The Year of the Dragon

by Frank Chin

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Year of the Dragon is a play by Asian American author Frank Chin that centers around the Eng family, who live in the Chinatown area of San Francisco during the 1970s, which is the time in which the play was first published and performed on stage.

Fred is a middle-aged man who still lives with his parents and younger brother Johnny. Fred is unhappy with his life because he felt pressure to abandon his dream of becoming a successful writer in order to help his ailing father run a tour guide business. Even though Fred’s father’s health has improved, Fred is still trapped working as a tour guide and faces the constant criticism of his father for dropping out of college—a sacrifice Fred made for his father in the first place.

Fred hates his life for several reasons. The first is, of course, his frustrated dreams and goals. In addition, Fred feels like his job is demoralizing, since he has to cater to white tourists' racial stereotypes of Chinese Americans. Fred feels like the white tourists treat Chinatown as if it is a separate country and as if the people living there—including him—are not really Americans. Fred also doesn’t understand his brother Johnny’s lack of ambition to leave Chinatown.

All of these internal conflicts come to a head during the Chinese New Year celebration at the Eng home. Sissy, Fred’s sister, visits with her white husband, taking a break from promoting her and Fred’s Chinese cookbook that they cowrote. Sissy’s presence reminds Fred that his only achievement as a writer is a book of watered-down recipes, which depresses him.

Further complicating things is the arrival of Fred’s biological mother and Pa’s first wife, who is called “China Mama” in the text. This creates problems between Pa and his current wife, Hyacinth, who believed Pa’s promise that he would never allow China Mama to come to their home.

In terms of plot, nothing much happens. The play is focused less on plot than on providing a realistic snapshot of a Chinese American family, which is essentially no different from any American family.

The play is structured with alternating scenes of the action and Fred talking directly to the audience, as if the people watching the play are a tour group. This organization lets the reader or viewer examine their internalized stereotypes of Chinese Americans, contrasting them with the more realistic parts of Chinese Americans' lives.

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