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Frank Chin was a leader in the group of Asian-American writers that emerged on the literary scene during the 1960s, attacking and dispelling Asian-American myths and stereotypes. An unapologetically defiant voice from the margins of American culture, Chin has helped shape modern Asian-American literature, while encouraging new Asian-American authors in their endeavors. Best known for his plays The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon, Chin has also written short stories, novels, and caustic essays that illustrate what it is like to be Chinese and living in America.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Frank Chin was born on February 25, 1940, in Berkeley, California, to a Chinese immigrant father and a fourth-generation Chinese American mother. During the middle of the nineteenth century, tens of thousands of Chinese American immigrants came to the United States to work as laborers, first in the mining camps during the Gold Rush, and later on the quickly expanding American railways. Between 1885 and 1943, a ban was placed on Chinese immigration; Chinese Americans already in the United States, largely excluded from mainstream culture, formed communities within the larger cities along the West Coast, primarily Northern California.
As a young child, Chin lived near an abandoned gold mine in California with an elderly white couple. His father was hiding him from his maternal grandmother, who dis approved of her fifteen-year-old daughter s involvement with Chin s father, an older man. At the age of six, Chin went to live with his parents and spent the remainder of his youth in the Chinatowns of Oakland and San Francisco.
From 1958 to 1961, Chin attended the University of California at Berkeley, where he began contributing pieces to the California Pelican, the university s humor magazine. As a writer and then editor for the publication, Chin revealed early traces of the abrasive humor and ethnic proclivity that have become trademarks of his work. in 1961, he won a scholarship to attend the prestigious Writer s Workshop at the University of Iowa. Two years later he received his bachelor s degree in English at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1965.
Theatrical Success and Literary Obstacles
After graduation, Chin took a job as a clerk with the Southern Pacific Railroad; in 1966, he became the first Chinese American brakeman in the company s history. From there he moved to Seattle, Washington, and spent three years writing for KiNG-TV until returning to California and teaching Asian Studies at San Francisco State University and the University of California at Davis. As an organizer of the Combined Asian-American Resources Project (CARP), Chin worked with other Asian writers and scholars, including Jeff Chan, Lawson Inada, and Shawn Wong.
Chin began his career in drama in the early 1970s, founding the Asian-American Theater Workshop in San Francisco; he remained its director until 1977. in 1972, he premiered his first play, The Chickencoop Chinaman, followed by The Year of the Dragon two years later. Both plays were produced off-Broadway by the American Place Theatre, making Chin the first Asian American to have a work presented on a mainstream New York stage.
Although Chin s first novel, A Chinese Lady Dies, won the distinguished Joseph Henry Jackson Award for promising young writers of California, it was never published. His second novel, Charlie Chan on Maui, was rejected by publishers when the owners of the Charlie Chan copyright threatened legal action. Because of these two failed attempts at publishing his novels, Chin was told by editors that his work was commercially unfeasible. Only after the success of his short-story collection, The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R. R. Co. (1988), did Chin publish his first novel, Donald Duk (1991).
Since the 1980s, Chin has had little involvement with the theater, preferring to write fiction and essays about Chinese and Japanese history, culture, and literature. Throughout his literary career, he has explored his feelings toward Chinatown and its inhabitants in his work. He has taught various Asian-American courses at San Francisco State University, the University of California at Berkeley, Davis, and Santa Barbara, and at the University of Oklahoma at Norman. He has also received a number of awards and fellowships during the course of his career.
Works in Literary Context
The ethnic awareness Chin has developed through both his literary production and his critique of late-modern and contemporary Asian-American literature is reflected in many younger writers, including Chinese American
Mei Ng and Filipino Americans Jessica Hagedorn and Peter Bacho. Chin’s efforts to push the boundaries of acceptable ethnic identities—and, some would say, the standards of good taste—have been alternately viewed as both provocative and offensively chauvinistic.
Identity is a major theme in Chin’s writing. His works attack stereotypes that erode individual worth and steal cultural identity. Rather than simply blame Anglo-Americans for these stereotypes, Chin argues that everyone in America is responsible for them, including Chinese Americans. The Chickencoop Chinaman, for example, illustrates the difference between one’s assimilating into American culture and one’s rejecting the history of Chinese America in an attempt to become an ”honorary white.” Chin’s works stress the need for Chinese Americans to learn the true history of their people, not the myths and stereotypes that he maintains are taught in school.
In Chin’s novel Donald Duk, the young protagonist’s history teacher tells his class, ”The Chinese in America were made passive and nonassertive by centuries of Confucian thought and Zen mysticism. They were totally unprepared for the violently individualistic and democratic Americans.” Because of his teacher’s words, Donald is ashamed of his Chinese-American heritage until he begins to have dreams about working on the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869. In his dreams he sees incredible feats performed by his ancestors. Armed with newfound pride, Donald goes back to his history class to set the record straight.
Works in Critical Context
Although some contemporary Asian-American literary studies attempt to marginalize Chin’s work, he is still a notable presence in American literature. In general, critics praise Chin’s ability to bring characters and their predicaments alive, as well as his ability to paint vivid portrayals and infuse his argumentative and satiric works with humor. Frank Abe, for example, contends that Chin has succeeded in ”developing a stream-of-consciousness language crammed with goofy wordplay, unexpected imagery, and exhilarating, liberating hyperbole,” all elements that make his work worth reading. Other scholars, however, criticize Chin’s use of surreal dream sequences, flashbacks, and other forms of experimentation, complaining that such aspects, along with overall plots that detract from narrative effectiveness, result in works that are vague and difficult to comprehend.
Reviewers have responded to Chin’s fiction with mixed reactions to his unconventional, complex, and often satiric prose style, as well as his self-indulgent, combative themes. Donald Duk is no exception. While many find the humor in the novel to be unrelenting, some academics have difficulty locating any humor in Chin’s work. Elaine H. Kim asserts, ”One is never quite sure whether or not to laugh at Chin’s ‘comic manifestations of Asian-American manhood.”’ In addition, Kim is bothered by the jarring metaphors, devastating stereo types, and feelings of distress within the author’s work. Even critics who praise Chin’s biting humor and his skill as a storyteller question his angry, sometimes hateful perspectives. Remarks scholar Douglas Sun, ”Chin’s rhetoric is often sharp and funny, but he also rides the high horse of racial bitterness for more than it’s worth.”
The Chickencoop Chinaman
Although he has removed himself from active participation in the theater, Chin remains recognized as an important voice in Asian-American drama. As a result of his withdrawal, some reviewers are less forgiving of the bitterness characteristic of his dramas. Critic Anthony Graham-White, for instance, comments on the fury and alienation in Chin’s work for the stage, The Chickencoop Chinaman in particular: ”We are meant to recognize the truth of the central character’s . . . attacks upon society, while in the course of the play he himself is presented in such a way as to lose our sympathy.” Other commentators interpret Chin’s ambivalence toward the theater as a reflection of his own internal conflicts and believe that the opposing character viewpoints in The Chickencoop Chinaman represent Chin’s own Chinese and American identities in conflict.
- Chin, Frank. Donald Duk. Minneapolis, Minn.: Coffee House Press, 1991.
- Gish, Robert. ”Reperceiving Ethnicity in Western American Literature,” in Updating the Literary West edited by Thomas J. Lyon. Fort Worth, Tex.: Texas Christian University Press, 1997, pp. 35-43.
- Goshert, John. Frank Chin. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Western Writers Series, 2002.
- Graham-White, Anthony. ”Frank Chin,” in Contemporary Dramatists edited by Kate Berney. Detroit, Mich.: St. James Press, 1993.
- Hagedorn, Jessica, ed. Charlie Chan Is Dead. New York: Penguin, 1993.
- Lee, Rachel. The Americas of Asian- American Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.
- Li, David Leiwei. Imagining the Nation: Asian-American Literature and Cultural Consent. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.
- Abe, Frank. ”Frank Chin: His Own Voice.” Bloomsbury Review (September 1991): vol. II, no. 6, pp. 30.
- Kim, Elaine H. ”Frank Chin: The Chinatown Cowboy and His Backtabs.” Midwest Quarterly (Autumn 1978): vol. XX, no. 1, pp. 78-91.
- Sun, Douglas. ”Memories of a Chinese-American Boyhood.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (January 1,1989): 6.
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