Frank Chin Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 entire section is 1167 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

A fifth-generation Chinese American, Frank Chin has been witness to a most dramatic chapter in the history of his people. The chapter started with the 1943 repeal of the racially discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Chin has lived in a social and cultural environment that tends to distort the image of his people and to ignore their history. Chin sees it as his mission to restore their image and remember the heroism, the pioneering spirit, and the sufferings of his people by writing about them from a Chinese American perspective. His plays and novels are informed by his knowledge of the history of Chinese Americans, his understanding of their cultural heritage, and his vision of their future.

Chin believes that the history of Chinese Americans constitutes a heroic and vital part of the history of the American West. In the 1970’s, his sense of history was accompanied by a pessimistic prediction. Chin was aware that legislative racism had turned the Chinese American community into a bachelor society in the past and that euphemized discrimination was luring many young Chinese Americans toward assimilation. Hence, he declared in an essay, “Yellow Seattle,” that Chinese America was doomed to extinction. This kind of pessimism permeates the two plays that he wrote in the 1970’s: Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon. Pervading these works is an atmosphere of gloom, decay, and death, with bitter young people full of self-contempt renouncing their racial identity and with their families and communities falling apart. The apparent revival of Chinatown and the growth of the Chinese community in the 1980’s seem to have helped change Chin’s view. Such a change is discerned in Donald Duk, in which an atmosphere of renewal and jubilant celebration prevail. In the play, a family and a community conscientiously and successfully pass on their heritage from one generation to another in San Francisco’s Chinatown.