaborate preparations to celebrate the Chinese New Year and to mark his son’s coming-of-age according to Chinese tradition. He has built 108 model airplanes— named after Chinese folk heroes—which he plans to set afire and fly on the fifteenth day of celebration. He has also invited his old opera mentor, Uncle Donald Duk, to come to San Francisco to perform a Cantonese opera. He himself is preparing to play the role of Kwan Kung, Chinese god of war and literature. Donald feels embarrassed that the opera...
(The entire section is 785 words.)