Last reviewed: June 2017
American dramatist and screenwriter
February 25, 1940
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
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.