The Year of the Dragon

by Frank Chin

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 855

Chinese American playwright Frank Chin's play The Year of the Dragon premiered in May 1974 in New York City. The play is commonly regarded as satirizing the exoticization of Chinese people—and East Asian people more broadly—by Western tourists. Chin's work is often seen as offering a critique of Orientalism. Orientalism is a concept devised by the Palestinian American literary critic Edward Said to capture the tendency of Westerners to see "the Orient" as everything that the West is not. In order to support the idea of the West as being rational, humane, and sophisticated, the East has been represented as being irrational, cruel, and crude, especially with respect to norms of equal treatment for women and other genders.

While Frank Chin arguably has manifestations of Orientalism in his sights as an object of critique, it should be emphasized that he also satirizes the pretensions and ambitions of young writers such as himself. Not all of his critique is directed outward. Ultimately, he wants to examine the phenomenon of the human search for authenticity—whether that search is conducted through tourism and the attempt to see authentic otherness (with "otherness" meaning simply the condition of other people who are understood to be unlike oneself) or through dramatic writing, which, in its own way, attempts to see and represent "otherness" as well.

The Year of the Dragon features as its protagonist Fred Eng, who works as a tour guide in San Francisco. His job is to give (largely white) tourists an insider's view of Chinatown. In act 1 of the play, we meet Fred, who is conducting his last tour group at the end of a long day. His speech to the group goes as follows:

We 'come a Chinatowng, Folks! Ha. Ha. Ha Hoppy New Year! Fred Eng, "Freddie" of Eng's Chinatown tour'n' travoo. "We tell Chinatown where to go." Ha ha ha. I'm top guide here. Allaw week Chinese New Year. Ssssssshhh Boom! Muchee muchie firey crackee!

This passage represents an excruciatingly sharp rendering of minstrelsy. Yet whereby the most conventional version of minstrelsy entails the (racist) mimicry of African American speech conventions by white people, here, minstrelsy entails the strategic performance of white notions of Asian American idioms and vernacular speech. Chin mimics both the highly accented pronunciation associated with racist portraits of Chinese Americans and the presumed foolishness and childishness of the Asian American sensibility. Thus, Fred's artificial voice throws the group's expectations back in their faces, so to speak, even as he fulfills those expectations. Fred's voice includes nonsense words and stagy evocations of sounds ("Ssssssshhh Boom!").

In keeping with Chin's intention of probing the conditions of fictions of authenticity, Fred deliberately pretends to confide in the members of the tour group:

But you're my last tour of the day, folks. And on my last tour of the day, no hooee. I like to let my hair down. Drop the phony accent. And be me. Just me.

The irony here is that Fred uses an American cliche—"let my hair down"—to describe his disclosure of his authentic self. Further irony may be detected in the fact that it is not enough for Fred to "be" himself—he has to announce that he is going to "be me" and qualify that announcement by emphasizing that he will be "just me."

The comic nature of Chin's work manifests itself in his satirical treatment of a journey into "authentic" Chinese experience. Fred announces that

tonight I'm gonna take ya where I eat, "The Imperial Silver Jade Empress." Good home cookin and souvenir chopsticks. I figure you folks who come to me after...

(This entire section contains 855 words.)

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This passage mocks Western notions of Chinese exoticism with reference to the absurdly ornate name of the restaurant that features "good home cookin" (note: the errors in punctuation and spelling are deliberate). Hilariously, the restaurant features souvenir chopsticks. One wonders if this is because white customers do not actually use the chopsticks they are offered (preferring forks instead) or if separate sets of chopsticks are distributed.

As the play progresses, we learn more about Fred's incapacity to attain the literary fame of which he dreams. To his sister, Sis, he laments that he is fated to be a "nobody": "Everybody'll be too busy to bother with me. Becoming a nobody's a hell of a lot to look forward to." Sis, in an attempt to inspire him, says, "We're the pioneers." But Fred does not accept that designation or that aspiration:

I don't wanta be a pioneer. Just a writer. Just see my name in a book by me. . . . What've the old pioneers done for us, for me? I'm not even fighting nobody. I just have a few words and they come at me.

In the end, Fred is caught between two options, neither of which seems to promise authentic self-realization. He can pretend to be a comic caricature of a Chinese American, or he can be a nobody. The play's implicit insight is that identity may lie in the negotiation and awareness of multiple, shifting identities, rather than in any one, fixed version of a single self.


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