The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Act 1 begins with forty-year-old Fred Eng addressing a tour group in San Francisco’s Chinatown during celebrations for the Chinese New Year. Using a stereotypical Chinese American accent, he identifies himself as Chinatown’s best guide for a tour of the district’s exotic sights. He tells the tourists they make him feel good and he likes them. After his spiel, however, the cursing under his breath reveals his contempt for this work.

In the next scene, Fred’s sister Mattie (called “Sis” by family members) and her white husband, Ross, arrive at the Eng family apartment. The newlywed couple has traveled to the city from Boston to visit Sis’s terminally ill father (Pa) and promote Sis’s Chinese American cookbook—one of the projects of the couple’s company, Mama Fu Fu, Inc. Ma, Sis’s mother, only makes a slight reference to a seemingly unmovable Chinese woman—China Mama—who sits next to her luggage. This peasant woman had married Pa in China during the early 1930’s, but an immigration law prohibited her from coming to the United States with her husband. Without a wife in this country, Pa married Ma—who was then a fifteen-year-old American who risked losing her citizenship by marrying a Chinese alien.

Sis appears uncomfortable in the presence of China Mama and, after a fourteen-year-long absence, seems to regret returning to a place which forces her to acknowledge her ethnic identity. Later, she confesses her distaste for the Chinatown inhabitants, whom she characterizes as “[r]ats, goodie goods, cowards, cry babies, failures, [and] nice Charlie Chans.” In contrast, Ross relishes the opportunity to be in America’s most famous Chinatown and have a look at first hand at a culture that he had avidly studied for many years.

After a long day of impersonating the happy Chinatown tour guide for people he despises, Fred is (not surprisingly) hostile to his brother-in-law, who unabashedly admits that he tells his wife he seems more Chinese than she does. Despite Sis’s warnings, Ross appears to be oblivious to Fred’s attitude toward him. Instead, he continues to anger his brother-in-law with his insensitive cultural remarks. Nevertheless, Fred realizes that Ross is still the husband of his beloved sister; further, the...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Frank Chin uses various dramatic devices to reveal the deterioration of the Eng family resulting from the influence of cultural myths. Through a series of monologues interspersed throughout the play, changes in Fred’s character as the tourist guide effectively mirror the degeneration of the Engs. Initially, Fred seems able to separate his contempt for his work from his spiel. He dons the mask of the happy tour guide and finds an outlet for his disdain by cursing under his breath after he has finished his pitch. Fred cannot continue to withstand the destructive pressures of the cultural myths, however, which have already weakened the integrity of his family. Each successive tourist spiel becomes more tinged with cynicism and more flagrant in its pandering to the stereotypical images sought by the tourists. At play’s end, after the family has lost its last shred of dignity, the spiritual death of the Engs is reflected in the supplanting of Fred’s character with that of a stereotype. Devoid of any semblance of his former self and dressed in white like Charlie Chan, this final image of Fred creates within the audience an unforgettable portrait of a man lacking a sense of self-esteem or hope for the future.

As effective as these monologues is the use of the festive sounds of the New Year’s parade as a striking contrast to the clash of wills between father and son during the play’s climactic scene. By themselves, the joyful sounds of celebration...

(The entire section is 460 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Chen, Jack. The Chinese of America. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980.

Chu, Patricia P. “Tripmaster Monkey, Frank Chin and the Chinese Heroic Tradition.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory, Autumn, 1997, 117-139.

Davis, Robert Murray. “Frank Chin: Iconoclastic Icon.” Redneck Review of Literature 23 (Fall, 1992): 75-78.

Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

Kim, Elaine H. “Frank Chin: The Chinatown Cowboy and His Backtalk.” Midwest Quarterly 20 (Autumn, 1978): 78-91.

Kroll, Jack. “Primary Color.” Newsweek, June 19, 1972, 55.

Li, David Leiwei. “The Production of Chinese American Tradition: Displacing American Orientalist Discourse.” In Reading the Literatures of Asian America, edited by Shirley Geok Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

McDonald, Dorothy Ritsuk. “An Introduction to Frank Chin’s The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon.” In Three American Literatures: Essays in Chicano, Native American, and Asian American Literature for Teachers of American Literature. Edited by Houston A. Baker, Jr. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1982.

Samarth, Manini. “Affirmations: Speaking the Self into Being.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 17, no. 1 (1992): 88-101.

Wong, William. “Chinatown Viewed from Within.” Wall Street Journal, June 19, 1972, p. 14.