Three scenes in Curtis Choy’s documentary film What’s Wrong With Frank Chin? surely will give anyone pause. The first of these occurs when the camera slowly pans over Chin’s boxes of files on data he’s collected about every Chinese-American actor who’s ever played a role in a Hollywood film. In the second, authentic footage of Chin’s 1970s wedding to the writer and illustrator Kathleen Chang shows the couple, as well as the poet Lawson Inada (acting as the preacher, equipped with a “$1 license to marry people”), wearing elaborate, traditional masks that Chin himself made, and shows Chin reading an account of Chinese railroad workers on the Union-Pacific as part of the ceremony. (This is one of Chin’s consistent themes – perhaps the best of all his works is an American Book Award winning collection of stories called The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco RR Co). In the third, Chin rails at his opposition in a meeting on the question of redress for Japanese Americans (Chin was largely responsible for the US government granting the redress, and for the day many Japanese-Americans now celebrate as Remembrance Day). Whether one agrees with Chin or not – and there appear to be many Japanese-Americans who don’t – it’s hard not to be moved by the urgency of his conviction. The guy is absolutely on fire as he makes his arguments. And when he says he went back and researched a speech given by an army colonel in 1943 (this was all before the internet!) we understand that this is a man who is absolutely driven in a way that very few of us are. This is evidently the same kind of passion he shows when he speaks to audiences with his relentless pounding of writers like Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston – what he calls “the fake”. In his novel Donald Duk the protagonist, twelve year old Donald, is an example of a young “fake” – he wants to turn his back on his Chinese heritage and assimilate totally. For Chin, assimilation, or what he believes American society regards as assimilation, is tantamount to a crime. Donald Duk reiterates the themes expressed in the three vivid scenes from the film that we noted above, and it also marks a shift in Chin’s tone from the one of polemics and even hostility that was found in the book of stories and in the plays which first gained him notoriety on the literary and cultural scene. This novel is more playful, more kidding, more of an invitation to the reader to consider the points and ponder as opposed to the early works which bludgeon the reader over the head with his or her own ignorance, prejudice, and stupidity.
It’s Chinatown in San Francisco, the present (1990 or so), and it’s the start of the celebration of Chinese New Year. Donald is approaching his twelfth birthday, an occasion of moment because there are twelve years in the Asian lunar zodiac; he is thus completing his first cycle of life. But Donald has the thought that “Everything Chinese in his life seems to be awful.” He describes himself as American to anyone who asks, refusing to acknowledge the obvious fact that he is of Chinese background. The way he eventually begins to come around is via the dreams he has throughout the novel – he dreams he’s a worker on the railroad. When the Golden Spike ceremony is planned, when it becomes known that not only the governor of California but photographers from all over the world will be present, one railroad boss repugnantly comments:
“I promise you, Mr. Durant, there will not be a heathen in sight at tomorrow’s ceremonies… The Last Spike will be hammered home, the telegram sent, our photograph made to preserve a great moment in our nation’s history, without the Chinese. Admire and respect them as I do.I will show them who built the railroad. White men. White dreams. Whitebrains and white brawn.”
As a result of witnessing these events in his dreams Donald begins to change, to be interested in embracing his heritage and his race. Towards the end of the book he has this conversation with his father:
“The Chinese. The Chinamans who built the railroad. I dream I’m laying track with them when I sleep, and nobody knows what we did. Nobody, just me. And I don’t want to be the only one who knows,and it makes me mad to be the only one who knows, and everything I dream makes me mad at white people and hate them. They lie about us all the time.”
“No, don’t hate all the white people. Just the liars,” Dad says.
In the movie Chin speaks very eloquently of the dreadful way the whites made certain that no Chinese appeared in any of the railroad photographs. And contemporary historians’ accounts certainly back Chin up, particularly H.W. Brands in The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream and Stephen E. Ambrose in Nothing Like It In The World: The Men Who Built The Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869. Ambrose actually studied Chinese-English phrase books from 1867. He notes that the phrases “How are you?” and “Thank you” are not in any of them.
Essentially the novel only has this one theme, overcoming the denial of one’s roots and racial identity in favor of being ‘American’, but as in all of Chin’s writing – this is especially true of the long novel Gunga Din Highway – it’s an undeniable fact that Chin himself is American to the core, so steeped in American culture, folklore and, most particularly, the movies, that one has to wonder if he is not one of the most shining examples of true multiculturalism (he would despise the term) that we have.
So – if the book is somewhat limited thematically, what can readers extract from it to learn and enjoy? In a word, fun! Donald’s journey from being a self-hater who accepts negative white attitudes about Chinese-Americans to a proud Chinese-American has him cross paths with quite a few interesting characters along the way, not the least of which is his family. His father, King Duk, owns one of the best restaurants in Chinatown. His namesake Uncle Donald is a Cantonese opera star who is in for a visit. Mom is supportive and often trying to keep a handle on Donald’s twin sisters, Venus and Penelope, who are cute literary creations, often speaking as if they are commentators instead of participants. (The sense of play and fun Chin has with this is palpable.) Crawdad Man and his son, Crawdad Jr., a Vietnam vet named Victor Lee, a pair of old twins who haunt the streets of Chinatown at night, the Frog Twins, and a dancing teacher who bills himself as the Chinese Fred Astaire round out the cast. Each exists within the structure of the fiction to reinforce the main lesson to Donald in a situation that is usually humorous. I think this is the sign of a really developed intelligence – using humor to make a deadly serious point. And because Chin insists on bewildering the non-Chinese reader at first by including customs and traditions of the culture in the story without explaining them, he involves the reader in experiencing how the white power structure has humiliated and degraded his people since the days of the railroads. This kind of thing is always a fine line – I’m not sure that the non-Chinese, the non-Indian, the non-African American, can always empathize. Sympathize, yes, but empathy is hard, sort of like a male trying to understand what it’s like to be pregnant. Chin gives it a great effort.
In closing I should like to comment briefly on what I perceive to be both intensity and integrity of purpose on Chin’s part. I sometimes read that Chin’s attacks upon some other writers really have their roots in malice, or jealousy. This claim is mistaken. Certainly Chin’s books don’t sell in the numbers that Tan’s or Kingston’s do; however, we need not even argue the point intellectually to rebut it. All we need to know is that a top Hollywood director, Wayne Wang, has approached Chin about filming his play The Year of the Dragon, and Chin rejected the idea on the grounds that he didn’t want Hollywood messing with his story. This rejection of potentially millions of dollars in royalties is not the action of someone who lacks belief in themselves – Chin practices what he preaches. So his integrity is intact. So is his intensity. At the outset I mentioned Chin’s collections of files on Asian American actors. The reason that this came into being is that, incredibly, no Asian-American actor has ever played Charlie Chan in the movies. Chin’s long novel Gunga Din Highway is about this ridiculous, apalling state of affairs and, in it, his research about the actors is put to full use. This research was truly a massive scholarly project, as a reading of the novel amply demonstrates. Nobody would ever label this “fake” – again, Chin’s intensity is also intact. Whatever Chin’s merits or demerits may be, love him or hate him, he’s the rarest kind of author of imaginative literature, someone who truly leaves his impact upon the times.