When Frank Chin’s drama The Chickencoop Chinaman (pr. 1972) was first produced, it was the first serious play by an Asian American given the opportunity to be produced on the professional stage in New York. The Year of the Dragon also enjoyed a professional production and a much wider audience when the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) televised the play in its “Theatre in America” series in 1975. Through his writings and lectures, Chin has undoubtedly inspired more Asian Americans to use the theater as a vehicle for the depiction of their lives and experiences.
The Year of the Dragon challenges the romanticized portrait of Chinatown previously presented in novels, films, and the theater. Several times in the play, Chin makes disparaging references to a popular novel, Flower Drum Song (1957), by C. Y. Lee, which later was adapted into a Broadway musical (pr. 1958) and film (1961). For Chin, works such as Flower Drum Song foster a superficial, idealized image of Chinatown and its inhabitants. While characters in these works are sometimes shown to be affected by racial discrimination, the works tend not to treat seriously the lasting and debilitating effects of discriminatory practices.
In contrast, The Year of the Dragon presents a more complex, although despairing view of the experience of Chinese Americans. Chin’s characters strive to make the American Dream a reality by catering to the cultural myths created by the general public. Though financially successful, they find themselves unable to withstand the degenerating effects of the stereotypes they had adopted for monetary gains. Moreover, in both this drama and The Chickencoop Chinaman, Chin calls attention to the plight of the Chinese American who lacks a sense of identity or role models on which to pattern himself. The dramatist appears to be telling his audience that without self-understanding, the American citizen of Chinese descent will never truly feel a part of the American mainstream.