Wing Eng, called Pa, the father of Fred, Sis, and Johnny, and the honorary mayor of San Francisco’s Chinatown. A stylish but conservative dresser, Pa is a China-born Chinese man in his sixties. He has been in the United States since 1935 and regards San Francisco’s Chinatown as his home. He is dying of a lung disease. As the play’s action demonstrates, Pa is at times brutally autocratic and selfish, but he is loved by his children and wife. Pa clearly depends on Fred but also abuses him and considers him a failure. He refuses to see Fred as an individual and spurns Fred’s request that he tell Johnny and Ma to move to Boston. Pa’s love-hate relationship with Fred dramatizes the play’s central conflict.
Hyacinth Eng, called Ma, a Chinese American in her middle or late fifties. Ma is Pa’s second wife (his American wife) and the mother of Sis and Johnny. She is proud of being born and reared American and of her mission-school education. Ma loves her home and family. She fears change but is aware that her family is drifting apart. Maniacally efficient, practical, and irrational, Ma attempts to escape moments of stress by going to the bathroom or bursting into song and dance. For Pa, whom she loves, she plays the role of a Chinese woman, though not successfully. Through Ma, the audience discerns historical discrimination against Chinese in the United States.
Johnny Eng, the younger brother of Fred, a Chinese American in his late teens. Johnny is a Chinatown street kid, on probation for carrying a gun. Although he is an alienated youth, Johnny believes in the Chinese family. He wants to stay in Chinatown and help Fred with his tour business. He therefore resists Fred’s attempts to make him move to Boston and live with his sister, Sis.
Mattie, called Sis, a Chinese American, the married daughter of Ma and Pa Eng. Sis is middle class in dress and manners. She has married a white American, has moved out of Chinatown, and is having commercial success in Boston as a Chinese cook, under the pseudonym Mama Fu Fu. She has just published a cookbook that promises to be a success. She hates Chinatown and has returned only at the request of her dying father. Sis is a fully assimilated Chinese American.
Ross, Mattie’s Caucasian husband. A sincerely interested and admiring student of all things Chinese, Ross is aesthetic, supercilious, and pleasant. Unlike Ma, Fred, Sis, and Johnny, Ross reads Chinese. In the play’s main action, Ross represents the majority white culture in the United States, which admires the Chinese culture yet does not understand the difficulties of the Chinese adjustment to life in the United States.
China Mama, an old woman, Pa Eng’s China-born Chinese wife. She is Fred’s biological mother, whom Pa left behind when he immigrated with Fred to the United States. Pa has brought China Mama to America so that he may die “Chinese.” Near the end of the play, her presence incites Ma to try to act like a Chinese-born woman to please Pa Eng.