Gunga Din Highway is a passionately argued novel about Chinese American identity. It opens with Longman Kwan, a Chinese American actor who is given bit parts in Hollywood movies that stereotype Asians, generally dying for whites or as their enemy. Now, Longman reunites with the (fictional) last white actor who played the Chinese detective Charlie Chan opposite Longman’s role as Chan’s fourth son.
As throughout his oeuvre, Chin deftly mixes the real with the imaginary. Charlie Chan was indeed played by three different whites and never an Asian actor. His subordinate sons were played by Chinese Americans such as Keye Luke, whose real filmography looks much like Longman Kwan’s imaginary one.
Soon the novel turns to Longman’s third, rebellious son. Named Ulysses Kwan after James Joyce’s modernist novel once banned in America for its erotic content, Ulysses’s life is inspired by Chin’s own. As a boy, Ulysses rebels against Chinese and whites alike and associates with African Americans. He torments his Chinese language teachers and forms a lifelong brotherhood with two friends, Diego Chang and Benjamin Han. Playing on Chin’s concern with father-son relationships, Benjamin changes his last name to Mo, that of his father who was killed by his mother’s lover, who then became his despised stepfather.
As a young man, Ulysses lives a bohemian lifestyle vindicated by the cultural upheaval of late 1950’s and 1960’s...
(The entire section is 512 words.)