Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 974
Frank Chin 1940-
(Full name Frank Chew Chin, Jr.) See also Frank Chin Literary Criticism.
Chin has played an important role in the development of Asian American literature. In his plays and other works, Chin has sought to overthrow the demeaning stereotypes imposed on Chinese Americans by white society....
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- Critical Essays
Frank Chin 1940-
(Full name Frank Chew Chin, Jr.) See also Frank Chin Literary Criticism.
Chin has played an important role in the development of Asian American literature. In his plays and other works, Chin has sought to overthrow the demeaning stereotypes imposed on Chinese Americans by white society. In The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon he presents characters who struggle with the history (written from the perspective of white culture) of Asians in the United States, and who strive to forge an essentially American identity that nevertheless recognizes their cultural roots.
Chin was born in Berkeley, California, and was raised in the Chinatowns of Oakland and San Francisco. 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 Rail-road, 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. 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.
Chin's best-known plays, The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon, were staged early 1970s, and the latter was aired on PBS television in 1975. The Chicken-coop Chinaman concerns Tam Lum, a documentary film-maker in search of his own identity as a Chinese American. Tam feels alienated from both Chinese and American cultures: American born, he knows Chinese culture only indirectly, and can speak little of the language; being of Chinese ancestry, however, he is isolated from and stereo-typed by white American society. In the course of the play he lashes out verbally with wit and anger, rejecting the myths surrounding Asian Americans but finding nothing to replace them. However, as the play ends, Tam is shown preparing Chinese food and reminiscing about the Iron Moonhunter, a train in Chinese American legend, built from materials stolen from the railroad companies. Thus Chin suggests Tarn's first efforts toward building an identity based on elements of the Chinese American experience. The Year of the Dragon also focuses on the search for identity but does so in the context of a Chinese American family. In this play Fred Eng, as a tour guide to San Francisco's Chinatown, panders to stereotypes of Chinese Americans. He also plays the role of dutiful son to his father, Pa Eng, a domineering figure who is now dying. Fred longs to leave Chinatown but has sacrificed his desires in order to earn money to pay college expenses for his sister, who has moved to Boston and married a white man. Fred's younger brother Johnny, meanwhile, is descending to a life of crime. Fred wants his brother to get away from Chinatown, but Pa Eng opposes the idea. In a confrontation between Fred and his father on this issue, Pa Eng dies, never having publicly acknowledged his son's worth. The play closes with Fred still in Chinatown, continuing to play the hated role of Chinatown tour guide.
Chin is recognized as an important voice in Asian American drama, even though he has withdrawn from active participation in the theater. Regarding his rejection of the contemporary theatrical scene, Chin has remarked, "Asian American theatre is dead without ever having been born, and American theatre, like American writing has found and nurtured willing Gunga Dins, happy white racist tokens, with which to pay their lip service to yellows and call it dues.… I am out of theatre. I will not work with any theatre, producer, writer, director, or actor who has played and lives the stereotype." Such views, expressed within his plays as well as in essays and interviews, have made Chin a controversial figure. Some reviewers have been put off by the bitterness of Chin's outlook and have criticized his plays as strident. John Simon has likened Chin's plays to soap opera and censured his "tendency to attitudinize." Elaine H. Kim has detected an ambivalence on Chin's part toward his characters. In his plays, she states, "Chin flails out at the emasculating effects of oppression, but he accepts his oppressors' definition of 'masculinity.' The result is unresolved tension between contempt and desire to fight for his Asian American characters." David Hsin-Fu Wand, on the other hand, has interpreted this ambivalence as reflective of Chin's own internal conflicts: "The voices of his characters in the plays are basically the conflicting voices of his Chinese and American identities." Dorothy Ritsuko McDonald has placed this division within the context of the playwright's concern with history; Chin, she argues, possesses a "sense of Chinese American history as a valiant, vital part of the history of the American West, a history he believes his own people, under the stress of white racism, have forgotten or wish to forget in their eagerness to be assimilated into the majority culture." Chin's work, then, attempts to reverse this process, rejecting assimilation and recuperating what historically was cast off by Asian Americans: their differences from the dominant culture.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 175
The Chickencoop Chinaman 1972
The Year of the Dragon 1974
Gee, Pop! … A Real Cartoon 1974
America More or Less [with Amiri Baraka and Leslie Marmon Silko] 1976
Lullaby [with Silko] 1976
American Peek-a-Boo Kabuki, World War II and Me 1985
Flood of Blood: A Fairy Tale 1988
OTHER MAJOR WORKS
Seattle Repertory Theatre: Act Two (television documentary) 1966
The Bel Canto Carols (television documentary) 1966
A Man and His Music (television documentary) 1967
Ed Sierer's New Zealand (television documentary) 1967
Seafair Preview (television documentary) 1967
The Year of the Ram (television documentary) 1967
And Still Champion … ! The Story of Archie Moore (television documentary) 1967
Mary (television documentary) 1969
Rainlight Rainvision (television documentary) 1969
Chinaman's Chance (television documentary) 1971
Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers [editor, with others] (anthology) 1974
Yardbird Reader, Volume 3 [editor, with Shawn Wong] (anthology) 1974
The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R.R. Co. (short stories) 1988
Rescue at Wild Boar Forest (comic book) 1988
The Water Margin, or Shui Hu (comic book) 1989
Lin Chong's Revenge (comic book) 1989
Donald Duk (novel) 1991
The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature [editor, with others] (anthology) 1991
Gunga Din Highway (novel) 1994
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David Hsin-Fu Wand (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: "The Chinese-American Literary Scene: A Galaxy of Poets and a Lone Playwright," in Proceedings of the Comparative Literature Symposium, Vol. IX, 1978, pp. 121-46.
[In the excerpt below, Wand asserts that in his plays Chin has "projected onto the stage his own internal conflicts."]
Although Frank Chin has written prose-fiction and some occasional poems, he is first and foremost a dramatist. Like the protagonists (or heroes), Tarn Lum in The Chickencoop Chinaman and Fred Eng in The Year of the Dragon, "his own 'normal' speech jumps between black and white rhythms and accents." Sometimes, he probably feels like Tam Lum that he has "no real language of my own to make sense with, so out comes everybody else's trash that don't conceive." The protagonists of his two plays are both in conflict, obsessed with the problem of identity. Tam (short for Tampax) Lum in The Chicken-coop Chinaman, who has been victimized by the white world that surrounds him, is ambivalent toward the Chinese, as characterized by the following dialogue couched in irony:
Robbie: You're Chinese aren't you? I like Chinese people.
Tam: Me too. They're nice and quiet aren't they?
This ambivalence is further shown by Tam Lum's acceptance of the Lone Ranger as a hero. In his list of characters, Frank Chin describes the Lone Ranger as follows:
A legendary white racist with the funk of the West mouldering in his blood. In his senility, he still loves racistly, blesses racistly, shoots straight and is coocoo with the notion that white folks are not white folks but just plain folks.
In the action of the play, the Lone Ranger not only gets away with shooting a silver bullet into Tam Lum's hand, but also lectures him, as he rides away:
China boys, you be legendary obeyers of the law, legendary humble, legendary passive. Thank me now and I'll let you get back to Chinatown preservin your culture.
He further insults Tam Lum by making him a "honorary white" and relegates him to the company of Pearl Buck, Charlie Chan, and Helen Keller. To Frank Chin, Helen Keller, who lacks a voice of her own, is the image of a passive Oriental. Early in The Chickencoop Chinaman, Tam Lum has remarked about Helen Keller ironically:
Helen Keller overcame her handicaps without riot! She overcame handicaps without looting! She overcame handicaps without violence! And you Chinks and Japs can too.
Not contented with being an "honorary white" or whitemen's pet Chinaman, Tam Lum tries to find a voice of his own to articulate his own consciousness. He lashes out at the synthetic Chinamen, "who 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." He articulates his own agony by shouting:
[I was] no more born than nylon or acrylic. For I am a Chinaman! A miracle synthetic. Drip dry and machine washable.
In The Chickencoop Chinaman, Tam Lum has only one close friend, Kenji, a Japanese-American "research dentist" who lives in the depth of Pittsburgh's black slum called "Oakland." Kenji, who gathers around him some bizarre characters living at his expense, shares with Tam Lum the problem of identity. Nicknamed "BlackJap Kenji," the dentist denies that he is a "copycat," that he is imitating black people:
I know I live with 'em, I talk like 'em, I dress … maybe even eat what they eat and don't mess with, so what if I don't mess with other Orientals … Asians, whatever, blah, blah, blah …
He also goes on to state:
I'm not Japanese! Tam ain't no Chinese! And don't give me any of that "If-you-don't-have-that-Oriental-culture, -baby, -all-you've-got-is-the-color-of-your-skin," bullshit.…
Living in a black ghetto and going to a school where the majority were black, Kenji had to adapt in order to survive:
Schools was all blacks and Mexicans. We [Kenji and Tam Lum] were kids in school, and you either walked and talked right in the yard, or got the shit beat outa you every day, ya understand? But that Tam was always what you might say … "The Pacesetter." Whatever was happenin with hair, or the latest color, man—Sometimes he looked pretty exotic, you know, shades, high greasy hair, spitcurls, purple shiney shirt, with skull cufflinks and Frisko jeans worn like they was fallin off his ass. "BlackJap Kenji" I used to be called and hated yellow-people. You look around and see where I'm livin … and it looks like I still do, Pittsburgh ain't exactly famous for no Chinatown or Li'l Tokyo, you know.
Here Kenji has given a brilliant explanation of his strange identity. Having lived as a minority in the heart of a black ghetto, he has adopted the values and mores of his immediate environment. From the psychological point of view, introjection is what made him more black than Japanese in behavior.
The plot of The Chickencoop Chinaman revolves around Tam Lum's coming to Pittsburgh to make a documentary film about a black boxer and to interview Charley Popcorn, whom the boxer has claimed to be his real father. But Charley Popcorn, who runs a pornographic movie house in Pittsburgh, denies that he is the father and claims that he was only the boxer's manager. Here we find another case of the problem of identity. Perhaps the boxer has chosen to live with the myth, just as Tam Lum, since his childhood, has chosen the Lone Ranger as his cultural hero and expected to find Chinese eyes behind his mask. The problem of identity is never resolved for either Tam Lum or Kenji in the course of the play, but in the last scene Tam Lum ends up in the kitchen, whetting his meat cleaver. This meat cleaver, like Frank Chin's own pen, may chop away much nonsense about white America's stereotyped images of the silent and docile Orientals.
As compared with The Chickencoop Chinaman, Chin's second play, The Year of the Dragon, has more recognizable Chinese characters, because all the conflicts and headaches take place in an old apartment located in San Francisco's Chinatown. Fred Eng, the protagonist of the play, shares with Tam Lum his eloquence and he uses it to "badmouth" tourists who come to gawk at Chinatown. Making his living as a Chinatown tour guide, he still lives at the Chinatown apartment of his parents. Although he is already in his forties, he cannot get away from his parents, partly because of the antiquated Chinese tradition of filial duty and partly because of self-doubts and internal conflicts. Fred finds his antagonist in his father, who rules the family with an iron hand. The family affair is further complicated by the arrival of "China Mama," the first wife Pa left behind in China in 1935. Ma Eng, American-born and raised, tries hard to be a peacemaker in the family, but it is a thankless task because there is a real conflict of three cultures. The three cultures are represented by the traditional Chinese ways of Pa Eng and "China Mama," the Chinese-American ways of herself and Fred, and the assimilated American ways of Sissy and Johnny, Fred's younger sister and brother. Sissy manages to escape from the problem of identity by marrying a white American and living away in Boston. But when she visits her parents in San Francisco, she finds herself caught in the storm of the conflict. Johnny, who can hardly speak a word of Chinese, has become a tough street kid, plagued by a sense of displacement. Fred Eng, born in China but raised in America, tries to help his younger brother and urges him to move away from home. Torn by filial piety for his parents on the one hand and hatred for the iron-clad Chinese tradition on the other, he lashes out at Pa Eng, the family patriarch, who retaliates by threatening to die. The generation gap or lack of communication between the generations may remind some Chinese readers of that in Pa Chin's novel, Family (1931). The protagonist in Family tries to discover his identity and chart a new course for his own generation. He rejects the tradition of the past as irrelevant to his time.
As Bernard Shaw once said, "Without conflict there is no drama," Frank Chin has projected onto the stage his own internal conflicts in the two plays, The Chicken-coop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon. The voices of his characters in the plays are basically the conflicting voices of his Chinese and his American identities. … Frank Chin shows a sense of humor. His humor is shown through the dialogue and the characterization in his plays. … His humor is mordant and bitter. In this respect, he might be more American than Chinese, an heir of Mark Twain, who wrote such dark tales as "The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg" and "The Mysterious Stranger," rather than a literary descendant of Chuang Tzu and the classical Chinese poet-drunkards. But his contribution to the stage is substantial: for the first time in the theater there is an authentic Chinese-American voice. He has demolished the stage Chinaman with his plays and succeeded in articulating his own consciousness. In a strange but different way, Frank Chin's work in the theater reminds us of the effort of that Irish genius, James Joyce, who tries to "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race," and, in Frank Chin's case, "the race" is neither the Chinese of the distant land nor the American of the white establishment, but the hitherto unheard and unsung world of the Chinese-Americans.
Dorothy Ritsuko McDonald (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: An introduction to "The Chickencoop Chinaman" and "The Year of the Dragon": Two Plays by Frank Chin, University of Washington Press, 1981, pp. ix-xxix.
[In the essay below, McDonald analyzes Chin's treatment of Chinese American history in his plays.]
1. The Author's Sense of History
"I was born in Berkeley, California in 1940, far from Oakland's Chinatown where my parents lived and worked," begins Frank Chin in his own profile. "I was sent away to the Motherlode country where I was raised through the War. Then back to Chinatowns Oakland and San Francisco. … " When offered a fellowship in 1961 for the State University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, Chin accepted, but soon he was back in the West. "I was the first Chinese-American brakeman on the Southern Pacific Railroad, the first Chinaman to ride the engines… . fine riding but I left the rails."
Chinatown, Motherlode country (the Sierra Nevadas), railroads, Chinaman—these are key words for Frank Chin, for they denote his sense of Chinese American history as a valiant, vital part of the history of the American West, a history he believes his own people, under the stress of white racism, have forgotten or wish to forget in their eagerness to be assimilated into the majority culture. But the cost of acceptance has been great, especially for the Chinese male, who finds himself trapped by a stereotype: supposedly lacking in assertiveness, creativity, and aggressiveness, he is characterized as passive, obedient, humble, and effeminate.
For Chin, however, the Chinese men ("Chinamans" as distinguished from assimilated Chinese Americans) who left their families for the New World in the nineteenth century were masculine and heroic, like other "explorers of the unknown—seekers after gold, the big break, the new country …" ["Back Talk," News of the American Place Theatre 3 May 1972]. But the Chinese pioneers encountered a systematic and violent racism which by now has been well documented. Even Mark Twain, who harbored his own prejudice against the Indians of the West, remarked [in Roughing It] on the unjust treatment of the Chinese:
Any white man can swear a Chinaman's life away in the courts, but no Chinaman can testify against a white man. Ours is the "land of the free"—nobody denies that—nobody challenges it. (Maybe it is because we won't let other people testify.) As I write, news comes that in broad daylight in San Francisco, some boys have stoned an inoffensive Chinaman to death and although a large crowd witnessed the shame-ful deed, no one interfered.
To Chin, Chinatowns were also the products of racism. That the Chinese themselves clustered together to preserve their alien culture is for him a myth: "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'" ["Confessions of the Chinatown Cowboy," Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 4, Fall 1972].
Given this historical perspective, is it any wonder that echoes of the West would resound in the work of this fifth-generation American, imbued with the aborted dreams of the hardworking, manly goldminers and railroad builders of his past? In Chin's first play, The Chickencoop Chinaman, the hero, Tarn Lum, tells his children of the pioneers' old American dream:
Grandmaw heard thunder in the Sierra hundreds of miles away and listened for the Chinaman-known Iron Moonhunter, that train built by Chinamans who knew they'd never be given passes to ride the rails they laid. So of all American railroaders, only they sung no songs, told no jokes, drank no toasts to the ol' iron horse, but stole themselves some iron on the way, slowly stole up a pile of steel, children, and hid there in the granite face of the Sierra and builded themselves a wild engine to take them home. Every night, children, grandmaw listened in the kitchen, waiting, til the day she died.
The Iron Moonhunter, that seeker after the dream, carries the memories and hopes of the proud Chinamen who laid rails across the West.
Chin's grandfather worked as a steward on the Southern Pacific and owned a watch with a train engraved upon it. "I took my grandfather's watch and worked on the Southern Pacific," says Chin. "I rode in the engines up front… . I rode in the cabooses where no Chinaman had ever ridden before. I was hired with the first batch of blacks to go braking for the SP, in the 60s when the fair employment legislation went into effect. (Ride with me grandpa, at least it's not the steward service. You get home more often now.)"
In his essay "Confessions of the Chinatown Cowboy," from which the previous quote was taken, Chin describes that rare Western breed, the modern-day Chinaman, in poet and labor-organizer Ben Fee: "a word of mouth legend, a bare knuckled unmasked man, a Chinaman loner out of the old West, a character out of Chinese swordslingers, a fighter. The kind of Chinaman we've been taught to ignore, and forget if we didn't want America to drive Chinatown out of town."
It was Ben Fee who called Chin the "Chinatown Cowboy" for the dramatic black outfit he wore during their first meeting. "A Chinaman dressed for a barndance," says Chin of his younger self, "solid affectation."
Despite the self-irony displayed here, the black-garbed, two-fang-buckled Chin is obviously no assimilated Chinese; he is declaring his aggressive masculinity and claiming the history of the American West as his own. For the unwary reader, then, who rigidly associates Asian Americans with Asian culture and not American history or culture, some passages in Chin's plays can be disconcerting if not downright incomprehensible or offensive. To such a reader, the meaning of Tarn's lyrical monologue on the Iron Moonhunter would be lost. And what of the Lone Ranger metaphor that dominates the balance of the play? Aware that Asians were excluded from American heroism, Tam Lum during his boyhood had idolized the black-haired Lone Ranger, whose mask, he thought, hid his "slanty" eyes. But in a farcical scene the Ranger is revealed to be a broken-down white racist. A train whistle is heard, and the young Tam recognizes it as that of the Iron Moonhunter. But the Ranger cautions Tam and his friend: "Hear no evil, ya hear me? China boys, you be legendary obeyers of the law, legendary humble, legendary passive. Thank me now and I'll let ya get back to Chinatown preservin your culture!"
Chin's historical perspective is similarly found in his next play, The Year of the Dragon, set in San Francisco's Chinatown. The theme of the West is sounded by the family in various ways, especially in the climactic last scene when Pa Eng dies suddenly while struggling with Fred, who later says, "I woulda like to have packed him up into the Sierras and buried him by the railroad … I was saving that one for last… ."
2. An Endangered Species
If Chin seeks to preserve the history of the first pioneering Chinamen, he nonetheless looks forward in time and sees—as does Fred Eng in The Year of the Dragon—the Chinese Americans as an "endangered species." Not only are the Chinese women like Mattie marrying out white at a rapidly increasing rate, in part no doubt due to the present "sissy" image of the Chinese male, but women have always been outnumbered by men. Historically, the series of discriminatory exclusion laws (1882-1924) made it difficult, then impossible, for both alien and American Chinese to bring their wives from China. Chinatown was therefore essentially a bachelor society. In addition, an American-born woman lost her citizenship when she married a person ineligible for citizenship; and by the Exclusion Act of 1882, immigrant Chinese could not be naturalized. These laws were repealed in 1943 during the Second World War when China was an ally of the United States.
In The Year of the Dragon, it is mainly through the American-born Ma Eng that the reader discerns this historical discrimination. She tells Ross: "My grandmother, Ross … she used to tell me she used to come home oh, crying like a sieve cuz all she saw was blocks and blocks of just men. No girls at all. She was very lonely." More-over, she says of her daughter: "You know … my Sissy is a very limited edition. Only twenty Chinese babies born in San Francisco in 1938." When she discovers that the mysterious visitor in her home is her husband's first wife, who had to be left in China because of the Exclusion Act of 1924 and now could enter America because of its repeal, she says: "I coulda been deported just for marrying your pa. The law scared me to death but it make your pa so thrilling to me. I'm American of Chinese descent… ."
However, had Ma Eng, by some stretch of imagination, desired to marry a white American, it would have been illegal at that time, for in California such an intermarriage was forbidden in 1906 by a law which was not nullified until 1948. But at the time of the play not only are the Matties marrying out white, so are the males. Thus, Fred tells Ross, "it's a rule not the exception for us to marry out white. Out in Boston, I might even marry me a blonde." Later, while urging his juvenile-delinquent brother, Johnny, to leave Chinatown for Boston and college, he adds, "Get a white girl while you're young. You'll never regret it."
This urge toward assimilation and extinction is similarly found in The Chickencoop Chinaman when Tam Lum, though a loner in the play, is revealed to have been previously married to a white woman who had deserted him, leaving with his two children to take a white husband. During Tarn's subsequent effort to restore his dignity, a member of the aging bachelor society advised him about survival in a hostile America: destroy and forget the past; get along with the "Americans."
In an essay entitled "Yellow Seattle" [in The Weekly: Seattle's Newsmagazine, 1 February 1976], Chin repeats his conviction that not only Chinese America but Japanese America is historically doomed, a prediction also made by UCLA sociologist Harry Kitano [in Pacific Citizen, 25 February 1977]. "Nationally," says Chin, "between 60 and 70 percent of Japanese Americas are marrying out white. They're abandoning the race, giving up on a people they feel has no history, identity, culture, or art. Chinese Americans aren't far behind… . The process of marrying out faster than we can reproduce seems irreversible."
This conviction casts a veil of tragedy over his work, despite its frequently humorous tone. One can see chronologically in his plays an increasing disintegration of both family and self. His heroes, like so many other American heroes, are isolated and wounded. They are articulate but incapable of the action necessary to fulfill the hope and promise of the past.
3. The Chickencoop Chinaman: The Search for the Ideal Father
Chin is a developing artist, and his first play, which won the East West Players playwriting contest in 1971 and was produced by the American Place Theatre of New York in 1972, is a feast of ideas, a sourcebook of themes and concerns that would be developed in his later work and which, in turn, would influence other Asian American writers. It is a difficult, allusive play. One must be aware of Chin's particular vision of history—his researches into a shrouded past—to understand his elliptical references. Like many other artists, he does not believe mat he is constrained to explain his work. Therefore, some readers may be confounded when they do not find here the exotic, standardized comfort, say, of a Flower Drum Song.
Critical reaction to the stage production of The Chick-encoop Chinaman was mixed. Clive Barnes of The New York Times (14 June 1972) found it "interesting" because of its ethnic content but did not much like the play. Edith Oliver, writing in The New Yorker, was delighted by what she saw, describing the play as "theatrical and inventive" and Tam Lum's speeches as a "dazzling eruption of verbal legerdemain" (24 June 1972). Jack Kroll of Newsweek found "real vitality, humor and pain on Chin's stage," and said he would "remember Tam Lum long after I've forgotten most of this season's other plays." He thought Chin a "natural writer; his language has the beat and brass, the runs and rim-shots of jazz" (19 June 1972).
Michael Feingold of The Village Voice (15 June 1972), who noted that the play was "blossoming all over with good writing, well-caught characters, and sharply noted situations," nevertheless said that when Tam launched into his monologues, "hot air, disguised as Poetry, flies in." Even less complimentary was Julius Novick, also of The New York Times, who concluded that while John Osborne was a "master rhetorician," Frank Chin was not.
Given the difficulty of the play, one wonders at the sympathic perception of a Jack Kroll or an Edith Oliver. Betty Lee Sung, author of Mountain of Gold, who publicly admits that she and Chin have been "friendly enemies" for years, expressed in East/West (3 July 1974) her opinion of Chickencoop Chinaman: "I agreed with the drama critics [which ones she does not specify]. I simply did not like the play, nor did the audience, which kept dwindling act after act. My comments: [It]was an outpouring of bitterness and hatred mouthed through lengthy monologue after monologue. Not that it was Randy Kim's fault (the main character actor) but it was Frank Chin showing through." Previously, Chin had publicly declared Sung to be an assimilationist—one who is willing to pay through subservience the "price of acceptance."
In Chickencoop Chinaman, Tam Lum epitomizes the cultural and historical dilemma of the incipient Asian American writer. The editors of Aiiieeeee ! describe him as "the comic embodiment of Asian-American manhood, rooted in neither Asia nor white America" and thus "forced to invent a past, mythology, and traditions from the antiques and curios of his immediate experience."
What is interesting for the American scholar is that Tarn's speeches in the first scene deny the stereotype of the Asian American dual personality—he is neither Chinese nor assimilated American, but a new breed of man created by the American experience. Thus he declares to the Dream Girl:
My dear in the beginning there was the Word! Then there was me! And the Word was CHINAMAN. And there was me.… I lived the Word! The Word is my heritage… . Born? No! … Created! Not born. No more born than heaven and earth. No more born than nylon or acrylic. For I am a Chinaman! A miracle synthetic!
But it is soon apparent that these words are sheer bravado, for even the name of the Dream Girl shows Tam to be enmeshed in history. She is described as a "dream monster from a popular American song of the twenties," a song which parodies the womanless bachelor society.
The ensuing scenes reveal, moreover, that Tam has a deep sense of his own emasculation, his inability to achieve. This is symbolically revealed when the Lone Ranger, whom he had once idolized, unaccountably shoots the innocent youth—the future writer—in the hand. Tam also rejects his own father (whom he nonetheless loves), a dishwasher in a home for the aged, who used to bathe with his shorts on for fear of being peeked at by old white ladies. "Chinamans do make lousy fathers," Tam says later, "I know, I have one." He similarly rejects himself. He had tried to obliterate his Chinese American identity by marrying out white and forgetting the history of his people. And he says of his children: "I don't want 'em to be anything like me or know me, or remember me. This guy they're calling 'daddy' … I hear he's even a better writer than me."
For all his self-rejection, however, Tam wishes to discover a more heroic past and identity, and believes his destiny as a writer is "to talk to the Chinaman sons of Chinamans, children of the dead." But the problem of an appropriate language to represent their experience disturbs him. In fact, during the opening scene, the stage directions note that "his own 'normal' speech jumps between black and white rhythms and accents." Ironically Tam says: "I speak nothing but the mother tongues bein' born to none of my own, I talk the talk of orphans." In an interview ["Back Talk"] Chin explains:
Our condition is more delicate than that of the blacks because, unlike the blacks, we have neither an articulated organic sense of our American identity nor the verbal confidence and self-esteem to talk one up from our experience. As a people, we are preverbal, preliterate—afraid of language as the instrument through which the monster takes possession of us. For us American born, both the Asian languages and the English language are foreign. We are a people without a native tongue. To whites, we're all foreigners, still learning English.… And to Asians born to Asian culture—Asian by birth and experience and American by choice—our Chinese and Japanese is a fake.
In this context, Tarn's self-characterization as a linguistic orphan is made understandable. As the editors of Aiiieeeee! point out, "the literary establishment has never considered the fact that a new folk in a strange land would experience the land and develop a new language out of old words."
Conscious of his own emasculation, Tam admires boxers and still hopes he can somehow gain the respect of his children by filming a documentary of the hero of his youth, a black fighter named Ovaltine Jack Dancer, a former light-heavyweight champ. Tarn's purpose in flying from California to Pittsburgh is to meet Charley Popcorn, the Dancer's ostensible father, whom the boxer has described in heroic terms. Tam stays at the home of a childhood friend, "Blackjap" Kenji, a research dentist who lives by choice in the black ghetto. Tam enthusiastically looks forward to meeting Charley: "This trip's going to make me well. I'm going to see again, and talk and hear… ." Kenji himself is eager: "Father of a champion, man."
Chin's own sympathy for blacks and his acknowledgment of their pioneering efforts in civil rights are revealed in the encounter between the two Asian Americans and Charley, who is puzzled by the appearance of Chinaman Tam after hearing a black voice over the telephone. Charley denies that he is Ovaltine's father and asserts that the Dancer's wonderful tales of an ideal father-son relation are pure fabrications—assertions that the hero- and father-seeking Tam almost hysterically cannot accept. Charley becomes sympathetic, although he confesses that blacks "don't particularly favor Chinese." He also chastises Tam for rejecting his own father: "I just know it's wrong to turn your back on your father however old you be."
The next scene finds Tam in "Limbo," symbolically on the black man's back. But later Charley is on Tarn's back as Tam staggeringly reenters Kenji's apartment and meets "Tom," an assimilated Chinese who appropriately plays Tonto in the Lone Ranger scene. Tam arouses Kenji's anger by being extremely rude to Tom. Chastised by Kenji, Tam says he will make a straight, professional fight film without a fake father in it, and, accepting his aloneness, retreats to the kitchen to cook dinner for all.
Disappointed in his search for ideality, Tam recalls the family's dream of the Iron Moonhunter:
Now and then, I feel them old days, children, the way I feel the prowl of the dogs in the night and the bugs in the leaves and the thunder in the Sierra Nevadas however far that are. The way my grandmother had an ear for trains. Listen, children. I gotta go. Ride Buck Buck Bagaw with me … Listen in the kitchen for the Chickencoop Chinaman slowin on home.
4. Language as a Medium of Culture
Before we proceed to The Year of the Dragon, a brief comment on Chin's use of language may be helpful. Chin confronts the linguistic problem that Tam faces in a bold, revolutionary manner. Some readers may consequently be daunted by his deliberately unconventional style. His language abounds with slang, obscenities, and unusual grammar. The Cantonese terms may also make for difficult reading. But Chin would argue that he has captured the rhythms and accents of Chinese America without which its culture cannot truly be represented. This philosophical position is perhaps most clearly stated in the introduction to Aiiieeeee!:
Language is the medium of culture and the people's sensibility, including the style of manhood. Language coheres the people into a community by organizing and codifying the symbols of the people's common experience. Stunt the tongue and you have lopped off the culture and sensibility. On the simplest level, a man in any culture speaks for himself. Without a language of his own, he no longer is a man. The concept of the dual personality deprives the Chinese-American and Japanese-American of the means to develop their own terms. The tyranny of language has been used by white culture to suppress Asian-American culture and exclude it from operating in the mainstream of American consciousness.
So influential have been the editors of Aiiieeeee! (Chin, Jeffery Chan, Lawson Inada, and Shawn Wong) in defining the white cultural oppression of Asian American writers that they have, curiously, freed these writers and initiated a literary movement. In fact, the preface and introduction to Aiiieeeee! can be likened to Emerson's "American Scholar," written at a critical time in our national history when our fledgling republic, though politically free, struggled under England's cultural dominion. Similarly, Aiiieeeee! is a declaration of intellectual and linguistic independence, and an assertion of Asian American manhood.
Recent Asian American writers' conferences at the Oak-land Museum, the University of Washington, and the Mid-Pacific Institute in Hawaii also give testimony that the linguistic experiments urged by the editors are being more widely accepted. For instance, at the 1978 "Talk Story" conference in Hawaii, pidgin English—once thought to be reprehensible and shameful—was considered a valid medium of communication and poetic expression. Indeed, pidgin, a spoken language, was challenging linguists with the problems of codification. Aiiieeeee!'s diction and argumentative pattern have further influenced some autobiographical accounts of self-discovery.
Yet the highly-assertive preface and introduction remain controversial, as do the plays of Frank Chin. He has said [in a letter to the editor of The Drama Review, 22 October-23 November 1976] that he was "chosen to write theater like making war," and this is an apt description. Always in the vanguard, he is an outspoken, articulate, funny writer, unconstrained by literary and stylistic conventions.
5. The Year of the Dragon: The Disintegration of the Chinese American Family
The Year of the Dragon was first produced in 1974 by the American Place Theatre in New York. More traditionally structured than Chickencoop, it received generally good notices except from Douglas Watt of The New York Daily News (3 June 1974) and Yoshio Kishi of the New York Nichibei (6 June 1974), who both found the play incomprehensible. However, a more sympathetic Genny Lim, writing in East/West (5 June 1974), found the family drama gripping and the culture and psychological conflicts so realistic that "we are, oftentimes, tempted to watch with our faces averted."
A PBS version for Theatre in America was videotaped in 1975. During a 1977 San Francisco production, in which Chin starred, he wrote to a newspaper critic: "The play is set in Frisco, because this city is known as the place our history began. Frisco is the soul of Chinese America. The play is set in the Year of the Dragon because the Dragon was the Bicentennial year. The play sums up where I see Chinese America in the Year of the Dragon: 1976."
To Chin, Chinese America has lost its "soul," or integrity, along with its past. Chinatown is a Shangri-La, a Hollywood set, run by Christian converts. The mission schools first undertook the education of Chinese Americans because of continuing public efforts to segregate or ignore them. The missions nonetheless became political instruments by fostering the ideal of the passive, nonaggressive male who recognizes the superiority of whites, and by eradicating the memory of the bold, pioneering Chinamen of old. The schools also denied other aspects of Chinese American history—the massacres, for instance. Chin observes that "we were indoctrinated into forgetting the names of every burned down or wiped out Chinatown [and became] gah gah for the little town of Bethlehem instead." But despite this indoctrination, Chinese Americans remained tacitly aware of their alien identity. Thus, the Chinatown of The Year of the Dragon is not what is seen by the thousands of tourists during the New Year's parade, but the psychological "deathcamp" that is "in the blood of all juk sing." In a moment of compounding frustrations, the hero, Fred Eng, cries out: "I am shit. This family is shit. Chinatown's shit. You can't love each other around here without hating yourself."
The play, with its theme of disintegration, begins with the imminent death of the father. Having lived in America since 1935, he is now the respected "Mayor" of Chinatown, probably by virtue of his presidency of the Christian-dominated Chinese Benevolent Society. Realizing death is near, he is anxious about the future of his family outside Chinatown's confines, because of his dislike and suspicion of whites. Though at times brutally autocratic and selfish, he is loved by his children and wife; and the family thus has a semblance of unity.
He married Ma Eng when she was but fifteen. Through her carefully recited clichés, she shows that she has been mission-educated: "I always told you to be proud to be the best of the East, the best of the West." "Miss Thompson, she said, 'Talking two completely incompatible languages is a great asset.'" Unconsciously, Ma Eng sings repeatedly the American-written Chinese Lullabye, which tells of the selling of "slave girls" (purportedly saved by the missions). She loves her home and family, and fears change. She is nonetheless aware of the slow disintegration of her family (her husband is dying; her forty-year-old, still unmarried son, Fred, rarely sleeps at home; Johnny is on probation for carrying a gun; Mattie has married out white and has only returned to Chinatown at her father's request); and she attempts to escape moments of stress by going to the bathroom or bursting into song. But she spiritedly objects to the unexpected appearance of Pa Eng's first wife, brought over from China so that he would be surrounded by "happy families when I die… ." Nevertheless, in the uproar that follows, she accepts China Mama's presence to preserve as best she can the family integrity. She even adheres to Pa's request that she instruct China Mama in some English by teaching her the Chinese Lullabye.
Unlike her mother, Mattie has escaped entirely. She hates Chinatown and asserts that her home is now in Boston with her white husband, Ross. Years ago, she made clear her intention to leave forever, noting that "it didn't matter where I was born or what color I was … especially being a Chinese girl." She was obviously aware of her desirability to white men.
Her brother Johnny brings forth the undercurrent of violence in Chinatown which destroys the image of the strong, law-abiding Chinese American family. Before his appearance, we are informed that his friend has been shot and killed that day. Vigorously hostile to Ross, Johnny is an alienated youth, preferring his criminal escapades with immigrant hoodlums—whose language he cannot understand—to college and Boston and the world his sister has chosen. When Mattie urges that they all leave for Boston after Pa Eng's death ("Out there we'll be able to forget we're Chinamen, just forget all this and just be people …"), Johnny replies coldly, "You have to forget you're a Chinatown girl to be just people, sis?"
His older brother, Fred, the head of Eng's Chinatown Tour 'n Travel, hates Chinatown for being the whites' "private preserve for an endangered species." But as Chinatown's top guide with an inimitable spiel, Fred hates himself even more. He knows that he has lost sight of his dream of being a writer and, moreover, his job forces him to conform to the American stereotype of Chinese Americans. According to Chin, a tourist guide is by definition "a Chinaman, playing a white man playing Chinese… . A minstrel show. The tourist guides of Chinatown are traditionally the despised and perverted."
Thus Fred's spiels to the tourists are given in a language and manner expected by them. The model on which these expectations are based is Charlie Chan, a character invented by a white man in 1925 and invariably played by white men in the movies and on television. Though intelligent, Chan has the expected Asian American qualities: he is humble, passive, polite, self-effacing, and effeminate, and has difficulties with English. Ross, Mattie's white husband, shows his acceptance of the Chan stereo-type by reciting Confucianisms and suggesting that Pa Eng, as Mayor of Chinatown, add a Charlie Chan joke to his speech to be given after the parade. Therefore, before Pa leaves for the occasion, he greets Fred with "You got dah case solve yet?" and insists that Fred, his "Number One Son," call him "Pop": "Gosh, Pop!" "Gee, Pop!"
Fred's own perception of Chan is found earlier in a scene with China Mama, his real mother recently from China. He responds to her question, given, of course, in Chinese:
You want me to be Chinese too, huh? Everybody does … You know how the tourists tell I'm Chinese? No first person pronouns. No "I," "Me" or "We." I talk like that lovable sissy, Charlie Chan, no first person personal pronouns, and instant Chinese culture … ha, ha, ha… .
Continuing to speak to her uncomprehending ears, Fred declares himself to be a Chinaman:
I'm not Chinese. This ain't China. Your language is foreign and ugly to me so how come you're my mother? … I mean, I don't think I'm quite your idea of a son, either … You hear all my first person pronouns, China Mama… . 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.
The use of the first person pronouns is for Fred the declaration of his American individualism and individual rights. He had wanted to become a writer and be "something special," not just his father's son. But having been born in China and having entered America illegally as an infant, he is torn between his desire for his own life and his responsibilities to his family. The mixture of the old and the new may be seen in some of Fred's small gestures. Twice he lights incense for the ancestral shrine before lighting up a "joint." More importantly, ten years earlier, while yet in college pursuing his dream of being a writer, he was called home by his father, who was dying from a lung complaint. As the eldest son, Fred was expected to be obedient, to earn money for the family, and to be responsible for his younger siblings. In fact, Fred is chastised by his father for Johnny's delinquency, and Sis recalls that in the past it was Fred who was beaten for her misbehavior.
Despite his hatred for his job, Fred is proud of his successful shouldering of family responsibilities. He has en abled Mattie to go away to college and, upon her arrival, gives her the traditional New Year's monetary envelope to present to Pa Eng. He talks of Boston, where her Mama Fu Fu business is prospering, as a place for the revivification of the family. Almost nightly he attends his sick father in the bathroom. But for all his fidelity and success, Fred expects some gratitude and respect from his father. Consequently he is enraged when Pa imports China Mama without consulting him and when Pa declares him to be a "flop," unable to care for the family outside Chinatown's confines.
But Pa, for all his Chinese roots, has taken on the values of this American Chinatown. Though demanding unquestioning obedience from Fred, he ironically selected a tourist guide business for him, a business despised by Chinatown. Thereafter, Pa has never acknowledged his children in print, and once, while lunching with Fred, he did not even bother to introduce his son when other China-town dignitaries approached. Although it was Pa who removed Fred from college, he disdains Fred's ambition to be a writer, valuing only the more lucrative and traditional professions—which require a college degree. In preparing his New Year's speech, Pa hurts Fred by asking Ross, a "real" American, for help; but in his own insecurity with English he asks Fred privately to edit the first draft so that Ross will not discover his ineptness.
Since China Mama was brought to America so that Pa could die "Chinese," Fred asks him why he did not return to China instead. Pa replies that he regards China-town in America as his home. This for Chin is significant, as he believes most Chinese came here not as sojourners who would eventually return to China but as immigrants, like their European counterparts, with their own vision of America.
Pa, in this bathroom scene, is aware that the family line has probably come to an end and attempts to exact from Fred a promise that he will always remain in Chinatown. Of Mattie, Pa says: "Sissy go colleges and what happening? Bok gwai low! [White devil!] And no more blood. No more Chinese babies born in family. No Merican Chinese babies, nutting doing and flop." Fred is forty, balding, single, and unlikely to marry. Johnny's criminal escapades will probably kill him eventually.
During the last scene of the play, as the festive sounds of the parade float into the room, Fred asks his father to look at him for once as an individual and not just as a son. Aware of his father's power over Ma and Johnny, who are rapidly deteriorating, Fred promises to remain in Chinatown if Pa will tell Ma and Johnny to leave for Boston. But Pa refuses adamantly, and dies during their physical struggle. At the beginning of his aborted speech, Pa was to have introduced Fred as his heir: "dah one who're teck obber solve dah case. My's Number One Son, allaw time, saying 'Gee, Pop!' Fred Eng!"
At first fearing to leave Chinatown to become a "nobody" or discover that his writing ability has died, Fred is further crippled by his father's inability to the very end to see him as an individual. As the lights fade before his final spiel, Fred—his father's heir—is "dressed in solid white, puts on a white slightly oversized jacket, and appears to be a shrunken Charlie Chan, an image of death. He becomes the tourist guide."
6. Kwan Kung: The Ideal Discovered
The masculine ideal that Tam Lum sought and the bold individualism that Fred Eng desired, Chin would eventually find in Kwan Kung, a popular folk hero revered throughout the centuries as a god who had, according to Henri Doré, S. J. [in Researches into Chinese Superstitions], "fought many battles, was brave, generous, loyal to the Han dynasty… . He was a powerful giant, nine feet tall according to one legend, with a beard two feet long. His features 'were of a swarthy colour, and his lips of a bright rosy hue. His eyebrows resembling those of the phoenix. His whole appearance inspired a feeling of terror.'" Kwan is said to have told his new friend, Liupei, that he had wandered over the country for five years as a fugitive from justice and a champion of the oppressed, "for I have killed a prominent man, who oppressed the people of my native place. I have heard that men are being recruited to repress brigandage, and I wish to join the expedition."
Because of his skill in battle, Kwan came to be deified as the god of war, and his virtues inspired writers and scholars, whom he protected. Characteristically, statues of Kwan show him in both a scholar's robes and a general's uniform. Chin, naturally enough, interrelates these two aspects. In a letter to Michael Kirby, editor of The Drama Review, he says that Kwan was "the god of war to soldiers, the god of plunder to soldiers and other arrogant takers, the god of literature to fighters who soldier with words, and the god patron protector of actors and anyone who plays him on stage."
Though revered by the Cantonese—who became the first "Chinamans"—the red-faced Kwan was never as "heavy" as the Christian God, according to Chin. Besides being militant, loyal, and vengeful, Kwan was also selfish and individualistic. This, in Chin's eyes, restored the image of the integrated self that he saw historically disintegrating: "The Chinese used to say the Cantonese were so individualistic, they didn't get along with or trust anyone, not even each other. You could never get close to a Cantonese cuz he either told you everything endlessly and entertainingly and you couldn't sort our what counts—or he told you nothing. every cantonese is whole unto himself as a planet and trusts no other living thing."
Kwan Kung traveled to America with the Cantonese immigrants through the national epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the forms of both novel and opera.
Sprawling and complex in structure, the Romance even in its condensed version reads like Malory's Works. The most popular of Cantonese operas, for Chin it seems "a collection of documents, various story tellers' cheat sheets, doggerel and repeats of folk hearsay by different people writing at different times about the same historical event." It disdains the Western neoclassical unities and is the result "of thousands of years of literate storytelling wordhappy culture." More importantly, both novel and opera "pose as raw documentary history. The form contains the notion of destroying a people by destroying their history. .
The opera also contains the famed fraternal Oath in the Peach Garden sworn by the three heroes: Liu-pei, Kwan Kung, and Chang-fei. They declare their "everlasting friendship" and pledge mutual assistance in all dangers. "It's a soldier's blood oath of loyalty and revenge," says Chin:
Nothing charitable, necessarily honorable, in any Western sense, passive or timid about it… . It encouraged an aggressive self-reliance and trust nobody, watch out killer's sense of individuality that reached a peak in China with the Cantonese, took to the image of what the Chinamans scratching out mountains for gold thought of themselves, grew roots in California and sprouted a Kwan Kung happy race of people who wanted to hear, read, and rewrite, only one story, and sing and sit through and pass with one opera only.
But, says Chin, the imported Cantonese opera became "purely Chinaman" in expression "as it adjusted language, style, detail, event, and setting to the changing world of the Chinamans at work on a new experience, making new language to define the experience, and make new history." Such were the changes made that for "Chinamans in mining and rail-road camps and Chinatown," the opera became "a one man medicine show done by traveling kung fu fighters selling their personal kung fu brew… ." Whole families of such fighters "traveled by wagon from camp to camp selling tonic, breaking chains, and doing flash versions of Three Kingdoms."
It is to this Chinaman version of Cantonese opera that Chin owes his artistic origins: "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."
Chin therefore says: "I am not any white writer. I'm Frank Chin, Chinaman writer. White reviewers like Julius Novick and Clive Barnes stuck in their Christian esthetic of one god, one good, one voice, one thing happening, one talk at a time get so dizzy in the atmosphere of Chinaman word strategy they gotta cancel out every white writer they know to make sense of my simple Chinaman back-scratch." He believes that an artist should be judged on his own terms, and that to apply the traditional Western criteria to his work is irrelevant and unfair.
Yet, in his conception of a New Man (a Chinaman) and a new language wrought out of the new American experience, Chin shows his awareness of the early nineteenth-century American struggle for cultural and linguistic freedom from Britain. Moreover, to counter the effeminate, Christianized Charlie Chan image of the post-1925 era, he has restored the immensely masculine Kwan Kung, whose strength of mind and body, individuality and loyalty, capacity for revenge, and essential aloneness are reminiscent of the rugged Western hero of American myth. The interested reader might wish to contrast this rugged individualism with the perception of Chinese character in Francis L. K. Hsu's The Challenge of the American Dream: The Chinese in the United States. Professor Hsu is an immigrant Chinese.
Kwan Kung's opera also contains an idea that haunts Chin's work: the destruction of a people by destroying their history. Chin is well aware of white fears in this vein; one of his more amusing insights is of James Hilton's Shangri-La as a place designed for the preservation of white culture, where whites with low self-esteem can be worshipped and serviced by yellows. He is regretful, on the other hand, that his own generation has forgotten their past and their old hero:
"There was a statue of Kwan Kung in every Chinese American home I was ever in," he says, "til my generation moved into houses of their own, and hadn't known 'Chinaman' is what we called ourselves in the English we spoke and made our own for three generations now."
Though acknowledging the eventual extinction of Asian America, Chin in his own life and work has maintained the heroic stance of the old Chinaman god. Recently in a restaurant in Seattle, Chin (who avows he dislikes broken men) was revolted by an aging, embittered No-No Boy of the Second World War who felt his life had been ruined by his imprisonment. "He'd lost all sense of Seattle as a Japanese-American city, all sense of vision," said Chin:
"You say the Chinese came here with a vision too?" he whined, and I had to move or melt into a pool of boo-hoo and booze and give up with the old man.
"Get up! Come with me right now!" I said and was walking to the front of the restaurant.
If he had caught up with me, I'd have collared him and dragged him to the poster of Kwan Kung sitting on his tiger throne with his squire at his right hand, holding Kwan's seal. Kwan's left side robed him like a scholar and his right side armored him like a soldier. "That's the vision of ourselves when we first came over," I said.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3454
Michael Feingold (review date 15 June 1972)
SOURCE: "Portnoy's Chinese Complaint," in The Village Voice, 15 June 1972, p. 56.
[Feingold offers a mixed assessment of The Chicken-coop Chinaman, arguing that, "though blossoming all over with good writing, well-caught characters, and sharply noted situations, [it] is only about three-quarters finished as a play."]
The Chickencoop Chinaman will not be serving your shrimp Szechuan in a family restaurant, nor is he likely to be the one demanding a tickee when you go to pick up your shirts at the laundry. Tam Lum, the title character of Frank Chin's first produced play, is a young filmmaker, a resolutely monologizing surrogate for the playwright, who is deeply involved in extricating himself from his ethnic background: not in repudiating it, but coming to terms with it. And, of course, the more he tries to get out from under, the more entangled he gets. Which is how America works on all its minorities, and which is why Chin's play, potentially, could touch a tender spot in the makeup of every ethnic group, and is in no way a mere piece of sweet and sour tokenism.
"Potentially" is the word because The Chickencoop Chinaman, though blossoming all over with good writing, well-caught characters, and sharply noted situations is only about three-quarters finished as a play. It has a dramatic, or anyway anecdotal, structure: Tam has been hired to do a documentary film on the life of his child-hood idol, the black boxing champion Ovaltine Jack Dancer; he comes east to visit his co-worker and old friend Kenji, and interview the man who is ostensibly Dancer's beloved father and trainer, an old black movie-house operator named Charley Popcorn. In the evening the play covers, Tam receives, via these two characters, a series of disillusionments (all nonschematic and fairly complex), and has to start coming to terms with both reality and himself.
This very traditional structure for a naturalistic play can result in either boredom or delight, strictly depending on the quality of the writer's perception and inventiveness; Chin scores high on both. What he hasn't done is objectified his autobiographical (I assume) central character fully into the otherwise solid action: Tam is prone to long speeches alone in a spotlight, always a dangerous habit for a hero, and at these moments, as often in young writers' plays, good writing goes out the window and hot air, disguised as Poetry, flies in.
Chin is conscious enough of this lapse to have replaced one of his arias with a juicy dream-memory sequence, of Chinese boys idolizing the radio version of the Lone Ranger. Here, as often, the play summons up Alexander Portnoy [in Philip Roth's novel Portnoy's Complaint]: the comparison is not meant to be reductive; what the parallel does suggest is that Roth solved some of the problems in the material (and in himself?) through a primarily comic strategy, a retreat into the self-lacerating humor common to ethnic subgroups. Chin, a younger man less submissive to WASP-induced minority masochism, hasn't fully decided that his hero is comic; the monologues are a way of extricating Tam from the comic-pathetic New Yorker-story predicament of the plot. What they do instead, because they are acts of will and not of feeling, is nullify the naturalism rather than enriching it. Tam is still caught, our attention a bit less so.
Withal, the play is a debut (though who knows if an autobiographic playwright will ever come calling again?) and an enjoyable one. The chief obstacle to perceiving it is not Chin's occasional lapse into gas-poem, but Jack Gelber's smooth, unvariedly-paced, and utterly gelid production, in which a number of good actors stand or lope around, seemingly disconnected from each other, their own feelings, or the texture and point of the writing. Chief offender Randy Kim, in the arduous lead role, is full of technical proficiency but never once manages to suggest that all those ornate phrases are coming out of his being, rather than his mouth. Sally Kirkland has rather perfectly caught the exterior of Kenji's minority-groupie white housemate, but so grievously mislays her feelings that she is onstage for half an hour before the text, rather than her acting, informs us she is under strain. Even the always-dependable Leonard Jackson, as Charley, has afflicted an otherwise fine characterization with overslow timing and half-projection. Roger Morgan's lighting is good, and Willa Kim's costumes as interesting as everyday clothes can be in a naturalistic play, but Gelber has conned talented John Wulp into designing a fatally awkward set, and then used it even more awkwardly.
Julius Novick (review date 18 June 1972)
SOURCE: "No Cheers for the 'Chinaman'," in The New York Times, 18 June 1972, Section 2, p. 3.
[In the following negative review of The Chickencoop Chinaman, Novick asserts: "There is the material for a play here, but not much of a play."]
If John Osborne had been a young Chinese-American playwright of mediocre attainments, he might conceivably have written a play very much like The Chicken-coop Chinaman, which is the season's final offering at the American Place Theater.
The hero of The Chickencoop Chinaman, like Mr. Osborne's most famous hero, is loquacious, disaffected, excitable, sarcastic, angry and young; both heroes, more-over, are hung up about wives, fathers, and (especially) social injustice. And, like some of Mr. Osborne's plays, The Chickencoop Chinaman often looks like an ill-concealed pretext for a series of lengthy monologues by the protagonist. But Mr. Osborne is a master rhetorician, and Frank Chin, the author of The Chickencoop Chinaman, is not.
Mr. Chin's hero, a documentary filmmaker named Tarn Lum, doesn't talk or dress or act like an Oriental. In many respects, he is strikingly like any other bright, neurotic, wise-ass American kid; you don't have to be Chinese to do his Helen Keller imitations. But he has evidently been very deeply marked by the experience of growing up yellow in a white society. Like certain characters in black drama, he constantly makes jokes about racial stereotypes. He seems fascinated by the blackness of blacks, by the ways they have worked out for asserting a prideful non-white identity. He and his friend Kenji (a hip young Japanese-American dentist) call each other "man" a lot, and generally spend a good deal of time half-pretending that they themselves are black. And Tarn is intrigued to discover that somebody is writing a study of Chinese-American identity to be called Soul on Rice.
There is the material for a play here, but not much of a play. The plotting is fuzzy and unproductive. Tam is making a movie about a black fighter named Ovaltine Jack Dancer, with whom he once shared a moment of mystic brotherhood urinating in the bushes. He comes to Pittsburgh to interview one Charley Popcorn, who is supposed to be the fighter's father. When Charlie Popcorn insists that he is not the father of Ovaltine Jack Dancer, Tam seems to undergo some sort of crisis, but it is never entirely clear why he should care so much one way or the other. There is also a white girl named Lee, who gets involved in various ways with no less than three Oriental men, Tam included, but it is hard to see what her emotional life has to do with anything.
When Mr. Chin does have a good idea, he tends to lean on it very hard. It seems, for instance, that Tam used to fantasize that the Lone Ranger wears a black mask to conceal his slanted Oriental eyes. Good: a fine metaphor for an outsider's yearning to possess a share in our national myths. But Mr. Chin drags it out into a long, dull fantasy sequence featuring the Lone Ranger in person. Even the wonderful Soul on Rice joke is repeated far past the point of diminishing returns.
But the main problem with The Chickencoop Chinaman is that Tam Lum is never interesting enough to justify the attention that is lavished on him. "You have a way with words," he is told, but this is true more in terms of quantity than of quality. A character like this must dramatize himself through language. But Tam Lum's language, while emphatic enough, is never as sharp, bold or vivid as it is obviously supposed to be. It is not written right for the theater; somewhere between the speaker and the audience, it tends somehow to blow away.
Tam is played at the American Place by a young actor named Randy Kim, whose relentlessly exuberant energy sometimes becomes a bit of a nuisance. But it is something to be capable of all that exuberance; and Mr. Kim is quite acceptable when events overtake him and he stops spouting. Sally Kirkland, as Lee, plays much of her part with a memorably sluttish sort of sour, hillbilly weariness; it's monotonous and not very attractive, but it has a very authentic feeling about it. Willa Kim's costumes say more about the characters who wear them than stage costumes usually do; Jack Gelber's direction is unobtrusive.
The Chickencoop Chinaman is a thoroughly conventional play in both form and content—like most black plays, and, of course, most white ones. It seems that American writers of all shades have to draw from the same stock of models, techniques and themes. And why not? We are all, however loudly some of us may try to deny it, Americans—that is one of the implications of The Chickencoop Chinaman—and, as such, all inextricably members of European/Western Civilization (as black American intellectuals tend to discover by visiting Africa).
Furthermore, as Treplev says in The Seagull. "It's not a question of old and new forms"; we can use unconventional playwrights, but what we need most of all are good playwrights, however we can get them. Our familiar stock of methods and themes is capable of infinite variations and evolutions; new vitality is frequently discovered in the oldest of them, when a playwright appears who is capable of re-energizing them. Mr. Chin—to return from the general to the particular—is evidently a clever and potentially interesting writer; not just anybody could make up a fighter named Ovaltine Jack Dancer. But, in the theater at least, Mr. Chin is not up to much re-energizing at the moment.
Jack Kroll (review date 19 June 1972)
SOURCE: "Primary Color," in Newsweek, Vol. 79, No. 25, 19 June 1972, p. 55.
[In the generally favorable review below, Kroll notes that The Chickencoop Chinaman "needs more work—the basic emotional tone of hysteria is too unmodulated, the action is too thin, an awkward structure wrenches the play in and out of fantasy. But there is real vitality, humor and pain on Chin's stage."]
In the current orgy of consciousness-raising and identity-searching more and more unmelted ingredients in the American melting pot are crawling out of that cooling crucible and shaking themselves dry. And now we have a new playwright, Frank Chin, reminding us in The Chickencoop Chinaman that yellow is a primary color. His play adds a new character to the roster of alienation coming out of our theater and fiction: for Tam Lum the facts of race, culture and psyche compose a nightmare from which he cannot awake. We meet him on a plane to Pittsburgh, where the sexy presence of the stewardess has triggered a fantasy Dream Girl, a strutting Chinese parody of the American majorette, to whom he pours out his rogue poetry of deracination.
"Where were you born?" asks twirling, teasing Dream Girl. "Chinamen are made, not born," Tarn tells her. "Out of junk-imports, lies, railroad scrap iron, dirty jokes, broken bottles, cigar smoke, wino spit and milk of amnesia. I am the natural born ragmouth speaking the motherless bloody tongue. I talk the talk of orphans. I am the result of a pile of pork chop suey thrown up into the chicken-coop in the dead of night and the riot of dark birds, night cocks and insomniac nympho hens running after strange food that followed. I am the notorious one and only Chickencoop Chinaman himself that talks in the dark heavy midnight. I was no more born than nylon or acrylic. For I am a Chinaman, a miracle synthetic, drip dry and machine washable."
This play is a Chinese Look Back in Anger, and Tam is like John Osborne's Jimmy Porter, or like J.P. Donleavy's Ginger Man (Cantonese ginger), or like Lenny Bruce—pop hipsters pouring out a nonstop "ragmouth" stream of rococo riffs, invective and fantasy, a dragnet of words in which to catch their elusive identities. Dressed like Jimi Hendrix, sticking like a Catskill comic, spewing bits and lines and voices from old movies, old radio shows. Tarn's real self comes from the glory-trash mélange of American pop culture. "Nothing but outtakes in my head," says Tam. Two sounds express the tension between his stub-born pride of heritage and his self-loathing: the remembered sound of the railroad, built by Chinese sweat, and "Buck Buck Bagaw," the chickencoop cackle with which he puts himself down.
Like the new black playwrights, Chin shows how race permeates the whole of life for someone like Tam, whose mother had told him: "Don't wear green—it makes you look yellow. And don't be seen with no blacks." His best friend, Kenji, is a Japanese-American trying to find himself without the advantage—and disadvantage—of Tarn's mad imagination. Kenji is living with Lee, a white girl who specializes in non-white men, and whom Tam accuses of hiding her Chinese blood. Lee's Chinese ex-husband is writing a book about Chinese-American identity called Soul on Rice. Tam is making a documentary movie about a black boxer, Ovaltine Dancer, and he has come to see the fighter's legendary father, Charley Popcorn, who runs a porno movie house. The revelation that Charley is not Dancer's father, that the heroic Dancer is just another colored man who makes up fantasies about who he is, is the last straw for Tam, who himself has identified with everyone from Helen Keller to the Lone Ranger.
Thirty-two-year-old Frank Chin is a natural writer; his language has the beat and brass, the runs and rim-shots of jazz. This first play needs more work—the basic emotional tone of hysteria is too unmodulated, the action is too thin, an awkward structure wrenches the play in and out of fantasy. But there is real vitality, humor and pain on Chin's stage; I will remember Tam Lum long after I've forgotten most of this season's other plays. Under Jack Gelber's direction Randy Kim is very good as Tam: he traps a lot of nuances—he is funny, crazy, smart, dopey, frightened, manly, childish, shrewdly together and hopelessly lost. Sally Kirkland plays Lee; she is one of the most touching and appealing young actresses in theater and her new adeptness at Yoga makes her even lovelier to watch. Despite its weaknesses. Chickencoop Chinaman is the most interesting play of the American Place Theatre's first season in their splendid new house.
Edith Oliver (review date 24 June 1972)
SOURCE: A review of The Chickencoop Chinaman, in The New Yorker, Vol. XL VIII, No. 18, 24 June 1972, p. 46.
[Oliver offers a positive evaluation of The Chickencoop Chinaman, judging it a "moving, funny, pain-filled, sarcastic, bitter, ironic play. "]
Frank Chin, a poet and dramatist, brings us the first news (theatrically speaking) of the Chinese Americans in our midst in a moving, funny, pain-filled, sarcastic, bitter, ironic play called The Chickencoop Chinaman, which almost bursts its seams with passion and energy. It will be playing for the lucky subscribers to the American Place only until June 24th. Mr. Chin's hero, Tam Lum, was born in California. He is, by trade, a documentary-movie maker, and he talks and talks in a furious and dazzling eruption of verbal legerdemain ("I'm tired of talking, but when I stop it's so goddam awful") that reveals, as if in a blaze of Fourth of July fireworks, himself and his parents and his grandmother and his other relatives and his anonymous ancestors who were brought into this country to build the Union Pacific Railroad. The play is no monologue, though. There is action, and there are a lot of other people. It opens with Tam Lum sitting in a plane that is about to land in Pittsburgh, and having some sort of wild daydream about a Chinese drum majorette. He has flown in from Los Angeles, where he has been making a movie about a black boxer, and he intends to film a segment of it in Pittsburgh, where an old black man whom he supposes to be the fighter's father is working as an exhibitor of pornographic movies. While Tam Lum is in Pittsburgh, he stays with a Japanese-American boy-hood friend, a dentist, who appears to be completely acclimated to America, and who is living with a pregnant young white woman—a needling, contrary snubber and charmer (Sally Kirkland has never been better or better cast)—and her little boy, the child of a previous marriage or association. The action is complex, and flashbacks and dramatized fantasies abound, but it is the dentist's household that is the focus of it all—the place where most of the characters eventually end up, and where surface frictions mask a kind of love and peace. The young woman senses that Tam Lum is a disturber of the peace the moment he sets foot in the door, and her needling and put-downs are the weapons she uses against him.
I'm afraid that I have made The Chickencoop Chinaman sound more exclusively verbal than it is. The words are what count, but the play is theatrical and inventive, and Jack Gelber, who directed it, has let no opportunity for stage life get by him. He is rewarded by fine performances. Besides the indelible Miss Kirkland, Randy Kim is remarkable as the anguished, self-hating, witty hero; and Sab Shimono as his dentist friend, Leonard Jackson as the pornographic-movie man, Calvin Jung as another Chinese, more comfortable in his skin, and Anthony Marciona as the little boy are very good, too. A few of the scenes seem a bit foolish, and others run on beyond their natural breaking point, but there is so much that is right with the play that the few paltry things that are wrong hardly matter.
John Simon (review date 26 June 1972)
SOURCE: "Hardly Worth the Bother," in New York Magazine 5, No. 26, 26 June 1972, p. 54.
[In the following review, Simon gives a negative appraisal of The Chickencoop Chinaman, declaring that it is "a loose aggregate of untheatrical surfaces with no real center, no dramatic propulsion and urgency. "]
The Chickencoop Chinaman introduces another minority to our stage, the Chinese-Americans (and also, incidentally, the Japanese-Americans), whose problems seem to be even greater than those of the blacks because, apparently, they not only have to compete against the whites, but must also compete with the blacks in competing against the whites. Frank Chin's play at the American Place Theater has one good scene at the opening of Act II, pointed and funny, and some well-turned lines scattered throughout; but it is a loose aggregate of untheatrical surfaces with no real center, no dramatic propulsion and urgency. Emotions wax and wane quite arbitrarily; small things are made much of and large ones thrown away; and what little shape there is to the play is imposed awkwardly from without.
We are treated pell-mell to the petty misadventures, wistful reminiscences and wishful fantasies of Tarn Lum, a young documentary filmmaker—one of those playwright's alter egos on whom their authors lavish much more empathy than a mere spectator can muster. The tone is magniloquent poeticism ("spending your whole time running out of your life into everybody's distance") when it is not mocking self-pity which, in the end, is more enervating than prophylactic. Still, a playwright who can have an adult say to an officious child, "Do you want to be old all your life? Talk like a kid while you are a kid, even if you have to fake it," is not to be dismissed out of hand.
Matters, unfortunately, are not helped by the three principal performances. Randy Kim makes the hero unduly mannered and charmless; Sab Shimono plays his Japanese-American dentist friend with not enough force to extract a wobbly milk tooth; and Sally Kirkland, as the dentist's Platonic concubine (a part that makes even less sense than most), plays with a mumbling, lethargic autism that shows Method acting to be still as deadeningly alive as ever. Jack Gelber's staging is flatfooted and John Wulp's scenery barely adequate, but Willa Kim's costumes are appropriate and Roger Morgan's lighting is to the point. "I'm tired of talking, really tired," says Tarn, "but every time I stop it's so goddamn awful." And he doesn't stop, thus refusing to subordinate private interest to the common good.
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Elaine H. Kim (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "Chinatown Cowboys and Warrior Women: Searching for a New Self-image," in Asian American Literature: an Introduction to the Writings and Their Social context, Temple University Press, 1982, pp. 173-213.
[In the following excerpt, Kim examines Chin's depiction of the struggle to define a uniquely Asian American male identity in The Chickencoop Chinaman and other works.]
Chin views Chinese American history as a wholesale and systematic attempt to emasculate the Chinese American male. Racist laws "warred against us … to deny our manhood, to drive us out of the country, to kill us… . [T]wenty to thirty men for every woman… . Chinese-America was rigged to be a race of males going extinct without women." Chinese Americans were deprived of a knowledge of their history, according to Chin and the other editors of Aiiieeeee!, and forbidden a "legitimate mother tongue" because they were viewed as foreigners who cannot speak English:
Only Asian-Americans are driven out of their tongues and expected to be at home in a language they never use and a culture they encounter only in books written in English. This piracy of our native tongues by white culture amounts to the eradication of a recognizable Asian-American culture here.
[Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Hsu Wong, eds., Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers, 1974]
"The deprivation of language," is part of the castration process:
[It has] contributed to the lack of a recognized Asian-American cultural integrity … and the lack of a recognized style of Asian-American manhood… . Language is the medium of culture and the people's sensibility, including the style of manhood… . Stunt the tongue and you have lopped off the culture and sensibility. On the simplest level, a man in any culture speaks for himself. Without a language of his own, he is no longer a man.
[Frank Chin and Jeffery Paul Chan, "Racist Love," in Seeing through Shuck, ed. Richard Kostelanetz, 1972]
The castration that Chin says Asian American males have suffered through history is also reflected, he contends, in culture, so that Chinese American males have not been permitted to speak in American literature: "Our white-dream identity being feminine, the carriers of our strength, the power of the race belongs to our women. The dream women of this dream minority naturally prefer white men to our own… . Four of the five American-born Chinese Americans to publish serious literary efforts are women." Chin criticizes Jade Snow Wong, Betty Lee Sung, and Virginia Lee for accommodating the stereotypes of an exoticized Chinese heritage and of the Chinese as a model minority. But he also asserts that the fact that there are more published Chinese American women than men writers emasculates Chinese American men because literary creativity is the proper domain of men: "[I]n this culture [manliness means] aggressiveness, creativity, individuality, just being taken seriously" ["Confessions of the Chinatown Cowboy," Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Fall 1972].
In "Song of the Monogram Warner Bros. Chink: News To Raise the Dead" (1971), the first step in reclaiming the manhood of the Chinese American is to gang-rape Joy, who represents the indifferent white majority:
I've been yellow on the lawn of your keep off the
Small and stooped, stupid and small tearing your
Standing around, yelling yellow stillness all over
your green grass lawn.
You yawned in the morning, Joy, bobbed a boob,
made my bird fly,
Called me our Japanese gardener and shut me up.
Because I feared losing my hardon and wanted to
The narrator takes revenge for this castrating indifference on behalf of the "twenty thousand bleeding finger-bones" of his yellow forefathers, who carved through granite and ice in the desert darkness to build the American railroad. Those silent men were
… men not I, nor my father,
Nor you, especially you, dear gollygosh you,
Ever heard sing of the railroad, of the winds that
Of the trains they never rode.
My faceless grandfathers, men we never heard
All gone, with their laughable names, all gone.
The Chinese American is vindicated when
A hundred years of Chinamen
At a piece of
The new Asian American identity, according to Chin, must be built around the Asian American man's being accepted as American. To gain this acceptance, it is necessary to challenge the stereotype of quaint foreigners, to reject the notion of the passive, quiet Asian American, and to move away from the stultifying limitations of the glittering Chinatown ghetto. Three of Chin's pieces of short fiction, "Food for All His Dead" (1962), "Yes Young Daddy" (1970), and "Goong Hai Fot Choy" (1970), from an unpublished manuscript title A Chinese Lady Dies, are organized around the theme of Chinatown as decaying beneath an exotic facade. The central character of each work is a young Chinese American male who must come to terms with the absence of a suitable Chinese American male legacy and the stifling decay and futility of life in the Chinese American community. Ultimately, to survive and try to affirm his own manhood, he must leave Chinatown and everything it stands for behind.
The central characters of the three stories 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 American women. But they are not sure they can survive outside the Chinese American community. In the last 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 so that he can be free. 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 confines of the 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, weary, 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… .
Johnny, Fred, and Dirigible are too good for Chinatown and also too powerless to do anything but watch it die. They detest the self-deception of the people of China-town, who unlike them cannot see or refuse to see the dying. Johnny's father continues to rant about the Chinese Revolution of 1911, Aunt Dee insists on powdering her face into a mask and thinking dirty thoughts, and Dirigible's mother observes the Chinese New Year even as she is falling into crumbling decay. Chin's young male protagonists must leave Chinatown because there are no examples of "manhood" there for them to follow. Johnny's father is immersed in an impossible self-deception, knowing less, Johnny thinks, than his son does; Dirigible participated in deceiving his father with his mother when he was a boy. Besides the ineffectual fathers, there are only the shopkeepers, grinning and nodding over the produce in Chinatown vegetable stores.
All three protagonists are embodied in Tampax Lum, the main character in the play 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 an "American" or a "Chinese" mold; that Asian Americans should not allow themselves to be used as a "model minority." Chin's opinions, as expressed elsewhere in essays, are presented through the characters and situations in the play. But instead of building a new manhood and a new culture to replace the bankrupt Chinatown culture through his imaginative writing, Chin creates an overriding sense of the utter futility of the male protagonist's efforts to redefine himself.
In Chickencoop Chinaman, Chinese American identity has been manufactured in a chickencoop by racism: it is "nylon and acrylic… . A miracle synthetic! Drip dry and machine washable." Chinese Americans are "children of the dead," their language the "talk of orphans." The legacy of Chinese American manhood is recalled only in vague references to a "Chinatown Kid" who used to frequent boxing matches and whose name no one can quite remember. Tarn and his best friend, Blackjap Kenji, get together to sing a song imitating Helen Keller, who symbolizes Asian Americans, since she overcame her "birth defects" and can now see, hear, and speak no evil.
At first, when Tarn speaks aggressively and with wit, it seems that he will be the embodiment of the new Chinese American man. But the play ends with Tarn, "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, and the "Chun King chopped phooey" of race stereotyping. He has also rejected the myth that Asians could be like Blacks, but he has as yet found nothing to replace the stereotypes and false directions. There are no new mythical heroes; the Chinatown Kid is not his father but a nameless dishwasher who was afraid of old white ladies peeking at him through keyholes.
Tam, the central character who might have embodied a new Asian American male identity, backs down when the half-Chinese girl attacks him, saying, "Everything you say is right. I'm a good loser. I give up." When he tries to fight, he misses the punch and falls flat on his face: "I'm the Chickencoop Chinaman. My punch won't crack an egg, but I'll never fall down." Until he can regain his true heritage, his identity, and his masculinity, he is good mostly for talk, which he hopes to inject with "some flow, some pop, some rhythm." He tries to seduce the Hong Kong Girl with his 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.
But she giggles and runs off. When the half-Chinese girl attacks him, he retorts the only way he can, answering, "Wanna fuck?" The play ends with Tarn 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, language, and masculine identity now that he has shed self-deception and false heroes, he is not complete. He is still experimenting.
Chin calls Lum a "comic embodiment of Asian-American manhood." Although Chin contends that Tarn 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, in 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 the "comic manifestations of Asian-American manhood"; we are carried forward on clever metaphors and images until we are faced with the Asian American male protagonist squirming helplessly, pinpointed by his own verbal barbs.
Chin says that he wants to promote the creation of an Asian American mythology and language that is not alien or hostile to the Asian American sensibility. 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, cliches, linguistic mannerisms, and a sense of humor that emerges from an organic familiarity with the experience."
But Chin's protagonists are alienated characters. Their language is often witty and ornate but it is seldom the "backtalking, muscular, singing stomping full-blooded language" Chin believes should express the "Asian American sensibility." Tam Lum's "backtalk" emerges as "out-talk." His characters are used as mouthpieces for thinly disguised lectures on Chinese American history, identity, and manhood, as in the following unbalanced dialogue:
Tam: I mean, we grow up bustin our asses to be white anyway… . [W]hat made the folks happiest was for some asshole, some white off the wall J. C. Penney's clerk type with his crispy suit to say I spoke English well—
Lee: You're talking too fast for me. I can't …
Tarn: (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 were 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, stayed 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?
Tarn: 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 "giddyup" to their horses and get along real nice here now, don't we?
Lee: Oh, Tarn, I don't know.
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." 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," and Tarn Lum in Chickencoop Chinaman keeps talking, even though he is tired of talking, because "everytime I stop it's so goddamned awful!"
The Chinese American identity Chin forges through the language and characterization of Fred, Dirigible, Johnny, and Tampax Lum is incomplete. The characters are alienated adolescents, incapacitated by the sense of their own impotence. But they are the only characters in Chin's stories and plays 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 writings belong to one of two types—dumb broads or castrators. In Chickencoop Chinaman, the half-Chinese woman is a castrating bitch and the "Hong Kong dream girl" in her "super no-knock, rust-proof, tit-stiffening bra" and bouffant hairdo is simply a stereotype.
Frank Chin has delineated some of the factors that have suppressed the Asian American male, but a new identity has yet to be forged. It seems obvious that as long as the Asian American male is depicted as a victim of his community, his family, and women in general, the portrayal will be incomplete. Chin's basic contempt for his characters, a contempt that is mixed with compassion for Tampax Lum and his kindred heroes, leaves the reader with the impression of futility and bored misanthropy. Chin flails out at the emasculating effects of oppression, but he accepts his oppressors' definition of "masculinity." The result is unresolved tension between contempt and desire to fight for his Asian American characters.
The battle against this oppression is individualized in the stories and plays; that the main characters are afflicted with metaphysical angst and elitist fantasies is no wonder, since they are drawn large and detailed compared to the mechanical toys and insects that people their world. Chin's preoccupation with death and decay, his sexism, cynicism, and sense of alienation have prevented him from creating protagonists who can overcome the devastating effects of racism on Chinese American men.
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Clive Barnes (review date 3 June 1974)
SOURCE: "Culture Study," in The New York Times, 3 June 1974, p. 39.
[In the following mixed review of the New York production of The Year of the Dragon, Barnes finds the play's "insights into the Chinese community" "absolutely fascinating" but also judges it lacking in energy.]
We have a great deal of theater in black and white but not too much in yellow. The American Place Theater, and its director, Wynn Handman, have been encouraging the Chinese-American writer Frank Chin. Last season Mr. Chin gave us The Chickencoop Chinaman, and this season the American Place Theater is rounding off its subscription series with his latest play. The Year of the Dragon, which officially opened Saturday night.
As in his earlier play, Mr. Chin is concerned primarily with the American Chinese in American society. The position of the Asian in America is very important and interesting. The black, much larger, and therefore more powerful, minority, has pretty much broken away from stereotyped images—indeed society wouldn't like me to say a black dancer had natural rhythm even if he had. But for the Chinese, or Japanese, the situation is more difficult. Laundries, tourism and restaurants, a Chinese writer might well believe that even his plays should come with an egg roll.
The Year of the Dragon is set in San Francisco's China-town, now. The hero is Fred Eng, a tourist guide, a travel agent, a man who can collaborate with his Boston-based sister on a best-selling Mama Fufu's Cookbook, but can also worry about a kid brother on probation with a gun in his pocket.
As in his earlier play, although even more directly. Mr. Chin is questioning identity—how Chinese or how American is the Chinese-American? And you don't get the answer in a fortune cookie.
Mattie (the Boston sister of Mama Fufu fame) has come home on a visit with her new Caucasian husband. The father of the family is dying, and to be with him in this final rite he brought home his first wife from China, Fred's mother. Now the family, including Ma, who is the father's American-born Chinese wife and mother of two of his children, is gathered around on Chinese New Year for the end. Pa, though near death, is far from the coffin—he still runs his house, and intends to make a public speech with a little joke about Charlie Chan in it.
The Year of the Dragon is an interesting play, but it has a lot of gaps in it. It lacks energy at times. What I found absolutely fascinating was its insights into the Chinese community, and this really held my attention. But as a play its discursiveness is something of a liability. Mr. Chin wants us to feel, but we end up thinking. No harm.
The play has been directed by Russell Treyz with a good eye for incidental detail but insufficient pace. The author needed a little more gusto, I thought. Leo Yoshimura's scenery had the proper Sino-American air to it, and the performances were excellent.
Randy Kim (who according to the program is now styling himself Randall (Duk) Kim) is an excellent actor with a quite individual tautness to his performances. He here conveys a peculiar but endearing mixture of toughness and vulnerability ringed round with cynicism. Tina Chen, with a long-suffering good nature, made an attractive sister. Pat Suzuki was fine as the ail-American Chinese mother who ran to the bathroom in times of stress, and Conrad Yama nicely showed absurdity and patriarchalism as a first-generation Chinese father.
First generation and second generation, China and America, this is what fascinates Mr. Chin. It is a fascination that we can intermittently share, especially if we think of his play in the terms of that American melting pot that never seems to be properly heated and never seems to be properly stirred.
Jack Kroll (review date 10 June 1974)
SOURCE: "Sweet and Sour," in Newsweek, Vol. LXXXIII, No. 23, 10 June 1974, p. 84.
[In the following evaluation, Kroll admires the "strong emotional writing, sweet and sour comedy and … real anguish" in The Year of the Dragon.]
A couple of seasons ago Frank Chin singlehandedly established the Chinese branch of the new American ethnic theater with his play, The Chickencoop Chinaman. He now provides that school its second work, The Year of the Dragon. Chin's new play again pivots about a character largely himself, here called Fred Eng, an angry not-quite-young man caught in the limbo between yellow and white, Chinese and American. Fred's dilemma reflects the dilemma of Chin as an artist. A gifted writer and electric sensibility, he is part Chinese Lenny Bruce, "spritzing" a comedy of bitter alienation, and part Number One Son, drawn to the traditional Chinese values—family, duty—which have been diluted by American culture.
Chin's problem is fitting the hip into the square. His new play attempts to solve this by a miscegenation of the Bruce spritz with the Arthur Miller family-problem play, in which Fred is torn between his father, a little big man in San Francisco's Chinatown, and his sister, who has married a white man with whom she runs a Chinese restaurant in Boston. There's also Fred's gun-toting, semi-delinquent younger brother, his stepmother who hides from life in the bathroom, and his "China Mama," his real mother whom his father has suddenly imported from the old country. You can diagram the tensions and flip-flops for yourself, and it's to Chin's credit that he escapes as often as he does from cliché and banality by strong emotional writing, sweet and sour comedy and a real anguish.
Under Russell Treyz's direction the cast at the American Place Theater is strong, especially Conrad Yama as the father, the epitome of impossible autocratic love; and the extraordinary Randall Kim, who plays Fred like a trapped animal, prowling and hissing in the cage of his constricted identity.
Edith Oliver (review date 10 June 1974)
SOURCE: "Reunion," in The New Yorker, Vol. L, No. 16, 10 June 1974, p. 64.
[In the review below, Oliver expresses some reservations about The Year of the Dragon but declares that the characters in the drama "are playable, complex, and always convincing. "]
Frank Chin, whose first play, The Chickencoop Chinaman, of a couple of years ago, instantly launched him as a dramatist, and launched his leading man, that magnetic marvel Randy Kim, as a potential star, has now done a second play. The Year of the Dragon, again presented under the auspices of the American Place (subscribers only), again has Mr. Kim as spokesman and pivotal character. The setting is an apartment in San Francisco's Chinatown, the time is just before and during the celebration of the Chinese New Year, and the people under consideration are the family who live in the apartment. The father, born in China and now the mayor of his community, is dying and knows it; he is the absolute ruler of his household, insistent upon filial obedience. The mother, much younger and born in this country, jokes and grins a good deal, and tends to escape all domestic tensions and blowups (of which there are many) by ducking into the bathroom with a good book. The older son—Mr. Kim, as Fred Eng—is a man of forty who works as a tourist guide. (Stepping in and out of the action, he is also our guide to the family.) The daughter has lived for many years in Boston, where she runs a string of successful Chinese restaurants; she has just returned to San Francisco with her white American husband to promote a cookbook ("Mama Fufu's") that she and Fred have written. And there are others, in the family and out of it.
The plot is filled with incidents, entertaining distractions, and a couple of revelations, but at its core is a struggle for power between the father, who is the embodiment of tradition and is determined to keep the family together, and in that house, after he is dead, and Fred, just as determined to leave and pursue his career as a writer and to set the others free as well. The play, which could be loosely compared to Odets' Awake and Sing, is absorbing, and only partly because of its unfamiliar subject matter. Still, it is not yet as strong as it could be. There are moments when the action seems to get out of hand, and too many essential scenes are introduced by such feeble, transparent lines as "I want to have a talk with you." Also, I think it may have been a mistake to make Fred a writer, forcing the audience to autobiographical conclusions. There can be no question, though, about the ability of the gifted, passionate, funny Mr. Chin; his characters are playable, complex, and always convincing, and the words they speak are theirs and theirs alone. The acting, under the direction of Russell Treyz, is very good. Pat Suzuki, delightful as the mother, always makes clear the panic and sadness under the chuckles and snatches of songs and jaunty airs. Conrad Yama is perfect as the stubborn, dying old autocrat, and so, for that matter, are beautiful Tina Chen, as the tender, loyal, but some-what alienated daughter; Doug Higgins, as her husband, whose every joke misfires or peters out, and whose earnest camaraderie cannot conceal his bewilderment at the squabbles that go off like fire-crackers around him; Keenan Shimizu, as a rebellious younger brother; and Lilah Kan, as a mysterious outsider—an older woman known as China Mama. As for Mr. Kim, he is the indelible Chickencoop Chinaman come to life again, unpacking his soul in one blistering, sarcastic monologue after another, flinging every cliché about the Chinese into the face of the audience and boiling over with rage and love and temperament. Mr. Kim makes the play into a vehicle for Fred every time he opens his mouth—but then, earlier this season, he even made "The Tempest" into a (sporadic) vehicle for Trinculo. Admirable scenery, lighting, and costumes by Leo Yoshimura, Victor En Yu Tan, and Susan Hum Buck, respectively.
John Simon (review date 17 June 1974)
SOURCE: "Now You See It—Now You Don't," in New York Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 24, 17 June 1974, p. 76.
[In the following negative assessment of The Year of the Dragon, Simon contends that Chin "exhibits a lack of discipline and tendency to attitudinize" in the play.]
"Coming of age" is the basic subject of two essentially realistic new plays, the splashier but also more irritating of which is Frank Chin's The Year of the Dragon at the American Place Theater. The Chinese-American author has flashes of wit and flights of anger, a felicitous mordancy here, a bit of a genuine ache there. But, as in his first play, The Chickencoop Chinaman, he again exhibits a lack of discipline and tendency to attitudinize; this domestic tragicomedy finally differs from soap opera only in its ethnic coloration and greater vagueness—incidents and people remaining unclarified out of sheer dramaturgic irresponsibility. The themes are noncommunication between parents and children, strife between spouses, centrifugal pull away from Chinatown and centripetal pull back, self-realization through becoming an American college student or writer vs. self-realization through remaining a defiantly yellow tourist guide, or even hoodlum.
Russell Treyz has directed rather too laxly, allowing such cunning scene stealers as Randy Kim—now upstaging his colleagues even with his new name, Randall "Duk" Kim—to introduce enough rubatos and pauses to permit a consultation of the I Ching between, or during, many of the lines delivered. Still, we can bask in a handful of personable performances, among which Keenan Shimizu's seems most promising, and Conrad Yama's most accomplished. Tina Chen is a delight to eye and ear, and the others will do. But Kim, playing the hero who, upon his father's death, must rule the family only to disband it, should beware: clever as he is, his mannerisms are becoming disruptive; the Book of Changes, under the hexagram K'un, warns: "The superior man is yellow and moderate …" And I wonder: was Chinatown as much of a ghetto as Chin would have it? Was it really as hard for yellow persons to make it as for blacks? Was there as much honky-hating among San Francisco's Chinese as he implies, or is the play a bit of a tempest in a teapot?
Additional coverage of Chin's life and career is contained in the following source published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.