Authors: Frank Chin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American dramatist and screenwriter

February 25, 1940

Berkeley, California

Biography

Best known for his drama, Frank Chew Chin, Jr., belongs to the vanguard of the Asian American writers who began to publish in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Appearing on the literary scene in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and the African American arts movements, Asian American writers of Chin’s generation differed from most of their predecessors in that they depicted characters, situations, and sentiments that exploded the majority of white stereotypes of Asian Americans. Chin’s generation sought to establish a more realistic, less sentimentalized image of Asian Americans, with their strengths and weaknesses unvarnished, their joys and sorrows revealed, and their humanity unmitigated.

Born in Berkeley, California, Frank Chin grew up in the Chinatowns of Oakland and San Francisco. He attended the University of California at Berkeley, winning several prizes for fiction writing. In 1961, he earned a fellowship to the writers’ workshop at the University of Iowa. After Iowa, Chin worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad; he was the first Chinese American brakeman on the rails laid by his forefathers. He received his B.A. from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1965. Chin left the railroad company to be a writer-producer for KING-TV in Seattle, airing several shows on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), including Sesame Street. Chin left Seattle to teach Asian American studies at San Francisco State University and the University of California at Davis. With a group of scholars, he organized the Combined Asian American Resources Project (CARP), which collected materials now housed in the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley. CARP has since been responsible for the publication of key Asian American texts by the University of Washington Press. In 1972, Chin founded the Asian American Theater Workshop (later renamed the Asian American Theater Company) in San Francisco with the support of the American Conservatory Theater (where he has been a writer-in-residence). He became the workshop’s artistic director in 1976.

Frank Chin

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(Corky Lee)

Chin’s earliest recognition came in the form of awards for his often anthologized short stories, many of which are gathered in The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R.R. Co. Several of Chin’s stories are set in Chinatown, San Francisco, and are dominated by themes of decay, death, and the lack of communication between Chinatown and white society as well as between the different generations of Chinatown dwellers.

Chin has published numerous essays, mostly literary or social commentaries (sometimes verging on diatribes) that seek to clarify Asian American history and dispel the stereotypes of Asian Americans that Chin perceives white society to have created. These stereotypes, Chin maintains, have been fueled by love and hate. The odious are the stereotypes of the “yellow peril” or the sinister (but ultimately impotent) evil leaders, such as Fu Manchu; such stereotypes lie behind the United States’ anti-Asian exclusionary immigration laws and anti-Japanese internment camps. Equally insidious are the stereotypes of love from which white society has created the myth of Asian Americans as a model minority, a myth used to palliate white guilt vis-à-vis African Americans and whose effect pits Asian Americans against other ethnic minorities. According to Chin, the white-controlled publishing establishment has helped to perpetuate such myths by printing works that depict Asian Americans in stereotyped ways. Chin’s discursive rhetoric is always inventive and vigorous but may strike some ears as shrill. While his critique of stereotypes is generally justified, some readers object to his confining definition of “Asian Americans” as only those Asians born in the United States.

Chin’s plays The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon illustrate well his ideas about ethnic minorities. Chin was the first Chinese American playwright to have had serious drama produced on the New York stage and on national television. In resisting stereotypes and defining a truer-to-life (if abrasive) identity for Asian Americans, Chin has sometimes been described as the John Osborne, the “angry young man,” of his generation of Chinese Americans. Painful truths told with exuberant verbal pyrotechnics are trademarks of Chin’s theater, and the characteristic gamut of his language ranges from black ghetto dialect to hipster talk to authentic Chinatown Cantonese (not the imaginary Hollywood cant of Charlie Chan).

The Chickencoop Chinaman treats the theme of identity through dispelling stereotypes and demythologizing. It is experimental in technique, with an almost cinematic use of montage, flashbacks, symbolic stage sets, and surrealistic, dreamlike sequences. Each of the play’s two acts has a scene in Limbo (a surreal transitional time-space located between realistic time-spaces), a sequence recollecting a past obsession with a mythic figure (a miracle-working Helen Keller in act 1, the popular culture hero Lone Ranger in act 2), and scenes set in the realistic location of 1960’s Pittsburgh, where the problem of the Chinese American protagonist’s identity is resolved. The protagonist must struggle to locate his identity somewhere between the image of a virile African American boxer-athlete and that of an emasculated, timid chicken of a Chinaman.

The Chickencoop Chinaman perplexed most white reviewers when it was staged. Chin’s second play, The Year of the Dragon, is more conventionally structured and was accorded a national audience via a television production by the PBS Theatre in America. The Year of the Dragon also treats the theme of identity but focuses more sharply on questions of worth: the worth of an individual to loved ones (family) and of a minority ethnic group to its majority society. These questions are fleshed out in the exposition of the psychological conflicts and confrontations in a well-established family of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Again, it is stereotypes—familial and societal—that chiefly obscure individual worth and ethnic identity.

Donald Duk, Chin’s first novel, features an eleven-year-old Chinese boy who feels embarrassed and burdened by his ethnicity; judging his history to be ludicrous, Donald Duk defies Chinese traditions. Fifteen nights of haunted dreams restructure Donald’s views. Chin’s next novel, Gunga Din Highway, looks at the condescending ways Asians have traditionally been portrayed in Hollywood’s cinematic world.

Confessions of a Number One Son: The Great Chinese American Novel, written in the 1970s but not published until 2015, has been seen as a follow-up to The Chickencoop Chinaman. The belatedly released work received few but generally positive reviews.

Chin has received several awards over the course of his career, including the 1992 Lannan Literary Award for Fiction and three American Book Awards from the Before Columbus Foundation (1982, 1989, and 2000).

Chin’s literary career has significantly enriched and defined the field of Asian American literature. His well-crafted short fiction, his abrasive essays, and above all his daring and verbally exuberant drama have brought the richly unique and deeply human complexities of Asian American life to the attention of the American public. Evenhandedly, he has criticized the falsifying myths and stereotypes of self and ethnicity held by both Asians and whites. Chin is an important Asian American pioneer who wrote about a slice of American ethnic life with a distinctively Asian American voice.

Author Works Drama: The Chickencoop Chinaman, pr. 1972 The Year of the Dragon, pr. 1974 Long Fiction: Donald Duk, 1991 Gunga Din Highway, 1994 Confessions of a Number One Son: The Great Chinese American Novel, 2015 (Calvin McMillin, editor) Short Fiction: The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R.R. Co., 1988 Teleplays: S.R.T., Act Two, 1966 The Bel Canto Carols, 1966 A Man and His Music, 1967 Ed Sierer’s New Zealand, 1967 Seafair Preview, 1967 The Year of the Ram, 1967 And Still Champion . . . , 1967 The Report, 1967 Mary, 1969 Rainlight Rainvision, 1969 Chinaman’s Chance, 1971 Nonfiction: Bulletproof Buddhists, and Other Essays, 1974 Edited Texts: Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers, 1974 (with Jeffrey Paul Chan and Lawson Fusao Inada) The Big Aiiieeeee!, 1991 (with Jeffrey Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong) Born in the USA: A Story of Japanese America, 1889-1947, 2002 Disc Brake Squeal: Mechanism, Analysis, Evaluation, and Reduction/Prevention, 2006 (with Chin An Tan and Ronald L. Quaglia) Bibliography Barnes, Clive. “Theater: Culture Study.” The New York Times, June 3, 1974, p. 39. A balanced review of The Year of the Dragon in performance at the American Place Theater in New York City. Barnes notes that the play has “gaps” and “lacks energy at times” but is still “interesting.” He praises the “absolutely fascinating …insights” that Chin provides while dispelling stereotypes about Chinese Americans, investigating Chinese American identity, and exploring generational differences. Chua, C. L. “The Year of the Dragon, by Frank Chin.” In A Resource Guide to Asian American Literature, edited by Sau-ling Wong and Stephen Sumida. New York: Modern Language Association, 2001. Intended for students and teachers, this essay provides an overview of the play, historical contexts, pedagogical suggestions, and intertextual linkages. Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982. In chapter 6 of this essential and pioneering study of Asian American literature, Kim discusses Chin together with other writers of his generation. Kim’s focus is on Chin’s short fiction and The Chickencoop Chinaman. She analyzes the play as a forum for Chin’s ideas on Chinese American culture, identity, and manhood, ideas that are darkened by a pervading sense of futility, decadence, and alienation. Kim, Elaine H. “Frank Chin: The Chinatown Cowboy and His Backtalk.” Midwest Quarterly 20 (Autumn, 1978): 78-91. This essay by the doyenne of Asian American literary critics is an earlier version of the previous bibliographic entry. The essay, however, is more acerbic than the book chapter; it finds that The Chickencoop Chinaman conveys “contempt for the Asian American identity” and portrays the “pathetic futility of the male protagonist.” Kroll, Jack. “Primary Color.” Newsweek, June 19, 1972, 55. Extols The Chickencoop Chinaman as “the most interesting play of the American Place Theater” that year. Compares Chin with John Osborne and Chin’s protagonist to Lenny Bruce, sees Chin’s thematic concerns as his generation’s search for identity, and characterizes Chin’s language as “rogue poetry of deracination” enlivened by the “beat and brass, the runs and rim-shots of jazz.” Ling, Jinqi. Narrating Nationalisms: Ideology and Form in Asian American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. This book devotes a complete chapter to the plays of Frank Chin, discussing their ethics and poetics. It also comments on issues of masculinity, the effects of commercialization, and the postmodern nature of Chin’s theatrical art. McDonald, Dorothy Ritsuko. Introduction to “The Chickencoop Chinaman” and “The Year of the Dragon”: Two Plays by Frank Chin. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981. This extensive introduction provides information on Chin’s background and his views on Chinese American history. Makes an intelligent thematic commentary on Chin’s plays. Sees his intent as attempting to dispel stereotypes about Chinese Americans and to recover mythic archetypes (such as Kwan Kung, patron deity of war and letters) to validate the Chinese American male. A valuable essay marred by some errors of detail. Oliver, Edith. “Off Broadway.” The New Yorker 48 (June 24, 1972): 46. An enthusiastic response to The Chickencoop Chinaman that hails its historical importance for bringing “the first news (theatrically speaking) of the Chinese Americans in our midst.” Characterizes the play as “moving, funny, pain-filled, sarcastic, bitter, ironic …in a furious and dazzling eruption of verbal legerdemain.” Notices a “few paltry things that are wrong” with it but finds that these “hardly matter,” given the play’s theatrical inventiveness. Wong, Sau-ling. Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Contains a brilliant chapter analyzing theme and imagery in Chin’s drama. Yin, Xiao-huang. Chinese American Literature Since the 1850’s. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. This study contains a section dealing with the debate between Maxine Hong Kingston and Chin when Chin had accused her of inauthenticity.

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