Trying to Find Chinatown Summary
by David Henry Hwang

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Trying to Find Chinatown Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Two perspectives on modern Chinese American identity clash on a New York City corner when Benjamin, a Caucasian Asian American, and Ronnie, a fully assimilated street musician of Asian ancestry, debate ethnic identity. The charm of this two-person play is that each character is equally likable (and at times equally annoying); their arguments, though oppositional, equally viable; and, in the end, no single viewpoint is privileged. Their debate about how best to represent oneself as an Asian American ends not in a victory but in a draw.

Benjamin Wong is blue eyed and blond haired. His midwestern drawl is the sound of a Kansas childhood, and his ethnic pride rants reflect his liberal education at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he majored in Asian American studies. Benjamin’s last name and his ethnic identity are products of his adoption as an infant into an Asian American family. Benjamin’s visit to New York City, his first, is a pilgrimage to pay homage to his recently deceased father. He wants to visit his father’s birth house in Chinatown, but first he needs directions, which he hopes to wrestle from Ronnie, who, Asian in appearance, looks like he might know.

Ronnie is a violinist of credible ability whose range covers classical to jazz, but not the country-western that is music to Benjamin’s ears. When Benjamin mistakenly identifies Ronnie’s instrument as a fiddle, tempers flare. Ronnie’s hurled invective “hick” is misplaced, however, as Benjamin points out, “you can’t judge my race by my genetic heritage alone.” Asian in skin tone and facial features, Ronnie knows little about the history of his culture, and it is a lesson in injustices that his paler counterpart inflicts upon him, brutal incident after brutal incident. If Ronnie is surprised that Benjamin knows so much about Asian American history, then Benjamin is equally shocked that Ronnie knows so little.

Ronnie has embraced a different heritage and in a stirring soliloquy gives an impromptu lesson on the history of American music, his words accompanied by background strings that evoke the very styles he names. He traces his musical roots to the American slave era, acknowledging the fiddle as the instrument of choice for oppressed slaves who would develop the blues out of their sufferings. Ronnie praises rockabilly and jazz, both traditional American musical genres, before imaginatively crossing the Atlantic to Europe, musical motherland to many Americans, including, ironically, Benjamin. Here Ronnie lauds the classical and folk traditions of those countries whose citizens immigrated to the United States and influenced generations of new musicians. In a directional note, the playwright suggests that the music begins to assume a somewhat Asian tone toward the end of Ronnie’s monologue. The violinist offers a musical pastiche that suggests a new metaphor for American culture, a cacophony of harmonious sounds, and a reminder as well of diverse contributions to an American identity. Ronnie suggests that to be American is to be all ethnicities at once.

Had Hwang ended his play at this point, the victor would be Ronnie, but one more monologue follows—Benjamin’s. His pulpit is the stoop outside his father’s birthplace, 13 Doyers Street. Overwhelmed with emotion, Benjamin revels in the various dialects that he hears spoken on the street (Cantonese, Sze-Yup, and Hokkien), which mimic in language the multiple musical sounds praised and played by Ronnie. The diverse human voices allow him to imagine scenes and sights and scents from his father’s childhood. Along with positive images of culinary delights, Benjamin recounts the struggles of his grandfather to provide a better life for his son in America and his father’s vow never to return to this ghetto. He did not, but his adopted Caucasian Asian American son does. Benjamin’s final statement is one of sympathy for people (such as Ronnie, it is implied) who do not “know who they truly...

(The entire section is 931 words.)