Three scenes in the Curtis Choy documentary What’s wrong with Frank Chin? it will surely give anyone a break. The first of these occurs as the camera slowly scrolls through Chin’s file boxes with the data it has collected on all the Chinese-American actors who ever played a role in a Hollywood movie. In the second, authentic footage from Chin’s 1970s wedding to writer and illustrator Kathleen Chang shows the couple, as well as poet Lawson Inada (acting as a preacher, equipped with a “$ 1 license to marry people “), wearing elaborate garments, traditional masks made by Chin himself, 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 work is an American Book Award-winning collection of stories called The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco RR Co). In the third, Chin criticizes his opposition at a meeting on the issue of rectification for Japanese Americans (Chin was largely responsible for the United States government granting the rectification, and for the day many Americans of Japanese origin now celebrated as Remembrance Day). Whether one agrees with Chin or not, and there seem to be many Japanese-Americans who do not, it is hard not to be moved by the urgency of his conviction. The guy is absolutely on fire as he makes his case. And when he says he went back and investigated a speech made 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. Obviously, this is the same kind of passion that he shows when speaking to audiences with his relentless punch from 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 “fake” young man: he wants to turn his back on his Chinese heritage and fully assimilate. For Chin, assimilation, or what he believes American society considers assimilation, amounts to a crime. Donald duk reiterates the themes expressed in the three vivid scenes in the film that we noted above, and also marks a shift in Chin’s tone from that of controversy and even hostility that was found in the storybook and in the plays that first they won it. notoriety in the literary and cultural scene. This novel is more playful, funnier, more an invitation to the reader to ponder the points and reflect as opposed to earlier works that hit the reader over the head with their own ignorance, prejudice, and stupidity.
It’s Chinatown in San Francisco, the present (1990 or so), and it’s the beginning of the Chinese New Year celebration. Donald is approaching his twelfth birthday, an important occasion because there are twelve years in the Asian lunar zodiac; thus it is completing its first life cycle. But Donald thinks that “everything Chinese in his life seems horrible.” He describes himself as an American to anyone who asks him, refusing to acknowledge the obvious fact that he is of Chinese origin. The way he finally begins to recover is through the dreams he has throughout the novel – he dreams that he is a railroad worker. When the Golden Spike ceremony is planned, when it is known that not only the governor of California but also photographers from around the world will be in attendance, a rail chief remarks in disgust:
“I promise you, Mr. Durant, there will be no pagan in sight at tomorrow’s ceremonies … The Last Peak will be sent 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 you who built the railroad. White men. White dreams. White brains and white muscles. “
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 Chinese who built the railway. I dream that I’m laying tracks with them when I sleep, and no one knows what we did. No one, just me. And I don’t want to be the only one who knows, and it makes me angry to be the only one who knows. And everything I dream of makes me mad at white people and I hate them. They lie about us all the time. “
“No, don’t hate all white people. Just liars,” Dad says.
In the film, Chin speaks very eloquently of the terrible way the whites made sure that no Chinese appeared in any of the railroad photographs. And the accounts of contemporary historians certainly support Chin, particularly HW Brands in The Age of Gold: 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 phrasebooks from 1867. He points out that the phrases “How are you?” and “Thank you” are not in any of them.
Essentially, the novel has only this theme, overcoming 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 Road – It is an undeniable fact that Chin himself is American to the core, so steeped in American culture, folklore, and more particularly American movies, that one has to wonder if he is not one of the most brilliant examples of certain multiculturalism (I would despise the term) that we have.
So if the book has a somewhat limited theme, what can readers take away to learn and enjoy? In a word, fun! Donald’s journey from being a self-hater accepting negative white attitudes about Chinese-Americans to a proud Chinese-American has crossed him with quite a few interesting characters along the way, including his family. His father, King Duk, owns one of the best restaurants in Chinatown. His namesake, Uncle Donald, is a visiting Cantonese opera star. Mom is supportive and often tries to control Donald’s twin sisters Venus and Penelope, who are adorable literary creations, and often speak as if they are commentators rather than participants. (Chin’s sense of play and fun with this is palpable.) Crawdad Man and his son, Crawdad Jr., a Vietnam veteran named Victor Lee, a pair of older twins who roam the streets of Chinatown at night, the Frog Twins, and a dance teacher who bills himself as the Chinese Fred Astaire round out the cast. Each exists within the framework of fiction to reinforce the main lesson to Donald in a situation that is often humorous. I think this is the sign of a really developed intelligence: using humor to make a very serious point. And because Chin insists on baffling the non-Chinese reader at first by including customs and traditions of the culture in the story without explaining them, he engages the reader in the experience of how the white power structure has humiliated and degraded his people since the days of the twentieth century. railways. This sort of thing is always a fine line – I’m not sure non-Chinese, non-Indian, non-African-American can always feel empathy. Sympathizing, yes, but empathy is difficult, kind of like a man trying to understand what it’s like to be pregnant. Chin gives a lot of effort.
In closing, I would like to comment briefly on what I perceive as intensity and integrity of purpose on Chin’s part. Sometimes I read that Chin’s attacks on other writers really are rooted in malice or jealousy. This statement is wrong. Chin’s books certainly don’t sell in the same quantity as Tan’s or Kingston’s; however, we don’t even need to argue the point intellectually to refute it. All we need to know is that one of Hollywood’s top directors, Wayne Wang, approached Chin to film his play. The year of the dragon and Chin rejected the idea, claiming he didn’t want Hollywood to mess with his story. This rejection of potentially millions of dollars in royalties is not the action of someone who does not believe in himself: Chin practices what he preaches. Then its integrity is intact. So is its intensity. At first I mentioned Chin’s archive collections on Asian American actors. The reason this came up is that, incredibly, no Asian-American actor has ever played Charlie Chan in movies. Chin’s long novel Gunga Din Road is about this ridiculous and gruesome state of affairs, making the most of his research on the actors. This research was truly a massive academic project, as reading the novel amply demonstrates. No one would label this as “fake”. Again, Chin’s intensity is also intact. Whatever Chin’s merits or demerits may be, love him or hate him, he is the rarest type of imaginative author of literature, someone who truly leaves his impact on the times.