by Frank Abe
The Bloomsbury Review
Copyright 1991 by Owaissa Communications Co. All rights reserved.
“Life is war. All individuals are born soldiers. All behavior is tactics and strategy. All relationships are martial.” Frank Chin smiles more pleasantly than demonically as he calmly ticks off the elements of the heroic tradition in Chinese literature that sustain him and his writing. “The war that every Chinese fights is a war of maintaining and perfecting personal integrity.”
In the heroic tradition good people are made outlaws by a corrupt, mercenary state. That may perfectly describe Chin’s current place in the field of Asian American literature — ironic, since it’s a field Chin helped define. For him life has always been a war to reclaim a history he says was nearly destroyed by Christian missionaries and is now being faked by writers continuing to work in that tradition. His voice has been shaped by the battles he’s fought, and like the storyteller he is, each battle becomes part of his lore.
Chin incorporates real Chinese folk tales in his novel, Donald Duk (Coffee House Press), in which he manages to portray a character who hates being Chinese without himself putting down or corrupting Chinese history and culture. Twelve year old Donald Duk is a classic case of Asian American self-contempt; he hates his comic-sounding name and everything Chinese. “But I use the fairy tales, I use Chinese American history, and those aspects of Chinese American history that seem to have been ignored by Asian American studies: the history of the railroad, the mines, San Francisco, the tongs. My main concern was to write a novel that uses all of this stuff that is accessible, to write a novel that deals with white racism and Chinese American history and the real Chinese fairy tales and the heroic tradition, and to demonstrate that a Chinese American could do all of this without sending whites up the wall or alienating anybody, that people would read it as a good book,” Chin said while in Seattle in February to read from Donald Duk. In the book Donald’s father builds 108 model airplanes representing the 108 outlaws of the marsh in a classic of the heroic tradition, The Water Margin. Chin has collaborated in republishing individual chapters from that work, starting with Rescue at Wild Boar Forest (Water Margin Press, 1988) and Lin Chong’s Revenge (1989).
“It is in the fairy tales that we learn what it is to be an individual, what our relationship is to our parents, what our relationship is to the state. In the Br’er Rabbit stories of the Gullah people of the Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands there are no rules. Br’er Rabbit gets caught in a life and death situation. He cannot appeal to a higher authority. He either gets out of the briar patch by using his wits, by strategic tactical thinking, or he dies. We as Asian American writers, writing about Asian American history or Asian characters or our parents or grandparents, I think we need to know the fairy tales to see for ourselves, to understand in the terms that our ancestors understood, the ideas of Chinese individuality, the ideas of Chinese manhood and womanhood, the basic ideas of Confuciandom, as expressed in the stories that were created to codify that body of thought, that vision of the world that life is war.” The Confucius of stereotype is a quasi-religious prophet cracking fortune-cookie philosophy; the real Confucius was “a historian, a strategist, a warrior.”
Feminist academics quoted in the Los Angeles Times have derided the revival of the heroic tradition as a continuation of an “old boys’ club” that glorifies male aggression. To that Chin points to the Chinese marriage fairy tale. “Love is two warriors standing back to back fighting off the universe,” he says, leaning into his story. “The Jade Dragon patrolled starry waters of the River of the Milky Way in ancient space, to the west. To the east is Magic Mountain, where the Golden Phoenix patrols. They find a giant crystal pushing its way out of the ground of beautiful Fairy Island. They decide to carve and polish it into a perfect sphere: a Bright Pearl. They bloody their beaks and claws working on the crystal, hundreds of years of carving and polishing. They turn human, fall in love, and live on Fairy Island in the glow of their pearl. Then it’s stolen by the Queen Mother of the Western Paradise who hides it away. But she can’t resist showing off the pearl at a gathering of the gods come to celebrate her birthday, and the light from the pearl reaches the lovers. They crash the party and in the struggle the gleaming gem rolls off the edge of heaven. Dragon says he cannot live without his pearl and dives after it. Phoenix says she cannot live without her pearl and dives after it. Together they cushion its fall toward Earth, and they all crash into China. The pearl becomes West Lake, the dragon becomes Dragon Mountain to the west and the phoenix becomes Phoenix Mountain to the east. They have fought the universe for their pearl. Equal. There is no male dominance, no female inferiority.”
Frank Chin could be a character in such a myth, fighting to protect the pearl. The pearl is the integrity of Asian American history and the Asian folk and fairy tales. But to his Jade Dragon there has been no Golden Phoenix.
Chin did not come naturally to the fairy tales, as he spent the first 6 years of his life away from Chinatown so his father could conceal his birth from a disapproving grandmother. “My grandmother made a deal with my father, that she would set him up in a butcher shop if he would leave her 15-year old daughter alone. She kept her word. I was the living proof he didn’t keep his.” He was raised by a retired white couple in a tarpaper shanty on an abandoned gold mining site in the Motherlode country of California, taking on Wild West affectations and tastes that led a Chinatown labor organizer to brand Chin forever as “the Chinatown Cowboy.” Chin prides himself on being the first Chinese American brakeman on the Southern Pacific Railroad, the first self-described Chinaman to ride the engines on the line on which his grandfather had been a steward.
Chin’s first use of the term “Chinaman” in the early 70’s caused a stir in polite society. Chin reclaims the term as applied to those who built the American Chinatowns, his kind of people. He traces the term “Chinese American” to its origins among the christianized Chinese who sought to distinguish themselves from the tongs, from the heathen Chinamen.
Though he always had his way with words Chin first pursued the visual arts, but art classes proved unsatisfying so he drifted into writing, attending the Iowa Writers Workshop. At Cal Berkeley, he edited the campus humor magazine, the Pelican. “It was fun, writing stupid, writing funny. Once I started writing, I set out to write fast, to write a lot, to make writing as natural as speech. The first thing that begins to happen when you begin taking yourself seriously as a writer is this imaginary writer’s block that people talk about, but I never really suffered from. But there’s this barrier between the spoken word and the written word, once you set something down in writing it’s supposed to be set in stone or you take on this funny attitude that writing is unnatural. I set about writing anything and everything I could, so I’d write a lot and I’d throw away a lot, just as you do in speech. You talk a lot of trash, you throw it away. You write a lot of trash, you throw it away. It doesn’t matter. You can always write again just as you can always talk again.”
True to his word, Chin has burned several novels and false starts. “Oh yeah. They were no good,” he laughs. But he eventually succeeded in developing a stream-of-consciousness language crammed with goofy wordplay, unexpected imagery, and exhilarating, liberating hyperbole. Friends would come to his home in San Francisco in the mid-70’s to read from bound copies of his infamously funny and profane letters to friends and foes, and hear him play flamenco guitar, “the music of a pariah people, like the Chinese before Charlie Chan, like the Japanese Americans in World War II.” Those friends find it difficult to call Donald Duk Chin’s first novel, having read at least three of his unpublished works, one of which, A Chinese Lady Dies, won the Joseph Henry Jackson award. Another novel also toyed in the title with Hollywood images: Charlie Chan on Maui was rejected by Harper and Row in the mid-70’s when the owners of the Chan copyright threatened to sue.
But before Chin could be free to be trivial, if he so chose, he realized he had to create a foundation upon which his work could stand and be understood on its own terms. At the time Chin says the only known Chinese American writing came in the form of autobiographies or cookbooks. He was the first in print to strip away the stereotypes to expose their roots in literature and pop culture, the first to identify Charlie Chan as a degrading sissy stereotype and to interview the surviving actors who played the movie Chan, the first to penetrate the illogic behind the myth of the dual personality (“I’m Chinese because I like chow mein and American because I like spaghetti”), and the first to identify racist love as the equally malignant flip side of racist hate. He and the co-editors of the 1974 literary declaration of independence, AIIIEEEEE!, defined Asian America to be neither something foreign from Asia nor white American, but its own distinct sensibility. Of the title: “That was in the late 60’s, when rhetoric counted for a lot. We didn’t want it to sound like medicine.” The long-awaited follow-up, The Big AIIIEEEEE! (Meridian/New American Library) has just been published. [Ed. note: A 45th anniversary edition of the original AIIIEEEEE! was published in 2020 by the University of Washington Press, with a new foreword by Tara Fickle.]
“We knew we were ignorant. So while Jeff Chan, Lawson Inada, Shawn Wong and myself are all very talented people, we realized that even pooling our ignorance, all we’d have would be a pool of ignorance. Our style, our wit, our flair with language was no substitute for knowledge. We were confronted with the question: why is it that after a hundred years of being here there’s only a handful of writers? We just did not accept the view that our people were too busy making a living to get involved in art or writing. This made no sense at all. In every culture, in every civilization, trying times, times of confusion, of question, of adventure, produces art rather than suppresses it. So before we committed ourselves to saying our people were just too lazy or too dumb or too busy to produce art, especially writing, we had to check it out. We just went into every used bookstore we could, looked under the C’s, the L’s and the W’s, and any Chinese name, any Asian name, we bought the book, took it home and read it.” The band of literary outlaws republished pioneer writers John Okada and Louis Chu and reintroduced them to the world of American letters.
Their research extended to the collection of oral histories from Asian actors in Hollywood and from Chinese and Japanese American communities on the West Coast and New York, to make up for the lack of Asian American history from an Asian American point of view. They organized the first-ever Asian American writers conferences in Oakland and Seattle, to bring together people “developing new language out of old words.”
For 15 years Chin was best known as the first Asian American to have his plays, The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon (University of Washington Press, 1981), produced on the New York stage. Dragon was televised on PBS. Chin wrote Chickencoop for money to escape from the island of Maui, where he’d planned to make a go of it amongst Hawaii’s Asian majority population: “I discovered Hawaii was the classic colony, run by retired master sergeants and chief petty officers.” He entered a playwriting contest sponsored by a showcase theater for Asian American actors in Hollywood. “East/West Players gave me the prize, but the other people in the theater, other than Mako (the theater’s artistic director), were afraid of the play. They wouldn’t do it. They said it was too difficult and they were scared of it — just in those words. It was the first work really to deal with Asian American self-contempt.”
Lacking trained actors willing or able to perform in new work, Chin founded the Asian American Theater Workshop in San Francisco, with facilities and scholarships from the American Conservatory Theater. Chin envisioned it as the West Coast equivalent of Ireland’s Abbey Theater, a cauldron in which he would work with other writers to forge a new literary sensibility based not on the stereotype but on Asian American integrity. Chin now will have nothing do with Asian American theater or actors. “The fame junkies won out,” he says simply. “I became too controversial. I took too long to get work up. I just did not satisfy the fame junkies’ need for fame and self- gratification. It’s a meat market for cuts of yellow. They don’t want to be yellow. They want whites to buy them and take them home.” He feels the nation’s Asian American theater groups have gone on to produce a body of irrelevant work.
Chin’s imagination was next captured by the campaign to win redress for Japanese Americans incarcerated in American concentration camps in World War II. “I thought Japanese America had recovered its conscience and was at last making a stand for Japanese American integrity and reclaiming its history. I thought it was bold.” As a freelance journalist Chin knew it was a good story. What he discovered was that the Japanese American Citizens League, having publicly raised the issue, didn’t know how to answer its critics or mount an effective media campaign. “I said, oh man, this is not a professional outfit.”
California Senator S.I. Hayakawa had quickly branded the idea of redress as “ridiculous,” and claimed Japanese Americans were interned for their own safety. Consistent with his view of life as war, Chin appeared on the doorsteps of Japanese American friends and gravely announced, “You lose redress, you lose Japanese American history. You lose history, you can kiss Japanese American art goodbye.” Japanese Americans in Seattle recruited him to plan and organize a mass demonstration dramatizing the deeply-felt but timid support for redress among a people who feared white backlash. Where previous camp pilgrimages had drawn at most a few hundred, Chin organized car caravans to hometown detention centers outside Seattle and Portland that drew out thousands of people who did not want to see their history distorted or forgotten.
Japanese Americans had never seen anything like it, and thousands more were emboldened to pitch in 5 dollars each to take out a paid ad Chin ghost-wrote for the Washington Post publicly denouncing Hayakawa, a Japanese Canadian who had never himself spent a day in camp, and correcting his history. The ad was another success. But conservative Japanese American farmers in Idaho who themselves were never interned blocked Chin’s proposal to build a mock guard tower at the site of the former camp at Minidoka, Idaho — a prop around which Chin envisioned people gathering solemnly around and burning to the ground, while participants read poems and tossed their government name tags into a bonfire of symbolic purification.
Chin’s research, however, led to the recovery of another story that had been lost or falsified: the existence of an organized resistance movement at the camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where 63 men refused military service until their rights were first restored and their parents released from camp. “We have all read this stuff good and bad by Japanese Americans who say ‘we went into camp without protest and resistance because we were too Japanese.’ Some make poetry out of it. Now they don’t have to do that.” Chin is working on a book that explores “what it means now almost fifty years later to discover that contrary to the stereotype, Japanese Americans did protest and resist the camps and that these people are still alive today. We have the facts, we have the living proof. But I see no movement by Japanese American writers to say, ‘the nightmare is over.'”
Chin’s new work on Japanese America and his tracing of the origins of the Christian Chinese stereotype appear in his introductory call-to-arms in The Big AIIIEEEEE!, “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake” — the real being the verifiable facts of history, and the fairy tales of what he calls the universal Asian childhood.
What’s fake, he says, is the Christian stereotype of Asia as being morally opposite to the West, and thereby morally inferior: “The stereotype comes not from a grain of truth but from the Christian necessity to preserve the one god, the one true religion, to defend the primacy of Christendom as the only true civilization. The stereotype is that we came over as sojourners, with no intention of settling; therefore our legitimacy as an American people is at question, if our intentions were ignoble to begin with. That Chinese culture is passive in comparison to the West, submissive in comparison to the West, physically cowardly in comparison to the West. That it consists of smart, sometimes brilliant yellow men, who are unoriginal, unassertive, not aggressive, and sexually despicable; and accessible, pathological white racist yellow women who stand on the corner and say in variously sophisticated ways, “hey sailor.” That Chinese and Japanese culture are so misogynistic they don’t deserve to survive. That Asian culture is anti-individualistic, mystic, passive, collective. And that the only good Chinese are Christian.”
“Every Chinese American book ever published in the United States of America by a major publisher has been a Christian autobiography or autobiographical novel,” Chin declares in The Big AIIIEEEEE! The autobiography, Chin maintains, does not exist in Chinese literature. “The autobiography is a literary descendant of the confession. The confession is a Christian religious form. The first autobiography is credited to Saint Augustine, whose book was titled the Confessions. Confession is an act of submission, you cannot confess without admitting guilt to something.” The original sin for Chinese Americans seeking assimilation is their Chinese-ness. The paradigm of the Christian confession, he says, is, “I was fallen; now I am saved.” The paradigm of the Chinese American autobiography: “I was Chinese, I wish I were white American, I am X-Y-Z closer to being American now because Americans accept me, because I have gone through some conversion or transformation and am leaving the Chinese behind me. The first Chinese autobiography, ever, is by Yung Wing in 1909. Christian.” In a 1975 letter to Chin, Maxine Hong Kingston admitted she was pressured by her publisher to make Woman Warrior a memoir, not a novel, in order to make it more salable.
Chin is vehement on the subject of Christianity. “We’re talking about the enemy that destroyed my culture, my civilization, my history. The history of Chinese America, the history of Chinatown, is not written in Chinese names. It is written in the names of the Chinese missionaries who wrote the Chinese out of history. These people might have had good intentions, but they destroyed us in the name of their god. Not in the name of our good, but in the name of their god. And to a large degree they’ve succeeded.”
Chin places the work of Kingston, Amy Tan, and David Henry Hwang squarely in that tradition. Of Kingston’s Woman Warrior: “She says the written Chinese character for ‘woman’ and ‘slave’ is the same word. Well, she’s nuts.” Of Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife: “Tan does not see the kitchen god’s story is a love story. She has to make him a lucky man and turn him into his wife’s oppressor. She has to twist the story to make her point.” Of Hwang’s play, F.O.B.: “Kwan Kung, the god of writers and fighters, gets down on his hands and knees and begs for white acceptance. Kwan Kung would never do that. Hwang repeats Kingston’s lie about Chinese brutally tattooing messages on the backs of women. Fake work breeds fake work.” Such differences are more than the triflings of a purist; they represent the fundamental moral premises of those works.
“We especially need to know the fairy tales now because the Christians are waging war on just that body of literature. In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan is attacking all Chinese fairy tale as teaching that ‘the worth of a woman is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch.’ No one bothers to go check the body of Chinese fairy tale to see if there is such a fairy tale or if the fairy tales do teach that, and it bothers me greatly that there are Chinese Americans in this country, in my town, in my face, who tell me it doesn’t matter. These same Chinese Americans will stand up for the integrity of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, will get very upset if I write Little Red Riding Hood as a bisexual slut doing things with animals. They will protect white literature, but they don’t care if Kingston violates the Ballad of Mulan. They don’t care if Amy Tan mucks over the kitchen god. They don’t care if Gus Lee characterizes all of Chinese culture according to the same old stereotypes. What matters to them is the acceptance of these writers, not the content and effect of their work. That is the behavior of people who are no longer a people, of a people without an identity, without a history, that are a people in name only. There is no substance to the Asian America they talk about. They have no literature, no text, nothing they can stand for.” It enrages him to learn that Kingston’s revisionist work is being used in some schools to teach Chinese American history and culture, while “the fairy tales she falsifies” are not.
Chin frequently grows weary of this kind of explication, which he regards as having to explain the ABC’s over and over again, yet he’s generously given up hundreds of hours to writers and students who consult him on the phone. His setting of standards by which to measure the integrity of Asian American writing has predictably earned its share of resentment among others, “that I’m dictating to them, that I’m censoring them. The Big AIIIEEEEE! is probably the most rumored-about book in Asian America. I’m sure Asian American Studies is ready to pounce on it and tear it to pieces, and I daresay they will not take it on its own terms. They will not consider the scholarship, they will not consider the texts. They will approach it saying that perspective counts more than fact or text. And that is just intellectually not ethical.”
Some journalists have chosen to reduce Chin’s aesthetics to a matter of rivalry, or worse, jealousy. Chin is certainly uncompromising. But jealous? He’s known for years his work is no picnic. “The only thing that would make me jealous is if I didn’t have a book out. I have books out now, so I’m happy. I’m successful in that sense. My work is available, not as available and accessible as others, but you know, it’s there, it’s there.
“And I daresay my presence is felt. My name might not be mentioned, but I don’t think there is an Asian American writer alive now or for the next fifty years who will not feel me breathing down their neck. Maybe even drooling. All because I point to the real. I’m not pointing at my own work. My work points to the real.”
Donald Duk is one of four novels by Chinese Americans published this year. Chin notes the others were born of agents looking for the next Amy Tan, and publishers willing to pay big money advances for books by Tan, Gus Lee, and Gish Jen — in Lee’s case before a word had been written. “At least for Asian Americans this is the way books are being written. Agents are making the deals. And what the agents see as being commercial is the autobiography and the Christian stereotype. I think what is interesting is the consistency of the vision, the consistency of the portrayal, the consistency of the stereotype (in those books). And that consistency was detected by the agents in these writers.
Donald Duk saw print only after he’d sent a collection of his short stories to the agent handling The Big AIIIEEEEE! “I got a nasty letter back from her saying, ‘I only handle commercial writers‘ (“commercial” underlined three times, written in big letters) and I am not commercial, and she says this several times on both sides of the paper and sends my trash back to me. Some rabid dog came by my house dragging a package that was tied to its tail with cans.” Another agent in the same office liked his manuscript and brought it with her when she got a job as an editor at Minnesota’s Coffee House Press. The success of that collection, The Chinaman, Pacific and Frisco R.R. Co. (Coffee House Press, 1988), led to Donald Duk. (Chin never noticed there was a comma missing from the published title of the short story collection. It’s too late to change now but he says it should have read like a series of 3 railroad destinations.)
As an antidote to what he calls the “crybaby victims of the Christian stereotype,” Chin has strategically appropriated the autobiographical form to ghost-write the life story of Ruby Chow, who he says Chinese regard as the most powerful Chinese American woman in the world. She’s known for her rise to control the male-only tongs in Seattle’s Chinatown, and for making Seattle the world stronghold of Cantonese opera following the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Though it’s an autobiographical “as told to” account, Chin says there’s nothing confessional about it, no appeal for white acceptance. “If anything I have to tone down her bragging. It’s the story of an accomplished person, it’s conscious self-mythmaking, all action, like a chapter in the heroic tradition. There’s nothing artsy about it.” Chin also has several novels-in-progress.
Early in his career Chin might have fancied himself as the Lone Ranger, who he imagined in Chickencoop Chinaman as wearing a mask to hide his Chinaman eyes, riding for Chinaman vengeance in the Old West. Now he’s more likely to identify with Lin Chong, one of the 108 outlaws of the marsh, an honest man outlawed by jealous officials, as he continues on the adventure of discovery and recovery he began twenty years ago.
“I’m no messiah. I don’t present myself as a role model. I don’t recommend to anybody that they live like me. Most of the time I wish I weren’t living like me! I want readers, not a cult. I don’t like the idea of writers as stars, writers as celebrities. I think that is partly why I work so hard at being obnoxious. I cultivate my rotten personality to distinguish it from the writing. I am difficult to like as a person. I do not encourage friendships, and this gives me the anonymity, the freedom of the writer to move about as I please. I have to be able to ride into town and ride out without leaving a mark; people will only later discover I’ve stolen all the silverware.”