Last Reviewed on June 24, 2019, 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...
(The entire section contains 855 words.)
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