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Frank Chin 1940-

(Full name Frank Chew Chin Jr.) American playwright, novelist, short story writer, television writer, and editor.

The following entry provides an overview of Chin's career through 1998.

Chin has played an important role in the development of Asian-American literature. His works seek to promote the unique identity of Asian Americans, acknowledge Chinese history and culture, and to subvert the stereotypical representations imposed upon Asian Americans by white society. Chin has pursued this goal through his involvement in critical inquiry and through his plays, novels, and short stories.

Biographical Information

Chin was born on February 25, 1940 in Berkeley, California, and was raised in the Chinatowns of Oakland and San Francisco. He spent the first six years of his life living with an older white couple on an abandoned gold-mining site. His father was hiding Chin from his maternal grandmother, who disapproved of her fifteen-year-old daughter's involvement with the older man. At the age of six Chin moved to Oakland's Chinatown district to live with his parents, and throughout his literary career he has explored his feelings toward Chinatown and its inhabitants in his work. He attended the University of California at Berkeley and won a fellowship to the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa before receiving his bachelor's degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1965. After graduation, he took a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad, becoming the first Chinese American brakeman in the company's history. Chin left the railroad in 1966 and began writing and producing documentaries for KING-TV in Seattle, Washington. Chin began his dramatic career in the early 1970s, staging The Chickencoop Chinaman in 1972 and The Year of the Dragon two years later. Both plays were produced off-Broadway by the American Place Theatre, making Chin the first Asian American to have work presented on a mainstream New York stage. In 1973 Chin formed the Asian American Theatre Workshop in San Francisco, and he remained its director until 1977. His first novel, A Chinese Lady Dies, won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award but was never published. His second novel, Charlie Chan on Maui, was rejected by publishers when the owners of the Charlie Chan copyright threatened legal action. Told by publishers that his work was not commercially viable, Chin did not publish his first novel, Donald Duk (1991), until after the success of his short-story collection, The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R. R. Co. (1988). Since the 1980s Chin has had little involvement with theater, preferring to write fiction and essays on Chinese and Japanese history, culture, and literature. He has taught courses on Asian American subjects at San Francisco State University, the University of California at Berkeley, Davis, and Santa Barbara, and at the University of Oklahoma at Norman. He has also received a number of awards and fellowships throughout his career.

Major Works

Chin's works grapple with questions of Asian-American identity, history, and culture. Many of Chin's fictional tales are coming-of-age stories that reflect the author's own experiences and questions of cultural and ethnic identity. In Chickencoop Chinaman, Tampax Lum searches for a new identity outside the narrow confines of the Chinatown in which he was raised. The play proposes that Chinese Americans cannot find their culture by imitating anyone else; they should not be forced to choose between being Chinese and being American; and they should not allow themselves to be used as a model upon which all other minority groups are judged. The play also deals with the question of Chinese-American manhood but gives no answers as to how the Chinese-American male may find his identity and sense of his own manhood. Several characters in the short stories collected in The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co. struggle with feelings of angst, helplessness, and confusion as they realize that part of their culture and history is dying as the Chinese-American community changes. In the short story “Yes, Young Daddy,” the protagonist, Freddy, temporarily takes on the role of father to his young cousin, Lena, as both characters share feelings of alienation from Chinatown. The role is short-lived, however, as Freddy is uncomfortable during his visits to Lena in Chinatown, and realizes that he cannot assume the role of father and role model for the youngsters in his old neighborhood. In “Goong Hai Fot Choy,” from the same collection, the main character, Dirigible, watches and waits as his mother dies. Her impending death becomes a metaphor for the decline of Chinatown itself. Dirigible gradually realizes that neither her death, nor the death of Chinatown, will be mourned, since both have become masks of their original selves. In the novel Donald Duk, Chin tells the story of the title character who is ashamed of his Chinese-American heritage after being told in history class that the Chinese who came to this country in the nineteenth century were “passive and nonassertive.” He begins to have dreams about working on the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869 and sees incredible feats performed by his ancestors. Armed with newfound pride and this “documentary” evidence, Donald goes back to his history class to set the record straight.

Critical Reception

Chin is recognized as an important voice in Asian-American drama, even though he has withdrawn from active participation in the theater. His withdrawal has caused some reviewers to be put off by the bitterness of his outlook, and to characterize his plays as strident. Other commentators interpret Chin's ambivalence as reflective of his own internal conflicts, and believe that the opposing character viewpoints in his plays represent Chin's own warring Chinese and American identities. Many feel the humor in Chin's fiction to be unrelenting; others, however, have difficulty locating any humor in Chin's work at all. Elaine H. Kim asserts, “One is never quite sure whether or not to laugh at Chin's ‘comic manifestations of Asian-American manhood’” and she is bothered by the jarring metaphors, devastating stereotypes, and feelings of distress within his work. Even critics who praise Chin's biting humor and his skill as a storyteller often are confused by passages in his work that seem forced or meanspirited. Much of the critical discussion of Chin's work revolves around his desire to maintain the purity of well-known Chinese stories. Several scholars point out the rift between Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston regarding their use of these Chinese “myths”; Chin has expressed a desire to retain all the original elements of these stories, and he accuses Kingston of liberally adapting them to collude with white racist stereotypes and to invent a “fake” Chinese-American culture that is more palatable to the mainstream. Feminist critics take exception to Chin's desire to return to a heroic tradition, which they believe glorifies male aggression. In general, critics praise Chin's ability to bring characters and their predicaments alive, and laud the author's ability to paint vivid portrayals and infuse his polemic and parodic works with a great amount of humor. Frank Abe contends that Chin has succeeded in “developing a stream-of-consciousness language crammed with goofy wordplay, unexpected imagery, and exhilarating, liberating hyperbole,” all elements which make his work worth reading.

Principal Works

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Seattle Repertory Theatre: Act Two (television documentary) 1966

The Year of the Ram (television documentary) 1967

The Chickencoop Chinaman (drama) 1972

Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers [editor with others] (anthology) 1974

Gee, Pop! … A Real Cartoon (drama) 1974

The Year of the Dragon (drama) 1974

America More or Less [with Amiri Baraka and Leslie Marmon Silko] (drama) 1976

Lullaby [with Silko] (drama) 1976

American Peek-a-Boo Kabuki, World War II and Me (drama) 1985

The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co. (short stories) 1988

Flood of Blood: A Fairy Tale (drama) 1988

The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature (anthology) 1991

Donald Duk (novel) 1991

Gunga Din Highway (novel) 1994

Bulletproof Buddhists, and Other Essays (essays) 1998

Elaine H. Kim (essay date Autumn 1978)

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SOURCE: “Frank Chin: The Chinatown Cowboy and His Backtalk,” in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XX, No. 1, Autumn, 1978, pp. 78-91.

[In the following essay, Kim discusses Chin's bleak portrayal of Chinatown and its inhabitants in several of Chin's short works and in Chickencoop Chinaman.]

By far the most prolific Chinese-American writer to emerge during the movements of ethnic identity and cultural awakening in the 1960s and early 1970s is Frank Chew Chin. Chin and the group of writers around him have been leading a movement to uncover, preserve, publish and perpetuate works of Asian-American literature and culture. Chin is an active promoter of Asian-American art, a social critic of sorts, and a writer of plays and stories.

Each of Chin's three pieces of short fiction, “Food for All His Dead” (1962), “Yes, Young Daddy” (1970), and “Goong Hai Fot Choy” (1970—from an unpublished manuscript entitled A Chinese Lady Dies) is organized around a young Chinese-American male's coming-of-age amidst the limitations and cultural confusion of his background. The central characters are essentially the same: Johnny and Fred, of the former two stories, are sensitive young artists who are outgrowing their families, Chinatown, and particularly Chinese women. But they are not sure they can survive outside the Chinese-American community. In the latter story, Johnny and Fred have evolved into the character Dirigible, who is frozen into inaction as he waits for his mother, and by extension, Chinatown, to die. Ultimately, Dirigible is developed into the main figure in the play Chickencoop Chinaman, Tampax Lum, the Chinese-American who searches for a new identity beyond the narrow Chinatown world from which he has recently escaped.

Chin's Chinatown is a barren, corrupt, and declining place where mothers and fathers are dying of wasting diseases, and their children are crippled, afflicted with weariness, and stifled by boredom. The Chinese people are portrayed as bugs, spiders, frogs, tipped-over mechanical toys, and oily fish gasping on dry land. The community itself is likened to a funeral parlor, an obsolete carnival, or a pathetic minstrel show.

In “Food for All His Dead,” the main character, Johnny, shares a “terrible secret” with his father—that the old man is dying of consumption. The secret is even more terrible to Johnny than to his father, since Johnny seems to be the only one in Chinatown smart enough to know that Chinatown itself is dying. “Everyone's dying here,” he tells his uncomprehending girlfriend (62). He can no longer communicate with his father or the people of Chinatown as equals, now that he alone knows the “secret.” Like fish on the sand, he thinks, the Chinese in America are dying: he fears the “surges of nervous life” in his dying father and in the dying community. The terrible knowledge imposes on Johnny the necessity of “lies and waiting.” The father he used to admire has become “no longer like his father or a man,” but like some ghastly creature, “no longer real as a life but a parody of live things, grinning,” something that probably should be crushed to a quicker death:

The man was a fish drying and shrinking inside its skin on the sand, crazy, mimicking swimming, Johnny thought, but a fish could be lifted and slapped against a stone, thrown to cats. … (57)

In “Goong Hai Fot Choy,” Chinatown is expiring beneath a glittering mask, a ritual face. When the protagonist, Dirigible, walks alone in Chinatown at dawn, he sees a deserted wasteland among the empty display windows and dry fish tanks. The streets are obsolete, “kin to the idly creaking Ferris wheel and the dead merry-go-round” (33). Chinatown is a cheap and boring carnival that has been closed. Everything is useless, deserted, frozen, dead, cold, or sleeping, as Dirigible gazes into the empty shop windows:

The wildcats were frozen in fierce expressions, looking into a pool which used to contain water and display fish. The inside of the window was dirty. Dead flies and moths spotted the dust at the bottom of the dry pool. He heard the voices of the crowd that wasn't shouting through all the streets after him. He saw the windows their voices weren't echoing off of. He saw all the space no one was occupying. (33)

Dirigible's mother, as was Johnny's father in “Food for All His Dead,” is slowly dying. But as Chin portrays Dirigible's mother, emblematic now of Chinatown and Chinese traditions in America, she is completely despicable, not to be regretted when she passes. She is a playfully senile living corpse, “a cadaver acting charming and sexy.”

In “Goong Hai Fot Choy,” the people of Chinatown are like mechanical wind-up toys. There is a strange anonymity there, where life is likened to a dead Ferris wheel, where words and expressions are “inorganizally emotional,” where faces turn on emotions “like a Christmas tree lighting up.” People are akin to lonely, outdated machines. Chinatown events are a series of funerals, attended by overheated old ladies among Oriental rugs, lace doilies, and “mildewed memories” (36). The people of Chinatown are buried and preserved beneath ivory masks: each time they watch the funeral processions from the sidewalks, there is a shrinking away from the warm surfaces of their skins until they are mere remnants of themselves, until they are “ivory” like the death mask worn by Dirigible's mother.

In “Food for All His Dead,” the people of Chinatown are also depicted as subhuman. The crowds in Portsmouth Square remind Johnny of “oily things and bugs floating on a tide”; they stand in “puddles of each other” (56). Groups of old Chinese women “round-backed in their black overcoats” look like “clumps of huge beetles with white faces,” and Chinese music emerging from grease-and-urine stained hallways sounds like “birds being strangled” (63). His girlfriend, Sharon, wears an expression like a “wide frog's stare,” her hand is “dry feeling, cold and dry like skin of tissue-paper covered flesh” (62), and her eyelashes make him think of shrunken, twitching insect legs (66). Although Chin may have wished only to present an unexoticized picture of Chinatown, what he has accomplished is considerably more than that: the Chinatown he depicts is repulsive, decaying, filled with subhuman creatures.

Chin's sympathies clearly are with the protagonists, who feel vastly superior to Chinatown's people. Johnny already has lost touch with his Chinatown roots. Chinatown seems too narrow for him:

I'd like to get outta here so quick, Sharon; I wish I had something to do! What do I do here? What does anybody do here? I'm bored! My mother's a respected woman because she can tell how much monosodium glutamate is in a dish by smelling it, and because she knows how to use a spittoon in a restaurant. Everybody's Chinese here, Sharon. (64)

No one in Chinatown is equipped to understand Johnny's complex thoughts or his identity crisis. His father doesn't understand English well, and Sharon doesn't even understand the literal meaning of his words. She tells him, “You talk so nice,” and he corrects her usage:

“I'll walk for you dan, okay?” She smiled and reached a hand down for him.


“You'll walk with me, not for me. You're not a dog.” (61–62)

Johnny's self-conscious anguish is beyond Sharon's realm of experience, but he talks anyway, practicing his verbal virtuosity on her, feeling comfortably superior, even though she cannot understand him.

He enjoyed the girl; she listened to him; he did not care if she understood what he said or knew what he wanted to say. She listened to him. (62)

The dialogue is masterfully asymptotic:

“… I knew more then than I do now.”


“What d'ya mean? You smart now! You didn't know how to coun' or spall, or nothin', now you in colleger.”


“I had something then, you know? I didn't have to ask about anything; it was all there; I didn't have questions, I knew who I was responsible to, who I should love, who I was afraid of, all my dogs were smart.”


“You lucky, you had a dog!” The girl smiled. (65)

To Johnny, Chinese identity has become restrictive, even repugnant, because he has been made aware of the worlds that can be experienced outside Chinatown. Besides, he cannot decide as easily as the others what being “Chinese” in America is. Johnny asks the newsboy on the street, who has remained within Chinatown and whose sense of identity has never been threatened, “Are you really Chinese?”:

“What're you ting, I'm a Negro soy sauce chicken?”


“Don't you know there's no such thing as a real Chinaman in all of America? That all we are are American Indians cashing in on a fad?”


“Fad? don' call me fad. You fad yourselv.”


“No, you're not Chinese, don't you understand? You see it all started when a bunch of Indians wanted to quit being Indians and fighting the cavalry and all, so they left the reservation, see?”


“Inian?”


“And they saw that there was this big kick about Chinamen, so they braided their hair into queues and opened up laundries and restaurants and started reading Margaret Mead and Confucius and Pearl Buck and became respectable Chinamen and gained some self-respect.”


“Chinamong! You battah not say Chinamong.” (64)

The dialogue loses even its momentary interest for Johnny when he sees the boy's confused and uncomprehending face. The passage illustrates the distance between Johnny's new perspectives and modes of expression and those of the people of Chinatown.

Ultimately, Johnny is compelled to leave his family and his decadent community. After his father's death, the world seems green and young to him.

In “Yes, Young Daddy,” the protagonist, Freddy, has left Chinatown for college. Freddy is young, verbal, “cool,” and he lives “so independent in his own apartment and everything.” When Fred's young cousin, who is bored and lonely in Chinatown, writes him a letter, he assumes temporarily the role of her “young daddy.” He corrects her grammar, tries to prepare her for eventual flight from Chinatown, and takes a trip back to Chinatown to visit her. But even his temporary return reinforces his feeling that he belongs away from Chinatown:

The vague familiarity, almost nostalgia, he found in the apartment house, the shadows in the corners, the worn rug with the pattern more walked out of it made Fred realize the long time he had been away. At one time he had known everybody in the house. … But he had left all that, and this part of his family. He did not regret leaving, for like the boy that was like all the boys that were in this house, everything was the same, familiar beyond recognition, stagnant. That was why he had left and forgotten his cousin, all this part of the family. …” “No,” he thought, reaching the second flight of stairs. “It's not comfortable at all to be back, even to be nice.” (193)

Fred now turns his back on his past. He cannot do anything for Lena. He cannot be her “young daddy,” cannot replace Lena's father, who has died. He does not want to be a hero for the young Chinese Americans he left behind:

“No more worrying about anybody but number one for me!” he thought, all to himself, not looking back to the house as he left, walking down the hill toward the light of Chinatown and the nearest bus home. (199)

“Home” is somewhere away from Chinatown.

Just as Fred is unable to accept the responsibility for the death of Chinatown or the future of its other children, and Johnny must leave Chinatown behind for greener pastures, Dirigible in “Goong Hai Fot Choy” awaits his mother's death in the hope that if she dies soon enough, he may be saved from the petrification that is overtaking him gradually. Now that he has realized that he is tending his dying mother—and his “mother culture”—like a gigolo, for a price, he feels self-contempt and must break away lest he become a fossil like the dead things around him. Dirigible feels little besides “weariness … shifting monotony … An elaborate, ornate impotence” (47). As he shaves his face, he feels it becoming a mask of lather over festering sores. But he also realizes that he is the only living creature in all Chinatown, and that his very presence there makes the rest of Chinatown more dead:

Standing there unseen, alone with pigeons and riderless wood horses, watching everything, tensely doing nothing, nothing happening, was pointless. His being there to see in dead grey warming morning, to ignore the signs and fluttering beckoning flags, was to make everything this place and these things were for dead. (33)

Johnny, Fred, and Dirigible are too good for Chinatown and are also powerless to do anything but watch its death rales. They detest the self-deception of the people of Chinatown, who unlike them cannot see or refuse to see that Chinatown is in fact dying. Johnny's father continues to rant about the Chinese Revolution of 1911, Aunt Dee insists on powdering her face with a mask and thinking dirty thoughts, and Dirigible's mother observes the Chinese New Year even as she is falling into complete decay. Indeed Johnny, Fred, and Dirigible are depicted sympathetically not only because their communities are stifling and boring them, but also because there are no examples of Chinatown “manhood” for them to follow. Johnny's father is immersed in an impossible self-deception, knowing less, Johnny thinks, than his son does of life; Freddy cannot replace Lena's father, who died; and Dirigible participated in deceiving his father with his mother when he was a boy. The only “Chinamen” of any other variety in the stories are the grinning, nodding, mechanical-toy shopkeepers in “Goong Hai Fot Choy,” and these are like a parody of some racist dream (51). The communities and the people in the stories are dying and are inferior to the sensitive young Chinese-American men who are trying to escape them.

All three protagonists are embodied in Tam Lum, the main character of the play The Chickencoop Chinaman, which is a forum for Chin's ideas on Chinese-American culture, identity, and manhood.

The play contains a series of lessons for Chinese-Americans: that Asian-American culture can be found neither by imitating whites nor by imitating blacks; that Asian-Americans should not be forced into either the “American” mold or the “Chinese” mold; that Asian-Americans should not allow themselves to be used as the “model minority.” Chin's opinions, as expressed elsewhere in essays, are all presented through the characters and situations in the play. Also, the two female characters in the play, the white-Chinese castrating bitch and the “Hong Kong dream girl” in her “super-no-knock, rust-proof, tit-stiffering bras” and Jackie Kennedy bouffant hairdo, are simply stereotypes trying to participate in the castration of the Asian-American male characters.

One would expect that the manhood Chin says has been attacked could be restored here, and that a culture to replace the bankrupt Chinatown one could begin to be built here. Instead, the play conveys an overriding sense of contempt for the Asian-American identity as well as for the pathetic futility of the male protagonist. Chinese-American identity is manufactured in a chickencoop, and Chinese Americans are “No more born than nylon and acrylic. … A miracle synthetic! Drip dry and machine washable.” Chinese American language is the “buck-buck-bagaw” of a rooster, the “talk of orphans.” Chinamen are “children of the dead” (I,1). Chinese-American manhood or fatherhood of yore is recalled only in vague references to a “Chinatown kid” who used to frequent boxing matches and whose name no one can quite remember. Tam and his best friend, Blackjap Kenji, can only get together to sing a song imitating Helen Keller. Keller symbolizes the Chinese, who overcame birth defects and can see, hear, and speak no evil.

At first, when Tam speaks aggressively and wittily, it seems that he will be the embodiment of the new Chinese-American manhood Chin wants to be midwife to. But the play ends with Tam, “like a mad elephant, blowing his nose in the dark,” chopping green onions with a Chinese cleaver. He has rejected the “petrified cheerios,” the Aunt Jemima pancakes, the “Chung King chopped phooey” (II, 4), and the myth that Asians could be like Blacks, but he has found little to replace the Lone Ranger, Helen Keller, and Ovaltine Dancer in his mythology. The “Chinatown Kid” who was “scared but not chicken” is not his father but a nameless dishwasher who was “afraid of white old ladies peeking at him through the keyhole.”

Tam, the central character who seems so promising as the embodiment of Asian American male identity, turns out to be a disappointment. He backs down when Lee attacks him, saying “Everything you say is right. I'm a good loser. I give up” (I,2). When Tam does try to fight Charley Popcorn, he misses the punch and falls flat on his face:

TAM: I'm the Chickencoop Chinaman. My punch won't crack an egg, but I'll never fall down. (II,4)

Till he can regain his heritage, his identity, and his masculinity, Tam is good mostly for talk, which he wants to inject with “some flow, some pop, some rhythm” (II,4). He tries to seduce the Hong Kong Dream Girl with talk:

HONG KONG DREAM GIRL: You sure have a way with words, but I'd like it better if you'd speak the mother tongue.


TAM: I speak nothing but the mother tongue. … But I got a tongue for you baby. And maybe you could handmake my bone China. (I,2)

But she giggles and runs off. When Lee attacks him, he retorts the only way he can, by answering: “Wanna fuck?” He can't beat even Old Charley Popcorn, but he is “Notorious for spinnen a fast mean thread / often life's wooden spool” (II,4).

The play ends with Tam as a midget like Dirigible—a frozen, hopeful midget—but a midget all the same. Although he is eager to find his own history, style, masculine identity and language now that he has shed innocent self-deception and false heroes, Tam is not complete. He is still experimenting. Chin calls Lum a “comic embodiment of Asian-American manhood” (“Chinese and Japanese-American Literature,” 34, 35), but Chin takes him so seriously at times that he seems almost tragic. Although Chin contends that Tam Lum is a comic figure and the play a comedy, beneath the wit of his verbal jousts peer some of the images of death, decay, and impotence of the earlier stories, with their scenes totally devoid of beauty or the possibility of love.

The worlds Chin has created are peopled by repulsive cripples and synthetic orphans. One is never quite sure whether or not to laugh at Chin's “comic manifestations of Asian-American manhood”; we are carried away on jarring metaphor, sparkling image after sparkling image, to what is essentially devastation and chagrin as we are faced with Asian-American “manhood,” squirming helplessly, pinpointed by Chin's ornate language.

Chin says that he wants to promote the creation of an Asian-American mythology and a language that is not alien or hostile to the Asian-American sensibility but that will be a “backtalking, muscular, singing stomping full-blooded language loaded with nothing but our truth” (“Backtalk,” 5). The task of the Asian-American writer, he asserts, is:

to legitimize the language, style, and syntax of his people's experience, to codify the experiences common to his people into symbols, clichés, linguistic mannerisms, and a sense of humor that emerges from an organic familiarity with the experience. (“Chinese and Japanese-American Literature,” 23)

The talk of Chin's “comic” male characters, even the ones he seems to take quite seriously, is often witty and ornate but seldom the “singing stomping full-blooded language” Chin admires so much in his fellow Asian-American writers Okada, Inada, and Chu. A verbal man like Tam Lum is fighting with “backtalk” that too often emerges as “outtalk,” clever phrases and images with less feeling and meaning than ornamental grace. At other times, characters are used as mouthpieces for Chin's thinly disguised lectures on Chinese American history, identity, and manhood.

TAM: I mean, we grow up bustin our asses to be white anyway. … what made the folks happiest was for some asshole some white off the wall J. C. Penny's clerk type with his crispy suit to say I spoke English well—


LEE: You're talking too fast for me. I can't …


TAM: (Continuing through Lee's interruption). And praisin me for being “Americanized” and no juvenile delinquency. “The strong Chinese family … Chinese culture.” And the folks just smiled. The reason there was no juvenile delinquency was because there was no kids! The laws didn't let our women in …


LEE: What's this got to do with anything?


TAM: … and our women born here lost their citizenship if they married a man from China. And all our men here, no women, stranded here burned all their diaries, their letters, everything with their names on it … threw the ashes into the sea … hoping that that much of themselves could find someplace friendly. I asked an old man if that was so. He told me it wasn't good for me to know such things, to let all that stuff die with the old.


LEE: You taking me to school?


TAM: He told me to forget it … to get along with “Americans.” Well, they're all dead now. We laugh at 'em with the “Americans,” talk about them saying “Buck Buck bagaw” instead of “giidyp” to their horses and get along real nice here now, don't we?


LEE: Oh, Tam, I don't know. (I,2)

In “Food for All His Dead,” Johnny suspects the problem:

… I hear myself talking all this stupid stuff, it's sort of great, you know? Because I have to listen to what I'm saying or I'll miss it. (63)

In “Goong Hai Fot Choy,” Dirigible says, “I'm constantly surprised at what I have to say when no one is listening to me in the same room” (41), and Tam Lum in Chickencoop Chinaman keeps talking, even though he is tired of talking, because “everytime I stop it's so goddamned awful!” (II,4). Chin's characters no doubt feel the need to cover up the awful silence of racism with talk, any kind of talk.

The Chinese American identity Chin forges through the language and characterization of Fred, Dirigible, and Tampax Lum is incomplete, adolescent, changeable, prone to self-absorption. The Chinese James Dean characters in Chin's stories and plays are the only personages that emerge clearly; all the other characters are mere types. Johnny's parents are not developed; Dirigible's mother is a symbol; in fact, the women in Chin's works always belong to one of two types: they are either dumb broads or castrators.

Part of the reason that even the central characters are not fully developed, of course, is that the other characters are mere stick figures and symbols. Chin might argue that the blurring is entirely appropriate, since, for example, Lee and Kenji are facets of the Asian-American identity just as Tam is. But the development of the characters in Chickencoop Chinaman other than Tam Lum is uneven enough to interfere even with the portrayal of the protagonist.

At the present time, Chin's basic contempt for his characters, a contempt which is mixed with compassion for Tam Lum and his kindred heroes, indicates that Chin has not overcome the devastating effects of racism on Chinese American men. Therefore, his art leaves readers with the impression of bored misanthropy and shallow complaint rather than feeling or protest. Chin flails out at the emasculating aspects of oppression, but he accepts his oppressors' definition of “masculinity.” The result is tension between contempt and desire to fight for his Asian-American characters. Chin's struggle is an existential one. As long as it remains an individualized battle, he will not move beyond this tension.

Chin's preoccupation with death and decay, his sexism, cynicism, and self-indulgence show that he is still suffering from the very plague that he is attacking. That the main characters in his stories are afflicted with metaphysical alienation and elitist feelings is no wonder, since Chin makes them large and drawn in detail compared to the mechanical toys that people their worlds. But Chinatown is not in fact dying, and Asian-Americans are as big as life, bigger than Johnny and Fred and Dirigible and Tampax Lum, who represent only a small part of Asian-American concerns.

Asian-American “manhood” will not be projected by yelling at racism. When the invective against racist stereotyping is done, the time comes for the new, positive image to emerge. Asian-American “manhood” will be defined by Asian-American men who go about their business in a “manly” way. And Asian-American identity will be defined by Asian-Americans themselves. Frank Chin “backtalks” about what isn't masculine and what isn't Asian-American. The next stage must be a clarification of what these things are.

Bibliography

Chin, Frank, “Backtalk.” News of the American Place Theatre, May, 1972.

———. “Yes, Young Daddy,” Ethnic American Short Stories, ed. Katherine D. Newman. New York, 1975.

———. “Chickencoop Chinaman, Act I.” Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers, ed. Frank Chin, Jeffery Chan, Lawson Inada, and Shawn Wong. New York, 1975.

———. “Chickencoop Chinaman, Act II.” Yardbird Reader, Vol. III, ed. Frank Chin and Shawn Wong. Berkeley, 1975.

———. “Chinese- and Japanese-American Literature.” Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers, ed. Chin, et al. New York, 1975.

———. “Food for All His Dead.” Asian-American Authors, ed. Kai-yu Hsu and Helen Palubinskas. Boston, 1972.

———. “Goong Hai Fot Choy.” 19 Necromancers from Now, ed. Ishmael Reed. New York, 1970.

———. “Yes, Young Daddy.” Ethnic American Short Stores, ed. Katherine Newman, New York, 1975.

Douglas Sun (review date 1 January 1989)

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SOURCE: “Memories of a Chinese-American Boyhood,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 1, 1989, p. 6.

[In the following review, Sun praises Chin for avoiding the pitfalls that commonly plague ethnocentric literature in his The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co.]

When I think of some friends of mine from the old neighborhood (all of whom had the proper ethnic credentials, let me assure you), one thing I remember is our wariness of what we called “I Have a Problem” literature. By that, we meant literature of ethnic experience at its most tiresome: brooding, Angst-ridden story-polemics, crammed to the gills with resentment and righteous anger, about existential misery in the Land of the Round-Eye; literature that seemed to assume that any bit of drivel was worth your attention just as long as it had a chip on its shoulder. It's a species related to what Calvin Trillin called the “kvetch novel”—any novel in which you want to say to the main character, “Oh, just pull up your socks”—only more irritating. But it's also an easy trap for anyone who writes from an ethnocentric point of view to fall into. It is, therefore, to Frank Chin's credit that his collection of short stories, The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co., by and large avoids this trap even as it dances on the edge of the pit.

There are eight stories in this volume, most of them autobiographical in tone. Almost all have as their essential subject the alienation of Chinese-America from the America of white skin and Wonder Bread. The first two, “Railroad Standard Time” and “The Eat and Run Midnight People,” read like meandering stream-of-consciousness memoirs and are self-indulgent enough to make them the weakest of the bunch. The final story, “The Sons of Chan,” clothes itself in shreds of fiction with some interesting Freudian overtones, but it is otherwise a tiring screed on growing up with the stereotypes in Charlie Chan movies as your only reflection in popular culture. Chin's rhetoric is often sharp and funny, but he also rides the high horse of racial bitterness for more than it's worth.

It's the other five stories that distinguish The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co. In them, Chin displays two considerable writerly virtues. One is a wicked sense of humor that runs a provocative gamut from jangled whimsy to scathing satire. His subject matter is weighty enough so that an amusing conceit or figuration often balances out the mood. This is particularly true of “A Chinese Lady Dies,” in which the narrator's problematic (and disturbingly Oedipal) relationship with his mother evokes such tension that the story would self-immolate without the whimsical dream passages in which he imagines himself as an Old-Western hero called E. Chino. His wit feels more like a dagger than a feather, but is no less amusing for it. And for good measure, Chin tacks on an afterword that reads suspiciously like a freewheeling satire on Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior.

His other primary virtue is his considerable skill as a storyteller. He has a genuine gift for bringing characters and their predicaments alive. One sees this most vividly in “The Only Real Day,” which focuses on the struggle of an aged immigrant to keep American culture at bay and preserve his identity as a Chinese. Chin has a definite point to make in this story about the corrosion of Chinese values and identity in a mostly white world, but the message is filtered so thoroughly through the plot and well-drawn characters that it has no didactic harshness. It is, above all, a poignant and entrancing piece of fiction. “Yes, Young Daddy,” which depicts the protagonist's relationship with a female cousin who is grappling with adolescence, is also worth noting for its skillful portraiture.

Chin's prose style tends toward a looseness vaguely reminiscent of William S. Burroughs. It's lively stuff but also slow going at times, what with the missing antecedents, plastic sentence structure and all. He also enjoys playing fast and loose with temporal shifts in his stories, with the result that memory, present experience, anticipation and pure fantasy often overlap. It's an absorbingly dense reflection of the way in which past, present and future come to bear upon each other in the mind, but everything melds so seamlessly that the reader may have some trouble keeping things sorted.

On the whole, Chin does a good job of avoiding the hazards that could have swallowed up these stories. Although alienation is the great theme of post-World War II American literature and our age is distinguished by its voices from outside the mainstream, just because a work is about racial alienation doesn't automatically make it worth reading. The problem with ethnocentric literature is that its force is so centripetal. It tends to reach inward, instead of outward toward the universal significance that, as Northrop Frye said, marks literature in its highest form. Fiction need not reach that level to be worth our while, but it should at least show a human dimension that will move us and provoke us, as mere formalized pique cannot. Fortunately, The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co. achieves such transcendence often enough to make it worthwhile fiction.

Tani E. Barlow (review date Spring 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co., in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. XIII, No. 4, Spring, 1989, pp. 9-11.

[In the following excerpt, Barlow discusses Chin's use of “mythic historiofiction” in The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co., but complains about his sexual politics.]

“We are among the pioneers of this city,” said Phil Choy of the Chinese Historical Society recently, about the newly unearthed archaeological site in Chinatown, “a fact that is often obscured.” Choy knows that his history is abjured because, in an old trick of logic, “A white horse is not a horse”; “pioneer” means white, and Asians aren't. For years, historical evidence got destroyed or turned into garbage under racialists' contempt and the disdainful eyes of “real” Chinese. There just was no Asian America. So twenty years ago, Frank Chin, fifth-generation Oaklander, a would-be Chinese-American, a masculinist prose stylist and a “Chicken coop Chinaman” (to quote himself) turned to myth and to the English language.

Frank Chin is the Arlee Hen of Asian-American letters. He says he's “Chinese-American.” But he writes “black,” like a Norman Mailer Jew/black hipster angel. Take, for example:

The prick that grew bigger than New York and nudged the moon in outer space was loose. … I'd been shanghaied by my monster dong that was rocketing me away. …


I was … a load of shot in my dad's primed hard-on pumping grease out of ma's little cunt that night in a backyard chickencoop, in Chinatown, Oakland, California.

His monster dong in his hand, Chin's alter-ego Dirigible scribbles out a series of larger than life encounters: Boy-Dirigible meets Death as old Chinese bachelor; Dirigible the Artist as a young man meets Chinatown dumpling who talks to his dick in Chinese; middle-aged Dirigible-in-despair meets anonymous white woman on a sandy beach and gets raped; Dirigible fucks showgirls; Dirigible gets naked with more than one bimbo; Oedipal Dirigible finally socks it to his nasty old mommy!

There's terrific gallows humor in “Sons of Chan,” where the Dirigible, wearing his “false face,” sorts through his historical “roots” only to find that the Chinaman's real fathers are Earl Derr Biggers and Earl's inspired film fabrication, Charlie Chan. Real mom turns out to have been Tempest Storm, Oakland-San Francisco's perfectly white stripper, and Dirigible dogs her through Vegas trying to “look at her tits” in some of the funniest writing in the whole collection. If you've never read Frank Chin before and you think you might enjoy this sort of thing, start with “Sons of Chan.”

Chin's point, though, is that lacking history in America, he had to synthesize it. The need to have history obliged Chin's generation to spin myths, lay claim to “culture” in good, grammatical, colloquial American English. The concrete reference points—written histories of Asians in America, for example—that have begun to appear in the last decade were not yet available when Chin wrote about “Dirigible's real face,” or, “El Chino,” mythic redeemer of his people in the early 1970s.

A language without a history encourages the instability of identity and helps explain why Chin, Maxine Hong Kingston, Nellie Wong the poet (whose gorgeous “Broad Shoulders” appears in Wang's Waves) and others wrote mythic historiofiction. And why better prose writers than Chin (Kingston, for example) adopted similarly thick, poetic, almost hypnotic word use to do so.

None of the above, however, lets Frank Chin off the hook for his inexorably adenoidal sexual politics. The same historic force that infantilized Asian-American men also held out the promise of sex with white women to all Real Men. What I find insupportable in Chin is his refusal to see the connection. If Chin's editors had withheld the “Afterword,” a sexually vituperative ad hominem attack on Maxine Kingston, I'd have found reading his other work more tolerable; let sleeping dogs lie.

Robert Murray Davis (review date Summer 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co., in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 3, Summer, 1989, pp. 487-88.

[In the following review, Davis lauds Chin's The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co.]

Frank Chin's stories [in The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co.] are another skirmish in his long campaign—conducted in his dramas, his fiction, and his journalism—against all the writers and critics, white and yellow, who make careers out of turning Asian America either into sociological data or into what he calls “Ornamental Orientalia,” the sentimentalization and reduction of Asian culture to satisfy white preconceptions. The stories attempt to create from the inside real Chinese American experience through male characters, perhaps the same character, ranging from early boyhood through balding manhood, unable to connect with Chinese girls who are too frivolous or fragile or with white women who cannot take them or be taken seriously, unable to participate fully in the culture of their ancestors or in that of the America which courses electrically through one of them while he serves as ground and antenna for the radio, trying to escape from the Charlie Chan movie in which he is cast and trapped.

Given these confusions and conflicts, Chin's best stories are not the carefully crafted realistic earlier pieces, much like James Joyce's Dubliners in tone and construction, but freer-form pieces like “The Eat and Run Midnight People,” in which the speaker bangs his mind against the pain of his past. The pace and energy can be breathtaking and confusing, but the ride on this line can be exciting.

Ellen Lesser (review date Autumn 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co., in New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, Vol. XII, No. 1, Autumn, 1989, pp. 98-108.

[In the following excerpt, Lesser calls Chin's The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co. an “angry funny, sexy, deeply moving romp through one man's Chinatown.”]

After Stanton's measured Midwestern music, Frank Chin sings a jazzy, tumbling rhythm out of the Chinatowns of San Francisco and Oakland, careening along the rails of The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R. R. Co. (1988), which collects eight stories about an immigrant experience very different from that of the second– and third-generation Irish in The Country I Come From. With a ranting effusiveness, a dark poetry, an agile, furious sliding between the tracks of realism and visionary reality, playwright Chin jolts us into his new world: a world that's “a mass of spasms and death throes, warm and screechy inside, itchy, full of ghostpiss”; where, every night over maj-jong, old men joke and dream of the lo fan (white) women's big armpits; where “rows and rows of Chinamans” sit for hours in “those neon-and-stucco downtown hole-in-the-wall Market Street Frisco movie houses … learning English in a hurry from Daffy Duck”; where the only thing the young can say to their elders in Cantonese is “‘I don't know what you're talking,’” and “‘Too moochie shi-yet’” is all the old command in American.

Chin's first story opens with the remembered gift of a grandfather's nineteenth-century railroad watch from a mother to son, but within a half-dozen pages it's shuttled all over the map—to the man's desertion by his “blonde white goddess” wife and their children, to all the novels “scribbled up by a sad legion of snobby autobiographical Chinatown saps,” to Chinese food and Chinese funerals, and back to a grade school music teacher, “sighing white big tits in front of the climbing promise of … Every Good Boy Does Fine.” For the most part, Chin's idiosyncratic version of “Railroad Standard Time” moves too quickly, too crazily, to be contained by a conventional narrative. Even when a story tracks a specific event, it splices in other times, other layers of experience. A man in Las Vegas to search out an aging stripper, to whom he'd brought room service as a boy working at his mother's hotel-restaurant, is also on a top-secret mission to snuff out Charlie Chan; the son visiting his dying mother is watching his own imaginary “Movie about Me,” which in this case in a western.

The theme of the connection between movies and the way we see ourselves, and a recurring central character—Dirigible, “the boy of the unpronounceable name,” translated from the Chinese for Flying Ship—help knit the rangy stories into a whole. Chin's rapid-fire language and imagery, his shifting realities, sometimes make for slippery travelling, but it's worth holding on by a strap, or the seat of your pants. This angry, funny, sexy, deeply moving romp through one man's Chinatown is about as far as you could journey from the arid rigors of recent minimalist fiction. Chin is delivering the “news and soul-searching hard words, soft words, bad words on Chinese America.” It's no wonder that a heritage so rich and rank, a present so schizoid, would produce this breathless, irreverent breed of story. Dirigible's mother accuses him of having a “filthy sneaky dirty mind.” “What kind of son are you anyway?” she accuses. “Certainly not Chinese.” Here's what flashes through Dirigible's head: “I'm not Chinese, boys, they say I'm no good! ‘Whoa up there, Chinaman, what the fuck's goin on here?’ Confucius asks. I'm having me one identity crisis, Confucius. They hide their daughters from me. They don't invite me in to supper. ‘Identity crisis, my ass,’ Confucius says. ‘Don't you know there's no such thing, boy? Don't be a sucker for Christian tragedy.’” But what he says to his mother is this: “‘Your son, Ma. I'm all yours.’”

David Leiwei Li (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “The Formation of Frank Chin and Formations of Chinese American Literature,” in Asian Americans: Comparative and Global Perspectives, edited by Shirley Hune and others, Washington State University Press, 1991, pp. 211-23.

[In the following essay, Li traces Chin's attempt to recount Chinese Americans' historical involvement through his fiction.]

Frank Chin is an apparently fading figure on the Chinese American literary stage he has helped construct. Such an act of fading is typified by the institutional ignorance and the consequent under-read status of his works. The phenomenon is instructive: it exemplifies the tenacity of the hegemonic process in effacing the oppositional; it illustrates the need for the counter force to rethink its strategies; and it becomes the occasion for this piece of writing to fade in what seems to have been faded out.

Playwright, essayist, and short-fictionalist, Chin emerged in the late 1960s when the Third World strike at the University of California at Berkeley and the subsequent Asian American student movements resulted in the formation of two of its native intellectual groups, the political and the cultural. The former group of Chinese Americans identified themselves with the other minorities in the United States and was determined to wage war against their common enemy, the economic and political oppression of American imperialism, while the latter group undertook the task of correcting the racist stereotypes of colonialism and aimed at a reconstruction of Asian American images (Nee and Nee 1972:355–360). It is with the latter that Chin is closely associated; though he may not participate in the community project of anti-poverty and exploitation, his involvement in the founding of the Combined Asian Resources Project (CARP) and Asian American literary formations marks him as a writer and editor of conscious political resistance. His personal constitution interlocks and interacts with the recovery and the production of Chinese American literature in such a way that an evaluation of his role as a historic agent becomes indispensable.

Chin realizes that Chinese Americans have been made atrocious victims not only of legislative exclusion, resulting in drastic population reduction, but also of historic erasure, the consequence of which is the designation of their minor position or rather non-identity. Since denying minorities their historical involvement, their sufficiency as human subjects, and their right to participate in civil and political society has been the control mechanism of racist dominance, Chin's project is a war against such denial; in JanMohamed's phrase, “negating the negation as a form of affirmation” (JanMohamed 1987). Chin challenges the hegemonic deployment of the Chinese American, contends its oppressive signifying practices, and codifies a self identity. This paper will trace these stages of Chin's negative construction and ponder on their impact on Chinese American literary formations.

I

In his quest for the indigenous history of his ethnic community, Chin notes that the absence of the Chinese American from general American history books is a direct outcome of the 1882 exclusion law which was designed to “drive us out of the country, to kill us.” The completion of the transcontinental railroad signaled the death of the use-value of the Chinese American even as “cheap labor”:

Out of our despair, we took to burning our letters from home, burning the pages of our diaries and journals as we wrote them, burning tickets, receipts, bills, burning everything with our names, everything written in our hand and throwing the ashes into the sea, in the hope, that, at least, that much of us would get home to China. America had taught us, finally that China was our home and inspired the invention of this little Chinese American ceremony (Chin 1972a:62).

The act of incineration is a gesture of desperation in the face of racial exclusion. Chin has us realize here that Chinese immigrants are deprived not only of their legitimate geographic belonging, but also of their temporal existence. In burning the records they themselves have kept, Chinese Americans are forced to denounce that part of their life which is anchored on American soil. The explicit genocidal attempt of the dominant coupled with such helpless suicidal compliance of the oppressed leads to the painful elimination of the linguistic trace, hence the social death of the ethnic group. The Chinese American becomes then an entity that can neither claim its predecessor with a positive historical identity nor expect a future in progeny.

The disastrous impact of this history is nowhere more pungently felt than in Chin's generation of writers, who take it as their duty to write about Chinese America when writing itself is considered to be exclusively white and especially non-Chinese American. Two forms of such attitudes co-inhabit the community. The first is one of blind resistance by associating writing with white domination as an instrument of oppression that the oppressed does not share. The second is one of assimilation, “look[ing] upon writing as the proof,” as some humanistic redeeming feature, that the Chinese American is “nearing white” (Nee and Nee 1972:394–395). Both reactions are programmed by cultural colonialism that intends to reinforce writing as white property and privilege, thereby effacing the minority subject position.

In his classroom experiments, Chin traces the responses in the original linguistic reification of his ethnic community: “The either-or thing is right in that scientific name we go by, ‘Chinese,’ hyphen, ‘American.’” When asked to divide the self into such an arbitrary dichotomy, his students automatically assign all the adventurous, creative, and original qualities to their “American” part while attributing everything old fashioned, inhibiting, and dull to their “Chinese” part. Chin sees this as yet another instance of the dominant race instilling a schizophrenic uncertainty in the formation of the ethnic self. The question of division is an extension of the trite East-West construction that encourages the split self, and “what you break down, you break according to the lines of the stereotype,” which aims to perpetuate the subjugation-submission power relation (Nee and Nee 1972:394–395). Chin aptly names this the reign of “racist love” and points out:

The general function of any racial stereotype is to establish and preserve order between different elements of society, maintain the continuity and growth of western civilization, and enforce white supremacy with a minimum of effort, attention and expense. The ideal racial stereotype is a low maintenance engine of white supremacy whose efficiency increases with age, as it became “authenticated” and “historically verified” (Chin and Chan 1972:66).

The hegemonic process that underwrites the social notches of the minority group is mercilessly exposed. The naturalization of the social hierarchy, Chin cautions us, lies at the base of white control. But the success of the reign results in part from the manufactured consent of the Chinese American. “[T]his tyranny of culture by the whites,” Chin observes, “has managed to produce a Chinese-American character that is without an ego, that has no self-respect, that has internalized almost fatal suicidal doses of self-contempt” (Nee and Nee 1972:385). He goes on to say,

This self-contempt itself is nothing more than the subject's acceptance of white standards of objectivity, beauty, behavior, and achievement as morally absolute, and his acknowledgment of the fact that, because he is not white, he can never fully measure up to white standards.

It is, in short, “an expedient tactic of survival” (Chin and Chan 1972:67).

The desire to survive has exacted a costly toll. When the exclusion law of 1882 was finally rescinded in 1943—due to the political exigency as well as expediency of America's and China's becoming allies in the war against Japan—Chinese American writing emerged not so much as an expression of its own sensibility but as a showcase model of the American dream. Among a handful of writers Chin disapproves of, the example of Jade Snow Wong stands out. Fifth Chinese Daughter was a tremendous commercial success and Wong was sent to Asia as a cultural emissary of American democracy. What is little known, however, is the fact that two-thirds of Wong's original manuscript was omitted from the published version (Kim 1982:60, 71). When Chin raised the question of what was left out, Wong replied, things “too personal.” And she continued, “it takes maturity to be objective about one's self” (Chin et al. 1974). Wong's situation illustrates two major circumscriptions of minority writing. On the one hand, we witness overt censorship through the machinery of editors and publishers. On the other hand, we note an “automatic” acceptance of white standards of writing and the inherent ethnic deficiency in the attainment of white objectivity and beauty. The difficulty of getting by external gatekeepers, and particularly the unconscious assimilation of the “universality” of writing, cripple the normal growth of an ethnic literature. Cultural hegemony maintains itself not so much by imposing white writing upon the minority but by soliciting white writing from the objectified minority.

The material purged from Wong's manuscripts through ideological apparatuses is, one recalls, “personal.” We witness here the greatest generic oxymoron ever: the ethnic writer can hardly print anything creative or “novel” because the validity of their feeling is not universal; neither can they publish their personal emotions because the autobiographical genre designed for their lot demands the omission of subjective valuations. In other words, the individual experiences of an ethnic entity will never be valorized unless they are approved by the dominant culture. It comes as no surprise that Wong's autobiography contains little more than an infantry of Chinatown restaurants and curiosity shops, a desirable representation of the Chinese American as a model minority devoid of subjectivity.

Placing minority writers in a passive, powerless mouth-piece position is a built-in function of white writing. During his days in Iowa, Frank Chin was often blamed for his failure to explore “the local color of Chinatown.” “You know,” remarked his instructor, “you're writing about the Chinese in a way that I don't think American people would be interested in,” to which Chin retorted, “Because they were just like people, right?” Chin was stunned to learn not only that he “had a point of view” about his people, but that his “point of view wasn't white,” for he depicted the individuality of the ethnic subject in ways that did not conform to mere “local color” (Nee and Nee 1972:379). Like the paradox of the ethnic autobiography Wong got into, the generic assignment for the minority writer to “cook up” regional flavor for the cosmopolitan cultural connoisseur seems to be a division of labor. Such division reproduces once again the marginal position of ethnic writers in the literary system: they are asked first to offer the beautiful and exotic facade of the periphery and then kept there because their writing is limited and not permanent.

Aside from generic constraints, Chinese American authors suffer from a lack of authority over the English they use; their language is either defaulted or rejected. The expectation that they employ standard white English enforces such a status of dependency that their autonomy as writers is at stake. Against this kind of aesthetic as well as ideological dictatorship, Chin and his fellow writers argue:

The universality of the belief that correct English is the only language of American truth has made language an instrument of cultural imperialism. The minority experience does not yield itself to accurate or complete expression in the white man's language. Yet, the minority writer, specially the Asian-American writer, is made to feel morally obliged to write in a language produced by an alien and hostile sensibility. His task, in terms of language alone, is to legitimize his, and by implication his people's, orientation as white, to codify his experience in the form of prior symbols, clichés, linguistic mannerisms and a sense of humor that appeals to whites because it celebrates Asian American self-contempt. Or his task is the opposite—to legitimize the language, the style, and syntax of his people's experience (Chin et al. 1974:xxxvii).

The assertion of cultural and linguistic integrity is interestingly couched in terms of the writer's role within his or her community. His success is measured against his specific agency in the ethnic community. “What I value most,” Chin says, “is what I am doing, trying to legitimize the Chinese-American sensibility. Call it my accident in time and space and all the talent, everything I have is good only for this … if Chinese-American sensibility isn't legitimized, then my writing is no good” (Nee and Nee 1972:386).

II

The legitimization of a Chinese American sensibility for Chin is necessarily a “noise of resistance” to the racist order; it entails a breaking of the imposed silence and stereotypes and a redefinition of the ethnic identity (Chin and Chan 1972:65). Chin's own literary production exemplifies his tenacious drive to combat the discursive modes of domination that encode the object position of the minority. In polemic or parody, two of his major literary strategies, Chin wages war against the hegemonic exercise of power in the form of the language. The Chickencoop Chinaman, Chin's first play, appropriately begins with an angry outburst from its protagonist, Tam:

My dear in the beginning there was the Word! Then there was me! And the Word was CHINAMAN. And there was me. I lipped the word as if it had little lips of its own. “Chinaman” said on a little kiss. I lived the Word! The Word is my heritage (Chin 1981:6).

Ontological alienation is a direct product of the kind of linguistic dispossession from which the Chinese Americans suffer. They have always been enunciated into an existence to which they do not belong. The biblical overtone of Tam's speech indicates at once a tradition of cultural hegemony inherent in Judeo-Christianity and its language, and a history of the oppressed who have to live the curse, as it were, despite their will: “Chinamen are made, not born … Out of junk-imports, lies, railroad scrap iron, dirty jokes, broken bottles, cigar smoke, Cosquilla Indian blood, wino spit, and lots of milk of amnesia” (Chin 1981:6). In the unfolding of Chin's textual space, Tam's volley of words has enacted an effective counter-memory that not only discloses the removal of Chinese American history and their subservient position, but in the very process of disclosure negates the discursive oppression and constitutes the ethnic self as subject. Tam has materialized as a multi-word magician who transforms the stereotype of the “tongue-tying” Chinese American into a defying figure of “backtalking, muscular, singing stomping full blooded language loaded with nothing but our truth” (Chin 1976:557). It is small wonder that Chin's dramatic characters have been accused of failing to “talk or dress or act like Orientals” (Chin 1975, 1989).

If polemic confrontation is for Chin one counterhegemonic formation, parodic dissemblance is the other. When Chickencoop Chinaman Tam meets his friend BlackJap Kenji, their greeting ritual soon turns into a parodic type of signification:

KENJI (as Helen Keller): Moowahjeefffurher roar rungs!


TAM (as Helen Keller): Moowahjeefffurher roar rungs?


KENJI (as Helen Keller): Moowahjeefffurher roar rungs.


TAM and KENJI (continuing): My dear friends! …


KENJI (as Helen Keller): Aheeeha op eeehoooh too ooh wahyou oooh.


TAM (as a Bible Belt preacher): Yeah, talk to me, Helen! Hallelujah! I hear her talking to me.


(TAM jumps to his feet shuddering with fake religious fervor, KENJI supports with Hallelujahs and repetitions.


TAM: Put your hands on the radio, children, feel the power of Helen Keller, children. Believe! And she, the Great White goddess, the mother of Charlie Chan, the Mumbler, the Squeaker, shall show you the way, children! Oh, yeah!


KENJI: Hallelujah!


TAM: Helen Keller overcame her handicaps without riot! She overcame her handicaps without looting! She overcame her handicaps without violence! And you Chinks and Japs can too. Oooh I feel the power, children. Feel so gooooood! I feeeeeel it! (Chin 1981:10–11)

Chin conglomerates Christian conversion with the cultural symbol of self-perfection, equates physical deficiency and ethnic experience, and juxtaposes passive endurance of oppression with the racist positioning of the Asian “model minority” so that the parodic conversation between two members of the ethnic communities constitutes both an epistemic violence of pervasive ideological persuasions and a merciless critique of its practices. By the same token, Chin engages a symbolic exchange between himself and his childhood hero, the indomitable “Lone Ranger,” only to find the mythical figure of justice yet another white supremacist in disguise (Chin 1981:31–38). The parodic contestation of mythology has occasioned the stripping away of its power as the regime of truth.

The dismantling of the regime of truth involves a historicization of its pretentious claims. The happy and content Chinese American living in the colorful and joyful Chinatown is another ideological construct that Chin endeavors to demystify:

The railroads created a detention camp and called it “Chinatown.” The details of that creation have been conveniently forgotten or euphemized into a state of sweet confusion. The men who lived through the creation are dying out, unheard and ignored. When they die, no one will know it was not us that created a game preserve for Chinese and called it “Chinatown” (Chin 1972a:60).

Chin's geological scrutiny of origin calls our attention to the particular phenomenon of historical exclusion turned into a modern instance of the glamorous periphery. The work of racist love that barred the entry of Chinese women and prohibited Chinese American men from the practice of miscegenation so as to produce a dying bachelor society is now redesigning its instrument by presenting Chinatown not as an urban ghetto but an exclusive glass menagerie where the showcase minority dwell.

That Chinatown is a special hegemonic creation of the Chinese American sociogeographic space informs Chin's staging of The Year of the Dragon. The drama focuses not on Chinatown as an exotic setting but on the burden and dilemma it poses as an existential space for the Chinese American there. Fred Eng, the protagonist, is both a Chinatown tourist guide and a writer. This particular dual occupation plays out one of the most intensive dynamics of an ethnic other that Chin has provided. As a tourist guide, Fred accommodates the forces that determine his role while distancing himself through critical self-awareness from the circumstances that tend to dope him. He lives the fiction of white fantasy, posing as a blend of the best of East and West, and puts on a phony Chinese accent to sell that perennial pack of lies to an interested audience. Fred subsists, ironically, upon the museum mentality of the metropolis that marks the dependent economic structure of its periphery. To Ross, his white brother-in-law, a quintessential oriental monger, Fred ever so succinctly parodies the metropolitan designs of power: “Hell, Chinatown's your private preserve for an endangered species, and you're the park ranger” (Chin 1981:85). The sardonic remark underlies Fred's confinement within the very social relationships of Chinatown zoo, but his conscious faking of his role as tourist guide shows his fictionalizing potential to counter the supreme fiction of racism. However, his creative energy will find no outlet other than this, “cuz no one's gonna read the great Chinese American novel,” but if “I'll write a Mama Fu Fu Chinese cookbook,” Fred says, “that'll drive people crazy … It's gonna be the first Chinese cookbook to win the Pulitzer Prize” (Chin 1981:83). The will to write and to define a self identity has been circumscribed by the trivializing function always already designated.

Though the institutional suppression of Chinese American writing is not in the foreground of the play, Chin makes a more subtle analysis of how the hegemonic denial of ethnic writing can foster a slavish mentality among the ethnic community that itself automatically gives up writing. Pa, for instance, asks his son-in-law Ross, instead of Fred, his English major son, to edit his New Year speech; the distrust of his son's language reveals a typical inbred self-contempt that disclaims Chinese Americans' verbal culture. The conventional scenario of father and son dispute in the play opens another dimension in that Pa's demand of Fred's filial piety and rejection of his voice metaphorize the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized (Chin 1981:137). One recalls that the hegemonic exercise of control underdevelops the minority in such a way that the group in question is always considered child-like, desperately in need of parental guidance. Fred's rebellion can then be best construed as an act of resistance to the authoritarian father figure of the dominant. The scathing satire of this enforced tutelage in the play as well as in the modern mythology of Charlie Chan and his number one sons marks one of Chin's most persistent efforts at counterdiscourse (Chin 1989).

III

Chin's program of Chinese American literature has evolved with changing social and cultural contexts.1 One notable shift of emphasis is manifest in his recent outlook on Chinese culture and its impact on the social and cultural formations of the Chinese American. In the 1970s when Chin and his group embarked on the journey to make their literary presence, the order of “racist love” relegated the Chinese American to either models of assimilation or absolute foreigners. The wish to forge an identity strictly on Chinese American terms necessitated Chin's adamant disassociation from both Anglo-American and Chinese cultures, the stereotypical illusion of a split personality or the mish-mesh blend of the “best” of East and West. Though this oppositional stance came as an imperative response to hegemony, its praxis of total negation was not immune to the ahistorical scripture it set out to subvert. That is, negation could be entrapped, made dependent on the hegemony either by merely opposing it or by abandoning the representations it so apparently tainted. In light of this, Chin's current celebration of Chinese culture signifies his conscious departure from the hegemonic norms of inscription to return to the ground of Chinese American historical specificity.

In his Seattle Weekly essay, “Our Life Is War,” Chin declares his continuous battle against white domination but cites Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese military theorist, as saying “What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy” (Chin 1983). The prominence given to Sun Tzu indeed informs us of Chin's strategic rethinking of his agenda, and his programmatic application of Chinese cultural traditions is everywhere visible. Such use for Chin, however, is not a nostalgic escape but an invigorating absorption that at once provides historic anchorage and directs present reality. Therefore, the Chinese tradition he invokes is a “heroic” one. Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, and Monkey's Journey to the West are what “every Chinese kid has grown up reading and studying as a manual of personal ethics and strategy and tactics for a thousand years” and they are “available in English translation, comic books, coloring books, trading cards, figures, toys, puppets and operas in Chinatown right this instant” (Chin 1986). In short, they are part and parcel of the Chinese American living culture and their people's code of forming alliances and expressing loyalties. Chin reminds us that it is just these classic Chinese texts that have been models of organized resistance in Chinatown, the stronghold “against the Christian missionaries, wild-eyed social Darwinists, racists and a hostile state” (Chin 1983:35).2

The reconstruction of Chinese tradition in the Chinese American grain is a double-edged sword that redefines Chinese culture and Western culture. Chin's claim is both Calibanic and Kwan Kung straight:

You, dear reader of English, aren't used to a Chinaman act in “your” language … Forget it. Your Language is mine. I speak in the Chinaman “I” here, and write a Chinaman act. I don't mean to be impolite in my taking your language and dashing the moral universals you've built into it. But betrayal is in the heart of your English. You speak the “I” of “Revenge is mine sayth the Lord.” Mine is the Chinaman “I.” Whatever language a Chinaman speaks, it is always Chinaman, and the personal pronoun I, in any language, means “I am the law” … Chinese civilization is founded on history. Specifically the five classics, selected by Confucius the historian, are the basics of Chinese civilization … Religion as the foundation of civilization is a silly and offensive sissy notion in Chinese thought … Greek myth is the key to the white mind. The epic tradition of Homer and the Bible. All tragic. Tsk tsk tsk. Boo hoo and hilltop glory be. The perpetual power, the submissive individual … The rebellious individual smacked down by the state … If Prometheus were Chinese he would have stolen fire from the gods, burned their capital, after warning the citizens to evacuate the city, then cut off the heads of the gods who displeased him and stuck the heads on poles over their palace, then burned it down to the ground. (Chin 1985:110–111).

Chin's maneuver is a complete revisioning of Chinese American culture; if his earlier refutation of the hegemonic stereotyping still bears the burden of the oppressor, his present assertion of the heroic tradition not only reverses the situation of “yellow writers … tell[ing] their yellow literary time by a white clock” but also poses a critique of Western tradition with a Chinese American measure.3 He now combines his disruption of Aristotelian unities, Christian universals and social Darwinian unidirectional progress narrative with his demand of the dominant to be literate in Asian American culture, breaking and relinking the semiotic chain.4

The renewed interest in cultural history has also resurfaced one perennial concern of Chin's, i.e., the definition and parameter of Chinese American literature. This obvious canonical debate hinges on three pivots: generic, representational, and institutional. First, the establishment of a heroic Chinese American tradition in which “the fighter writer uses literary forms as weapons of war,” Chin argues, makes autobiography irrelevant in Chinese American writing since it is a literary style based on Christian confession “that celebrate[s] the process of conversion from an object of contempt to an object of acceptance”; “a Chinaman can't write an autobiography because it's not in our nature to hate ourselves.” Those who do, however, are “converts,” “spies, for white racist religion, out to Happy End us” (Chin 1985:112, 122, 124). Second, the popularity these writers of “Ornamental Orientalia” enjoy, in Chin's view, derives precisely from their “faking” of Chinese America (Chin 1985:111, 119–120, 123). Third, their success with white publishers is a natural “payoff” of their “selling out” (Chin 1985:122–123).

While dismissing autobiography, Chin promotes “raging satires, polemic and slapstick comedies” as viable Chinese American generic alternatives (Chin 1985:126). Doubtless, these literary devices have been proven effective in minority cultural independence; however, Chinese American literary strategies should not be limited to self-binding variables. The relentless necessity to negate is always a fine line to walk—its execution requires caution, for it runs the double jeopardy of being just a mirror-opposite of the writing whose tyranny it disputes and of writing into a corner territorialized for him or her. A Calibanic claim of language should therefore include a critical appropriation of generic possibilities. This critical recuperation embedded in the overall recovery of a heroic Chinese American tradition is promising in its confrontation with colonial discourse. The programmatic emergence of the tradition, we recall, arises from the specific need of our time. It results from Chin's adjusted project of cultural insertion and his invested hope in the changing Asian American diaspora.5 The nature of such a diaspora should dispel nativist illusions of recovering the source of tradition; the authenticity of experiencing the common cultural heritage lies exactly in the diversity of specific mediations through which the tradition is reproduced to enable change of current status. The will to change should be accompanied by an awareness not only of the mechanisms of institutional forgetting and distortion via publishing but also of the inability of such mechanisms to cover its holes. In a time when the availability of minority presses is still restricted, cultivating insurgency within the hegemonic structures, the publishing industry being one of them, could be an alternative mode of resistance. Capitalistic commercialism could, with strategic reworking, be turned into a form of minority distribution agency.

The questions of genre, tradition, and institution Chin raised above are particularly relevant to his envisioning of the role of the minority writer in relation to his writing and the community of which she or he is a self-appointed spokesperson. Underlying these is the urgent issue of responsibility, that the writer does not simply write but is obligated to write to mobilize social change. There is little question that Chin is everywhere motivated by this sense of moral integrity. However, in his fervent espousal of this moral sense, he is partially blind to the multiplicity of contemporary Chinese American reality and becomes equally susceptible to the temptation of what Sylvia Wynter calls a “dictatorship of the Minoriat” (1987:237). A deterritorialization of cultural domination must not be preceded by a reterritorialization within the marginalized group. What we need is an “axial reality,” to use Radhakrishnan's concept, where “the trajectory of radical ethnicity can be seen in the convergence at the point where ‘axis' replaces identity” to “enable the generous production of non-authoritarian and non-territorial realities/knowledges” (1987:218). Chinese American writers will have to form a collective subjectivity that at once embraces an inclusive solidarity and celebrates a heterogeneous production. Let us work for the day when the variety of Chinese American culture is sufficiently recognized on its own terms and the wealth of our literature becomes a cherished resource for a better world.

Notes

  1. Important but not central to this essay is one of Chin's earlier definitions of Asian American sensibility as “the style of manhood” (Chin et al. 1974:xlviii). Though concurring with criticisms of this potentially phallocentric stance, I will argue that given the circumstances of the 1970s when Chin was staging his ethnic resistance, running such a risk could be understandable. A brief historicization will tell us the validity of his position. First, for almost a century, the Chinese American in the United States was predominantly male, yet the writing of this history was absent. Second, the male experience of Chinatown bachelor societies was largely ignored. While the female members of Chinese America were regarded as assimilable, hence often appropriated to play the acceptance sweepstakes, the males were either rejected or emasculated. The popular culture's image of effeminate Chinese American men was extremely damaging. The specificity of Chinese American “manhood”—even with its precarious essence and possibility of male domination—must be judged in terms of historical material conditions. For critiques of Chin's term, see Kim 1982:180–189 and Lau 1981:93–105.

  2. For Chin's discussion of how Chinatown Tongs and Chung Wah Goon fight racism, see also his essays of 1985 and 1986.

  3. Chin's phrase on time is from his “Letter to Y'Bird” (1977:42–45). That time is both race and culture specific is a theme of his short story, “Railroad Standard Time,” in The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R. R. Co. 1989:1–7.

  4. Chin observes in “This Is Not an Autobiography,” “I am so fluent in your [white] culture … But you don't know our lullabies and heroic tales, the myth and drama that twangs and plucks our sense of individuality, our personal relations with the authorities and the state. You should know” (1985:118). His further critique of Western systems of thought is evident in his introduction to “The Big Aiiieeeee!” forthcoming from New American Library.

  5. According to Him Mark Lai, immigrant Chinese comprised about sixty-four percent of the Chinese American population in 1980 (Lai 1988:xi–xiii). Chin regards his ideal audience as being “either immigrants fluent in American English and history” or “American born who were knowledgeable about the basic works of a universal Asian childhood” (Davis 1988:91).

References

Chin, Frank. 1972a. “Confessions of the Chinatown Cowboy.” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 4 (3):58–70.

———. 1972b. “Don't Pen Us Up in Chinatown.” New York Times. October 8, 1, 5.

———. 1975. “Confessions of a Number One Son.” In Speaking for Ourselves: American Ethnic Writing, edited by Lillian Faderman and Barbara Bradshaw, 218–227. Glenview, Illinois: Scott.

———. 1976. “Backtalk.” In Counterpoint: Perspectives on Asian America, edited by Emma Gee et al. Los Angeles: University of California Asian American Studies Center.

———. 1977. “Letter to Y'Bird.” Y'Bird Magazine 1 (1):42–45.

———. 1981. “The Chickencoop Chinaman”; and, “The Year of the Dragon”: Two Plays. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

———. 1983. Seattle Weekly, May 4, 28–32, 34–38.

———. 1985. “This Is Not an Autobiography.” Genre 18 (Summer):109–130.

———. 1986. “From the Chinaman Year of the Dragon to the Fake Year of the Dragon.” Quilt 5:58–71.

———. 1989. “Sons of Chan.” In The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R. R. Co., 131–165. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.

Chin, Frank, and Jeffrey Paul Chan. 1972. “Racist Love.” In Seeing through Shuck, edited by Richard Kostelanetz. New York: Ballantine.

Chin, Frank, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Hsu Wong, eds. 1974. Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press.

Davis, Robert Murray. 1988. “Frank Chin: An Interview.” Amerasia Journal 14 (2):81–95.

JanMohamed, Abdul R. 1987. “Negating the Negation as a Form of Affirmation in Minority Discourse: The Construction of Richard Wright as Subject.” Cultural Critique 7:245–266.

Kim, Elaine. 1982. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Lai, Him Mark. 1988. “On Chinese Americans: State of the Art or Challenge of the Future.” Amerasia Journal 14 (2): xi–xiii.

Lau, Joseph. 1981. “Albatross Exorcised: The Rime of Frank Chin.” Tamkang Review 12 (1):93–105.

Nee, Victor G. de Bary, and Brett Nee. 1972. Longtime Californ': A Documentary Study of an American Chinatown. New York: Pantheon Books.

Radhakrishnan, R. 1987. “Ethnic Identity and Post-Structural Difference.” Cultural Critique 6:199–220.

Wynter, Sylvia. 1987. “On Disenchanting Discourse: ‘Minority’ Literary Criticism and Beyond.” Cultural Critique 7:207–244.

Michael Harris (review date 14 April 1991)

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SOURCE: A review of Donald Duk, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 14, 1991, p. 6.

[In the following review, Harris praises Chin's Donald Duk as “a polemic with more than its share of humor, written in a prose that rings like gongs and pops like a string of firecrackers.”]

Donald Duck is, of course, a duck. Donald Duk is a 12-year-old boy growing up in San Francisco's Chinatown [in the novel by the same name]. He hates his Disney-cartoon name. He dislikes being Chinese. Chinese immigrants in the 19th Century, his private-school teacher tells him, “were made passive and nonassertive by centuries of Confucian thought and Zen mysticism. They were totally unprepared for the violently individualistic and democratic Americans.” Donald Duk wants to disown his family and dance on the grave of his heritage. He wants to be Fred Astaire.

Just before the Chinese New Year celebration that will mark the end of Donald's childhood, he destroys one of the 108 model airplanes, representing members of a legendary outlaw band, that his family intended to fly and burn together. His father, a distinguished chef, and his uncle (also named Donald Duk), a star of Chinese opera, consider disowning him.

Then the heritage itself intervenes. In dreams that serve as ethnic shock therapy, Donald goes back to the year 1869 and relives the ordeals and triumphs of the Chinese laborers who blasted the Central Pacific Railroad through the Sierra Nevada and set a world track-laying record. They prove to have been just as tough and ambitious as Anglo pioneers, though Donald finds their contribution slighted in the history books.

“History is war, not sport!” his father roars. “You gotta keep the history yourself or you lose it forever.”

Frank Chin has written plays (The Chickencoop Chinaman, The Year of the Dragon) and short stories (The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co.). This is an argument in the form of a novel. Not an anti-Anglo argument—Donald has a steadfast white friend—but an effort to get Chinese-Americans to reject Anglo stereotypes of their culture and accept its sinewy, masculine side, represented by the 108 outlaws. Chin seems to be shouting at someone offstage—perhaps novelist and feminist Maxine Hong Kingston, who satirized his macho persona in Tripmaster Monkey. Fortunately, this is a polemic with more than its share of humor, written in a prose that rings like gongs and pops like a string of firecrackers.

Robert Murray Davis (review date Autumn 1991)

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SOURCE: A review of Donald Duk, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 4, Autumn, 1991, p. 715.

[In the following review, Davis calls Chin's Donald Duk “a lively and masterful piece of storytelling.”]

The style and structure of Frank Chin's first published novel [, Donald Duk,] are more accessible than in most of the stories of The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R. R. Co. (1989) or in the plays (The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon) which first brought him attention as an angry young Chinese-American surrealist. However, the method and message are essentially unchanged in the story of Donald Duk, a Chinese-hating boy approaching manhood in San Francisco. Like many of Chin's characters, Donald immerses himself in old Hollywood films and carries on conversations with Fred Astaire; but he recovers in dream the heroic feats of his ancestors who built the Central Pacific Railroad and were deleted from white history, is recognized in kinship by the 108 heroes of The Water Margin, and comes to terms with Kwan Kung and with his father, who becomes the god of fighters and writers in what is set up to be a climactic performance of Cantonese opera. Instead, the end of the novel concentrates on Chin's recurrent theme: “Like everything else, it begins and ends with Kingdoms rise and fall. Nations come and go, and food.”

Chin seems in all his prose to write best about railroads, intellectual guerrilla warfare, and eating. His novel, however, presents a warmer picture of Chinatown life and a more hopeful vision of the possibility of development. Donald Duk can be read as an introduction to Chin's more difficult work or as an example of Asian-American narrative that takes a perspective very different from Maxine Hong Kingston's. More important, it deserves to be read on its own merits as a lively and masterful piece of storytelling.

Frank Abe (interview date September 1991)

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SOURCE: “Frank Chin: His Own Voice,” in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. II, No. 6, September, 1991, pp. 3-4.

[In the following interview, Frank Chin discusses his mission to promote the truth about Asian-American history, culture, and art.]

“Life is war. All individuals are born soldiers. All behavior is tactics and strategy. All relationships are martial.” Frank Chin smiles more pleasantly than demonically as he calmly ticks off the elements of the heroic tradition in Chinese literature that sustain him and his writing. “The war that every Chinese fights is a war of maintaining and perfecting personal integrity.”

In the heroic tradition, good people are made outlaws by a corrupt state bureaucracy. That may perfectly describe Chin's current place in the field of Asian American literature—ironic, since it's a field Chin helped define. For him, life has always been a war to reclaim a history he says was nearly destroyed by Christian missionaries and is now being faked by writers continuing to work in that tradition. His voice has been shaped by the battles he's fought, and like the storyteller he is, each battle becomes part of his lore.

Chin incorporates authentic Chinese folktales into his novel, Donald Duk (1991), in which he manages to portray a character who hates being Chinese without himself denigrating or corrupting Chinese history and culture. Twelve-year-old Donald Duk is a classic case of Asian American self-contempt; he hates his comic-sounding name and everything Chinese. “But I use the fairy tales, I use Chinese American history, and those aspects of Chinese American history that seem to have been ignored by Asian American studies: the history of the railroad, the mines, San Francisco, the tongs. My main concern was to write a novel that uses all of this stuff that is accessible, to write a novel that deals with White racism and Chinese American history and the real Chinese fairy tales and the heroic tradition, and to demonstrate that a Chinese American could do all of this without sending Whites up the wall or alienating anybody, that people would read it as a good book,” Chin said while in Seattle in February to read from Donald Duk. In the book, Donald's father builds 108 model airplanes representing the 108 outlaws of the marsh in a classic of the heroic tradition, The Water Margin (translated by Sidney Shapiro as Outlaws of the Marsh). Chin has collaborated in republishing individual chapters from that work, starting with Rescue at Wild Boar Forest (1938) and Lin Chong's Revenge (1989).

“It is in the fairy tales that we learn what it is to be an individual, what our relationship is to our parents, what our relationship is to the state. In the Br'er Rabbit stories of the Gullah people of the Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands there are no rules. Br'er Rabbit gets caught in a life-and-death situation. He cannot appeal to a higher authority. He either gets out of the clutches of Br'er Bear and Br'er Fox by using his wits, by strategic tactical thinking, or he dies. We, as Asian American writers, writing about Asian American history or Asian characters or our parents or grandparents, need to know the fairy tales to see for ourselves, to understand in the terms that our ancestors understood, the ideas of Chinese individuality, the ideas of Chinese manhood and womanhood, the basic ideas of Confuciandom, as expressed in the stories that were created to codify that body of thought, that vision of the world that life is war.” For Chin, the Confucius of stereotype is a quasi-religious, prophecy-cracking, fortune-cookie philosopher; the real Confucius was “a historian, a strategist, a warrior.”

Feminist academics quoted in the Los Angeles Times (June 24, 1990) have derided the revival of the heroic tradition as a continuation of an “old boys' club” that glorifies male aggression. In response, Chin points to the Chinese marriage fairy tale. “Love is two warriors standing back to back fighting off the universe,” he says, leaning into his story, “The Jade Dragon patrolled starry waters of the River of the Milky Way in ancient space, to the west. To the east is Magic Mountain, where the Golden Phoenix patrols. They find a giant crystal pushing its way out of the ground of beautiful Fairy Island. They decide to carve and polish it into a perfect sphere: a Bright Pearl. They bloody their beaks and claws working on the crystal, hundreds of years of carving and polishing. They turn human, fall in love, and live on Fairy Island in the glow of their pearl. Then it's stolen by the Queen Mother of the Western Paradise who hides it away. But she can't resist showing off the pearl at a gathering of the gods come to celebrate her birthday, and the light from the pearl reaches the lovers. They crash the party and in the struggle the gleaming gem rolls off the edge of heaven. Dragon says he cannot live without his pearl and dives after it. Phoenix says she cannot live without her pearl and dives after it. Together they cushion its fall toward Earth, and they all crash into China. The pearl becomes West Lake, the dragon becomes Dragon Mountain to the west and the phoenix becomes Phoenix Mountain to the east. They have fought the universe for their pearl. Equal. There is no male dominance, no female inferiority.”

Frank Chin could be a character in such a myth, fighting to protect the pearl. The pearl is the integrity of Asian American history and the Asian folk- and fairy tales. But to his Jade Dragon there has been no Golden Phoenix.

Chin did not come naturally to the fairy tales, as he spent the first six years of his life away from Chinatown so his father could conceal his birth from a disapproving grandmother. “My grandmother made a deal with my father: that she would set him up in a butcher shop if he would leave her fifteen-year-old daughter alone. She kept her word. I was the living proof he didn't keep his.” Chin was raised by a retired White couple in a tarpaper shanty on an abandoned gold mining site in the mother lode country of California, taking on Wild West affectations and tastes that led Chinatown labor organizer Ben Fee to brand Chin forever as “the Chinatown Cowboy.” Chin prides himself on being the first Chinese American brakeman on the Southern Pacific Railroad, the first self-described Chinaman to ride the engines on the line on which his grandfather had been a steward.

Chin's first use of the term “Chinaman” in the early seventies caused a stir in polite society. Chin reclaims the term as applied to those who built the American Chinatowns, his kind of people. He traces the term “Chinese American” to its origins among the Christianized Chinese who sought to distinguish themselves from the tongs, from the heathen Chinamen.

Though he always had his way with words, Chin first pursued the visual arts, but art classes proved unsatisfying so he drifted into writing, attending the Iowa Writers Workshop. Later, at UC Berkeley, he edited the campus humor magazine, the Pelican. “It was fun, writing stupid, writing funny. Once I started writing, I set out to write fast, to write a lot, to make writing as natural as speech. The first thing that begins to happen when you begin taking yourself seriously as a writer is this imaginary writer's block that people talk about, but I never really suffered from it. But there's this barrier between the spoken word and the written word; once you set something down in writing, it's supposed to be set in stone, or you take on this funny attitude that writing is unnatural. I set about writing anything and everything I could, so I'd write a lot and I'd throw away a lot, just as you do in speech. You talk a lot of trash, you throw it away. You write a lot of trash, you throw it away. It doesn't matter. You can always write again just as you can always talk again.”

True to his word, Chin has burned several novels and false starts. “Oh yeah. They were no good,” he laughs. But he eventually succeeded in developing a stream-of-consciousness language crammed with goofy wordplay, unexpected imagery, and exhilarating, liberating hyperbole. Friends would come to his home in San Francisco in the mid-seventies to read from bound copies of his infamously funny and profane letters to friends and foes, and hear him play flamenco guitar, “the music of a pariah people, like the Chinese before Charlie Chan, like the Japanese Americans in World War II.” Those friends find it difficult to call Donald Duk Chin's first novel, having read at least three of his unpublished works, one of which, A Chinese Lady Dies, won the Joseph Henry Jackson award. Another novel also toyed with Hollywood images: Charlie Chan on Maui was rejected by Harper & Row in the mid-seventies when the owners of the Chan copyright threatened to sue.

But before Chin could be free to be trivial, if he so chose, he realized he had to create a foundation upon which his work could stand and be understood on its own terms. At the time, Chin says the only known Chinese American writing came in the form of autobiographies or cookbooks. He was the first in print to strip away the stereotypes to expose their roots in literature and pop culture, the first to identify Charlie Chan as a degrading sissy stereotype and to interview the surviving actors who played Chan, the first to penetrate the illogic behind the myth of the dual personality (“I'm Chinese, because I like chow mein and American because I like spaghetti”), and the first to identify racist love as the equally malignant flip side of racist hate. He and the co-editors of the 1974 literary declaration of independence, Aiiieeeee!, defined Asian America to be neither something foreign from Asia nor White American, but its own distinct sensibility. Chin says of the title: “That was in the late sixties, when rhetoric counted for a lot. We didn't want it to sound like medicine. The long-awaited follow-up, The Big Aiiieeeee! has just been published.

“We knew we were ignorant. So while Jeff Chan, Lawson Inada, Shawn Wong, and myself are all very talented people, we realized that even pooling our ignorance, all we'd have would be a pool of ignorance. Our style, our wit, our flair with language were no substitutes for knowledge. We were confronted with the question: Why is it that after a hundred years of being here there's only a handful of writers? We just did not accept the view that our people were too busy making a living to get involved in art or writing. This made no sense at all. In every culture, in every civilization, trying times, times of confusion, of question, of adventure, produces art rather than suppresses it. So before we committed ourselves to saying our people were just too lazy or too dumb or too busy to produce art, especially writing, we had to check it out. We just went into every used bookstore we could, looked under the Cs, the Ls and the Ws, and any Chinese name, any Asian name, we bought the book, took it home and read it.” The band of literary outlaws republished pioneer writers John Okada and Louis Chu and reintroduced them to the world of American letters.

Their research extended to the collection of oral histories from Asian actors in Hollywood and from Chinese and Japanese American communities on the West Coast and New York, to make up for the lack of Asian American history from an Asian American point of view. They organized the first-ever Asian American writers conferences in Oakland and Seattle, to bring together people “developing new language out of old words.”

For fifteen years Chin was best known as the first Asian American to have his plays, The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon (1981), produced on the New York stage. Dragon was televised on PBS. Chin wrote Chickencoop for money to escape from the island of Maui, where he'd planned to make a go of it amongst Hawaii's Asian majority population: “I discovered Hawaii was the classic colony, run by retired master sergeants and chief petty officers.” He entered a playwriting contest sponsored by a showcase theater for Asian American actors in Hollywood. “East/West Players gave me the prize, but the other people in the theater, other than Mako [the theater's artistic director], were afraid of the play. They wouldn't do it. They said it was too difficult, and they were scared of it—just in those words. It was the first work really to deal with Asian American self-contempt.”

Lacking trained actors willing or able to perform in new work, Chin founded the Asian American Theater Workshop in San Francisco, with rehearsal space and scholarships from the American Conservatory Theater. Chin envisioned it as the West Coast equivalent of Ireland's Abbey Theater, a cauldron in which he would work with other writers to forge a new literary sensibility based not on the stereotype but on Asian American integrity. Chin now will have nothing do with Asian American theater or actors. “The fame junkles won out,” he says simply. “I became too controversial. I took too long to get work up. I just did not satisfy the fame junkies' need for fame and self-gratification. It's a meat market for cuts of Yellow. They don't want to be Yellow. They want Whites to buy them and take them home.” He feels the nation's Asian American theater groups have gone on to produce a body of irrelevant work.

Chin's imagination was next captured by the campaign to win redress for Japanese Americans incarcerated in American concentration camps in World War II. “I thought Japanese America had recovered its conscience and was at last making a stand for Japanese American integrity and reclaiming its history. I thought it was bold.” As a freelance journalist Chin knew a good story. He discovered the Japanese American Citizens League, having publicly raised the issue, didn't know how to answer its critics or mount an effective media campaign. “I said, oh man, this is not a professional outfit.”

California Senator S. I. Hayakawa had quickly branded the idea of redress as “ridiculous” and claimed Japanese Americans were interned for their own safety. Consistent with his view of life as war, Chin appeared on the doorsteps of Japanese American friends and gravely announced, “You lose redress, you lose Japanese American history. You lose history, you can kiss Japanese American art goodbye.” Japanese Americans in Seattle recruited him to plan and organize a mass demonstration dramatizing the deeply-felt but timid support for redress among a people who feared White backlash. Where previous camp pilgrimages had drawn at most a few hundred, Chin directed the formation of car caravans to hometown detention centers outside Seattle and Portland that drew thousands of people who did not want to see their history distorted or forgotten.

Japanese Americans had never seen anything like it, and thousands more were emboldened to pitch in five dollars each to take out a paid ad Chin ghost-wrote for The Washington Post publicly denouncing Hayakawa, a Japanese Canadian who had never himself spent a day in camp, and correcting his history. The ad was another success. But conservative Japanese American farmers in Idaho who themselves were never interned blocked Chin's proposal to build a replica guard tower at the site of the former camp at Minidoka, Idaho—a prop around which Chin envisioned people solemnly gathering and then burning it to the ground, while participants read poems and tossed their government name tags into a bonfire of symbolic purification.

Chin's research led to the recovery of another story that had been falsified or buried: the existence of an organized resistance movement at the camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where sixty-three men refused military service until their rights were first restored and their parents released from camp. “We have all read this stuff good and bad by Japanese Americans who say, ‘We went into camp without protest and resistance because we were too Japanese.’ Some make poetry out of it. Now they don't have to do that.” Chin is working on a book that explores “what it means now almost fifty years later to discover that, contrary to the stereotype, Japanese Americans did protest and resist the camps and that these people are still alive today. We have the facts, we have the living proof. But I see no movement by Japanese American writers to say, ‘the nightmare is over.’”

Chin's new work on Japanese America and his tracing of the origins of the Christian Chinese stereotype appear in his introductory call-to-arms in The Big Aiiieeeee!, “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake”—the real being the verifiable facts of history, along with the fairy tales of what he calls the universal Asian childhood.

What's fake, he says, is the Christian stereotype of Asia as being morally opposite to the West, and thereby morally inferior: “The stereotype comes not from a grain of truth but from the Christian necessity to preserve the one god, the one true religion, to defend the primacy of Christendom as the only true civilization. The stereotype is that we came over as sojourners, with no intention of settling; therefore, our legitimacy as an American people is at question, if our intentions were ignoble to begin with. That Chinese culture is passive in comparison to the West, submissive in comparison to the West, physically cowardly in comparison to the West. That it consists of smart, sometimes brilliant Yellow men, who are unoriginal, unassertive, not aggressive, and sexually despicable; and accessible, pathological White racist Yellow women who stand on the corner and say in variously sophisticated ways, ‘Hey sailor.’ That Chinese and Japanese culture are so misogynistic they don't deserve to survive. That Asian culture is anti-individualistic, mystic, passive, collective. And that the only good Chinese are Christian.”

“Every Chinese American book ever published in the United States of America by a major publisher has been a Christian autobiography or autobiographical novel,” Chin declares in The Big Aiiieeeee! The autobiography, he maintains, does not exist in Chinese literature. “The autobiography is a literary descendant of the confession. The confession is a Christian religious form. The first autobiography is credited to Augustine, whose book was titled the Confessions. Confession is an act of submission; you cannot confess without admitting guilt to something.” The original sin for Chinese Americans seeking assimilation is their Chineseness. The paradigm of the Christian confession, he says, is “I was fallen, now I am saved.” The paradigm of the Chinese American autobiography: “I was Chinese, I wish I were White American, I am X-Y-Z closer to being American now because Americans accept me, because I have gone through some conversion or transformation and am leaving the Chinese behind me. The first Chinese autobiography, ever, is by Yung Wing in 1909. Christian.” In a 1975 letter to Chin, Maxine Hong Kingston admitted she was pressured by her publisher to make Woman Warrior (1976, 1990) a memoir, not a novel, in order to make it more salable.

Chin is vehement on the subject of Christianity. “We're talking about the enemy that destroyed my culture, my civilization, my history. The history of Chinese America, the history of Chinatown, is not written in Chinese names. It is written in the names of the Chinese missionaries who wrote the Chinese out of history. These people might have had good intentions, but they destroyed us in the name of their god. Not in the name of our good, but in the name of their god. And to a large degree they've succeeded.”

Chin places the work of Kingston, Amy Tan, and David Henry Hwang squarely in that tradition. Of Kingston's Woman Warrior: “She says the written Chinese character for ‘woman’ and ‘slave’ is the same word. Well, she's nuts.” Of Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife (1991): “Tan does not see the kitchen god's story is a love story. She has to make him a lucky man and turn him into his wife's oppressor. She has to twist the story to make her point.” Of Hwang's play, F.O.B.: “Kwan Kung, the god of writers and fighters, gets down on his hands and knees and begs for White acceptance. Kwan Kung would never do that. Hwang repeats Kingston's lie about Chinese brutally tattooing messages on the backs of women. Fake work breeds fake work.” Such differences are more than the triflings of a purist; they represent the fundamental moral premises of those works.

“We especially need to know the fairy tales now because the Christians are waging war on just that body of literature. In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan is attacking all Chinese fairy tales as teaching that ‘the worth of a woman is measured by the loudness of her husband's belch.’ No one bothers to go check the body of Chinese fairy tales to see if there is such a fairy tale or if the fairy tales do teach that, and it bothers me greatly that there are Chinese Americans in this country, in my town, in my face, who tell me it doesn't matter. These same Chinese Americans will stand up for the integrity of Shakespeare's Hamlet, will get very upset if I write Little Red Riding Hood as a bisexual slut doing things with animals. They will protect White literature, but they don't care if Kingston violates the Ballad of Mulan. They don't care if Amy Tan mucks over the kitchen god. They don't care if Gus Lee characterizes all of Chinese culture according to the same old stereotypes. What matters to them is the acceptance of these writers, not the content and effect of their work. That is the behavior of people who are no longer a people, of a people without an identity, without a history, that are a people in name only. There is no substance to the Asian America they talk about. They have no literature, no text, nothing they can stand for.” It enrages him to learn that Kingston's revisionist work is being used in some schools to teach Chinese American history and culture, while “the fairy tales she falsifies” are not.

Chin frequently grows weary of this kind of explication, which he regards as having to explain the ABCs over and over again, yet he's generously given up hundreds of hours to writers and students who consult him on the phone. His setting of standards by which to measure the integrity of Asian American writing has predictably earned its share of resentment among others who feel “that I'm dictating to them, that I'm censoring them. The Big Aiiieeeee! is probably the most rumored-about book in Asian America. I'm sure Asian American Studies is ready to pounce on it and tear it to pieces, and I daresay they will not take it on its own terms. They will not consider the scholarship, they will not consider the texts. They will approach it saying that perspective counts more than fact or text. And that is just intellectually not ethical.”

Some journalists have chosen to reduce Chin's aesthetics to a matter of rivalry, or worse, jealousy. Chin is certainly uncompromising. But jealous? He's known for years his work is no picnic. “The only thing that would make me jealous is if I didn't have a book out. I have books out now, so I'm happy. I'm successful in that sense. My work is available, not as available and accessible as others, but you know, it's there, it's there. And I dare say my presence is felt. My name might not be mentioned, but I don't think there is an Asian American writer alive now or for the next fifty years who will not feel me breathing down their neck. Maybe even drooling. All because I point to the real. I'm not pointing at my own work. My work points to the real.”

Donald Duk is one of four novels by Chinese Americans published this year. Chin notes the others were born of agents looking for the next Amy Tan, and publishers willing to pay big money advances for books by Tan, Gus Lee, and Gish Jen—in Lee's case before a word had been written. “At least for Asian Americans this is the way books are being written. Agents are making the deals. And what the agents see as being commercial is the autobiography and the Christian stereotype. I think what is interesting is the consistency of the vision, the consistency of the portrayal, the consistency of the stereotype [in those books]. And that consistency was detected by the agents in these writers.”

Donald Duk saw print only after he'd sent a collection of his short stories to the agent handling The Big Aiiieeeee! “I got a nasty letter back from her saying, ‘I only handle commercial writers—‘commercial’ underlined three times, written in big letters—and I am not commercial, and she says this several times on both sides of the paper and sends my trash back to me. Some rabid dog came by my house dragging a package that was tied to its tail with cans.” Another agent in the same office liked his manuscript and brought it with her when she got a job as an editor at Minnesota's Coffee House Press. The success of that collection, The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R. R. Co. (1988), led to Donald Duk. (Chin never noticed there was a comma missing from the published title of the short story collection. It's too late to change now but he says it should have read like a series of three railroad destinations.)

As an antidote to what he calls the “crybaby victims of the Christian stereotype,” Chin has strategically appropriated the autobiographical form to ghost-write the life story of Ruby Chow, whom he says Chinese regard as the most powerful Chinese American woman in the world. She's known for her rise to control the male-only tongs in Seattle's Chinatown, and for making Seattle the world stronghold of Cantonese opera following the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Though it's an autobiographical “as told to” account, Chin says there's nothing confessional about it, no appeal for White acceptance. “If anything, I have to tone down her bragging. It's the story of an accomplished person; it's conscious self-mythmaking, all action, like a chapter in the heroic tradition. There's nothing artsy about it.” Chin is also working on several novels.

Early in his career Chin might have fancied himself as the Lone Ranger, whom he imagined in Chickencoop Chinaman as wearing a mask to hide his Chinaman eyes, riding for Chinaman vengeance in the Old West. Now he's more likely to identify with Lin Chong, one of the 108 outlaws of the marsh, an honest man outlawed by jealous officials, as he continues on the adventure of discovery and recovery he began twenty years ago.

“I'm no messiah. I don't present myself as a role model. I don't recommend to anybody that they live like me. Most of the time I wish I weren't living like me! I want readers, not a cult. I don't like the idea of writers as stars, writers as celebrities. I think that is partly why I work so hard at being obnoxious. I cultivate my rotten personality to distinguish it from the writing. I am difficult to like as a person. I do not encourage friendships, and this gives me the anonymity, the freedom of the writer to move about as I please. I have to be able to ride into town and ride out without leaving a mark. People will only later discover I've stolen all the silverware.”

Manini Samarth (review date 1992)

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SOURCE: “Affirmations: Speaking the Self into Being,” in Parnassus, Vol. 17, No. 1, 1992, pp. 88-101.

[In the following excerpt, Samarth traces how Chin reclaims Asian-American identity in Donald Duk, but asserts that the book is essentially a novel about male identity.]

Calcutta, 1967

A memory: a rush of summer air flirting the leaves into consternation; sunlight boiling off the tarmac; a comma-row of crows deepening telephone wires—black punctuation, visual speech; the roadside littoral of gnarled tree roots in frozen spasms; open manholes breathing fevered stench; traffic snarled in crazy geometry; peeling houses like yellowed postcards, imprints of a better time. On the tatters of this city, heat falls like brocade.

I turn left into a suddenly bicycle-busy street. Coolie hats and black-cloth shoes ease the glare of circulating metal spokes. A sign greets me: “Happy Heaven Chinese Restaurant. Mr. Wong, proprietor.” For a moment I am dazzled as light and color scattershot around me; pink and magenta lanterns swing from poles; shop windows pirouette in silk screens and bright confections; firecrackers explode into giant flowerpods of smoke. I turn the latch to the restaurant door and walk into a darkened room so still that my voice plays back to me as I call for Mr. Wong. Now I see that I am dreaming.

Days later, while researching the Great Wall of China for a school project, I finally meet Mr. Wong. I imagine him and tell him what to say. He is tubby and disappointingly businesslike in a shiny brown rayon suit, not at all the blazing Fu Manchu I had anticipated. He sniffs pointedly and refuses to be so imagined, so I give up. While we share a cup of tea in the dark restaurant, and speak of our hopes and dreams—the Indian girl in Chinatown, the Chinese man in Calcutta—Mr. Wong abruptly puts his hands together and says, “You, me—same. Same.” He says it first with a Chinese accent, then in an Indian lilt, finally with a British frog-in-the-mouth seriousness. Before I can register a response on his views regarding our kinship (in all three accents), we suddenly turn fluid and disappear, puff, into smoky flowerpods.

These days in America I remember Mr. Wong not as an uncooperative figment but with affection, as if he were an old friend. I better understand the unlighted restaurant in a sea of heat and color. I grew up and crossed the ocean to decipher the dream, a long journey to resolve an unreal visit.

Here in a Midwestern town, I look for Mr. Wong in minor events and things, hoping that a turn of leaves, a latch on the door, a cup of tea, will unlock the past and open the future for me. I am given to signs and meanings, Providence in the fall of a sparrow, money in the itching palm of a hand. My greatest trials as a new immigrant in the U.S. are in my smallest gestures—when I attempt to weave significance into daily rituals to create meaning. These trivial acts, I think, are codified struggles to define a sense of self, beginning as we immigrants do, without a transportable culture and family. Identity by accumulation, perhaps. My sense of self is further challenged by my learned idea of an Indian woman, by now absorbed into my skin like permanent lotion. Obedience, deference, attention: These are the masks. Silence, cunning, and exile: These are the strategies for survival.

How appropriate then that I gravitate to books for meaning, those rich and constant promises of meaning. In these, I see my life uncurl and expand, my strategies refine into prose. For those of us dispossessed of the past, dreams and words become our white-tipped canes, tapping us to light and life.

Little wonder that Frank Chin's Donald Duk became for me an emblem of my buried self: In the pointedly named 12-year old Donald Duk I see the color and vibrancy of a Calcutta street; in his father King, the dark room of a restaurant. Light and dark, space and enclosure—these are the contradictory dual realms the immigrant inhabits. On the one hand, he lives in an open and lighted world where he makes conscious, active attempts to assimilate; on the other, he contemplates a return through memory to a darker and narrower time. V. S. Naipaul (In a Free State, 1971) calls this the “pure time” of myth, “when the ancient artist, knowing no other land, had learned to look at his own and had seen it as complete.”

Chin personifies this duality in the oppositions of father and son. The father, immured in his dark world of myth, derives his sense of identity from a legendary “pure time,” glorying in the exploits of the 108 outlaws led by Lee Kuey.1 In honor of the outlaws, King builds 108 model airplanes which he plans to launch on the most auspicious day of the New Year. The fiery symbolism of this act invokes the mythic Chinese do-or-die machismo, while contrasting with the self-serving Anglo-Saxon interpretation of Chinese character:

[The Chinese] were made passive and non assertive by centuries of Confucian thought and Zen mysticism. They were totally unprepared for the violently individualistic and democratic Americans … the timid and introverted Chinese have been helpless against the relentless victimization by aggressive, highly competitive Americans. (2)

King Duk also plays Kwan Kung, the god of fighters, and the most powerful character in the Cantonese opera. To play Kwan Kung demands an ascetic intensity, a paring away of all that is inessential to the role, a recognition of and reverence for the “pure time.” King Duk explains to Donald that “you gotta keep the history or lose it forever. That's the mandate of Heaven” (p. 123). The mandate of Heaven is defined by the will of the people, which in turn evolves from their successful remembrance and celebration of a glorious past. King Duk attempts to reconnect himself to the “pure time” through role playing Kwan Kung and building model airplanes, attempts that allow his invisible life to triumph. In myth, he becomes one with the old Chinese heroes and assumes his proud selfhood; in reality, however, he remains merely a good-natured Chinese chef, pleasantly detached from white society.

In contrast, Donald Duk, resentful of his father's refusal to change his embarrassingly ethnic ways, identifies entirely with mainstream America. An “engineer of hate for everything Chinese,” he does all he can to will himself as white as Fred Astaire, his hero, or Arnold Azalea, his friend. Lacking any real understanding of his history and culture, Donald Duk even avoids the other Chinese at school, so intent is he on assimilation. The past is nothing more to him than a series of unrelated curiosities, a sideshow for his curious Anglo-Saxon friends in Mr. Meanwright's history class. Myth itself intervenes to guide Donald Duk to a coherent understanding of selfhood. In dreams he returns to the year 1869, to relive the triumphs of the record track-laying Chinese laborers who worked their way through the Sierra Nevada to construct the Central Pacific Railroad. Donald Duk sees that the Chinese were slighted, their glory stolen by their white masters, their memory all but erased from history books. In a perhaps overly neat resolution intended to dramatize the novelist's didactic purpose, Donald Duk and Arnold Azalea burst into history class with documentary evidence of the true heroism of the laborers, followed closely by King Duk, the dancing Kwan Kung. Kwan Kung's clashing cymbals celebrate the end of the father-son conflicts now stridently and triumphantly brought into harmony: King sees the need for Donald to reach out to his friends, to the Anglo-Saxon majority; Donald understands the value of his heritage. The restoration of the father-son relationship also unifies the inner/outer and myth/action polarities that the two characters personify. These unities are voiced at the closure when Donald discovers “You don't have to give up being Chinese to be American.”

Though Chin deftly reconciles plot and character, he uses language more obliquely to probe his Chinese-American identity. His choice of a cartoon character name for the protagonist is scarcely arbitrary. In naming Donald Duck, Chin defines the tension between perception and reality; how the Anglo-Saxons see the Chinese and what the Chinese perceive themselves to be are at odds. We know that epithets flung in derision can become symbols of rebellion and strength. When the outsider wears his label as a lapel, he parodies himself in an act of confident aggression, telling the powerful dispensers of value that he cares little for their interpretations of worth. So, as advised by his father, when Donald Duk waddles down the street in an imitation of his cartoon namesake to keep off the neighborhood bullies, he controls the means of his selfhood; he transforms mockery and powerlessness into self-creation. Absorbing the degrading Anglo-Saxon gaze through self-parody, Donald Duk refashions and defuses their contempt into shared humor. In this way, naming itself becomes a means of re-appropriating identity, a technique echoing Chin's thematic reconciliations of opposites: Just as Donald Duk revises the Anglo-Saxon version of Chinese American history by revealing new truths in the dismissive railroad story, he remakes himself by finding proud resonances in a derogatory name.

Unfortunately, no such self-affirming transformations occur with Donald's mother, Daisy Duk. Also named after a cartoon character, she remains a peripheral figure, an amiable caricature who never confronts or transcends the comical implications of her name. The contrast between Donald's active indignation and Daisy's passive acceptance underscores Chin's problematic attitude toward his women characters. In fact, the weakness in Chin's otherwise admirable effort to unify plot, character, and language is that he excludes the contributions of Chinese women altogether. Donald Duk is essentially a novel about the evolving male Chinese-American self. Women play little part in the action and contribute even less to the dialogue. When Donald's mother, his sisters Venus and Penelope, and the Frog twins speak, they fall into sitcom patter, removed from the challenges of life and cocooned in two-dimensional inanity.

“[Nothing is] more disgusting than that toy collie getting run over by a Pontiac GTO when we were trying to cross Broadway …” Venus says.


“You would have to remember that!”


“You're the one who said disgusting, Mom.”


“That car's tires were so fat and that dog was so little!”


“That's exactly what I said just before the Pontiac stopped on it,” Penny says.


“Do you remember it crunched?”


“Please, ladies,” Mom says, “Your mother is eating.”


“Pardonay moowah, poor fah-vor, Chef Boyardee.”


“How very continental of you.” (148–149)

Language, for the women, is lighthearted evasion—a means of side-stepping lives unlived except in the froth and bubble of repartée. Bystanders and witnesses, they juggle and tumble words, providing the kind of cute sideshow Donald Duk had himself rebelled against in the skewed Anglo-Saxon descriptions of Chinese culture. Worse, we are feted to a gratuitous diatribe against T.V. news-caster Connie Chung and freewheeling editorials on bumbling female physiology:

The twins have most of their waffles in their mouths and swallow, making all the noises in their mouths and throats they can, and smack their lips, then daintily wipe their lips and fingers with their napkins dipped in their water glasses.


“I think that's the most disgusting thing I have ever seen,” Mom says. (148)

Women attack women; the sisters flail Chung and the mother demolishes the twins, forming a subculture of gender-determined jealousy and spite. This dated inheritance from the era before the Women's Movement exposed its sexist bias is the way Chin's male characters believe women describe other women. That Chin subscribes, however humorously, to such a short-sighted attitude is even more disconcerting because it jars against his otherwise meticulous attempts at piecing the novel into a whole.

Note

  1. Donald Duk's uncle describes Lee Kuey as one of the mythic 108 “Chinese Robin Hoods” who built a stronghold on Mount Leongshan against the “bad guys” in the government of the Water Margin. Lee Kuey, or “the Black Tornado,” more than lives up to his name; bloodied and dripping, he “runs into a fight with a thirty-pound battle axe in each hand. He loves to fight and kill people.” A symbol of Chinese manhood, Lee Kuey is King's inspiration and alter ego. That Donald Duk destroys one of King's cherished model airplanes named after Lee Kuey is significant because his gesture underscores the father-son conflict. Donald Duk aims to destroy the Chinese part of his identity, while King assumes his selfhood in his cultural past.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 June 1994)

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Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 June 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Gunga Din Highway, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXII, No. 12, June 15, 1994, p. 789.

[In the following review, the critic complains that Chin's Gunga Din Highway fails to hold the reader's interest.]

With his brilliant first novel, Donald Duk (1991), playwright Chin accomplished what Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan could not: used Chinese-American culture as a springboard into original and hilarious art. What next?

Eccentric movie star [in Gunga Din Highway,] Longman Kwan can frequently be seen playing Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Charlie Chan's Number Four Son. Now he wants to be the first Chinese actor to play Charlie himself. In an America where even the Chinese don't take this detective seriously, Longman's plea for the role is a plea for credibility as a person and as an actor. His wife's family criticizes him for choosing Hollywood over traditional Chinese opera, and his sons want little to do with him. Once again, a fascinating premise. The only trouble is that, by page 50, Longman has stepped offstage in favor of his son Ulysses, who's often seen through the eyes of various friends. Scenes of Ulysses in Chinese school or lost in the muddle of racial unrest are memorable, yet the life they describe fails to hold our interest. Chin sets up a situation whereby readers identify with Longman and then are forced to wait for 300 pages—alleviated by only a few cameos—for him to reappear in earnest. When the focus shifts back to a dying Longman, some dozing readers will snap to attention. Bits of the book's dense middle begin to come together, but it's too little, too late. A novel this massive requires a strong plot, which Chin, vacillating between linear narrative and a disastrous hopping about, fails to provide. One wishes he had cut out the book's bulky middle, then filled in the gap with a continued focus on the father-son struggle that first caught our attention.

Second novel slump? Let's hope so.

Ben Pleasants (review date 18 December 1994)

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SOURCE: “Life with a Hyphen,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 18, 1994, pp. 3, 9.

[In the following review, Pleasants lauds Chin's Gunga Din Highway as “a complex and compelling work that takes us deep into the multicultural fabric of America.”]

Frank Chin's new novel, Gunga Din Highway, is not an effort that fits comfortably into any fiction category. Labeling it a Chinese-American rite of passage is too simplistic; calling it cultural satire is too limiting.

The surrealist opening in Honolulu is more like comic opera. Longman Kwan, whose movie roles have earned him the nickname “The Chinaman Who Dies,” is on a search for his putative father, the fourth and last Charlie Chan, Kwan, on a break from playing bad guys in “Hawaii Five-O,” has had a career that takes us down the Memory Lane of Hollywood's Asian stereotypes. He began as a Pearl Buckish peasant boy who dies in the arms of William Bendix. During World War II, when all the Japanese actors were corralled at Manzanar, Kwan plays Japanese pilots who crash into the rising sun yelling, “Aiiyyeee.” But his most famous role is that of Charlie Chan's gum-popping, wisecracking No. 4 Son. Longman Kwan is now obsessed with the idea of playing the first Chinese Charlie Chan. He finds the (fictional) successor to Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters running a porno palace in the slums of Honolulu, hiding from Chinese-American radicals. Anlauf Lorane, a Belgian in real life, wants nothing to do with the new project. “Pornography is my life,” he exclaims.

From the rubble of Hollywood's B movies, Frank Chin's narrative swerves back to reality, which, for Chin, is the mean streets of urban America. Ulysses S. Kwan, Longman's second son, is growing up in the confusing world of multicultural Oakland, living with his divorced mother, far from Hollywood, above the kitchens of a Chinese hotel. He hates his famous father, “The Chinaman Who Dies,” but he loves American movies, those that have no Chinese cast members. Spencer Tracy becomes his new father.

Chin uses the perspectivism of Virginia Woolf, switching his narrative back and forth between Ulysses Kwan and his two cousins, Benedict Han, an opportunist who later becomes a playwright, and Diego Chang, a soulful musician who talks black and plays flamenco guitar. The three form a childhood bond, and Chin follows them out of Chinatown, away from their limited prospects, out into the contentious battlefields of Off-Broadway theater, mainstream American journalism and pop-music revelries.

Chin's most delightful sections rev like a Harley through the Day-Glo '60s. Benedict Han changes his name and writes a controversial play, “Fu Manchu Play Flamenco,” dragging Charlie Chan's grandson in as an actor. Chin has fun with the demon critics of New York, the oversexed groupies of Greenwich Village, and the Warholian blankness of the era.

Reaching an absolute nirvana of absurdity during the Black Power struggles in Oakland, Chin captures the madness of the moment as Diego Chang declares himself “commandant of the Chinatown Black Tigers as a joke,” fashioning a marching song from The Mickey Mouse Club:

Who's the leader of the Party made for you and me?


Em Ay Oh, Tee Ess Eeh, Tee Eeh Yoo Enn Gee.


Mao Tse Tung, Mao Tse Tung, etc.

The joke ends when the War on Poverty money starts rolling in and Diego Chang is stuck in the role of Chinatown guru. Only his love of music and a ticket to Maui save him.

There is also a wonderful, quasi-Woodstock denouement in Washington State, where father and son come together, though they never meet. Longman Kwan has returned as No. 4 Son trading jokes with the last Charlie Chan as MCs of the rock festival. Ulysses and his cousin Diego glower in the background as radical hippie rockers.

Gunga Din Highway is a complex and compelling work that takes us deep into the multicultural fabric of America. It is not a sellout, exotic novel for Anglos. As a hyphenated American whose life often falls between the cracks of his dual identity, Chin warns: “Chinese morality, called Confucian morality, is not built on a foundation of faith … but on knowledge. Life is war. In war it's what you know, not what you believe, that wins battles.”

In a work of the first rank, Frank Chin opens the door to real people who happen to have an Asian ancestry, and he tells us what they are not: “Weepily the little Gunga Din asks, ‘Who'll take care of me now?' John Wayne puts the dead soldier's green beret on little Gunga Din's head. ‘That's my problem now, little Green Beret.’”

Robert Murray Davis (review date Spring 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of Gunga Din Highway, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 360-61.

[In the following review, Davis praises Chin's Gunga Din Highway.]

Frank Chin's ideal reader will have seen every movie at least from M to Wild in the Streets and be able to imagine some he makes up, like Charlie Chan in Winnemucca, Night of the Hollywood Living Dead, and, most important, Anna May Wong, featuring an all-Chinese bomber crew, ethnics as heroes; he would also be fully acquainted with Sun Tzu's Art of War, The Water Margin, all of Chinese mythology, and Cantonese opera, and would know enough about literature to recognize an extrapolation from W. H. Auden's “As I Walked Out One Evening” and an adaptation of Hemingway's “Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Knowing something about Chin's life and other writings would also be helpful.

Readers with few or none of these advantages need not feel abashed if they are willing to hold on for a ride [in Gunga Din Highway,] that takes them from the Mother Lode country of California during World War II to the coffeehouses of San Francisco in the 1950s, then to Seattle riots and a rock-flamenco-blues festival and a radical group in the late 1960s whose marching song extols Mao Tse-tung to the tune of the Mickey Mouse Club song, then to off-Broadway and the ornamental orientalia of a woman writer who gets the Chinese creation story confused with Pandora's box in the 1970s, then to middle age and disillusion in the 1980s, and finally to bizarre genealogical revelations in the 1990s that do not really affect Ulysses Kwan, wandering descendant of the Chinese god of fighters and writers named after Joyce's novel, who has no home to go to. It is a good ride.

As if to refuse the stereotypic view that Chinese never say “I,” the story is told by four first-person narrators, all of whom talk with considerable energy and a wide range of allusion. It begins with the quest of Ulysses' father, Longman Kwan, to be the first Chinese to play Charlie Chan after a long career in movies as Chan's Number Four Son and as “the Chinaman who dies.” Ulysses, the third brother exiled for reasons not revealed until the final pages, rejects his father's desire to take on “the image of the perfect Chinese American to lead the yellows to build the road to acceptance towards assimilation.” Ulysses and his friends, closer than brothers, are enjoined by their Chinese schoolteacher that “you must master all the knowledge of heaven and earth … so as to see the difference between the real and the fake.” The boys feel special: “All things were possible. No guilt. We were pure self-invention.”

Ulysses, the strategist, tries to avoid becoming the grandson of Chan, but, ironically, the pseudonym of the author of The Art of War is “the Grandson.” He becomes the (figure)head of his extended family, inherits his father's only honest film, Anna May Wong, and at the end escapes from the movie-haunted vision of his conception, from Chinatown, and from the obligations that would hold him. A friend pronounces the intercultural valedictory: “Life is war. … Let the good times roll.” It is. They do.

Wen-ching Ho (review date Fall 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Gunga Din Highway, in Amerasia Journal, Vol. 22, No. 2, Fall, 1996, pp. 158-61.

[In the following review, Ho praises Chin's Gunga Din Highway, asserting that, “Chin adroitly weaves his ideological design or agenda into an intriguing saga of two generations of the Kwan family.”]

Three years after the publication of Donald Duk, Frank Chin turned out an ambitious novel of satire and protest pointedly called Gunga Din Highway. While Donald Duk attempts to reconstruct an alternative history of early Chinese Americans' heroic deeds concerning railroad construction, Gunga Din Highway deals mainly with Chinese America's predominant attitude toward Hollywood film industry's deliberate misrepresentation and underrepresentation of Chinese Americans and their culture. This attitude involves the Chinese American's adoption and internalization of the white man's cultural values with a view to being accepted by the mainstream society. In other words, Chin aims to dispel the Hollywood-molded stereotype of Charlie Chan that has come to dominate Asian American mentality.

To demonstrate the powerful influence of Charlie Chan, Frank Chin makes him the ancestor of Chinese America while parodying the Christian creation through the mouth of his Fourth Son, the father of our protagonist Ulysses Kwan:

As God the Father gave up a son in the image of the perfect white man, to lead whites to walk the path of righteousness toward salvation, and praise God, so the White Man gave up a son in the image of the perfect Chinese American to lead the yellows to build the road to acceptance toward assimilation. Ah, sweet assimilation. Charlie Chan was his name. (13)

“The road to acceptance toward assimilation” is, in all likelihood, what Frank Chin means by “Gunga Din Highway.” A recurring icon, Gunga Din is the title character of Rudyard Kipling's famous ballad, whose film version directed by George Stevens (1939) reappears near the end of the novel. He is an Indian water boy who helps the British army fight against his own people. Chin appropriates this icon to criticize Asian American artists who fake or distort Chinese tradition.

To Chin's mind, Asian Americans who achieve fame and wealth at the expense of their racial selves or cultural tradition are all Gunga Dins. Their numbers in the novel are legion, but the most conspicuous ones are Ulysses' father, his blood brother Benedict Han, and Ben's wife Pandora Toy. Longman Kwan not only plays the part of Charlie Chan's son but he also lives the part of Charlie Chan, for he has been converted to Christianity and become Americanized. If Gunga Din keeps dreaming of being admitted into the British army in India, Longman's lifelong wish is to be the first Chinese to play Charlie Chan. Predictably, his dream to earn the right of cinematic representation remains unfulfilled. As his American-born wife Hyacinth prophetically declares: “A Chinese man will star as a Chinese man in a Hollywood movie! Never!” (36).

Unlike Ulysses, who grows up despising his father and the movies he dies in, young Benedict Han is attracted to Longman as well as to the movies in which he either dies or says “Gee, Pop!” and “Gosh, Pop!,” the two funny utterances which significantly constitute the subtitles of the two sections in Part One. Later on when Ben speaks in defense of Pandora Toy, then his fiancée, his “Gunga Din complex,” to use the term coined by Lee Yu-cheng (“The Spectre of Charlie Chan: The Problem of Representation in Gunga Din Highway,Politics of Representation and Chinese American Literature, Taipei: Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica, forthcoming), is brought into bold relief. In “A Neurotic Exotic Erotic Orientoxic,” Pandora advertises her hatred of Chinese tradition which she says considers belching at the dinner table good manners. Moreover, she willfully distorts the Chinese men as effeminate and sexually unattractive. Frank Chin must have Maxine Hong Kingston in mind while creating the character of Pandora, for there are a number of parodic references to Kingston's works. To cite one example, Pandora later takes Ben's contemplative Christian confession and turns it into a memoir of her girlhood entitled Conqueror Woman. Viewed in this light, Gunga Din Highway is a rejoinder to Kingston's parody of Frank Chin in Tripmaster Monkey.

But Gunga Din Highway is not just a literary response to the gender conflict concerning the politics of authenticity and cultural representation. Chin adroitly weaves his ideological design or agenda into an intriguing saga of two generations of the Kwan family. In wielding his double-edged sword at the Hollywood industry which has persistently denied minorities' right of self-representation as well as at those Chinese American accomplices of white racism, Chin creates an immigrant Chinese who has achieved fame in Hollywood by playing the foolish and subservient role of Charlie Chan's Number Four Son or of The Chinaman Who Dies. But instead of centering on the Hollywood actor, the saga focuses on the odyssey of his orphan-like son Ulysses by a bigamous marriage. Apart from its rambling subplots, the novel's main plot contains a compelling portrait of Ulysses as a young artist, brakeman, hippie, actor and writer.

Born in 1940, Ulysses spends six happy years with an old white couple, who teach him, amidst the anti-Japanese sentiment, to say that he is “not a Jap kid but an American of Chinese descent.” So the boy starts off identifying himself with the mainstream society. Despite the fact that his parents showed up in 1946 to claim him as their son, he has never felt at home in the Kwan Family. For one thing, he receives virtually no sign of love from his father, who, as a womanizer, stays in Hollywood rather than at home with him and his mother Hyacinth. For another, his inability to speak the Chinese language alienates him from Chinatown.

After attending Chinese school, Ulysses cultivates an enduring friendship with Benedict Han and Diego Chang; they swear an oath of blood brotherhood, like the three brothers of the Oath of the Peach Garden: Lowe Bay, Kwan Kung, and Chang Fay. Just as Kwan Kung is the god of the arts of war, Ulysses grows up to become an artist and fighter. Under the inspiration of his second Chinese school teacher, the Horse, young Ulysses comes to realize the precariousness of his racial identity. Furthermore, the Horse encourages him to learn everything Chinese and American there is to know, “so as to see the difference between the real and the fake, the knowledge of what being neither Chinese nor bokgwai (white European Americans) means” (93). If his mentor's words of encouragement remind the reader of Chin's “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake” (The Big Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature, New York: Meridian, 1991), they set Ulysses on a quest for his cultural and racial identity.

In portraying the quest of his Joycean protagonist, Chin makes him stumble on one discovery after another concerning his father's sexual exploits. For example, he discovers at the age of twelve that apart from the Hero, he has yet another older brother by a woman back in China. Shortly after the death of his mother in a car accident, the thirty-three-year-old Ulysses, now the leading actor of Benedict's play Fu Manchu Plays Flamenco, learns that he was born in a foundling home. Prior to the death of their father, his China Brother Joe Joe Chu reveals to him that Junior, who was brought up by Hyacinth, is actually by another woman. But the most shocking discoveries are disclosed before Junior's death. While he is proclaimed the new male head of the Kwans in the presence of his articulate aunts and their silent husbands, Ulysses is told that the biological mother of the now dying Hero is his grandmother, who turns out to be his father's sister.

Chin's fictional time spans half a century, from early 1940s up to the present, and the fictional space not only covers major cities on both coasts like San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, New York, Roseville and Seattle but includes the islands of Hawaii. Besides its grand-scale temporal and spatial design, the novel also contains an imposing array of characters, but most of them appear only a couple of times. Chin's brilliant vitriolic prose is still tinged with angry wit, but the wrath that marks most of his earlier prose seems less naked and intense.

Another distinctive feature lies in its form. As is indicated in “Author's Note,” Chin structures the novel according to the twin stories of “Poon Goo, the Creator of Heaven” and “Nur Waw, the mother of Humanity,” and he divides it into four parts: “The Creation,” “The World,” “The Underworld,” and “Home.” “The Creation” is duly narrated by the old Fourth Son of Charlie Chan as a guest star in Hawaii shooting TV's Hawaii Five-O, an offender to Asians like The Green Berets, The Sand Pebbles, and many others. Starting from Part Two, the episodic narratives basically move in a chronological order, with more emphasis on the '50s and '60s. With the sole exception of one episode in “Home” recounted by the aged Longman, the impressive number of episodes in the three parts are recounted alternately by Ulysses and his two blood brothers. In addition to heading each episode with the name of its narrator, Chin also provides a subtitle. Some of the subtitles simply date the episodes, a feature suggestive of diaries. Others like “Throw Out a Brick to Catch Gold” (275), “Switch the Guest and the Host at the Table” (289), “Shedding the Skin Like the Golden Cicada” (331), and “Borrow a Corpse to Catch a Soul” (357) are translations of well-known Chinese idioms. But it is sometimes difficult to decipher the connection between a subtitle and the episode proper.

Patricia P. Chu (essay date Autumn 1997)

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SOURCE: “Tripmaster Monkey, Frank Chin, and the Chinese Heroic Tradition,” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 3, Autumn, 1997, pp. 117-39.

[In the following essay, Chu analyzes the critical relationship between Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston and their differing ideas about the role of Chinese texts in Chinese-American literature.]

The reason he had the radio on was that whenever he stopped typing, he heard someone else nearby tapping, tapping at a typewriter, typing through the night. Yes, it was there, steady but not mechanical. … An intelligence was coming up with words. Someone else, not a poet with a pencil or fountain pen but a workhouse big-novel writer, was staying up, probably done composing already and typing out fair copy. It should be a companionable noise, a jazz challenge to which he could blow out the window his answering jazz. But, no, it's an expensive electric machine-gun typewriter aiming at him, gunning for him, to knock him off in competition.

Maxine Hong Kingston, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book

1. CONSTRUCTING ETHNIC HEROISM: THE KINGSTON-CHIN DEBATE

It is no accident that when Wittman Ah Sing, the protagonist of Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, sits up all night to begin his first play, he is haunted by the tapping of a rival's typewriter. His author, Maxine Hong Kingston, has responded to over a decade of hostile criticism by creating Wittman in the image of her harshest critic, Frank Chin. Like Chin, Wittman Ah Sing is a Chinese American playwright, idealistic and enraged over racism, with the persona of an angry young man who can be exasperating—especially in his sexism—but is fundamentally decent. Though this portrait could be considered a personal attack, it is best understood as providing a mediating voice by which Kingston expresses her own anger over American racism. This anger, however, is only one of several concerns that Kingston shares with Chin and explores throughout Tripmaster Monkey.

This essay will read Kingston's novel Tripmaster Monkey in terms of an ongoing debate between Kingston and Frank Chin. This debate, about the proper place of Chinese texts in the construction of an emerging Chinese American literature, has been central to Asian American literary studies.1 It is also crucial to Asian American literature, whose survival and growth depend in part on the writers' ability to inscribe an ethnic consciousness that is distinct from Asian and Euro-American cultures, yet not isolated from them. Also at stake is the question of whether any particular body of literary texts can reasonably be cited as definitive of an ethnic group's consciousness; the selection and significance of particular Chinese texts, which Chin has claimed as definitive of Chinese American ethnic consciousness; his claim that some texts, versions, and readings are “real” while others are “fake”; and, most importantly, who is authorized to determine these issues. In short, I read Tripmaster Monkey as a mediation on the nature of the Chinese “heroic tradition,” as redefined by the two authors, and its relation to Kingston's own authority as a Chinese American woman writer.

Kingston employs various devices to situate Tripmaster Monkey as an American novel set in Berkeley, California, in the sixties, including references to Vietnam, drug culture, local sites, and local writers. Crammed with allusions to Western cultural markers such as James Joyce, Rainer Maria Rilke, Walt Whitman, the Beats, and American pop culture from vaudeville to West Side Story, the novel also incorporates numerous stories from the sixteenth-century Chinese classics Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, and The Journey to the West. In doing so, Kingston engages sympathetically but skeptically with Frank Chin's construction of a Chinese “heroic tradition,” which emphasizes martial heroism and a masculine code of honor.

This “heroic tradition” is best understood as Frank Chin's response to the anti-Asian racism that he and others find rampant in mainstream American culture. In several essays, some co-signed by friends who have co-edited Asian American anthologies with him (Jeffrey Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong), Chin has explored the effects of this racism on the Asian American community, focusing especially on cultural denigrations of Asian masculinity.2 Chin's most influential argument has been that Asian American consciousness and literary production have been hampered by mainstream stereotypes of Asian American as docile, effeminate, and exotic. In a typical passage of the 1970s, Chin bitterly rejects the conditions of whites' “racist love” for Asian Americans:

[I]t is clear that our acceptability, the affection and renown we supposedly enjoy, is not based on any actual achievements or contributions we have made, but on what we have not done. We have not been black. We have not caused trouble. We have not been men.


The Asian culture we are supposedly preserving is uniquely without masculinity; we are characterized as lacking daring, originality, aggressiveness, assertiveness, vitality, and living art and culture. What art and culture we do enjoy is passive in the popular mind—we don't practice it, we preserve it and are sustained by it. And our lack of cultural achievement and expression in America is explained by the fact that we are sustaining a foreign culture …


[O]ur supposed Asian identity is used to exclude us from American culture, and is imposed upon us as a substitute for participation in American culture … (“Backtalk” 556)

While Chin's initial desire to claim American masculinity by rejecting Chinese culture outright is understandable, it contrasts both with Kingston's early, enduring interest in adapting Chinese sources and with Chin's own insistence, starting in 1985, on defining Chinese American cultural identity through heroic Chinese narratives. That year, Chin argued that the rebels and outlaws of certain Chinese classics, handed down through popular forms, were appropriate heroes for modern Asian Americans, especially males. In contrast to Kingston, whose response to cultural exclusion has generally been to recast cultural narratives to be more inclusive, Chin's impulse has been more directly confrontational. Both his critical and his creative work depict American culture as a site of ideological warfare, in which Chinese American and other Asian American communities are being culturally erased. (See, for instance, Chin's novel Donald Duk.) In Chin's words, the resulting choice for Asian American writers is one between “personal integrity” and “historical extinction.” While not all of Chin's claims have been accepted, the existence and effects of anti-Asian racism have been widely discussed and have been framing assumptions for numerous studies, both cultural and material;3 Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey is both a continuation of her own work and another such study. By incorporating a steady analysis of racial dynamics in American culture, and revisiting the Chinese classics, Kingston admits that Chin's desire to inscribe a Chinese American consciousness in American literature, and to expose and counteract demeaning stereotypes of Asian men, also accords with her own goals; but in terms of the Chinese classics, she substantially alters his paradigms and questions his assumptions.

Kingston's novel challenges Chin's readings of heroic texts on two levels. In terms of content, she questions his idealization of this tradition's hypermasculine, martial ethos, the seething “ethic of private revenge.” In terms of Chin's model for literary interpretation, she questions his tendency to portray these Chinese texts as completed verbal icons of Chinese culture and character whose meaning is self-evident; instead, she dramatizes an interactive reading strategy that emphasizes the texts' collaboration with various communities of readers. To borrow Roland Barthes' terms, she favors “writerly” texts, which readers help to “write,” over “readerly” texts, which readers passively consume in traditional “readerly” fashion (Barthes 4).

Kingston's emphasis on the indeterminate, evolving nature of texts is at the heart of Chin's quarrel with her approach to Chinese myths. Throughout her career, she has challenged the authority of both Chinese and American traditions by inscribing Chinese, American, and European narratives into her work, yet transforming and subverting them in ways that have been, or could be, described in terms of feminist revision or postmodern parody.4 Kingston's texts have emphasized the labor of interpreting cultural narratives that may be oppressive, rather than accepting those narratives as authoritative fables whose meaning is self-evident. Her suspicion of dogmatic and prescriptive textual readings, and her postmodernist subversions of such readings, are consistent with her suspicion of institutionalized authority and her awareness of the individual subject's capacity to internalize that authority. By contrast, Frank Chin's polemical essays and some of his fiction and drama tend to construct repressive authority and agency as something monolithic and removed from himself; just as he refuses to scrutinize the more oppressive actions of his Chinese heroes, he tends to deny that he himself might be complicit in the system he attacks, or in any other system of oppression. Whenever he rhetorically positions himself as the sole arbiter of truth, he signals that authority itself is not oppressive to him as long as it is in the right few hands. For Kingston, by contrast, the very ideas of authority and cultural authenticity are suspect.

Chin's strongest disagreement with Kingston's work centers around her liberal adaptations of well-known Chinese stories, which the two writers have referred to as “myths,” to elucidate Chinese American experience. Kingston, best known for her provocative feminist revision of the woman warrior “myth,” has been criticized by Chin for her view of Chinese myths as folklore that has been forgotten, changed, or improvised to comment on new circumstances. Articulating an assumption central to his earlier work, Chin wrote in 1990, “Myths are, by nature, immutable and unchanging because they are deeply ingrained in the cultural memory, or they are not myths. New experience breeds new history, new art, and new fiction. The new experience of the Anglo-Saxon in America did not result in confusing Homer with Joan of Arc but in new stories …” (“Come All …” 29). He has accused Kingston, and others who follow her example of postmodern revisionism, of colluding with white racist stereotypes by portraying the Chinese as less literate and more forgetful of their ancestral culture than other immigrant groups. For him, to tamper with Chinese myth, a component of “true” Chinese American culture, is to invent a “fake” Chinese American culture that will sell better to a racist mainstream public.5

Kingston, by contrast, is essentially a writer of postmodern parody, in the terms defined by Linda Hutcheon (The Politics of Postmodernism 93–177); in freely improvising variations on themes taken from Chinese or other texts, she both celebrates and criticizes her originals. On the whole, she seeks to vest authority in individual readers or communities of readers. While Chinese and other narratives are valuable to her, she sees the texts themselves as open-ended sketches, like the themes and chord progressions in the “fake book” that a musician uses as a basis for improvised performances, or the story outlines offered by the traditional promptbooks of Chinese storytellers. She herself is an improviser whose work enriches and revitalizes her originals by adapting them to address the needs of her audience. Deliberately inverting the negative charge that Chin attributes to “faking” Chinese culture, her novel's subtitle (Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book) takes the trope of jazz improvisation as a metaphor for her view of the Chinese heroic tradition (as well as Western cultures) as a rich but open-ended source of inspiration for her Chinese American cultural creation.

2. THE COMMUNAL TEXT

Kingston's view of representation as a collaborative matter, and texts as the product of collusions (and collisions) between authors and readers, is illustrated within Tripmaster Monkey by her representation of Wittman's own art as a collective rather than individual achievement. This is hinted at by Kingston's naming of her writer-protagonist, Wittman Ah Sing, after the poet Walt Whitman. Wittman, of course, seeks to found a Chinese American tradition that will enter into a dialogue with the American tradition of which Whitman is deemed a founder. Accordingly Kingston Sino-Americanizes Whitman's name, replacing the “whit[e] man” with a man of wit. The Chinese American vocative “Ah Sing,” evokes Whitman's bardic self declarations, “I sing the body electric,” and, more importantly,

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

(“Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass (28)

Whitman's poetry projects a poetic persona that understands and subsumes all Americans by imaginatively identifying with their experiences and giving voice to them, thereby representing his poetic self as an expanded, collective consciousness. The ideal of democratic inclusiveness is challenged throughout Tripmaster, as Wittman voices Kingston's critique of the ways the “universal” texts of American culture subtly exclude or marginalize people of color. On the whole, however, Tripmaster celebrates the ideals of both political and cultural inclusiveness, seeking to envision a new community that is more truly inclusive; it uses the career of its hero, Wittman, to illustrate how a collective consciousness enlivens a writer's work.

A typical scene of composition begins with Wittman, at the end of an all-night party, telling friends about the week-long play he wants to stage with their help. He proposes to begin by inviting the audience to a barbecue, but one that is designed to remind the audience that the Chinese leaders who helped to tame the American West were themselves American pioneers. Though the barbecue trappings are American, the proposed fare—a freshly killed black ox and white horse—commemorates a famous scene from the novel Three Kingdoms, which is also a favorite source for Chinese opera. In this scene, the three heroes celebrate their oath of newly declared fraternity by sacrificing the ox and horse, which they then consume in a bonding ritual with their newly recruited army. As Wittman makes clear, the Chinese opera tradition that the Cantonese brought to the U.S. is for him (and Kingston) a long-lost American tradition. Moreover, the ritual slaughter and feast celebrates the widening of the kinship circle to unrelated people, who are united by a common enterprise. In Three Kingdoms, the new clan established by the newly bound “brothers” is their army; the enterprise is the reunification of China and the founding of a dynasty. In the nineteenth-century American West, the “clan” is the Chinese American community; the enterprise, the making of America and Americans. In Wittman's play, the “clan” is an interracial community brought together to perform and watch the play. This play, in turn, is a metaphor for the Chinese American cultural tradition that Kingston seeks to create.

Among the entertainments Wittman wants to include is an enormous fat lady, a tattooed wrestler who will dance exuberantly naked (146–47). For Wittman, the fat lady represents untrammeled female energy and power, and her presence onstage will not only revive a kung fu opera tradition (according to Wittman), but will challenge the equation of female beauty with thinness, as well as stereotypes of Han people (ethnic Chinese) as puritanical nondancers, or fat people as weak, asexual, and generally unfit for stardom. His female listeners (Wittman's potential actors) object, however, that the exposure of so much female flesh is too much like a woman jumping out of a cake at a stag party. Rejecting Wittman's more radical arguments that fat and nakedness signify freedom, strength, beauty, and sexuality, the women reject the fat lady because of her failure to conform to the bourgeois standards of beauty and propriety she is supposed to disrupt. In deference to their reading, Wittman edits the lady from his text—but not from Kingston's—and moves on. But she remains in Kingston's novel as a sign of the ambiguity of texts.

The fat lady incident is not only an act of collective interpretation, however. Because the group is in the process of composing and casting a play, it also represents artistic creation as a dialogic process in which the putative author, Wittman, must incorporate the view of “readers” who are both critics and artistic collaborators. In this case, and in several others, the collaborative process results in the editing (or censorship) of the most radical ideas by more moderate (or conventional) thinkers. In numerous other scenes, Kingston depicts Wittman expanding his audience by responding flexibly to his critics. For instance, he agrees to eliminate references to human dumplings and “bow” (steamed buns with filling), which would be bad for Chinatown businesses, in exchange for access to a Tong hall as venue for his play (261–62), and he incorporates his actors' ideas into his play (179–82, 286). In addition, Wittman ends his play with a monologue in which he comments on the critical reception of his work (307–10), pointing out the inadvertent racism of critics who reviewed the play in terms of Chinese food, colonialist quotations from Kipling (“East is east and west is west”), or stereotypes about Asian American exoticism, foreignness, or inscrutability: “There is no East here. West is meeting West. … Do I have to explain why ‘exotic’ pisses me off, and ‘not exotic’ pisses me off? … To be exotic or to be not-exotic is not a question about Americans or about humans” (308). This monologue identifies Wittman closely, not only with Chin, but also with the author herself, who published an article making the same points about reviews of her first book (“Cultural Mis-readings by American Reviewers”). Wittman's discussion of his critics provides a model for the exchange between Kingston and her critics; among other things, this novel incorporates and replies to the voices of these critics, including Chin.

Though Tripmaster depicts the collective fashioning of a play, it also clearly acknowledges novel-writing as an intertextual process. I cannot detail this book's formidable range of Asian and Western references here, but Kingston's arch acknowledgment of Frank Chin's influence may illustrate my point. In the epigraph, we saw how Wittman, who until this point has written only poetry, finds his late-night attempts to compose his first play disturbed by the presence of a competitor; if we continue reading this passage, we find additional commentary about Kingston's relationship with Chin:

It should be a companionable noise, a jazz challenge to which he could blow out the window his answering jazz. But, no, it's an expensive electric machine-gun typewriter aiming at him, gunning for him, to knock him off in competition. But so efficient—it has to be a girl, a clerk typist, he hoped, a secretary, he hopes. A schoolteacher cutting mimeo stencils. A cookbook writer. A guidebook-for-tourists writer. Madam Dim Sum, Madam Chinoiserie, Madam Orientalia knocking out horsey cocky locky astrology, Horatio Algiers Wong—he heard the typing leave him behind. (41)

Here Kingston suggests that, contrary to Chin's film-noirish assertions about the isolation of all Asian American writers (“You write alone, kid” [“This Is …” 129]), neither she nor Frank Chin writes alone. Even when composing late at night in their separate garrets, each hears and responds to the other's work, thereby creating a tradition. Using the metaphor of jazz, Kingston distinctly suggests that she and Chin should work as colleagues and collaborators, but that instead, they remain separated by a wall. Why? In a parody of Chin's attacks on Kingston, Wittman “tunes out” and tries to dismiss his neighbor as a “girl” whose gender marks her as no true literary rival. Incapable of conceiving original work, the unknown typist is fit (in Wittman's wishful thinking) only to engage in mechanical reproduction of others' words, or to prostitute herself with cookbooks, tourbooks, model minority myths, and other debased genres pandering to Orientalist tastes.6 At this point in the novel, Wittman is resistant to intertextual dialogue; nor would the jazz metaphor of improvisation within a tradition appeal to him. No wonder, then, that Kingston, the“workhorse big-novel writer” takes aim at Wittman/Chin and “leaves him behind.”

Still, the questions remain: what kind of tradition will be constructed by this peculiar dialogue? And how can Kingston take into account Chin's views, particularly his attempt to define Chinese American culture in terms of a few important but ideologically selected texts, without compromising her feminist vision? In order to support Chin's efforts to rehabilitate Asian American manhood, must she (and we readers) also ignore the chauvinism and the absolute tone of such typically Chin-ese assertions as this?

Good or bad, the stereotypical Asian is nothing as a man. At worst, the Asian American is contemptible because he is womanly, effeminate, devoid of all the traditionally masculine qualities of originality, daring, physical courage, and creativity.

(Chin et al., “An Introduction …” 14–15)

When we assess Kingston's incorporation of Chin, and of Chinese heroic texts, into Tripmaster, we must keep in mind that Kingston herself has always mined Chinese sources for models of Chinese American heroism, and has always conveyed, through her revisions, her understanding that the old Chinese stories need to be adapted to convey her personal perspectives to an American readership. When Chin himself came to recognize the richness and importance of such stories, however (“This Is Not …” 1985), he disavowed Kingston's eclectic, feminist presentation of Chinese stories, insisting instead on the preeminence of three feudal texts in which women were largely irrelevant to, or disruptive of, a predominantly male code of honor: Sun Tzu's Art of War (a war manual), Luo Guanzhong's Three Kingdoms, and Shi Nai-an's and Luo Guanzhong's Water Margin (two novels). Water Margin, which features the torture and execution of several unfaithful wives, is most blatantly misogynistic, but Three Kingdoms and Art of War also place women firmly outside the central heroic concerns of war and leadership. In the two novels, even heroic and outlaw women are defined as good only as long as they obey patriarchal authority.7

How, then, can Kingston reinscribe such texts within her novel without sharing complicity with the “heroic” values her novel dissents from, notably their patriarchal assumptions about gender, and their celebration of war? In the space remaining, I'll discuss two distinct tropes through which Kingston comments on this issue: the female hero and the empty scrolls.

3. THE FEMALE HERO AND THE CLASSIC HOMOSOCIAL TEXT

I'll now borrow the term “homosocial” from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to describe the primacy of social bonds between heterosexual men within patriarchal (and implicitly homophobic) social systems. Following Sedgwick, my argument will discuss Three Kingdoms' celebration of such bonds as constitutive of male heroism, and Kingston's attempt to appropriate the story's heroic values without accepting its sexism. Although this sixteenth-century Chinese novel, like the other works touted by Chin and Kingston, clearly doesn't belong to the English literary tradition that inspires Sedgwick's analysis, both groups of texts depict societies in which male homosocial bonds are strengthened, and heterosexual bonds rendered subordinate, by patriarchal social structures. Although the homosocial relationships of fraternity, mentorship, fealty, and rivalry I am about to describe are not strictly erotic, Sedgwick's use of the term “homosocial desire” conveys the extent to which such relationships inspire passions that displace heterosexual desires in Chinese as well as English texts. In particular, the following discussion is indebted to Gayle Rubin's account of “the traffic in women” based on Claude Lévi-Strauss' formulation: “The total relationship of exchange which constitutes marriage is not established between a man and a woman, but between two groups of men, and the woman figures only as one of the objects in the exchange, not as one of the partners” (Lévi-Strauss 115, qtd. in Rubin 174; Sedgwick 25–26).

In Tripmaster Monkey, Wittman the playwright narrates or restages most of the key episodes from the classic Chinese novel (and opera) Three Kingdoms. The leading female character in Three Kingdoms is Lady Sun, whose marriage to Liu Bei, the hero, marks a major turn in his fortunes. Kingston's feminist revision of this incident tacitly criticizes the original, but ultimately it respects the story's framing ideological assumptions about gender and heroism. Kingston has Wittman tell the story of Lady Sun and Liu Bei to his own newlywed bride, Tana de Weese, to whom he offers the role of Lady Sun in his play. His version goes like this: Lady Sun, a warloving princess from the Southland, proposes to Liu, a famous general who has recently been widowed. On their wedding night, Liu, who suspects a plot against his life, is horrified to find her bedchamber decked with arms, her waiting maids armed. “Afraid of a few swords after half a lifetime of slaughter?” she laughs, and sends the maids away. During the happy year of marriage that follows, the couple fence together and compare their horsemanship, riding into the city together to the acclaim of the people. At last, at New Year's season, the couple determine to flee from the city, which is controlled by his enemies, her kin. Trapped on the road by hostile soldiers from his wife's country, Liu “faces the utter paranoia of marriage” and throws himself upon his wife's mercy. She takes his hand and, walking out among the soldiers sent by her own family, bullies and confuses the men into letting them both go. Pursued again by others, she sends him on, again intimidates the pursuers, and rejoins him just in time to be rescued by his man (Kingston 172–75).

Turning to Moss Roberts' 1991 translation of Luo Guanzhong's Three Kingdoms, we find that half the story—the arms in the bedroom, the couple's flight, and the princess' fidelity, courage, and intelligence—is true to tradition (409–20, ch. 54–55). By editing out the narrative frame of the incident, however, Kingston has obscured the fact that in the original Lady Sun is merely a pawn between two of the factions or “kingdoms” competing for dominance in China, one headed by Liu Bei and his legendary military advisor, Zhuge Liang, and the other headed by Lady Sun's brother, Sun Quan. Sun proposes the match between his sister and Liu in order to lure Liu to Nanxu, a city where Sun can capture him; but, forewarned by his advisor, Liu arrives in Nanxu with a highly visible “wedding party” of 500 armed men, thereby compelling Sun to give his sister away in fact. Lady Sun is neither consulted nor present during these prenuptial maneuvers; twenty years Liu's junior, she only appears on the wedding day to fulfill a role predetermined by others.

There is little romance for Lady Sun in Luo's narrative, which clearly subordinates the marriage to two homosocial relationships, Liu's rivalry with Sun Quan, and his homosocial bond with his advisor, Zhuge Liang. Luo's Liu neither courts nor is courted by Lady Sun before marriage, but gains her as a windfall of his competition with Sun Quan. In Luo's account, it is the brother, not the sister, whose horsemanship and whose new alliance with Liu are popularly acclaimed. Though Lady Sun is supposedly the most important woman in Three Kingdoms, she has no part in the action once this wedding episode ends. Not only is she a “medium of exchange” between her husband and her brother, she is also a prize awarded to Liu by his own advisor Zhuge Liang. It is Zhuge whose strategy forces Sun to fulfill the engagement, who masterminds the couple's escape, who anticipates the moment when Liu will need to throw himself on his wife's mercy, and who arrives with the getaway transportation. Before this episode, the advisor has been arduously sought and courted by Liu; once persuaded to join Liu's then-failing cause, Zhuge has guided his leader from obscurity to preeminence. Later, it will be the advisor, not the wife, who is the most trusted and beloved figure at Liu's deathbed, in a famous scene where Liu, now emperor, even considers turning the imperial succession over to Zhuge's son instead of his own. “Through you alone the imperial quest was achieved,” gasps Liu, as both men weep. “My heir is an inconsequential weakling, and so I must entrust you with my cause” (Luo 646, ch. 85; Kingston 284). Zhuge, of course, begs to be excused from this dangerous “honor,” once more confirming both his political acumen and his undying loyalty.

Clearly, Kingston's omission of Sun's and Zhuge's marital machinations is meant to restore Lady Sun's agency, to supplant the homosocial plots with a heterosexual romance plot, and to reaffirm marriage as a relationship between loving individuals rather than a strategic feint between warring clans. Yet the underlying logic linking women with betrayal, and relegating them to outsider status, remains intact. Given the enmity of her husband and brother, and the Chinese custom that marks wives as the unconditional subjects of their husbands, Lady Sun is bound to become a rebel and an exile from her family and homeland, precisely by fulfilling her duty as a woman. The Chinese text also sanctions Lady Sun's switch to her husband's side on the grounds that her brother is mistreating her; Liu ostensibly is not. Thus the bride's choice of husband over brother dramatizes both her obedience and Liu's personal attractiveness and supposedly superior virtue, but it also marks the prescribed limits of female loyalty. In loving the husband chosen for her, Lady Sun obeys her brother's public command (to marry Liu), yet also deliberately undermines his private design (to murder Liu). Hence, the episode is an extreme but telling example of the patriarchal logic that views women as outsiders, born traitors to their birth families. In this story, both Sun Quan and Liu Bei are deceitful toward each other, but politically speaking, neither is a traitor, because each embodies his own cause: they don't betray themselves. But for Lady Sun, the medium for their mutual deceits, loyalty to one requires betrayal of the other. Indeed, the contradiction between Sun's word and his intent poses a koanlike contradiction that Lady Sun must solve at her own and her husband's peril: her very obedience to her brother requires her to rebel against him.

This “divided duty,” and the double bind it poses, governs these medieval texts' attitudes toward women, who are consistently associated with betrayal, ruses, and moral ambiguity, even when they are overtly presented as proper and virtuous (cf. Othello 1.3.181). If the standard for heroism is integrity, its opposite is duplicity; women operating in these men's texts are linked with doubleness, not only because they must marry, but also because they are privy to and bound by different ethical and behavioral codes than men. But rather than acknowledging the subaltern skills women must develop in order to negotiate between male and female codes, or seriously considering the moral complexity that results, these texts generally view women as inherently deceptive and unreliable outsiders.

Hence, these martial texts virtually supplant patriarchies, which they consider the norm, with fraternities, because the best and purest clan is an all-male clan: an army. This is why Liu, on his deathbed, has the impulse to favor Zhuge Liang over his own son, and why the most important social unit in Luo's Three Kingdoms is a homosocial “menage-a-trois,” the sworn brotherhood of Liu Bei, Guan Yu (called Gwan Goong by Kingston), and Zhang Fei. The entire trajectory of Three Kingdoms is shaped by the famous Peach Orchard Oath, in which Liu, Guan, and Zhang adopt each other as “brothers” and pledge to die on the same day—that is, to take immediate vengeance to the death against each others' enemies. Of course, neither Liu nor any other hero worth his soy sauce ever extends such a place to his wife or any woman, though a good wife commits herself absolutely to her husband. When Zhang Fei, thinking he has lost Liu's land and family, offers his own life in atonement, Liu consoles him by explaining the fundamental priorities of their world:

“A brother is a limb. Wives and children are but clothes, which torn can be mended. But who can restore a broken limb? We linked our destinies in the Peach Garden when we vowed to die as one. My land, my family, I can spare, but not you, midway in our course.” (Roberts, “Introduction” xxiii)

In short, Kingston's feminist critique-through-revision of the episode is suggestive but incomplete, because the story's patriarchal assumptions are too deeply embedded in its plot. Taken alone, Kingston's romantic, modern treatment of the heroic couple as an independent unit does not address the largest feminist problem of these texts' fundamental mistrust and marginalization of women, and their idealization of fraternities defined by their exclusion of the feminine. To understand one way Kingston transcends this impasse, we must turn to The Journey to the West.

4. THE EMPTY SCROLLS AND THE WRITERLY TEXT

At the risk of some oversimplification, I have so far characterized Chin as a “textual fundamentalist” who seeks to vest authority in more or less univocal classical texts, and to replace hegemonic mainstream narratives about Asians with his own, equally hegemonic narrative separating Asian Americans and their cultural productions into two groups, the heroic “real” and the self-abasing “fake.” By contrast, I argue, Kingston has always taken the postmodern stance of celebrating rather than denying or attacking the importance and complexity of the interpretive process; her work tends to affirm the authority of individual readers, interpretive communities, and contemporary authors to engage dialogically with traditional texts; in Tripmaster Monkey and other texts, she portrays literary composition as a process enriched rather than threatened by dialogue, whether between a text and its predecessors, or between an author and her audience. Like many postmodern fiction writers, Kingston understands history and culture as complex, multivocal social constructs, yet does not deny the existence or importance of specific past events, specific literary texts, or the history of anti-Asian racism in this country. (Indeed, racism is a central subject or subtext for all three of her major books.)

Like other postmodern writers, Kingston uses the postmodern techniques of parody and revision, not to distort or obliterate our understanding of Chinese American history and culture, as Chin charges, but to focus our attention on the process of constructing that culture, and the subjectivities it underwrites, through texts. For Kingston, in short, the complexity of those textual webs, through which we know culture and history, is an invitation to explore texts, not through rote learning and repetition, but by imaginatively entering and actively “writing” texts in an effort to understand and, in some cases, to update or contest their essences. But for Kingston, to alter a text, to transplant it, or otherwise to struggle with it is not an act of erasure or disrespect; rather, it is a way of affirming and exploring the power and resilience of the original and reinscribing it into her own American vision. This is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in her treatment of the episode of the blank texts, taken from Journey to the West, a classic Chinese novel ignored in Chin's initial account of the Chinese heroic tradition.

In claiming Journey to the West as a classical source for Chinese American culture, Kingston critiques Chin's insistence that Chinese American consciousness be defined by martial virtues. Journey to the West is a text whose central action is not one of war or conquest, but a quest for Buddhist scriptures to be transplanted from India (“the West”) to China, in an act of cross-cultural insemination. Journey's scripture pilgrims, of which Monkey is the most important, all mature and experience inner transformation as a result of their efforts throughout the journey. Though Monkey is widely beloved by audiences for his combativeness and martial prowess, his actions in the story are monitored and if necessary, disciplined, by the character of Kuan-yin, the Goddess of Mercy. Like the author or narrator, Kuan-yin also instigates and watches over the pilgrimage. As a result of her discipline, Monkey gradually learns the Buddhist virtues of humility and detachment, and becomes less quarrelsome, ultimately attaining enlightenment by shedding his attachment to his mortal self or ego. Journey's overall emphasis on spiritual enlightenment provides a powerful alternative to the more overtly martial texts Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin, which Frank Chin has chosen as the touchstones for Asian American character. Indeed, by linking Wittman to Monkey, Kingston hints that Wittman, like her combative rival Chin, also needs lessons in humility and detachment. Kingston herself, figured by the typist in the epigraph, seems closely identifiable with her novel's narrator, a distinctively feminist, maternal voice that evaluates and manages Wittman in a clear analogue to Kuan-yin's direction of Monkey and his progress.

Directly after hearing the rival typist and shutting out the implied possibility of dialogue, Wittman is shown vainly trying to grasp the culminating episode—that of the empty scrolls—from The Journey to the West. Clearly this scene is a direct comment on the two writers' shared project of transporting Chinese classics into the American literary landscape. Journey, unlike Chin's chosen “heroic” texts, both revels in martial heroism and views it with playful irony, as Kingston's novel does. Of course, Wittman, the monkey and “tripmaster” of Kingston's title, is closely identified with the quarrelsome but brilliant hero of Journey to the West, Monkey; but the pilgrims, who bring “sacred” texts from a tutelary culture to enrich their own, can be seen, surprisingly, as legendary Chinese archetypes for both Chin and Kingston, both of whom call upon Chinese texts as touchstones for portraying and transforming Chinese American and American culture. What is involved in such an act of transport/transplantation/translation? Kingston's retelling of the empty scrolls episode suggests a key difference between her views and Chin's.

After many adventures (Kingston tells us), “Monkey and his friends” arrive safely in India, where they are cordially received and given scrolls to take back to China. But on the way back, they discover that the scrolls are all blank. Feeling cheated, they return, demand an exchange, and get scrolls with words. “But,” Kingston concludes, “the empty scrolls had been the right ones all along” (42). This highly compressed version both captures the essence of the original and is tellingly altered. For one thing, she suppresses almost all indications that this is a religious quest: for her the scrolls are not sacred. Moreover, she elides a basic hierarchy built into the Chinese story, in which one culture possesses truths, set in texts, that the other must learn. These assumptions are challenged in the original, however, by the blank scriptures themselves. In Anthony C. Yu's translation, the Buddhists explain that the blank scriptures were initially selected in response to the pilgrims' failure to provide an “offering” or bribe to the monks selecting their scriptures; when the pilgrims return and offer an alms bowl, they are rewarded with what they desire, scriptures with words. Amused rather than provoked, the Buddhist patriarchs say that those people back East (the Chinese) are “so stupid and blind,” and “so foolish and unenlightened,” that they will be unable to use or appreciate these “true, wordless scriptures” that are “just as good as those with words” (The Journey to the West 4:391, 393). These lines, though seemingly aimed at the Chinese, really invite all readers to question their own preferences for orthodox truths in fixed forms. Kingston, in essence, makes the same point more succinctly: “But the empty scrolls had been the right ones all along.”

In other words, the blank scriptures embody the essence of the higher wisdom that scriptures are supposed to teach, the wisdom that recognizes that “the real form is that form which has no form.” Hence the Buddhist disciple must learn to distinguish outward forms from the essence of truth, which has no form or body in itself but can be outwardly “like ten thousand things” (Yu 2:297). Not only must individual desires, status, and achievements be seen as ultimately insignificant to the whole of reality; verbal texts, like individual bodies, must be understood as shells, outward forms of understanding, rather than its essence. In this sense, to focus one's learning on individual texts, isolated from the broader teaching or practice of a community, may be seen as a clumsy, second-hand practice. This is why the blank texts are “the right ones,” and why the Buddhists in the story treat the two sets of scrolls as readily fungible.

In the context of Kingston's and Chin's debate about the use and authority of classical texts, Chin's search for an authentic “heroic tradition,” and broader debates about the construction, or deconstruction, of literary canons, the lighthearted Buddhists of Journey to the West are distinctly refreshing. The Chinese pilgrims have traveled for many years and braved many dangers to bring home a body of sacred texts for the emperor's scholars to study. Whereas the three brothers of Three Kingdoms seek to found a new Chinese dynasty, the pilgrims are in effect commissioned to bring the founding texts that, presumably, will influence the direction of Buddhism in China for all posterity. Yet the canon they receive is arbitrary, its final selection contingent upon a single alms bowl. If the pilgrims had offered a different gift, would they have been given a whole different set of scrolls, a different founding canon? And, if American-born writers choose to invoke stories from the Chinese classics as the foundation, or an enriching source, for a Chinese American literary tradition, how will we decide whose stories, whose choices and interpretations, are “the true” ones?

In book after book, Kingston inscribes the struggles of the artist, an outlaw interpreter, to challenge and transform institutionalized texts and orthodox readings of those texts—including, in Tripmaster Monkey, Frank Chin's reading of Chinese literature as a “heroic tradition” that defines Chinese American experience in martial terms. In her own writing, she celebrates the transience of oral storytelling and the possibility of endless invention, endless variations; for her, variability and ambiguity are both enjoyable and edifying. The author is not an authority or a solo creator, but a producer or director who gives voice and shape to a collective artistic effort that in turn defines an interpretive community. The interaction between the artist and his community is central to the creative process.

In 1970 Roland Barthes introduced the idea of the “writerly” text, a text that is perpetually being created by the reader, and hence vests writerly authority in the reader; its opposite is the “readerly” text, the “classic,” well-made text whose predetermined meanings force the reader into a passive posture of “readerly” consumption. Wrote Barthes,

Why is the writerly our value? Because the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text. Our literature is characterized by the pitiless divorce which the literary institution maintains between the producer of the text and its user, between its owner and its customer, between its author and its reader. This reader is thereby plunged into a kind of idleness … instead of functioning himself, instead of gaining access to the magic of the signifier, to the pleasure of writing, he is left with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text; reading is nothing more than a referendum. (4)

Kingston's hero Wittman is confounded by the story of the empty scrolls; her colleague, Frank Chin, might not be, but he has clearly voiced his preference for the Chinese classics as readerly texts with foreclosed or self-evident meanings (even though his actual readings are more complex than his rhetoric might suggest). For Kingston, the ideal text is writerly, not readerly. The Chinese heroic tradition is a rich source, but it is hardly a ready-made medium for her ideas. The empty scrolls may symbolize her preference for a Chinese tradition whose greatest worth comes from its refusal of texts as authorities, its questioning the very aim of the scripture pilgrimage. The empty scrolls—no longer scriptures—overtly return writerly authority to the reader. For Kingston, a Chinese American feminist reading and reinscribing the Chinese “heroic” tradition, they are the right ones.

Notes

  1. The debate has been addressed by King-kok Cheung (“The Woman Warrior …”), Elaine H. Kim (“‘Such Opposite Creatures’ …”), Robert G. Lee, Sauling Cynthia Wong (“Autobiography as Guided Chinatown Tour? …”), Deborah Woo, and others.

  2. A representative sample of these essays includes “Come All Ye …” (Chin 1991), “This is Not …” (Chin 1985), “Preface” and “An Introduction …” (Chin et al. 1974). Chin also published a hostile parody of The Woman Warrior and its defenders, “The Most Popular Book in China” (1984). These essays, and the anthologies of Asian American literature in which the 1974 and 1991 essays appear, are Chin's principal critical contribution to Asian American studies. His critical work is well known but considered controversial within Asian American studies; the 1974 anthology and essays may be considered a formative influence on Asian American literary studies. Chin's attacks on Kingston may usefully be compared to Ishmael Reed's critiques of Alice Walker.

  3. See, for example, Elaine H. Kim (Asian American Literature), James S. Moy, and Sucheng Chan.

  4. Postmodern parody is a term I have borrowed from Linda Hutcheon (93–117). For analyses of Kingston's revisions of traditional plots, see King-kok Cheung (Articulate Silences), Patricia Chu, David Leiwei Li, and Shu-mei Shih.

  5. In fact, the textual scholarship for these Chinese classics points to a collaborative process of composition similar to the process Kingston describes and Chin attacks; Kingston makes this creative process the central action of Tripmaster Monkey.

    The scholarship tells us that the ancient Chinese novelists combined official histories, promptbooks, and popular legends with their own inventions to produce these “original” works. Translator Moss Roberts provides a thorough introduction to the textual history of Three Kingdoms in his afterword (Roberts, “Afterword” 937–86). Translator Anthony C. Yu provides a similar survey for The Journey to the West in his introduction (Yu, “Introduction” 1–21). For The Water Margin, translator Sidney Shapiro merely notes, “Since its original publication, [this novel] has appeared in numerous editions ranging from seventy to 124 chapters, the denouement sometimes changing with the political temper of the ruling monarch” (Shapiro, translator's note, no page). More complete textual histories of all three novels are provided, however, by Lu Hsun and C. T. Hsia in their authoritative surveys of Chinese fiction. Hsia's scholarship incorporates Lu's. On The Water Margin see Lu 180–97, Hsia 75–82.

    The Art of War, an older, nonnarrative text, has been more visibly transformed by its readers; centuries of commentary have been incorporated into the text itself.

  6. “Horatio Algiers Wong” is an allusion to Chin's attacks on Jade Snow Wong, author of Fifth Chinese Daughter, who has been criticized for presenting herself as a model minority author. On another note, critic Sau-ling Wong has identified accommodationist genres as “food pornography,” which she finds is a central trope of Frank Chin's writing; both tropes, prostitution and pornography, convey Chin's feeling that packaging and selling one's ethnicity can be analogous to sexual commodification (Reading Asian American Literature 55).

  7. In light of Chin's critical arguments, it must be recalled that these texts were all written centuries ago, under circumstances that are now matters of scholarly conjecture. For these texts and Wu Ch'eng-en's The Journey to the West, the authorship is disputed but traditionally attributed to these figures. Without delving deeply into Chinese history, a rough survey of these texts' estimated dates of origin will support my argument that the texts convey feudal social values (both Buddhist and Confucian) from ancient China, and are therefore problematic for the project of defining contemporary Chinese American culture and character.

    According to Bruce Cleary, The Art of War (Sun-tzu ping fa) is believed to have originated in the Warring States period (c. 403–221 B. C.), with commentaries added by readers through the Sung Dynasty (C. A. D. 960–1279). Moss Roberts' unabridged (1991) translation of Three Kingdoms (San kuo chih yen i) is based on the Mao Zonggang edition, believed to have been published in the mid-1660s, based on a text from c. 1522. Sidney Shapiro's translation of The Water Margin (Shui hu zhuan), which he calls Outlaws of the Marsh, does not explicitly identify the two versions he used, but C. T. Hsia offers approximate dates in this novel's development, the Kuo Hsün version (c. 1550) and the Chin Sheng-t'an edition (c. 1628–43). Anthony C. Yu's translation of The Journey to the West (Hsi yu chi) uses a version based on a text from c. 1592.

    A full discussion of the three texts' differences in ethical standards is impossible here, but C. T. Hsia's study gives a good idea of the contrast between the tragically idealistic ethical standards of the brothers in Three Kingdoms and the “gang morality” of the sadistic outlaws in The Water Margin. My argument will follow Chin's 1985 essay in grouping The Art of War, Three Kingdoms, and The Water Margin together as a “heroic tradition,” which I contrast with the more spiritual Journey to the West.

    After the publication of Tripmaster Monkey, Frank Chin published another essay insisting on the centrality of “the three classics of the heroic tradition” (“Come All …” 34), but he cited three different classics. Without acknowledging Kingston's influence directly, he substituted The Journey to the West for The Art of War. Thus, the Chinese heroic tradition improved greatly between 1985 and 1991.

I am grateful to Norman Bock, Angela Pao, Mark Scroggins, Gayle Wald, Priscilla Wald, K. Scott Wong, and Sau-ling Cynthia Wong for their invaluable responses to earlier versions of this essay.

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Jinqi Ling (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15821

SOURCE: “Performing the Margins: Ethics and the Poetics of Frank Chin's Theatrical Discourse,” in Narrating Nationalisms: Ideology and Form in Asian American Literature, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 79-109.

[In the following essay, Ling traces Chin's use of the theater to dramatize his ideas and concludes, “Despite its ‘remarkable oversight’ about women and its polemical efforts to confine ‘Asian American cultural integrity,’ Chin's use of the theater remains viable and productive, its significations open to heterogeneous possibilities, as well as to ideological revision, rearticulation, and rearrangement.”]

A given consciousness is richer or poorer in genre, depending on its ideological environment.

—Pavel N. Medvedev, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship

What I value most I guess is what I'm doing, trying to legitimize the Chinese-American sensibility. Call it my accident in time and space and that all the talent, everything I have is good only for this. Nothing else is any good until I get this done or started. And if I can't legitimize it, or if Chinese-American sensibility isn't legitimized, then my writing is no good.

—Frank Chin, quoted in Victor G. Nee and Brett de Bary Nee, Longtime Californ'

… This chapter explores two Asian American texts with a sharply contrasting strategy: they make oppositional use of drama for open political engagement and force readers to reflect on their own relationships with the social issues foregrounded through the form. I focus on Frank Chin's theatrical work in the early 1970s: The Chickencoop Chinaman (1972) and The Year of the Dragon (1974). This analytical focus reflects my assessment that more than any of his earlier or recent writings—short stories, novels, essays, or political commentary—Chin's plays illustrates a productive convergence of his artistic individuality, his moral conviction, and his literary practice as part of a strategic action in the historical moment when he began his writing career.1 An elucidation of this convergence, in my view, is vital for understanding Chin as a complex writer and as a historically responsive social critic, as well as for evaluating the unique role that his theatrical art plays in a crucial moment of post-World War II Asian American literary history.2

In a 1976 letter to Michael Kirby, editor of the Drama Review, Chin retrospectively describes his impulse to become a playwright: “I write from links with the original whoremothers of our people and through my mother, ties to the most popular hero of the most popular novel and opera living with me. The Kwan blood from my mother meant I was chosen to write theater like making war, throw everything away and get even” (quoted in McDonald 1981, xxvii-xxviii).3 Chin's rhetorical references to his being “chosen to write theater,” to “war,” and to “the Kwan blood” indicate not only his outrage at the mainstream culture's continued silencing of Asian American literary voices but also his idealistic view of the social function of the aspiring Asian American artist. Chin's concerns, as set forth in essays he wrote at that time, derive mainly from situations he finds detrimental to the development of an “Asian American cultural integrity.” First is the perpetuation of stereotypical images such as Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan in American popular culture, a form of cultural racism that, in Chin's view, effectively excludes Asian Americans from “creative participation in American culture” and from operating in “the mainstream of American consciousness” (Chin and Chan 1972, 77). Second is Asian Americans' apathy toward the majority culture's acceptance of them in stereotypical terms, an attitude that, he argues, reflects a state of “self-contempt,” self-rejection, and “self-destruction” in the Asian American psyche. These situations, according to Chin, give rise to the myth that Asians came to the American continent with neither a historical“vision” nor a written cultural tradition, and they consequently allowed“the details” of that heritage to be either forgotten or “euphemized into a state of sweet confusion,” because “the men who lived through the creation are dying out, unheard and ignored.” Deeply concerned about the perishing of Chinese American history under American linguistic and cultural domination, Chin imagines the fate of Asian America to be “simply a matter of growing old and dying” like “an extinct race” (1972a, 44, 60). It is out of an enormous sense of historical urgency that Chin takes upon himself the moral obligation to reinvent Chinese American history, to speak across generations about the density and intensity of his feelings, and to call for an open confrontation with the institutional wrongs done to Asian Americans historically. Kai-yu Hsu accurately captures the specificity of Chin's sense of historical mission:

Frank sees himself in a unique position to transmit the truly identifiable Chinese-American experience because he is young enough to see through the stereotyped images with which many Chinese in America above the age of forty identify themselves, and yet he is old enough to remember what it was like to be Chinese in the United States during World War II. As to the Chinese of the postwar era, in Frank's view, their Chineseness is being rapidly absorbed by the white-American values. And those young Chinese, either championing the cause of, or resisting the emergence of, a new China, are so busy fighting on the active front of politics that they unavoidably fall short of being fully sensitive to all the subtle pressures and forces operating on each individual. (1972, 47)

Chin's perception of a perishing Chinese American history and his self-assumed obligation of communicating to emerging generations of Asian Americans their unacknowledged cultural roots in America thus demands that he go beyond the mere textuality of writing and seek “a style of excess” (Chaney 1993, 22), a style through which he can not only disturb the immobility of Asian America that results from its internalization of racial inferiority but also force mainstream society to face its own complicity in creating such a situation. The literary genre that Chin finds most effective for realizing such an intention is the play in performance: it gives specular prominence to his political desire through a demonstrative use of oppositional gestures, languages, and imagery; it allows him to break out of Asian Americans' “self-effacing presence on the American scene” through boisterous resistance (Chin 1972b, 5); and it licenses open disruption and violation of social and cultural norms in a highly associative space of transgression. The imaginative sustenance of Chin's theatrical intervention is Kwan Kung (god of war and literature in traditional Chinese culture), a figure kept alive ritualistically by early Chinese immigrants to the United States through traveling Cantonese opera troupes in Chinatowns or mining and railroad camps (see McDonald 1981, xxvi-xxvii).4 For those early immigrants, Chin would later explain, the theatrical image of Kwan Kung—which embodies the“impeccable, incorruptible, personal integrity” of “fighters” and“avengers” (1977, 43; 1982, 165; 1985, 120; Chan et al. 1991, 38)—provided a source of moral support and emotional assurance in the face of prolonged racial hostility, open violence, and discriminatory legal restrictions, just as the life experience of Ben Fee, a 1920s Chinatown labor organizer whom Chin met in the early 1970s and admired for his courage and ethnic pride, constituted a living example for the playwright of how Asian Americans could unite and fight for equality in their historical present (see Chin 1972b, 58).

Chin's theatrical mobilization of the performative potential of the ethnic community's cultural memory was strategically connected with the social “dramas” that he helped to script in the period: he co-sponsored the Combined Asian American Resource Project (1969); he founded the Asian American Theater Workshop in San Francisco (1971); he orchestrated a movement in California for redressing the grievances of Japanese Americans interned during World War II (1974); and he headed a research effort aimed at recovering unrecognized, little-read, or forgotten Asian American literary voices (1970–76).5 The symbolic dissolution of boundary in these projects between Chin's theatrical practice and Asian Americans' mounting drive for self-determination implies a strategy for maximizing the effects of the playwright's art. For Chin, the theater constituted both an aesthetic concretization of his action-oriented moral idealism and a symbolic extension of the outer limits of the evolving Asian American literary discourse, and thus allowed the textual struggle so far carried out by Asian American writers to take on a material and visual form through staged oppositional action. It is from this radically conjunctural yet deeply committed sociocultural space that Chin negotiates the tensions between the physical and cognitive temporalities occupied by the actors and audiences of his plays, explores the contradictory positions of his artist figures, and experiments with a heteroglossia made up of discourses embodied in the enunciated historicity of his characters' racial, cultural, and moral plight.

LANGUAGE, MASCULINITY, AND THE BIRTH OF THE ASIAN AMERICAN ARTIST

The Chickencoop Chinaman (1972) was Chin's initial attempt to use theater for negotiating his historical vision and his characters' conflicting voices relative to one another and to mainstream culture. Its plot revolves around a Chinese American filmmaker, Tam Lum, who has come to Pittsburgh to make a documentary film about the sports hero of his youth, a black boxing champion called Ovaltine Jack Dancer. One purpose of Tam's trip is to meet Ovaltine's father, Charley Popcorn, who allegedly trained the boxer and knows the details of the latter's heroic life. Tam's seemingly naive quest for recovering a heroic Asian American past through idolizing a black boxer linked to a mythic father (who turns out in Act 2 to be the manager of a porno movie theater) is fraught with ironic authorial intentionalities: rather than a simple reflection of Chin's rigid reproduction of the culturally affirming discourse of black nationalism of the 1960s, it serves as a comic-tragic reenactment of the playwright's perception of Asian America's helpless yet continuing slippage between its displaced present and its effaced past, as well as of his painful recognition of the Asian American artist's problematic dependence on borrowing mythologized histories from African American models in order to force a consideration of the consequence of a vanished Asian American historical referent.

Such a sense of crisis in historicity is effectively conveyed at the beginning of the play through Chin's construction of a surrealistic encounter between Tam and the Lone Ranger, the hero of the majority culture's popular westerns, before Tam meets Charley Popcorn. Through a dreamy interior monologue inspired by the presence of an old-fashioned radio on stage, Tam relates to the audience his childhood fascination with the Lone Ranger—a masked, black-haired man—as an Asian American hero with a mythic origin, the “thundering hoofbeats” of his horse resembling, in the boy's imagination, the thunder in the Sierra caused by the Chinaman-built train, a sound that his grandmother used to listen for in the kitchen (31–32). But the Lone Ranger whom Chin then brings on stage is fat and decrepit, a fraud who keeps his composure only with the help of Tonto, his “faithful Indian companion,” who periodically injects heroin into his “master's” veins. In his interaction with Tam and Kenji (a Japanese American friend with whom Tam stays in Pittsburgh), the masked man proves himself a sad, bumbling white racist who warns the two to “keep your asses off them long steel rails and short cross ties” and to stop “looking for a train” or for “their place in the American dream” (37–38). To reinforce the effect of its unmasking of the Lone Ranger, the play makes a point of reminding the audience that Tonto's identity is but a white mythic projection complete with a comic “Indian” dialect. In his exchange with his master, Tonto twice slips out of his designated tongue, and twice the Ranger comically fails to recognize him and orders: “Tonto. Be yourself” (34, 36).

The play's lamenting of a suppressed Chinese American heroic tradition associated with railroads—reinforced by Chin's inverted critique of American popular cultural assumptions about rugged individualism—tends to be viewed by critics, not without some compelling reasons, as evidence of the playwright's impulsive endorsement of an American western myth predicated on violent and expansionist impulses. But a serious participation in the economy of Chin's peculiar representation of the encounter between Tam and the Lone Ranger suggests that it is open to more nuanced and less reductive constructions of meaning (although Chin's tendency to embrace masculine valor does need to be critically examined within its relevant contexts). Indeed, if we do not assume Chin to be so naive about the efficacy of a simple reversal of the two competing visions he dramatizes, then the significance of the railroad imagery called forth through these two figures' metaphoric encounter lies not so much in its liberatory possibilities as in its ironic questioning of the relevance of referential coherence within falsified historical discourses. The maintenance of such falsified historical discourses, according to Chin, depends both on an effacement in American culture of the early contributions of Chinese immigrant workers to the construction of America's railroads and on contemporary Asian Americans' refusal to acknowledge the mental and physical strengths associated with such an endeavor as necessary virtues of their own immigrant forebears. From this perspective, the railroad memory that Chin invokes through the ironic clash between Tam's and the Ranger's visions—a memory he would later call “railroad standard time” (the title of Chin's 1978 short story)—can therefore be seen as performing a deeply subversive function in the play's intertextual situations: it strategically splits the official “past” so that the playwright can further comment, from within the differential temporality opened by his insistent railroad references, on the continued waning of Asian America's lived possibility of actively experiencing history.6

Chin's foregrounding of the illusory nature of Tam's childhood association of the Lone Ranger with the heroism of the Chinese immigrant fathers significantly anticipates Charley Popcorn's open skepticism in the next scene about Tam's search for a black boxer: the old man categorically denies his relationship with Ovaltine Jack Dancer and explicitly resists Tam's attempt to elevate him to the status of a mythically heroic father figure in the documentary. In a way, the referential discontinuity from which Tam suffers as a result of his rejection by the symbolic father figure he tries to emulate—Popcorn (and, invertedly, the Ranger)—shows some similarities with aspects of Lacan's appropriation of the Freudian notion of the castration complex (1919/1957, 231, 233–34). For Lacan, this complex involves a male child's frustration and anxiety about the rupture between the signifier (phallus) and the signified as a result of the father's threat of castration, and the child's latent desire to enter into the symbolic order defined by the prohibitive (as well as abstract) father with whom he strives to identify and to whom he thereby becomes subject (Lacan 1977, 167–69). What Lacan emphasizes is the ambiguous tension between a simultaneous lack and desire in the split subject, and between the subject's dependence on a lack and desire and its simultaneous refusal/inability to fulfill desire in order to maintain the elemental lack. Such a tension, as critics point out, does not automatically lead to a historical emergence of submerged subjectivity unless it is informed by a recognition of the materiality of the psychic irresolution.7 In my view, Chin's play both presupposes the binary scheme of Lacan's original formulation and performs the function of disrupting it. And, as I will show, it is precisely from the contingency co-produced by radical alienation from the father and its attendant excruciating desire that Chin introduces the material modalities of Tam's emotional and existential dilemma and contemplates this character's historical emergence as Asian American subject.

Significantly, Tam's initial heroizing of the Lone Ranger and Popcorn is contrasted with his rejection of his own Chinese American father, “an old dishwasher” who wears underpants in the bath for fear that “old toothless goofy white ladies” will peek at his body through the keyhole (16–17). This image suggestively parallels a story that Ovaltine Jack Dancer makes up about Charley Popcorn's turning away from women when urinating by a car, as it does Tam's and Kenji's memory of urinating with the black boxer. The broader cultural and rhetorical contexts of Chin's parody of a self-contemptuous and paranoid “Chinaman” indicates deliberate irony at work, while the subtext of this image evokes issues of potency, reinforced by Lee, a Eurasian woman of Chinese descent, who comments on her Chinese American husband, Tom, that “he wasn't a man” (18). It is Popcorn, the black father figure, who brings to both Tam's and the audience's awareness a different story about the filmmaker's father: he was a man who loved boxing and maintained a fierce sense of dignity; indeed, Popcorn says to Tam, “maybe I respect [him] more than you.” Out of such respect, the “old Chinese gentleman” by whom Tam was obviously embarrassed had been given the name “Chinatown Kid” (46).

The vindication of a Chinese American father's dignity, as well as of Chinese American masculinity, through the voice of a cynical black boxing trainer tough enough to live without the kind of myths that young Tam (and Ovaltine Jack Dancer) need, provides insights into Chin's strategy for dealing with power transference, as well as into some of the implications of Chin's dramatization of his alter ego's search for a father figure. It is true, as critics point out, that Chin's search for an ideal father and for Asian American masculinity is problematically based on a patriarchal belief in measuring adequacy in terms of male aggressiveness and violence. And along this line, Chin polemically argues: “The blacks complain about being emasculated. The genius of white racism in regard to the Chinese is that they never granted them balls in the first place” (Nee and Nee 1973, 385–86). Chin's anger is clearly directed toward both stereotypical views of desexualized Chinese American men in mainstream culture and what he perceives as the absence of a “legitimate” Asian American cultural voice, an anger that he expresses through the lewd, loud, and lawless Tam. But it should also be recognized that Chin does not make Tam an idealized figure for the Asian American artist: Tam avoids accepting his own father and recognizing the strength and dignity underlying his appearance; as a father himself, he is deeply ambivalent about his own children; and his filmmaking fails to address directly his own plight as a Chinese American man in order to celebrate the “warrior” heritage passed down by a black father/trainer. Tam's struggle clearly symbolizes the difficult emergence of the Asian American artist self-conscious about the historical and cultural limitations of his own position. The tortured, voluble Tam thus highlights the connection that Chin sees between the lack of a male-oriented Asian American heroic tradition and the invisibility of Asian American cultural production, a situation that Chin describes in strongly gendered terms: “Without a language of his own … [the Asian American] no longer is man” (Chin et al. 1974, xlviii). For Chin, the crisis in masculinity is bound up, ultimately, with the crisis in language facing the artist; from this perspective, Tam is but a mediational figure who invokes not only the idolized ancestral Chinese American male who built North America's railroads but also the Asian American artist who must not only envision and connect with an Asian American heroic tradition as well as fight to make his voice effective in the present. The key issue that Chin's play explores is the complexity of Asian American consciousness, which is largely but not wholly embodied in his artist figure's anguished voice. Tam's limitations, in other words, only partially mask the heroic myth of Chin's ideal of a cultural awakening and of community empowerment, even as they display the difficulties that pursuit of such an ideal can pose to the individual artist.

Throughout much of the play, Tam, unable to envision a heroic history for Asian Americans, frequently runs into obstacles that not only distort his immediate vision but also prove it false. Tam's sense of his “language” difficulty—his inability to enter into the symbolic order named the Father in Lacanian terms—is elaborately conveyed through the conflict between Tam's and Kenji's voices (see also Li 1991, 215–16; 1992, 323), and through their angry interchanges with Lee and Tom, conflicts that make the stage an extremely demanding site for Chin's projections of the kind of painful negotiations that confront the emergent Asian American artist. The voices of Tam and Kenji involve systematic inversion and negation of the structures and semantics of a variety of available linguistic discourses: their exaggerated imitation of Helen Keller's halting utterances, their frequent switching to black accents, and their deliberate, repeated insertion into the already mixed and multiaccented English discourses the mocking chicken sounds “Buck Buck Bagaw” (simultaneously echoing a rooster's call, the cry of earlier generations of “Chinamen” in place of “giddyup,” and a remembered graffiti on a “crapper” wall in “Old Oakland”) are all signals of Chin's consciousness of the ideologies of America's many communities. The interplay between and among polyphonic, bastardized voices on stage presents a specular plurality of unmerged and unobjectified thoughtworlds, while it puts to the test the abiding expectations of a majority audience thrust into a highly polemical encounter with an anarchy of resistant, traditionally submerged voices suffering from ethnic “defects” (7). This encounter clearly was a troubling one for reviewers, who complained, for example, that Tam's monologues were “hot air, disguised as poetry,” or that the playwright failed to demonstrate in the play his own capacity as a “master rhetorician” (see McDonald 1981, xv), because many failed to recognize that Tam's carnivalesque display of words is in itself a symptom of the plight of the artist that the play addresses. In the rhetorical and linguistic maneuvers between and among the characters of different cultural backgrounds, we sense the presence of an author fully aware of the nature of his characters' problems and adept in moving between cultural production and reception, verbality and performativity, spectator and spectacle, and visual appeal and auditory experience.

One verbal strategy Chin uses effectively to enhance the contested relationship between his own discourse and those of his characters and of his audience within the enunciative-receptive format of the play is the deliberate shifting of illocutionary acts, a strategy described by Roger Fowler in his linguistic appropriation of Bakhtin's concept of dialogism. According to Fowler, in a (counter)hegemonically designed communicative situation, the speaking agent assumes the role of an audience ideologically opposed to the author: the author presents the addressee's position as false by making the speaking agent act on the audience's beliefs, and the addressee cannot refute such a relationship because his or her own position is structurally implicated in the given communicative arrangement (1981, 88). In the play, Lee and Tom, who can both speak a “standard English” familiar to the audience, play precisely the role of the speaking agent described by Fowler. For example, Lee scolds Tam in words that implicitly raise the very questions the play's audience might have in mind:

I knew you hated being Chinese. You're all chicken! Not an ounce of guts in all of you put together! Instead of guts you have … all that you have is … culture! Watery paintings, silk, all that grace and beauty arts and crafts crap! You are all very pretty, and all so intelligent. And … you couldn't even get one of your girls, because they know … all about you, mama's boys and crybabies, not a man in all your males. (24)

Lee's confusion about Tam's deliberate switching of voices in her presence is a similar voicing of the audience's concerns about Tam's “ragmouth” imitations as possibly demeaning gestures of “making fun of blacks” (13). Thus, Lee comments: “He's talking in so many goddamn dialects and accents all mixed up at the same time, cracking wisecracks, lots of oh yeah, wisecracks, you might think he was a nightclub comic. What'sa wrong with your Chinatown acka-cent, huh?” (24). In reply, Tam produces the rhythmic sounds “Buck Buck Bagaw” that mock deep-seated prejudices against Chinese Americans.

The most ironic critique of audience positions in the play is carried out through Chin's construction of Tom, an assimilated Chinese American and Lee's former husband. The play portrays Tom as conforming to almost every given cultural perception of Asian Americans as a “model” minority. He knows his place as a “Chinese” and feels content about his present opportunities. He says to Tam:

Maybe you don't like being Chinese and you're trying to prove you're something else. I used to be like that. I wondered why we didn't speak up more, then I saw we don't have to. We used to be kicked around, but that's history, brother. Today we have good jobs, good pay, and we're lucky. Americans are proud to say we send more of our kids to college than any other race. We're accepted. We worked hard for it. I've made my peace. (59)

Because of Tom's obvious acceptance of mainstream attitudes and values, he finds Tam unrealistic about his racial identity: “I can call you ‘Chinaman' and insult you, ‘Americanized Chinese’ and insult you. ‘Chinese’ and insult you, ‘American’ ‘Chink’ ‘Jap’ ‘Japanese’ ‘white’ and insult you, ‘black’ and insult you” (63). But Tom's complacency is immediately subverted by Tam's forcing him to see that Lee is not the white woman he thought he was married to: “Look at her. Go on up and get a good look, fella, and you tell me who's prejudiced against Chinese. You want a white girl so bad, so bad, you turned her white with your magic eyes. You got that anti-Chinaman vision” (60). Tom's misconception of Lee as white and non-Chinese is ironically reinforced by Lee's view of him as her “Chinese husband”; Tom's passing remark that “in American eyes we don't appear as he-man types” suggests that he is more troubled by stereotyping than he admits (59), while Lee's earlier comment that “he wasn't a man” implies that Tom's embrace of the promises of assimilation may be an act that has “unmanned” him. Only by rejecting Tam's acute sense of his anomalous cultural position can Tom feel secure in his ideologically designated place in American culture as a successfully assimilated minority. By defining Tam's aggressiveness and anger as idiosyncratic, as rooted in “personal” problems (60), and by seeing Tam's refusal to be pigeonholed into the mainstream culture's slots as a lack of courage in facing the reality of his being “Chinese,” Lee and Tom pose an accusatory question regarding Tam's identity: “Who do you think you are?” (13). This is precisely the question that might be raised by the audience confronted by an alienated self as disturbing as Tam.

It should be stressed that Lee's previous multiracial marriage, her children resulting from different racial combinations, and her own ambiguous racial identity parallel Tam's and Kenji's deliberate cross-racial accents, and likewise render her efforts at clear-cut, either/or definitions of ethnic identity simultaneously absurd and ineffectual. Similarly, Tom's claim that he knows, through his marriage to Lee, the difference between a “Chinese” and a white woman indicates that the mainstream culture's willful blindness toward standards for ethnic identity are naïve at best, racist and self-serving at worst. Since Lee and especially Tom are designated to speak for mainstream opinions that are represented as false, the question they pose in regard to Tam's identity—“Who do you think you are?”—forces audiences not only to face Lee's and Tom's, hence their own, problematic positions regarding Asian American identity, but also to see that the categories they use to understand Lee, Tom, Kenji, and Charlie Popcorn are equally arbitrary constructs. Thus a shift in tension occurs: from that between Tam and Tom/Lee on stage to the interstage cultural spaces in which the majority spectators are left disturbed and disoriented. Chin's introduction of multiple voices in the play and his conscious deployment of devices such as transference of voices and ironic juxtaposition of identities thus implicitly critique the hegemonic discourses of racial identity and strategically test the ground for bringing about multiple readerships through performative strategies.

Equally significantly, the “lumping” together of radically hybrid characters with mixed racial features and behaviors on a single stage confronts the audience with a polyphony of the new minority voices in the United States social arena of the 1960s and 1970s and thus indicates the author's recognition of an unprecedented disturbance of traditional racial and class lines in that era. Chin's satiric visualization of such interracial and multicultural dynamics poses serious challenges to hegemonic attitudes and values, as does his subversive critique of such influential signifiers of consumer society as the figures of the stewardess, the Lone Ranger, and the black boxer (as an example of black militancy in American sports of the 1960s). Indeed, the crossing of racial identity lines in Chin's play creates a panorama of confusion and fragmentation, confronting mainstream audiences with the instability and decentering of an early 1970s' postmodern culture characterized by the absence of a synthesizing vision and a hypnotized whole. (I further discuss Chin's plays in terms of the postmodern later in this chapter.) The sense of fragmentation that Chin foregrounds in his play invites the audience to witness the collapse of the totalizing structures of American culture's racial constructs; and the erratic, angry, foul-mouthed, many-voiced Tam at the “center” of Chin's disrupted stage world is emblematic of both the fact of that collapse and the plight of the marginalized artist seeking a ground and language for his vision when so many are blind to its sources.

The last act of The Chickencoop Chinaman prepares for the emergent Asian American artist-subject, albeit one who remains undefined and with an unclear sense of purpose. Such an emergence is simultaneously contrasted with the play's demystification of Tom as “Asian American” writer, author of a “cookbook” that Tam ironically derides as Soul on Rice. Although Tom insists that this book is about Chinese American identity and thus implicitly about Asian America, it is treated in the play as nothing other than a recipe from the dominant culture's archive. In the initial staging of The Chickencoop Chinaman, the same actor played the roles of both Tonto, the Indian companion to the Lone Ranger, and Tom, the “fake” Chinese American writer who implicitly celebrates the role of faithful subordinate to the dominant white culture. Such double casting reinforces the point that the roles played by both Tonto and Tom are defined by the majority culture in ways that do not disturb the historical dominance of Euro-Americans. In this sense, Tom (bearing a name recalling “Uncle Tom”) is not only a recipe offered by traditional American culture for the “model” minority but also a perfect embodiment of the book he himself is writing. Viewing Asian American identity through cultural biases that he has internalized—biases that include a homophobic reference to Asian American males as “queer” and “willowy,” a reference that Chin fails to resist in his theatrical critique of cultural racism—Tom reminds Tam that his cynicism about the mainstream culture's treatment of Asian Americans is “oversensitive” (58–59). Tam answers bluntly: “Tom, you! Your whole soul, man, has been all washed out, treated, your nerves all taped up and packed away, like mummies in the monster movies, man.” About his own position, Tam cries: “I knew better. I must've been known better. My whiteness runneth over and blackness … but people still send me back to the kitchen. You know what I mean?” When Tom again asserts, “You're oversensitive. You can't be oversensitive” (60), Tam's reply marks a climactic, though no less ambiguous, attempt to clarify the difference in their position:

You're right. I can't be oversensitive. It's like havin too much taste. But that's me oversensitive. And I like it. I am not going to dig up the Dancer, mock his birth, make a fool of him just to make a name for myself. That's the way it is with us Chinaman cooks! Dat's the code of the kitchen, children. Anybody hungry? (63)

Tam's switch from condemnation of Tom to ironic replacement of him in the kitchen as a “cook,” a preparer of “recipes” for Asian American identity, signifies the initiation of a process of cultural emergence for the ethnic artist by self-appropriation of the margin rather than, as is commonly observed, merely by reaction to oppressors outside the self and the ethnic group. Early in the play, Tam's language marks the kitchen as a cultural site of origin in discourses on the “birth” of his kind of “Chinaman”: “I am the result of a pile of pork chop suey thrown up into the chickencoop”; “the chicks of the coop” are “created,” “no more born than nylon or acrylic. For I am a Chinaman! A miracle synthetic!” (7–8). The role of cook and the site of the kitchen are implicitly where traditional American culture locates the figure of the Chinese American male. Tam's final move to the kitchen recalls the play's title, as well as its central figure: the chickencoop Chinaman. Figuratively, the chickencoop evokes images of Chinatowns and similar urban ghettos as sites for “breeding” of the Asian American as an invented species of the mainstream culture. Tam's talk about his “motherless bloody tongue” strongly underscores his sense of Chinese Americans as cultural “orphans” in the country's history. Tom, by contrast, can be seen to epitomize the consequences of embracing the orphan status and fleeing from his Chinatown “origins,” from the kitchen, with his “cookbook,” his “standard” English, and his parroting of mainstream culture's prejudices against Chinese Americans. Tam, also a product of the chickencoop, is a figure who can still be categorized among the “promiscuous and criminal birds” that are “too lazy to shape up a proper pecking order,” and “grooved on running their fool heads off together, making chicken poetry after Mad Mother Red” (7). While Tam's voice remains the raucous, rooster-like cry “Buck Buck Bagaw,” Tom's “orphaned” voice is that of a passive chicken sold for consumption to his “producers.”

Chin's negotiating position is clearly not absolutized through the series of events concerning his protagonist's displaced search for the Chinese American hero, his unsuccessful effort to disrupt the complacency of Tom and Lee, and, particularly, his ambiguous articulation of alternatives to imposition of Asian American identity from the cultural margin dramatically imaged by the kitchen site. Significantly, the kitchen from which we see Tam speak at the end of the play is also the one in which, as a young boy, he listens to radio programs about the Lone Ranger, imagines the masked man to be an Asian American hero, and hears his grandmother tell stirring stories about Chinese American men's feats in building the railroads. A climactic moment in the final kitchen scene comes when Tam seems to hear, without the mediations of either the Lone Ranger or his grandmother, the sound of a train that recalls the memory of “granmaw's pa coming home” (65). But Tam is only on the verge of identifying with his symbolic father and of (re)possessing his imagined heroic Asian American past through the possibilities that lace his self-conscious struggle to keep the present disjunctive. For the kitchen site where he finally reasserts himself is the same cultural margin of his social deprivation, a site that remains fought over by conflicting ideologies and subject to the confounding effects of diverse inscriptions. As a multiply coded metaphor—which simultaneously evokes ethnic minority racial status, servitude, cultural enslavement, ethnic identity politics, and implicit gender valuations—it thus prevents Chin's artist figure from immediately realizing the desire to become a historical subject and frustrates the viewers' attempt to draw clear-cut conclusions about what they see on stage.

Chin's linguistic-political construction of Asian American subjectivity is thus continually problematized by the materiality of Tam's “birth defects” (11) and his opposition to cultural dominance constantly displaced by the social conventions that insistently speak through his ethnic subject-in-the-making. Chin's emergent Asian American artist remains tentative, unstable, and forthcoming, one who speaks from the kitchen site in a voice at once disruptive and incoherent, while refusing to deliver messages of acceptance and gratitude that the majority culture expects to hear from those it defines within those boundaries. Like the anxiety-ridden Lacanian male child, Chin's Chinese American male subject continues to be divided from its own contradictions and ambivalence. But this division is also something on which Chin depends for securing a relational temporality in which he can revitalize his desire to fill the cultural void that defines his subject's struggle and in which his frustrated Asian American artist is stimulated to renewed ideological productivity.

COMMERCIAL CULTURE AND THE BURDEN OF REPRESENTATION

The pains that Tam experiences on stage in trying to legitimize a Chinese American language in The Chickencoop Chinaman find a parallel in the frustrations that Chin himself went through in the early 1970s in trying to publish his co-edited anthology of Asian American literature Aiiieeeee! According to Chin and Shawn Wong, before the book's final publication by Howard University Press in 1974, it had been repeatedly rejected by white publishers for its allegedly excessive “ethnic” content and its unwillingness to “mold” its differences “to enrich the society” defined by the majority culture (1974, vi, viii)8 For Chin, the difficulties he and other editors had faced in cultivating a public Asian American literary voice reflect not only the rigidity of an unyielding cultural establishment but also the need for Asian American artists engaged in such a struggle to perform an additional role as custodians of a fragile Asian American cultural identity. Such a perceived need was given full expression in Chin's second play, The Year of the Dragon (1974), in which he addresses with great satiric energy the agony and absurdity that the Asian American artist must negotiate in his relationships with family and community under the penetrating influence of capitalist commercial culture.

In a way, Chin's shift of attention from invoking the birth of the Asian American artist in The Chickencoop Chinaman to grappling with the burdens of representation faced by that artist in The Year of the Dragon was shaped by several developments that surrounded the latter's opening production.9 In the era, for example, various anti-poverty programs exposed the long-standing problems of low income, unemployment, poor housing, and crime that had beset Chinese Americans, and highlighted Chinatown's continued isolation as a subordinate community. Such a development is directly reflected in the play in Chin's use of a cramped apartment and its tiny kitchen and bathroom as centers of family activities and in the character Johnny, the gun-bearing younger brother of the play's central character, Fred, who symbolizes the emergence of a generation of antisocial Chinese Americans. For Chin, the economic subordination of Chinatown and its inhabitants was but another manifestation of the cultural deprivation he exposes in The Chickencoop Chinaman. One grave consequence of such mutually reinforcing oppression, Chin emphasizes, was that many young Chinese Americans had developed intense self-hatred, which in turn led to the desperate attempt to escape their fate by abandoning the ethnic community, an attitude he finds symptomatically reflected in Chinatown's social demographic changes and marriage patterns in the period (see Chin et al. 1974, xxi). It is perhaps no accident that Chin makes the marriage of Fred's sister Mattie Eng to a white husband, Ross, a highly controversial issue in the play.

Chin's simultaneous concerns about the existence of Chinatown as an emblem of racism and its disintegration as a result of the younger generation's eager absorption into the mainstream reveal a profound ambiguity in his perception of the role of the Chinatown community in his project of ethnic formation. Such ambiguity, as we have seen, is partly reflected in his first play in Tam's simultaneous rejection and endorsement of the kitchen site that is open to both positive and negative associations. As we have also seen, Tam's frustrated struggle for a living Chinese American historical vision is sustained not through his ability to change the social reality faced by Chinese Americans but rather through his attempt at radical temporal reorganization of that reality by a strategy of doubling. The productiveness of Tam's existential ambivalence, in other words, depends crucially on his access to historical memory. In The Year of the Dragon, however, Chin seems to suggest that maintaining such a precarious balance has become increasingly difficult in the face of the pervasive commodity reification in contemporary American culture. Despite Chinatown's status as an urban ghetto marked by poverty, Chin notes, the community has been effectively commercialized and abstracted into an alien cultural spectacle, a quaint tourist attraction that travelers visit on streetcars or on guided tours. For Chin, such commercial objectification of Chinatown poses the greatest threat to the emergent Asian American literary voice: it corrosively transforms—through external cultural falsification and internal reproduction of falsified consciousness—the community's limited signifying capacity into a passive reflection or, in Jameson's term, a “blank parody” of mainstream culture's orientalist desire; and it threatens to erase the last vestiges of a Chinese American historical memory by depriving the emergent artist figure of his “capacity actively to extend its pro-tensions and re-tensions across the temporal manifold and to organize its past and future into coherent experience” (Jameson 1991, 17, 25), hence making such memory no longer available to the upcoming Chinese American generations. Chin's reference to “the year of the dragon” (i.e., 1976) in the play's title—an occasion for celebrating the richness and longevity of the community's cultural tradition—becomes in this sense the playwright's calculated satire on Chinese America's cultural depthlessness as a result of the depletion of Chinatown's symbolic power through commercial culture.

From this perspective, Chin's play can be seen as centrally engaged in resisting the effects of commercialism's growing penetration into Chinese American life and exposing various forms of perceived complicity with the perpetuation of such effects both within and across the ethnic community. The play's ultimate purpose is to reinscribe, without certainty and compromise, a version of Chin's notion of “cultural integrity” for the emergent Asian American artist confronting commercial culture's relentless appropriation of Chinatown as a possible source of political resistance. Chin's efforts are realized mainly through the struggle carried out by the play's protagonist, Fred, who suffers a fractured sense of selfhood: publicly he is a Chinatown tour guide, a role forced on him by his own father, Pa Eng, “mayor” of Chinatown and owner of its booming Tour'n'Travel business;10 privately he is a Chinese American writer who has difficulty both publishing his novels and being recognized for his literary talent. This duality of Fred's function in the play is at once subversive and confining. On the one hand, his access to the two conflicting roles enables him to manipulate the performative distances between the play's actual and potential audiences for these roles, while it allows Chin to try out multiple positions, commenting on or responding to the range of options available both to himself and to the play's mainstream viewers. On the other hand, Fred's access to these roles is simultaneously curtailed by the constant tension between his resentment toward his imposed social identity and his anxiety about his unrealizable aspirations. The play dramatizes this tension through Fred's double voice: he adopts a phony, deferential “Chinese” accent when directly addressing the audience, and a vulgar and angry voice when talking with members of his Chinese American family. In this way, the play forces the audience not only to experience the discrepancies in Fred's divided self but also to see that their own tourist-like perception of Chinatown is based on a self-serving delusion: that is, they must recognize the naiveté of believing that the cultural other on which they depend for making sense of themselves can truly satisfy their curiosity about things “Chinese” simply as a result of the tour guide's performance. The play's demonstration of Fred's self-division thus illustrates commercial culture's tendency to falsify, conceal, and totalize, while it retaliatorily problematizes the seeming innocence of the audience's gaze by returning that gaze back to its source—a task that the play dramatically accomplishes through its satiric treatment of Ross, Fred Eng's white brother-in-law.

As a middle-class liberal white, Ross genuinely respects Chinese culture and loves the Chinese American family of which he has become a member. Yet, as the play suggests, his enthusiasm serves only to expose the orientalist nature of his liberal choice. For example, to show his appreciation for Chinese culture, Ross greets Pa Eng with “Gooh Hay Fot Choy” during their first meeting, a phrase that immediately angers Fred, who uses it only when he pretends to be a “Chinese” tour guide—a role that Ross unintentionally naturalizes by implicitly acting like a tourist. As the play proceeds to show, Ross is also prone to interpret what he cannot understand in the Chinatown family either as an indication of “normal oriental hospitality and restraints” (84) or as a sign of “the superiority of Chinese culture” (128), without realizing that his identification with the Chinese American family is ironically based on his simultaneous denial of their being his coequals. Fred's ruthless taunts at Ross's compliments about Chinese culture or Johnny's rude reaction to the Chinese cultural cliché with which Ross glibly misinterprets Chinese American family relations is designed to disturb mainstream audiences: the play does not invite sympathy for the frustrations Ross experiences in comprehending his Chinese American in-laws but rather harshly critiques almost everything he assumes regarding his relation with the Chinese American community. Mainstream audiences are initially invited to identify with the good-hearted, polite, and easygoing Ross and with his efforts to immerse himself in the Chinatown family. By placing this white character in direct confrontation with the objectified ethnic group he has married into, Chin exposes the superficiality of the majority culture's sense of justice toward the cultural other it sympathizes with and implicates the spectators as part of the folly by symbolically involving them on the stage. As the mainstream audience witnesses the Eng family's disturbing responses to Ross, it not only finds its assumptions about cultural identity turned into an object of satiric scrutiny but also discovers the unstable nature of its own position as the audience space itself becomes a staging of the tourist locale.

Because of the existence of large numbers of consumers of commercial constructions of Chinatown, Mattie's marriage to Ross, as well as the Chinese food business they operate, logically represents a kind of cultural transaction packaged and accomplished in terms of a cultural cliché the play satirizes—“a blend of the best of the East with the best of the West” (99). Indeed, Mattie herself is in many ways Chinatown sold to the mainstream, a delivery prepared through her collaborative staging of cultural identity by having competed when young for the title of Miss Chinatown USA under the sponsorship of Pa Eng's Tour'n'Travel, and having worn falsies in the swimsuit event in order to succeed. Mattie's urge to live up to the majority culture's tourist desire and Ross's well-intended condescension are most ironically compromised by their mutual acceptance of and appreciation for Chinatown as a simultaneously transparent and opaque commercial signifier.11 Their married relationship thus becomes an allegorization of the postmodern tourist's abandonment of a search for cultural meaning and that tourist's acceptance of both the superficiality and the limitations of late capitalist culture's commercial abstraction of race relations in American society.12 Mattie's rigorous cultural imaging of her self-identity thus reflects, according to Chin, her unconditional acceptance of tourist definitions of Chinatown, while Ross's unquenched thirst to “know” Chinese culture through interracial marriage reveals the self-mystifying effects of his indulgence in imagining the cultural other in tourist terms. Implicitly, the Mattie-Ross relationship serves as Chin's commentary on his vision of the dangers facing a new generation of Chinese American artists under the pressure of commercial objectification, and contrasts with the playwright's own effort to negotiate the social space he occupies as an Asian American writer by dramatizing Fred's struggle to find a position without compromise, without collapsing differences, and without denying the difficulties that Chinatown poses.

If the Mattie-Ross relationship illustrates how late capitalist culture effectively transforms Chinese American social relations into commercial forms, then that transformation foregrounds the interdependence between consumer values and orientalism, an interdependence that in turn requires collaboration between the consumer and the supplier of commercial goods, who can, hypothetically, manage the spectacle for gazing. In the play, Chin clearly designates Pa Eng, the China-born family head and owner of Tour'n'Travel, as performing such a function through inverted orientalist commodity fetishism. As we have seen, the father figure in The Chickencoop Chinaman is a recoverable image of the dignity and heroism of the Chinese American past and symbolizes both physical and cultural power. The father in The Year of the Dragon, however, stands for patriarchal tyranny, narrow commercial values, and, as we shall see, the divided consciousness of Chinatown as cultural colony and racially marginalized slum. The way Pa Eng decides Fred's future—by forcing him to drop out of college and to stay with him as a Chinatown tour guide—for example, is consistent with his perception of his own patriarchal privileges in the family (he made such an arrangement after realizing that he would soon die of a lung disease) and with his role as both a guarantor and an enforcer of commercial interests within the community. Accordingly, the most useful employees in his tour business are obedient tour guides who can market an “exotic” Chinatown to the mainstream culture for profit, whereas in his Chinatown family, the only “reliable” members are those who can preserve the “Chinese” family tradition. Logically, he makes Fred the top guide in the tourist business, while expecting him—his eldest son and heir to his tour business—to promise him, in ways that reflect his patriarchal commercial taste, that “Chinatown always house” (108).

Pa Eng's patriarchal commercial operation is ironically sustained by a sense of racial inferiority toward white Americans, an attitude manifested in a dubious mixture of Charlie Chan-like deference and mistrust, punctuated with comic assertions of patriarchal will. This feature of Pa receives biting satire in the play during his various encounters with Ross: he is “all smiles and giggling charm” before he learns that Ross is his son-in-law, yet once he realizes that Ross is a family member, he rudely interrupts him and calls him “Bok Guai Lo” (white devil) to his face (93–94). Similarly, although never convinced of Fred's talent for writing, Pa feels no hesitation to ask him to ghost-write his Chinatown New Year speech before Mattie's white husband arrives on the scene, after which he asks the latter to rewrite it for him. In Ross's presence, Pa refuses to let Fred even touch the notes he was asked to prepare: he shoves them at Ross, blurting out to his son: “What you know? No college graduation? Him Merican. Know da Engliss poofeck. You Chinese!” (104). Pa obviously thinks of Fred's writing skills as he thinks about his own English: “No good he ting I Englis too stupid. Better he ting Sissy Pa be somebody spesual” (108). Pa's exploitation of Fred's writing skills for his cultural exchange with Ross, as well as his disdain for Fred's ambition to become a Chinese American writer, is ironically juxtaposed with his excitement about the speech that Ross couches in racist cliché, a speech that the old man eagerly rehearses in the bathroom while noisily relieving himself.

The play's dramatization of Pa's enactment of “either/or” positions relative to mainstream culture's perception of Chinese Americans grows particularly intense when, under the belief that he should die the Chinese way, Pa brings into his Chinatown family the wife he has left in China for over forty years. Pa's insistence on keeping China Mama threatens to split the Chinese American family in ways analogous to those that Chin protests against in both The Chickencoop Chinaman and Aiiieeeee!—that is, the maintenance of Chinese Americans' invisibility by subsuming them to an ancestral culture to which they relate only imaginatively. The absurdity of such cultural erasure is further problematized in the play through Fred's painful realization that he is actually the biological son of China Mama, a fact that the latter insists Fred recognize by bringing him food and offering to wash his feet. Chin's portrayal of a culturally alien Chinese mother invading a Chinese American family should not be read too readily as a simple reflection of the playwright's anti-immigrant attitude or his motivated antagonism toward women; rather, it can be more profitably investigated as the playwright's peculiarly strategized critique of the superficiality of the majority culture's assumptions about Chinese Americans' cultural identity, as well as of his cynical resistance to the pervasive cultural dichotomy that effectively prevents Asian Americans from either conceptualizing their subjectivity or articulating their difference.

It should also be pointed out that Fred's rejection of China Mama is not without its global, geopolitical connotations, particularly in view of the implications of the normalization of U.S.-China relations in the era, which was marked initially by unofficial “Ping-Pong diplomacy” in 1971 and then by a visit to China by President Richard Nixon in 1972. This revival of interest between the United States and China, which would in due course lead to an official recognition of each other's political sovereignty, coincided with Chin's painful realization of the irresolvable duality in the Asian American cultural identity, as well as his bitter resentment about the majority culture's continued ignorance of the historical and cultural specificities of Chinese America. Chin's ambivalence is reflected in the play partly in his willful—and stereotypical—construction of a contemporary China Mama saturated with Confucian family ethics and partly in his polarized juxtaposition of Ross with China Mama as two powerful ideological forces that invidiously hail the cultural emergence of Chinese America. It is no accident that Chin cynically observed shortly before his second play was staged that “the Chinese-American, well, schizophrenia. That I'd been playing a kind of Ping Pong game, you know. Now I'm Chinese, now I'm American” (Nee and Nee 1973, 383). By parodying the dualistic cast of Western thinking, Chin's remark invokes Jameson's diagnosis of postmodernism as a “schizophrenic disjunction” (“écriture”) in late capitalism, which mystifies the social consequences of its breakdown of the signifying chain, as well as of its displacement of historical affects with simulacral passivity and difference (1991, 26–31). Such a diagnosis constitutes an ironic but fitting structural embodiment of the Asian American social experience portrayed in Chin's play.

Chin's contrast of Chinese with Chinese American cultures is further highlighted in the play by Fred's remark: “Just because we're born here don't mean we're nobody and gotta go away to another language to talk. I think Chinatown Buck Buck Bagaw is beautiful” (116). The echo of the “language” that Tam celebrates in The Chickencoop Chinaman should not be ignored: the issue of Chinese American identity raised here does not merely contrast with Mattie's naive belief in the possibility of leaving Chinatown and becoming a “free” individual; it underscores the radical break that Chin proposes for his largely linguistic-cultural construction of the ethnic identity from both Euro-American and Chinese traditions. The play is clearly very tough-minded about insisting that such splits are not easily “negotiated.” By including an alien China Mama and a patronizing white liberal male in the dramatic exchange, Chin implicates the audience in these two characters' positions; he reveals the absurdity of equating Chinese Americans with the Chinese, and exposes the distortion of white America's ostensible “respect” for Chinese culture as a disguised assault on Chinese American identity and history. Pa and China Mama's reunion in Chinatown in this sense also constitutes an inverted critique of the marriage between Ross and Mattie: both implicitly mock tourist perceptions of Chinese American culture. The play's mainstream audience is framed by the dramatic structure as a body of naive tourists who are forced to see the absurdity of “typical” tour-guide versions of Chinatown and Chinese Americans.

The tensions that have built up in Fred as a result of his repeated frustrations with the effects of commercialized tourist constructions of Chinatown ultimately sets him in direct confrontation with his father. The play reaches its climax when Pa savagely slaps Fred across the face for insisting on being taken seriously as a writer, for refusing to hear him deliver the New Year speech, for resisting playing the role of dutiful son, and for denying his verdict of him as a failure (unlike other sons of Chinatown businessmen who become doctors, lawyers, engineers). Fred's open negation of the role that Pa has assigned him signals a loss of balance in Fred's hitherto nimble verbal games, which have sustained his double performance and his precarious dialogue within the Eng family and with the viewers of Chin's play. Pa's sudden death, as a result of his exertion in attacking Fred, ultimately provides the latter with a chance to voice his anger with the father whom he has been “expecting … to die for so long” (86): “He's a flop! Couldn't even make your stupid speech without hanging onto me, couldya? You flop! ‘Mayor of Chinatown’ Flop” (140). Pa's death within the house is ironically accompanied by the New Year celebrations on the street and by the voice of a tour guide announcing the parade in a phony accent: “Lady gennuhmans … dere it's are! Dah worl's famous, worl's longes' really Chinee Dragger inna wor'l Ache hunner feet longs … dah boy runnings inna anna outta dragger feep it go dong dah strit once a year” (141). The counterpoint here between Pa's death and the public display of the dragon for Chinatown tourists underscores the profound irony of how the Chinese Americans' suffering as a result of the social and psychological consequences of their position remains hidden behind the glamorous tourist facade.

At one point, seeing no way out of the contradictory world of Chinatown, Fred advises his younger brother to marry a white woman and leave the community for good (123). Even he himself thinks of moving out before Pa dies because he is so tired of telling the tourists stories about a Chinatown that is not there. But he also recognizes, as he tells Mattie, that once out of Chinatown, “we'll become nobody,” but “here we're somebody” (116, 117). Rejecting his sister's strategy of dealing with Chinatown by flight from its decay, Fred hints that he has to find a way to “protect” himself from the influence of Mattie's example and from the family's expectations for him. Fred's positioning here extends to his role as a writer and constitutes Chin's major negotiating strategy with regard to his notion of the Asian American artist. Realizing that “no one gonna read the great Chinese American novel,” Fred has announced, tongue in cheek, that “I'm going to write the great Chinese American Cookbook” because, as he adds ironically, “food's our only common language” (83, 85). In this playful exchange with Mattie, the cookbook becomes a mock figure for “a new literary form” for Chinese Americans. The fact is that Fred rejects both the role of writing what he calls “food pornography” and the role of Chinatown tour guide (86)—both equivalents to the Chinese food business. What he tries to do instead is to live in Chinatown without lying about it; to negate mainstream culture's deceptive views of Chinatown with his angry “Buck Buck Bagaw” without losing sight of Chinatown's internal contradictions. With Pa's death, the Chinatown Eng family formally disintegrates, while Fred angrily claims his Chinatown “home” in all its contradictory ugliness and ambiguous relation to a mainstream culture which is imaged at the end as spitting drool in which Chinatown's inhabitants must swim.

The ending of the play projects a very uncertain future for Chin's artist figure, whose painful balance between his urge to fill in the gap left by the makeup of his own subjectivity and his repeatedly deferred entry into conscious performance of that urge is constantly displaced by his increasing psychological tendency toward stasis, implicitly the result of capitalist culture's structural essentialization of Chinatown according to the principles of commodity production and orientalism. One of Johnny's remarks to his brother during the last scene of act 2 seems to capture Fred's raw awareness of the dilemmas facing him: “You're the one told me … living in Chinatown's an art, man. Well, dig it, punk, I'm an artist” (130). The angry and agonized Fred, whose cynicism is deliberately couched in hipster talk, black humor, and rhetorical overkill, suggests an artist who is trying to find his own discourse in a place where no shared language is provided and where only a cultural space defined by contradiction is available as a site from which to speak. A central strategy of Chin's dramatization of the nature of his male protagonist's inner struggle involves Fred's capacity to reveal the multiple tensions that actively shape the double self of the Asian American artist-in-the-making: the dominant values of the community, the family, the “tourist” audience, and the publishing market that buys only what does not disturb mainstream assumptions. And the play's structure forces the audience to hear and experience Fred's contradictory voices, and to face the merging of them in the final scene. Such doubleness in the play must have been particularly disturbing to the mainstream audience of the 1974 opening of Chin's play off-Broadway in New York, because it both invaded their evaluative systems and required them to enter the ironic world of the stage without a secure frame of reference. In a sense, Fred's contradictory voices at the end of the play are a logical outcome of what Chin perceives to be the burden of representation on the artist of the Asian American “dual personality” defined by the commercial culture: the character angrily expresses the brew of contradictions and anguish that are ordinarily hidden to make the differential “tour guide” voice palpable to the mainstream.

The problems faced by such an artist are obviously as much personal and cultural as they are intellectual and social. Chin's portrayal of Fred as an artist bound by multiple contradictions in his cultural and historical situation but refusing to admit defeat clearly establishes a contrast, as he argues in Aiiieeeee!, to a recent generation of Asian American writers who tend to ignore such problems and consciously or unconsciously engage in what he sees as a devastating cultural sellout of Asian American identity. Such writers are satirized in Chin's characterization of Mattie as a performing collaborator in the play—as opposed to Fred as a self-consciously subversive performer—and named by the editors of Aiiieeeee in their attacks on Jade Snow Wong, Virginia Lee, and Betty Lee Sung (Chin et al. 1974, xxii-xxiv, xxviii-xxxi).13 A common characteristic of these writers, the editors assert, is that they perpetuate the stereotypical image of Chinatowns and Chinese Americans according to the concept of the dual personality. The editors conclude that this false view of dual personality explains not only Asian Americans' lack of political presence in American society, but also the commercial success of Asian American literary discourse that is complicit with white culture. Chin and his fellow editors claim that these writers accept the dominant culture's rules, discourse, and frames of reference—a position that gives up any possibility of“bargaining” that demystifies the dominant culture's hegemony or demands acknowledgment of Asian American vision in the process of the exchange. The seriousness with which Chin assesses the situation faced by Asian American writers clearly reflects his sensitivity to the realities concealed by the evolution of the Chinese American “model minority” image in American popular culture up until the early 1970s, and his calculated selection of that historical moment for strategic intervention. But his blanket attack on the Asian American writers he considers “assimilationist” also indicates his rejection of a range of less contestatory positions, a rejection that once again testifies to the radicality and moral urgency of his theatrical enunciation, while it points toward the problems inherent in his attempt to regulate and control the oppositional energy he helps to vitalize through his plays.

AUDIENCE AND THE POLITICS OF NEGATION

In The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon, Chin explores representational strategies that disrupt dominant codes of meaning through a type of cultural engagement that is intense, argumentative, and self-consciously ironic. Such strategies, especially in the voices of his protagonists, express at the formal level the raw vigor, toughness, pain, and masculinity that Chin believes should characterize Asian America's resistance to the linguistic homogenization and cultural deformation of a distinct Chinese American experience that he tries to legitimize. If mainstream drama tends to assert formal control over the eruptive desires for social change that it represents in its conflicts, Chin's off-Broadway and San Francisco productions were interventions into a form of history production that had never before included the work of an angry Asian American playwright. These plays in this sense also express the author's demand for cultural space from American theater and other hegemonic institutions that had heretofore refused to acknowledge the existence of Asian American artists, expression, and history. But the significance of Chin's theatrical experiments derives not so much from its attempt to construct alternative dramatic conventions as from its questioning of the existing process of meaning production through invoking a repertoire of insurrectionary politics associated with the dramatic genre. At the same time, the plays' dramatization of a suppressed yet living form of “Asian American myth” marked by participation in the opening of the American West and heroic feats of railroad construction constitutes Chin's aggressive (though not unproblematic) engagement with the American canon in its own terms and his affirmation of Asian Americans' contribution to laying the material and cultural foundations of the United States. Part of Chin's efforts in this period, as I noted earlier in this chapter, were directed toward recovery of Asian American literary writings that had been lost, ignored, or misclassified, or had gone out of print, writings that include Bulosan's America Is in the Heart, Diana Chang's Frontiers of Love, Okada's No-No Boy, and Chu's Eat a Bowl of Tea, all of which, as I have argued, accumulatively, though nonteleologically, exposed the sociopolitical conditions that Chin's artist-protagonists probe in their angry “Buck Buck Bagaw” and that his theatrical discourse richly explores.

The vision that emerges from Chin's theatrical discourse is not predictable or uniform—it does not equate rhetorical desire with political efficacy or promote Asian American counterimages according to rigid representational types. On the contrary, Chin's plays register multiple forces at work and engage complex operations of doubling. One issue of representation that poses a particular challenge to Chin in this process is how to convince the viewers of his plays of the limitations of conventional cultural perceptions of Asian Americans as foreign while at the same time suggesting to them, at least with some degree of clarity and coherence, that the Asian American counterimages he has created in their place are viable cultural options. The paradox here is that Chin's ridiculing of cultural stereotypes and his forcing into view what mainstream cultural representations ignore depends simultaneously on his unintentional visual preservation of the cultural other14 and his deliberate construction of opaque and inarticulate Asian American subjects—strategies that intentionally simulate for his audience Asian America's sheer inaccessibility to history. Aware of the contradictions in fashioning an effective, one-directional oppositional strategy, Chin makes a characteristic postmodern move by multiplying both the sites of cultural disruption and the number of Asian American images and voices in his plays in order to display the multiple sources of his artist figure's plight. Chin's self-conscious use of a strategy of “disruptive complicity” (Federman 1988, 1156) through cross-cultural ventriloquism and role playing in his theatrical participation in the social movements of the era thus makes his plays multiply performative. Indeed, the discontinuous point of view of the plays and their hybridization of binary opposites discourage any coherent grasp of the protagonists' subjectivity and prevent the audience from identifying with any one subject position as fully valid or meaningful. The crude, highly self-contradictory voices of the protagonists in these two plays thus testify to the complexity of the playwright's positioning toward Asian American history and identity that he at once constructs and problematizes.

Reviewers' initial response to Chin's plays took the form of a mixture of admiration and revulsion. One mainstream reviewer of The Chickencoop Chinaman found Chin to be a “natural writer: his language has the beat and brass, the runs and rim-shots of Jazz.” Another thought that “a Chinaman [who] was ‘loud, violent, sexually aggressive’ was imitating blacks because ‘loud, violent, sexually aggressive’ was stuff that really stunned most Chinese.” A Chinese American writer commented on a performance of The Year of the Dragon: “It was an outpouring of bitterness and hatred mouthed through lengthy monologue after monologue. Not that it was Randy Kim's fault [the lead actor] but it was Frank Chin showing through” (quoted in McDonald 1981, xiv-xv). Such confusion about the meaning of Chin's plays, I would suggest, reveals several issues regarding the tactical implications of the confrontation-bargaining process that Chin initiates through his openly combative theatrical work. First, although Chin's rowdy defiance of the conventional cultural treatment of Asian Americans by the mainstream is morally sound, the amount of aggressiveness with which he directs such defiance against the audiences for his plays in the early 1970s and the self-questioning responses he constantly demands of them reveal Chin's problematic attribution to the audience of his plays of an ideally participatory and politically homogenized spectatorship. In positioning his audience as uniformly ignorant and uninitiated, Chin apparently confused contemporary theatergoers more than he prepared the ground for their conversion. The various reviewers' responses to Chin's plays indicate that there was still no socially recognized grammar or vocabulary for decoding the cultural and ideological symbols introduced by his plays. Although Chin idealistically constructs historical meaning in his plays as natural and demands that mainstream society recognize that its own views of Asian American history are false, his obliquely recorded signs of the Kwan tradition and Chinese American history are not explicitly connected to the social and political context of his plays' signification. As a result, the meaning of his angry protest and privatized adoption and revision of cultural symbols was apparently lost on a significant portion of his audiences, perhaps because the arbitrariness of an ideologically revised relationship between signifier and signifieds demands simultaneous and willing adjustments of conceptual distinctions, adjustments that may be possible for close readers but beyond the power of theatergoers experiencing a performance like this for the first time.

Second, the poor runs of Chin's plays in their first productions raises the question of how dissenting Asian American voices can deal with the complex entanglements of established literary forms with various affiliative or oppositional constraints, with the tactical limitations of waging wars only on the basis of a self-conscious attempt to be counterhegemonic, and with the practical problems of how meaning can be effectively communicated to audiences who do not necessarily share the same assumptions. Chin's response to these contingencies is marked by the tendency toward didacticism in his theatrical art, despite his apparent openness to certain aspects of postmodern experiments. Such a tendency is exemplified in the playwright's repeated expression in The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon of mistrust of positions taken by commercially successful Asian American writers, an attitude that frequently gives rise to charges against Chin of moral policing or even cultural tyranny. In light of my analysis of the historical specificity of the plays' production, I would suggest that Chin's polemical attacks on “inauthentic” Asian American creative activities were primarily motivated not by those impulses but rather by his refusal to abandon “truth.” In other words, he insists on giving his audiences a concrete idea of what is “true” and what is “false” about Asian American identity and on ensuring that they not mistake one for the other. But Chin's efforts to (re)construct audience attitudes are made with such arbitrariness and hostility toward what he distrusts that his artist protagonist, a personification of Chin's own theatrical style, characteristically ends up like a tragic Faust figure: he exhausts himself in the impossible task of shaping the public perspective on Asian America according to his ideals; he forces the audiences of his plays to ideological and emotional extremes by relentlessly confronting them with the plays' unresolved contradictions; and, because of his intense negativity, he draws attention from his artistic production to his own moral self.15

POSTMODERNIST THEATRICAL ART

In his 1986 essay “Ethnicity and Post-Modern Arts of Memory,” Michael Fischer suggests that Chin's early literary work exemplifies postmodern modes of representation and finds that the following “modalities of postmodernist knowledge” figure especially prominently: “transference, dream-translation, talk-story, multiple voices and perspectives, and highlighting of humorous inversions and dialectical juxtaposition of identities/traditions/cultures, and the critique of hegemonic discourses” (202). While Chin uses all these techniques in his plays, the association Fischer makes raises questions that seem to go beyond the conceptual framework within which he defines and applies postmodernism to the analysis of Asian American literary works. For example, in framing postmodernism largely in terms of styles, Fischer invokes but does not explain the entangled relationship between modernist and postmodernist aesthetics, while in emphasizing the representational power of indeterminacy and fragmentation in Chin's minority literary practice, he touches on but somehow evades a crucial distinction between postmodernism as a form of artistic expression and postmodernism as a social condition in America's late capitalist culture.16

The latter condition has received provocative analyses by commentators such as Stuart Hall (1986), Cornel West (1987), bell hooks (1990, 23–31), José David Saldívar (1990), and Phillip Brian Harper (1994), who, despite their different intellectual positions and critical assumptions about postmodernism, all emphasize the need to resist imagining the fate of people of color by replicating simulacral heterogeneity, the need to draw out the socioeconomic dimensions of any particular postmodernist aesthetic, and the need to redeploy postmodernist politics through reworking its basic assumptions and categories.17 Although these efforts to contextualize postmodernism have obviously shaped my own analysis of Chin's plays in this chapter, they are relatively silent about the aesthetic issue evoked by Fischer. A careful examination of this issue, I would suggest, is essential to understanding the specific political location of Chin's theatrical art, a location that is deeply implicated in early American literary postmodernism's shifting concerns and changing frames of reference.

According to Paul Bové (1995, 4–9) and Patricia Waugh (1992, 4–5), one significant historical moment in which to locate the critical formulation of American literary postmodernism is an aesthetic debate in the United States in the late 1950s and the early 1960s. In this period a new generation of American writers set out to define, against their differing artistic and political persuasions, the existence of a literary mode of “replenishment” (Barth) characterized by sensuous immediacy, discursive proliferation, parataxis, or multiperspectivism.18 An important rationale that critics have advanced for such literary experimentation is that, as an art of surface, it was the era's reaction against modernism's complicity with consumer capitalism in its evoking a “negative liberty” for artistic freedom (Jay 1984, 122–31). Such “negative liberty”—emblematized in the modernist defiance of commercial culture through surrealist techniques of fragmentation and unexpected juxtaposition—ironically fetishized objects in a way that stimulated, rather than subverted, capitalist consumerist desires (McGowan 1991, 11). “Postmodernist” artistic form, in making itself opaque and resistant to interpretation through its effective silence, then refused consumption, even as it partook of a culture of consumerism (Waugh 1992, 4). Within this context, postmodernist art is seen as contesting capitalist commercialism in areas where the system is found most actively operating on the deformation of culture (Baudrillard 1983, 41–43). But since early American literary postmodernism relied on the archive of its own time for intellectual, imaginative, and political inspiration (Bové 1995, 4–5), it established itself mainly through a reversal or rearrangement of the high-modernist reification of unified art while adopting a similar set of linguistic strategies and philosophical positions (North 1994, 32–33, 208). The political power of early American postmodernist literature thus lies mainly in its subversive appropriation of late modernist aesthetic assumptions, as well as in its self-conscious reengagement with the issue of social morality through the act of “writing,” of “narration,” and of“composition” (Federman 1988, 1143).

Such a view of postmodernism has drastically changed since the early 1980s, when American literary postmodernists began to draw on insights from French theorists. (Note that Jameson's “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” was published in 1983; Lyotard's 1979 The Postmodern Condition became available in English in 1984.) Thus Waugh observes, obviously in reference to a Jamesonian view of the postmodern:

“Postmodernism” now expresses the sense of a new cultural epoch in which distinctions between critical and functional knowledge break down as capitalism, in its latest consumerist phase, invades everything including the aesthetic, the post-colonial world and the unconscious … leaving no remaining oppositional space. At this point, the term becomes inflected with a kaleidoscope of meanings drawn from those human sciences variously engaged in the production of a theoretical palimpsest where the specific aesthetic origins of the term are almost entirely obscured. (1992, 5–6)

Along with this theoretical shift away from an emphasis on the aesthetic, the critical discourse of postmodernism has expanded, often in a totalizing fashion, both the terms and the scope of its earlier concerns to wider social and political domains. Such an expansion characteristically involves a more thorough critique of the assumptions of the Enlightenment and its “grand narrative” (Lyotard 1984, xxiii) and a greater awareness of the speaking subject's being “within a way of thinking,” a condition that disallows “the comfort of absolutely naming the terms” of the subject's overdetermined existence (Marshall 1992, 3). In a sense, recent conceptualizations of postmodernism differ from its earlier versions in their marked rejection of the residual humanistic visions which their predecessors inherited from modernism, and in their heightened cynicism and relativism toward the capacity of human agency to act historically and to effect real social change within America's late capitalist culture.

In light of this briefly drawn trajectory of the shifting contexts and the evolving concerns of American conceptualizations of postmodernism, I wish to register several caveats about discussing Chin's work in relation to the term. First, as the foregoing examination suggests, “postmodernism” signifies not one but several positions and functions: a practice of aesthetic styles, a theoretical discourse, a way of talking about popular cultural forms, and a variously defined historical condition, with each connected to but different from another. Absolutely positing one dimension of postmodernism against the perspective of another leads to omissions of important constituent details of the “postmodern” features in Asian American texts such as Chin's plays. Second, the recent theoretical rearticulation of postmodernism, including some of its materialist reformulations, contains one paradoxical tendency—its relegation, as Bové points out, of the literary to a marginal status—which makes much careful study of literature today suspicious of “cultural conservatism” or of “reactionary effort to reestablish literature's old ideological privilege and academic position” (1995, 3). This tendency, as I will argue in the closing chapter of this study, inappropriately downplays both the need and the difficulty of working through and winning control over aesthetic modalities from America's late capitalist culture, while simplifying both the nature and range of cultural critique. Third, Chin's plays, if seen as “postmodernist” in technique, necessarily belong to an early phase of the phenomenon, a phase in which postmodernist works tend to exhibit both a greater degree of overlap with late modernist concerns and a lesser degree of the theoretical self-consciousness characteristic of recent postmodernist developments. In light of my analysis in this chapter, the postmodern experimentalism in Chin's plays might best be seen as the product of a writer who oscillates between modernist and postmodernist affiliations within an increasingly postmodern Western culture, one marked by a new phase in commodity fetishism, a profusion of subcultural styles, the emergence of a plurality of power and/or discourse formations, and a generalized recognition of but insensitivity to race, gender, class, and other local differences.19 From this perspective, the shared stylistic features that Fischer identifies between Chin's work and existing definitions of postmodernist art do not affirm the universality of canonical postmodernism but rather instance how the limits of any given postmodern theory are disclosed by its encounter with particular examples of Asian American experimental works.

Overall, the readings in this chapter suggest that Chin's plays occupy an aesthetic location that at once registers modernist and postmodernist concerns, and resists absolute divisions or oppositions between them. As we have seen, Chin's theater offers a space where competing ideological tendencies and diverse social and cultural accents are allowed to interact or clash, its in-betweenness and openendedness explicitly disruptive of the “closed circuits” of traditional dramatic representation premised on the notion of a self-sufficient text. The permeability between Chin's theatrical operation and the live social issues it actively signifies works to disrupt—particularly through the plays' “vulgarized” use of language and cultural codes—the modernist tendency to separate the aesthetic from the social, the high from the low, and the act of cultural consumption from that of its production. By the same token, the plays' awareness of the social and economic consequences of how dominant linguistic and cultural conventions speak for Asian America can also be seen as the playwright's active engagement with the discursive power of discourses on racial, sexual, and cultural marginalization, as opposed to the early modernist preoccupation with the crisis of language per se.20 At the same time, Chin's engagement is essentially motivated by a conscious search for suppressed forms of knowledge about Asian America's past, a search that contrasts significantly with the familiar postmodern critique of origins as well as with its characteristic lament for a total loss of the oppositional space in late capitalism. Also illustrative of the ambivalent aesthetics of Chin's theater is the role that he assigns both to art and to the artist figure: by presupposing the effectiveness of an oppositional use of the theater and an agonistic persona, Chin departs from postmodernism's general skepticism about the transformative and critical power of art, as well as from its implicit acceptance of the self-consciously dissolving subject, whose meaning can be understood only through the overdetermination of ideologies or discourses.

With regard to Chin's artist figure especially, this character, as we have seen, is fully comprehensive of the nature of Asian Americans' social predicament and alert to the pitfalls underlying their seeming social acceptance, a consciousness vividly displayed in his anxiety, pain, and cynicism. Unable to act in the face of the paralyzing effect of his existential dilemma, he resorts to shocking his auditors through unconventional representational strategies, but without abandoning a desire to construct a unified individual identity against overwhelming adversities. What gets foregrounded through such resistance is what John McGowan calls “the primacy of the will” (1991, 11), a legacy from high romanticism which, I would suggest, is implicitly embodied in Chin's notion of “Asian American cultural integrity.” In emphasizing the autonomous self and its ability to maintain moral heroism in the face of irresolvable social contradictions, this dimension of Chin's artist figure quintessentially emblematizes the playwright's commitment to the humanist assumptions associated with modernism. Such a commitment also underlies this artist figure's adamant resistance to any perceived threat of political “merger” (Hebdige 1993, 75)—a seemingly postmodern gesture toward open-endedness—which, as I have shown in my textual analysis, turns out to be an individualistic stance that at once denies totalization and demands uniformity. Indeed, in his insistence on the undesirability of internal fragmentation of Asian American political forces at the historical juncture of his plays' production and in his simultaneous underestimation of the particularities of the diverse voices suppressed by such insistence, Chin obviously redeploys modernist politics in a changed social context. At the same time, his deliberate, and often instinctive, reaction against the ideological power and the ahistoricism of the dominant literary and cultural practices of his time also shows both his receptivity and his creative contribution to the force of an evolving American postmodernist cultural critique.

In short, Chin's plays are neither unambiguously modernist nor explicitly postmodernist in general senses of the term. Rather, they exhibit signs of conscious or unconscious negotiations with these positions and tactical or pragmatic crossing of their shifting, inadequately defined—and often undefinable—boundaries. It is amidst such movements between modern and postmodern spaces that Chin provocatively split what was Asian America's discursive present in the early 1970s through the performativity of his drama, an approach that deconstructed the authority of given representations of Asian America and pointed to alternative relational positions.

The alternative position that Chin's plays opened was clearly unintentional. In particular, his theatrical works were received with ambivalence within the ethnic community that he aimed to mobilize, especially by women who were repelled by his boisterous male self-representation predicated on sexist assumptions. Women readers in the community became increasingly disturbed by Chin's attribution of the absence of Chinese American history, identity, and language in American culture to a femininizing displacement of the masculine center, a view that leads the playwright to an obsessive construction of the male subject as the only possible site for reinscribing Asian Americans in the nation's historical consciousness. Chin's ready use of women, as one critic complains, as “foils for tough-talking males” in his plays (Sucheng Chan 1991, 184) constitutes a dramatic illustration of the “remarkable oversight” about women in early postmodernist critiques of totalization in general (Lacan 1982, 87) and in Chin's literary representation in particular.21 Indeed, despite Chin's best efforts to avoid any transcendent positioning of his subject, the critical hermeneutic of his plays remains partially enveloped in an ideological and highly gendered meta-narrative. As a consequence, his theatrical problematization of racial inequality has failed to enlist many of the potential allies from the community for which he tried to speak. Instead, it has triggered intense, unpredictable debates within that community over the issue of women's agency eclipsed in his skewed theatrical enunciation.

Homi Bhabha observes: “Once you release into the present of any culture this kind of agonistic, differential moment, then really it opens up an endless possibility for different conjugations of time and space and meaning—different uses of symbology, different kinds of social metaphor, different practices”—because those suppressed differences occupy exactly the same cultural space of the pronounced adjuration and articulation (1990b, 84). Robert Stam similarly points out: “Social diversity is fundamental to every utterance, even to that utterance which on the surface ignores or excludes the groups with which it is in relation. All utterances take place against the background of the possible responding utterances of other social points of view” (1988, 130). As we shall see in the next chapter, Chin's assertion of “Asian American cultural integrity” through a tough-talking male voice and his unintentional reproduction of male domination within the community paradoxically became an obstacle and an invitation to Asian American women's rearticulations of their differences on their own terms. Such female reinscription of gender differences, which culminated in the 1976 publication of Maxine Hong Kingston's autobiography, The Woman Warrior, signals a dialectical relocation of the Asian American subject constructed by Chin.

Finally, the interdependent relationship between Chin's male-oriented theatrical protest against cultural domination and Asian American women's resistance to the continued suppression of their voices from within and across an emergent Asian American literary discourse highlights both the strategic and practical value of what Stuart Hall calls “arbitrary closure,” a dialogic process that, according to Hall, inheres in many counterhegemonic practices. In using the term, Hall suggests that a radical, one-sided assertion of cultural difference in a hegemonic process is often knowingly or unknowingly constructed by underrepresented, marginalized groups as communicative closure because, by constructing the former's limitations as natural and permanent, the latter can justify counterstrategies for overcoming their disadvantageous situation in a radically oppositional fashion. Yet because the former's arbitrary assertion of power is exposed to the infinite semiosis of sociocultural processes, Hall further observes, the meaning it suppresses cannot be effectively sealed off. Rather, the dialogic process continues to unfold not only beyond arbitrarily installed boundaries but also in defiance of any rationally conceived goals of struggle implicitly aimed at by the former (1990/1994, 397). Despite its “remarkable oversight” about women and its polemical efforts to confine “Asian American cultural integrity,” Chin's use of the theater remains viable and productive, its significations open to heterogeneous possibilities, as well as to ideological revision, rearticulation, and rearrangement.

Notes

  1. Before Chin's plays were published, he had already won the Joseph Henry Jackson prize in 1965 for his as-yet-unpublished story “A Chinese Lady Dies” (see Robert Murray Davis 1988, 75). Subsequent references to Chin's plays cite the 1981 edition.

  2. Critics have made a thoughtful distinction between Chin as a critic and Chin as an artist (e.g., TuSmith 1993, 45). Here I suggest that these two aspects of Chin can productively converge under given conditions.

  3. Chin is clearly using the phrase “Chinese whoremother” sarcastically to refer to the cultural deprivation suffered by Chinese Americans through incorporation of a dominant language of the late 1960s counterculture. But this usage also reflects Chin's insensitivity to the sexism in such language.

  4. For an analysis of the relationship between early Chinese immigration history, the role of theatrical performance in the immigrant community, and appropriations of Kwan Kung as a historical figure, see Robert Lee (1992).

  5. See Abe (1991) and Nee and Nee (1973, 377–89).

  6. For Fredric Jameson, postmodernism is a dominant cultural condition marked by a total loss of the social space for political opposition. Such a perception of America's late capitalist culture leads him to see the “Third World,” which he imagines allegorically in a somewhat monolithic fashion, as the only possible site for effective counterhegemonic struggle (1986). In my analysis of Chin's plays, I appropriate Jameson's idea of “the cultural dominant” invertedly, that is, not as a substantiation of his original formulation of postmodernism but rather as ironic commentary on the social and cultural dilemmas faced by Asian Americans. In addition, examining Chin's work through the ironic lens of the Jamesonian idea of the postmodern can lead to a historically more concrete understanding of the role of the “Third World,” a phenomenon that, as Chin's plays show, is disruptively present in the capitalist order of the United States and difficult to appropriate as simply oppositional in an idealized fashion. For two alternative positions about postmodernism and its conditions, see, for example, Mike Davis (1988) and Reed (1992, 151–58).

  7. See, for example, Palumbo-Liu (1994, 78–79) and Reinhard (1995, 57–67). My limited reference to Freud's perspective via Lacan is meant not to illustrate the complex psychoanalytical procedures involved, but to elucidate the historicity of the interventionary possibilities yielded by Chin's critical engagement with racial, sexual, and cultural doubles in his plays.

  8. Both Chin and Shawn Wong pointed out in 1974 that African Americans have been “quicker to understand and appreciate the value of Asian American writing than whites. … The blacks were the first to take us seriously and sustained the spirit of many Asian American writers. [I]t was not surprising to us that Howard University Press understood us and set out publishing our book Aiiieeeee! with their first list. They liked the English we spoke and did not accuse us of wholesale literary devices” (viii, vi).

  9. Chin's shift of creative attention also reflects the course of development of ethnic movements in American society in the early 1970s in general. According to one study, this period saw the radical fervor of ethnic protest subside along with the decline of the massive student activism of the late 1960s. Such decline resulted mainly from the ascendancy to political power of neoconservatives and the simultaneous economic recession in the United States as American troops began to withdraw from Vietnam. One of the consequences was the splintering of social movements. For example, the New Left perspective did not succeed in creating constituencies among most students of color because it failed to embrace their experiences and needs. Its call for personal liberation was not well received by those who saw themselves as a community seeking to break free from societal racism. And the optimism of the New Left's belief in “Revolution Now!” did not sit well with intellectuals of color, either, who were all too aware of the slow process of realizing concrete demands. As a result, many radicals turned their attention to their respective communities and focused on bread-and-butter issues (Barlow 1991, 9). My analysis of Chin's second play is, from this perspective, specifically concerned with the representational problems faced both by the playwright himself and by his artist figure. For a brief mention of Chin's dramatization in this play of “the burden and dilemma” Chinatown poses “as an existential space” for Chinese Americans in the 1970s, see Li (1991, 217).

  10. The president of the local chapter of the Chinese Benevolent Association in San Francisco and New York is traditionally called the Mayor of Chinatown by the press and the president of the United States. The implication of the honorary title is a recognition of an understanding between the press and the Chinese Benevolent Association that they are the exclusive source of Chinatown news—hence “good news only” (see Chin 1972a, 61).

  11. In reference to the ironic implications of orientalist desire, Ali Behdad further points out that there is always “a split between the Western vision of its Other, the cleavage of the masked and the exposed, the cut between maximum visibility and total inscrutability,” because of the discursive paradox of gazing (1990, 37).

  12. In making this argument, I appropriate David Chaney's observation about tourism in relation to late modern drama: “To the extent that post-modern tourists have abandoned a search for cultural meaning, they have also accepted the limitations of artificiality to any form of social action when there has been a radical dramatization of everyday life” (1993, 166).

  13. For a discussion of Virginia Lee's work in terms of memory and literary ancestral home, see Amy Ling (1990, 97–103).

  14. Vincent Crapanzano elaborates on this paradox in his discussion of the ethnographer's critical interpretation of cultural other (1986, 52).

  15. My discussion of Chin's male artist as a Faust figure draws on David Harvey's comment on Faust as symptomatic of the limitations of modernity (1989, 16). For a thoughtful discussion of Chin as a Joycean artist figure, see Robert Murray Davis (1992).

  16. Many critical attempts have been made to distinguish modernity from postmodernity: Ihab Hassan's stylistic differentiation (1982/1987), Jameson's argument about the emergence of “the cultural dominant” in the early 1960s (1983, 124–25), Harvey's observation about postmodernity as emerging “full blown” between 1968 and 1972 (1989, 38), and Spivak's designation of the worldwide electronification of the stock market in 1974 as the beginning of postmodernity (quoted in Bill Martin 1992, 208 n. 8).

  17. Despite my reservation about Fischer's use of the term “postmodernist art” to describe Chin's literary creation in general, I find his assessment of the significance of Chin's art quite accurate and incisive: “No greater indictments of racism in America exist than Charlie Mingus's Beneath the Underdog, Raul Salinas's ‘A Trip Through the Mind Jail,’ the angry writings of Frank Chin, the portraits of trauma by James Welch or Gerald Viznor. None of these, however, merely indicts, and certainly none blames only oppressors outside the self and ethnic group; all fictively demonstrate the creation of new identities and worlds. Rather than naive efforts at direct representation, they suggest or evoke cultural emergence” (1986, 202).

  18. These writers include, among others, Charles Altieri, David Antin, John Barth, William Burroughs, John Cage, Arthur Miller, and Charles Olson.

  19. This is my condensed reworking—through refocusing on issues of race, gender, and class—of Dick Hebdige's lengthy discussion of the multi-positionalities of postmodernism as a contested yet underdefined term (1993, 70–71).

  20. Colin Falck points out in this regard that crisis of meaning and intensified linguistic self-consciousness—including “a general weakening of confidence in language and in linguistically based meaning as a whole”—is an important aspect of postromantic philosophical linguistic sensibility (1989, 159–60). See also Hutcheon (1988, 168).

  21. My observation here is indebted to Craig Owns's 1983 essay “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism” (1987, 60), which introduced me to Lacan's remark.

Robert Murray Davis (review date Fall 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of Bulletproof Buddhists and Other Essays, in Western American Literature, Vol. 33, No. 3, Fall, 1998, pp. 316-17.

[In the following review, Davis lauds Chin's collection of essays, Bulletproof Buddhists.]

The student who tried to insult Frank Chin by calling him a “‘Literary Conservative’ for saying texts do not change” (417) failed, partly because Chin has much higher standards for insults and partly because the phrase is accurate—and not only about Chin's approach to literature. Although Chin once referred to himself as an anarchist, only a conservative could get and stay angry about many of the same things for a quarter of a century and be at the same time consistently funny. (It's not that liberals don't have a sense of humor; it's just that they avoid using it for fear of offending someone.)

Chin has frequently been regarded as a mere polemicist because of his attacks on everyone from Tom Wolfe to Maxine Hong Kingston and anyone else he regards as promulgating racist attitudes toward Chinamen—his term for Chinese Americans. And in these six essays, [collected in Bulletproof Buddhists] dating in their original versions from 1972 to 1996, he does stand fierce guard over his definition of his Chinese heritage. Although he speaks only a little Cantonese and understands somewhat more, he maintains that “Chinese ideas are Chinese ideas in any language” (392). In fact, he insists that his novel Donald Duk is written “grammatically in a Cantonese dialect” (403).

Language and culture he regards as inextricable, and only if people are given a sense of culture through myth, he argues, will they “look on themselves as more than the moral equivalent of consumer goods and stay away from the mob” (423). The racists who confront him and his son in Seattle are pitiable less because of their attitudes than the poverty of their language, and as a result he sees “this need to teach our young how to properly cuss and offend with the specificity of a smart bomb as the first step toward full literacy and … civility” (417).

Chin is a relentless traveler—to early Castro's Cuba in search of flamenco guitars; to Iowa City, a much more alien culture, in search of training at the writer's workshop; to the Mexican border in search of the meaning of a story about the three-legged toad; to the highways of Interstate 5 in search of a clean, well-lighted place free from racists; to San Diego in search of the truth about Asian gangs; to Singapore for an international conference on the topic “Where Is Home?” To that question, he announces, “My home is my writing. My home is my craft, my art” (390).

Although Chin gets into AmerAsian literary histories primarily for his groundbreaking plays, The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon, and although he is just beginning to be recognized for his novels, Donald Duk and Gunga Din Highway, the current Bulletproof Buddhists reveals another dimension of his writing: the storyteller who in the old days could have made a good living by standing in the marketplace and gathering a crowd around him to hear tales so unlikely that they must be true.

Further Reading

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CRITICISM

Dean, Kitty Chen. Review of Bulletproof Buddhists, and Other Essays. Library Journal 123, No. 10 (1 June 1998): 108.

Dismisses Chin's essays as inferior when compared to his novels.

Morton, Edward Current Biography 60, No. 3 (March 1999): 17.

Discussion of Chin’s criticism of white Americans' perception of cultural minorities.

Ricci, Claudia. Review of Gunga Din Highway. The New York Times Book Review (29 January 1995): 16.

Review of Gunga Din Highway.

Rubin, Merle. Review of The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature. The Christian Science Monitor 83, No. 207 (19 September 1991): 15.

Review of anthology to which Chin contributed.

Review of Bulletproof Buddhists, and Other Essays. Publishers Weekly 245, No. 24 (15 June 1998): 50.

Claims that emotionality and irrationality are the dominant tones in Bulletproof Buddhists, reducing the book “to preachifying to the converted.”

Additional coverage of Chin's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Asian American Literature; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 33-36R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 71; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 206; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural; and Drama Criticism, Vol. 7.

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