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.