Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1167
Frank Chew Chin, Jr., was born on February 25, 1940, in Berkeley, California, to a family prominent in the Chinese American community. His great grandmother owned a famous brothel, and his father was the president of the Chinese Six Companies, a combined business group and benevolent association. At the time, Chin’s birth was exceptional; because of discriminatory laws, few Chinese women were allowed into the United States until the late 1940’s.
At first, Chin’s parents could not take care of him—his mother was only fifteen when he was born—and he was put in a foundling home. The home placed him with an impoverished white couple, with whom he stayed until his parents reclaimed him at the age of six. Even from that point, though, Chin’s childhood was not to be an easy one; his father was strict and beat the boy to discipline him. These early years had obvious effects on his writing, both in his portraits of tortured, poisoned relations between fathers and sons and in his depictions of Chinese American boys who feel they have lost contact with their Asian roots.
Chin attended the University of California at Berkeley from 1958 to 1961 and then the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa from 1961 to 1963. From 1962 to 1965, he worked as clerk for the Western Pacific railroad. In 1965, Chin enrolled in the University of California, Santa Barbara, and graduated with a B.A. in English in 1966. In this year, he worked as a brakeman for the Southern Pacific railroad. He was the first Asian American to hold this latter position for the company. This was another important shaping experience for Chin, and his work makes repeated reference to railroad lines, both in connection to his own job and in discussions of the large part Chinese laborers played in building the Western railroads.
Through the late 1960’s, the author taught in colleges and wrote for a broadcasting company. Also in this period, he founded the Asian American Theater Workshop in San Francisco. His first play, The Chickencoop Chinaman (pr. 1972, pb. 1981) was staged in New York City in the early 1970’s. This was another Chin first, as the play was the first drama by an Asian American to be performed on Broadway. The work was acclaimed by the critics, yet the event was also a traumatic one for the fledgling dramatist. He wanted his mother to come from California to attend the opening night, but Chin’s father would not permit her to leave, because he wanted her to attend a business party. On the way to the dinner, their car crashed, and Chin’s mother was killed.
Although the playwright’s father accepted his son as a man, he never accepted him as a writer. Chin once commented that his father “never respected my writing. He died believing I never worked a day in my life.”
Chin’s next play, The Year of the Dragon (pr. 1974, pb. 1981), was also a critical success. He also coedited the anthology Aiiieeeee! (1974), the first literary collection to focus on Asian American writers. Chin, however, did not immediately follow up these successes, partially because of his own absorption in teaching and running his theater and also because of a change in the literary climate. His militant writing, which castigated the mass media for stereotyping Asians, fell out of popularity with the public and lost acceptance from producers as the United States became increasingly conservative in the late 1970’s.
Until the late 1980’s, Chin devoted himself to teaching. In this period, he engaged in a drawn-out war of words with the Asian American novelist Maxine Hong Kingston. Their quarrel began when she asked him to write an endorsement for her first novel, The Woman Warrior (1976). Although he found merit in the novel, he could not sympathize with the general direction of her book, which seemed to him more aimed at endearing Kingston to white audiences than at recapturing or revivifying Chinese immigrant history. As Kingston’s other novels appeared, Chin continued criticizing, especially scorning what he saw as her doctoring of Chinese mythology to fit Western misconceptions.
In the late 1980’s, Chin returned to print with a book of short stories, The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R.R. Co. (1988), and a novel, Donald Duk (1991), which worked to correct misinterpretations of the Chinese past. The novel presented a gallery of authentic Chinese heroes, while the earlier book went so far as to poke fun at Kingston in a short section that parodied her style and message.
With successful Chinese American author Amy Tan, Chin added another writer to his sworn enemies. In his introduction to his revised anthology, The Big Aiiieeeee (1991), he openly attacked Kingston, Tan, and David Henry Hwang as impostors who had faked Chinese mythology to curry favors with whites. His strong condemnation of Kingston and Tan took a misogynist tone for many critics and contributed to a bitter feud in the field of Asian American literature and literary criticism. Nevertheless, for 1992, the Lannan Foundation awarded Chin forty thousand dollars for its Fiction Fellowship in recognition of his talent.
Chin’s next novel, Gunga Din Highway (1994), continued to explore questions of Chinese American identity, racism, stereotypes, and popular culture. Written with an angry attitude against assimilation, Chin’s narrative begins like an early Thomas Pynchon novel that irreverently mixes popular culture, surreal comedy, and philosophy and ends with the funeral of the protagonist’s difficult father.
Chin’s aggressive stance against his opponents, both Asian and white, turned passages of his collection of essays, Bulletproof Buddhists, and Other Essays (1998), into what some critics viewed as rather polemical. He certainly was an angry writer by the late 1990’s, comparable to his friend the African American writer Ishmael Reed.
Increasingly feeling marginalized and persecuted, Chin published “Feminists Censor Frank Chin, Again” in the online journal Ishmael Reed’s Konch Magazine in 1999. He described how the president of the Western Literature Association was forced to drop Chin as recipient of that organization’s Distinguished Achievement Award for the coming year 2000 under the pressure of its executive council.
Suffering a stroke in 1999, Chin recovered and turned his eye on the story of the Japanese American internees during World War II who refused to pledge allegiance to an American government that imprisoned them and their families. In editing Born in the USA: A Story of Japanese America, 1889-1947 (2002), he went as far as claiming that the president of the Japanese American Citizens League proposed interning Japanese Americans in the continental United States in camps for their own protection. The book caused a fierce historical debate.
In April, 2004, Chin donated his collected papers—filling forty-five cardboard boxes—to the Special Collections Department of the Donald Davidson Library of the University of California, Santa Barbara, his alma mater. Also at the university, Chin’s longtime friend Curtis Choy directed a video documentary, What’s Wrong with Frank Chin (2005), featuring Chin himself. In 2005, the documentary was shown widely at film festivals throughout America and brought Frank Chin fresh recognition.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 108
Chinese immigrants to the United States would not have made the perilous voyage if they had not had high hopes. They were often disappointed. In Chin’s opinion, however, it is not the immigrants but their children who were to feel the bitterest discouragement. His writings mull this theme, exposing how Chinese Americans are hit by both demeaning stereotypes and, often, occupational and social discrimination. Even at his most hopeful, Chin does not believe that the children can create an amalgam of American and Chinese ways. They must, instead, create a new Chinese culture, adapted to but not beholden to the largely antagonistic one of their new home.
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