Analysis of Frank Chin’s Plays

It may be said that Frank Chin (born February 25, 1940) has pioneered in the field of Asian American literature. His daring and verbally exuberant theater has asserted the presence of the richly unique and deeply human complexities of Chinese American life, and his work has brought this presence to the attention of the American public. Chin has sometimes been considered the John Osborne—the “angry young man”—of his generation of Chinese Americans. His plays turn on themes of identity—anguished and indignant probings into ethnic identity, gender identity, and self-identity. In them, Chin mirrors the issues and realities of Chinese American life and history as lived in Chinatown ghettos; they seek to expose and explode generally held stereotypes of Chinese Americans as an emasculated model minority with a quaintly exotic culture.


Wikimedia/Nancy Wong

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 Hollywood’s “Charlie Chanese”). He has criticized the false myths and the deadening stereotypes of self and ethnicity held by Asians and whites alike. At a time when it was ripe and necessary to do so, Chin proclaimed and proved that there is such an entity as Asian American literature. American literary history must henceforth reckon with that claim if it is to be true to itself.

Since the initial mark made by his two plays written in the 1970’s, Chin has not had any new plays published or staged. Chin has instead turned his very considerable creative literary energies toward writing novels, short fiction, juvenile literature, and essays of cultural criticism. Chin’s turn away from drama is in part due to a disappointment that an authentic Asian American theater (as he sees it) has not emerged. When he wrote his first plays, he had hoped that a genuinely Asian American theater would come into being, a theater that would resemble Dublin’s Abbey Theater of the early 1900’s and that would nurture genuinely Asian American dramatic talents just as the Abbey nurtured a crop of distinctively Irish playwrights such as Sean O’Casey, John Millington Synge, and William Butler Yeats. Chin’s two plays, nevertheless, are considered classics of Asian American literature, and they continue to be studied in the academy and to attract analytical commentary and debate. There have been many revivals of these plays, especially in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Chin’s plays center on a protagonist’s confrontation with the problematics of identity. The Chickencoop Chinaman is the more experimental in technique, with an almost cinematic use of montage, flashbacks, symbolic stage sets, and surrealistic, dreamlike sequences. The Year of the Dragon is more conventional, a drama of family and psychological conflict set in a San Francisco Chinatown apartment.

The Chickencoop Chinaman

The Chickencoop Chinaman is a play that treats the theme of identity through dispelling stereotypes and myths. The play is divided into two acts. Each act 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 (for example, the miracle-working Helen Keller in act 1, the popular-culture hero the Lone Ranger in act 2), and scenes set in the realistic location of 1960’s Pittsburgh, where the problem of the protagonist’s identity is worked out.

The play’s action centers on Tam Lum, a Chinese American filmmaker who is making a documentary about a black boxing champion named Ovaltine Jack Dancer, a boyhood idol with whom he once shared a moment of mystic brotherhood urinating in unison in a roadside bush. Tam comes to Pittsburgh from San Francisco in search of Dancer’s father, Charley Popcorn, who was a quintessential formative figure for Dancer and who now runs a Pittsburgh theater. Allegorically, Tam’s creation of a film about Dancer is an effort to express an identity for himself, and his search for Charley is his search for a father figure.

Before arriving in Pittsburgh, Tam is introduced in a Limbo scene on his airliner from San Francisco. The flight attendant is transformed into a Hong Kong Dream Girl clad in a drill team uniform and twirling a baton (hence an American dream girl, too). Indeed, the woman represents the American stereotype of Asian women—attractive, compliant, trained to give pleasure. Although Tam scoffs at the Hong Kong Dream Girl’s stereotypical identity, it becomes apparent that his own identity is problematic. For example, when asked what his mother tongue is, Tam can speak no Chinese, but instead begins speaking in tongues, using a startling array of American dialects. Tam also points out that Chinese American identity is not one ordained by nature; Chinese Americans are not born to an identity but must synthesize one out of the diverse experiences of living in crowded Chinatown tenements, metaphorical chicken coops. This opening sequence, then, poses the play’s central theme: the problem of stereotyping and identity.

In Pittsburgh, Tam stays with a boyhood friend, a Japanese American dentist named “Blackjap” Kenji. Kenji’s apartment in Pittsburgh’s black ghetto, Oakland, ironically underlines the circularity of Tam’s search (since the San Francisco Bay area has its Oakland, too), and its location within earshot of a railroad yard is a symbolic reminder of the Chinese American contribution to American history. Tam and Kenji, who grew up in the black ghetto of Oakland, California, talk in exuberant black dialect and express themselves by slapping skin; they have, to a great degree, adopted the style and expressiveness of a black identity.

Kenji’s ménage includes Lee, a part-Chinese woman who is passing for white. She has a young son, Robbie, by a previous liaison or marriage. Lee has a love-hate relationship with men of color, men whom she collects and then uses her whiteness and sexuality to dominate and intimidate. Thus, Lee lives platonically and parasitically with Kenji, in fact reducing him to a sexless host.

During their reunion scene in act 1, Tam and Kenji reenact a past obsession that they had with the figure of Helen Keller, imitating and parodying her. This may seem pointlessly cruel until one realizes that, in Chin’s play, Keller symbolizes the myth of the disadvantaged person who overcomes all handicaps and pulls herself up by her own bootstraps. In other words, she epitomizes what American society fondly thinks that every disadvantaged minority group can do for itself. When Tam and Kenji mock and demythologize the figure ofHelen Keller, they are, in particular, rejecting the popular American myth that Asian Americans are a model minority capable of miracles of self-help.

Act 2 opens with another scene in which Tam and Kenji again recollect a mythic figure, this time the Lone Ranger. As a boy, Tam had fantasized that, behind his mask, the Lone Ranger was Chinese, and Tam had therefore identified with him as a heroic role model who represented the possibility that a Chinese American could become an idol of the American public. As Tam reenacts his past fantasy in his adulthood, however, he realizes that the Lone Ranger is a racist, as is clear in his treatment of Tonto, and that he is not by any means a Chinese. In fact, the Lone Ranger is an obese white man who sadistically shoots Tam in the hand (symbolically handicapping him physically), then lays on him the curse of being an honorary white (handicapping him psychologically with this false identity). This episode, then, demythologizes the private fantasies of any Chinese American who might believe that he can easily achieve heroic status in the American imagination; it also shows the wounding consequences of the Chinese American fantasy that they can be accepted as honorary whites.

Tam and Kenji then track down Charley Popcorn. They are crushed, however, when Charley reveals that he is not, in fact, Dancer’s father—that Dancer had constructed a myth around his memories of their association. Thus Tam’s search for a surrogate and idolized father figure in a black man ends in disillusionment.

Returning to the apartment, Tam and Kenji undergo another identity crisis, this time precipitated by Lee’s former husband, Tom. His name suggests the stereotype of the subservient minority, “Uncle Tom,” and he is the very model of the minority that has attained middle-class success. Tom has heard of Kenji’s decent but sexless relationship with Lee and wants to take Lee and Robbie back. Yet, now Kenji authoritatively stands his ground, sends Robbie to bed, and asserts that he wants Lee to stay and that he will father children with her.

Tam, too, appears to recover from his shattering disillusionment with Charley. In the surrealistic penultimate scene, he is shown being borne to Kenji’s apartment on Charley’s back, and in this position, Tam recalls the unmanning events when his wife left him on his birthday. In the play’s last scene, however, Tam makes a great effort and stumbles into Kenji’s apartment carrying Charley on his back. This reversal of position symbolically denotes Tam’s freedom from his past reliance on an identity borrowed from the blacks and a new determination to find the wherewithal for a future identity from sources within himself. He is thus able to keep his integrity despite the needling of Lee and the allurement of Tom’s imitation whiteness. Just as Kenji and Lee are united in a new relationship, so Tam is shown coming to terms with an identity grounded on his own ethnicity. Before the curtain falls, Tam is shown in the kitchen unashamedly practicing the craft of his ethnic group par excellence. As he prepares the food, he reminisces about the Chinese American legend of the Iron Moonhunter, a mythic train that the Chinese railroaders supposedly created out of parts stolen from the railroad companies, and which wanders the West searching out the souls of dead Chinese to bear them home to their families. Chin seems to understand that people need myths, and in the end, his protagonist, disillusioned with the black myth that is unavailable to him and rejecting a white myth that he finds contemptible, shapes his own myth of identity in the heroism and craft of Chinese America.


Frank Chin plays the character “Fred Eng” in The Year of the Dragon in 1978 San Francisco, California at the Asian American Theater Workshop’s production of Chin’s play. Wikimedia/Nancy Wong

The Year of the Dragon

Chin’s second play, The Year of the Dragon, is more conventionally structured than its predecessor and was accorded a national audience in a television production on the Public Broadcasting Service’s “PBS Theatre in America” in 1975. This play also treats the theme of identity, but it focuses more sharply and poignantly on the question of self-worth: the worth of an individual self to loved ones (family) and the worth of a minority ethnic group to the majority society (whitedominated America). Again, stereotypes form the chief factor that obscures individual worth and identity—stereotypes about family relationships, stereotypes about ethnicity. These thematic strands are worked out in the exposition of the many psychological conflicts and confrontations in the well-established Eng family of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

The exposition, and exposé, of ethnic stereotypes is presented chiefly through two elements of the play: the family business of providing tours of Chinatown and the new Anglo son-in-law whom their daughter has brought from Boston. The family owns Eng’s Chinatown Tour and Travel agency, and the eldest son, forty-year-old Fred, conducts tours of San Francisco’s Chinatown. For the sake of business, however, Fred cannot show Chinatown as it really is; rather, he must pander to the stereotypes of Chinatown held by the American public—that it is an exotic place of delicious foods, mysterious (but safe) goings on, and incomprehensible (but happy) inhabitants composed of attractively available women, complaisant men, and harmonious families with above-average children. Fred knows that he is being false to himself and his people when he gives his happy tour-guide’s spiel, and he mutters curses at his customers under his breath beneath his patter. In reality, Fred would like to tell the truths of Chinatown, which he sets down in short stories, but no one will publish his work. Through Fred’s situation, then, Chin portrays the stifling effects of ethnic stereotypes.

The other element in the play that deals with ethnic stereotypes is presented through the character Ross, the Eng family’s Boston-bred son-in-law on a honeymoon visit from the East. He is portrayed as a well-meaning but oafish Sinophile who has studied Chinese (although in a dialect different from the Eng family’s), admires Chinese culture and customs, and thinks of Chinese Americans as the only minority group that does not dislike white dominance. Such stereotypes prevent him from seeing the Chinese American realities that trip him up constantly. His type of cultural voyeurism is subtly captured in the play’s final scene, in which he is appointed photographer to take posed pictures of the Eng family. In this technically effective scene, Chin uses spatial form as adroitly as did Gustave Flaubert in the “agricultural fair” scene of Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886). Through a kind of auditory montage, Chin creates an ironic counterpoint commenting on Ross’s photography by interspersing the scene with the sounds and spiel of a tour guide describing a Chinese New Year’s parade offstage. Just as the tourists are gawking at the Chinatown parade, so is Ross ogling his new Chinese American family.

In probing the stereotypes of familial relationships, Chin makes a painful but necessary criticism of stereotypes held by his own ethnic group. He also dispels the Charlie Chan-esque stereotype held by many Americans, that Chinese families are uniformly harmonious and hierarchical.

Much of the conflict in the family swirls around its patriarch, Pa Eng, who came to the United States in 1935 accompanied only by his infant son Fred, for he was forced to leave his wife in China because United States immigration laws excluded Chinese women from entering America. Pa Eng soon married a fifteen-year-old Americanborn Chinese girl (Ma Eng), who risked losing her American citizenship by marrying the man she loved (her citizenship was at risk not because she married a bigamist but because another American anti-Chinese law forbade American-born women to marry Chinese men on pain of forfeiting their citizenship). Ma Eng bore and reared two children, meanwhile pampering Pa Eng in his stereotypical Chinese view of the patriarch as a kind of semidivinity.

When the play opens, Pa Eng has prospered, to the point that he has been elected mayor of Chinatown. Yet he is now old and ill, and he believes that his days are numbered. He wants to die in the bosom of his family, so he has sent for his first wife (China Mama). This he has done without communicating his intent to his family. (In fact, throughout the play, the family members can hardly be said to communicate; they never bother to listen to what others have to say.) China Mama’s arrival, as can be expected, precipitates several crises during which Pa Eng appears an inconsiderate, uncomprehending, ego-bound patriarch. He commands Ma Eng, who is unnerved by this presence in her household, either to relinquish her home or to be subservient to China Mama and begin teaching her English. It is in his relationship with Fred, however, that Pa Eng’s authoritarian role becomes most apparent.

Pa Eng’s patriarchal dominance and his Chinese values have acted as longstanding denials of Fred’s identity and self-worth. Fred had aspired to be a writer, but his father scoffed at this: According to stereotypes he holds, if one is not a doctor or a lawyer, one is nothing at all. Pa Eng gives his mayoral speech to Ross to edit, not to Fred, who majored in English. Nevertheless, Fred is a dutiful son, nursing his father when he spits blood and even going through a daily ritual of accompanying him to the toilet and wiping him after a defecation, a viscerally affecting scene to stage. Fred has also sacrificed his own college career to work and provide for his sister’s college expenses, but his father does not appreciate that, probably because his stereotypical values do not accord much importance to daughters. Fred also is aware that his younger brother, Johnny, is deteriorating into a gun-wielding Chinatown mobster and wants him to leave his environment and go to college in the East. This Johnny resists.

Fred knows that Johnny will go to college if Pa Eng orders him, but Pa Eng refuses. Instead, Pa Eng wants Fred to accompany him as he delivers his mayoral speech. In this speech, he plans to acknowledge Fred as his heir, but he will do it in such a way that Fred will always be fitted with the stereotypical identity of a Number One Son, a person who has no self-worth beyond that which derives from his father. This is unacceptable to Fred, who refuses to go with his father as long as he refuses to order Johnny to leave Chinatown. In attempting to impose his will on his son, Pa Eng resorts to violence and slaps him repeatedly. Yet the physical exertion is too much for the sick old man, and he dies in this pitiable moment of futile tyranny. Tragically, Pa Eng’s death does not free Fred. The closing tableau of the play shows Fred being submerged by his milieu as he slips into the spiel of the Chinatown tour guide, and as the spotlight singles him out, Fred is shown dressed glaringly in white, the Chinese symbol of death.

Principal drama
The Chickencoop Chinaman, pr. 1972, pb. 1981; The Year of the Dragon, pr. 1974, pb. 1981.

Other major works
Long fiction: Donald Duk, 1991; Gunga Din Highway, 1994.
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, 1998. edited texts: Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers, 1974 (with others; Asian American writing); The Big Aiiieeeee!, 1991.

Barnes, Clive. “Theater: Culture Study.” The New York Times, June 3, 1974, p. 39.
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.
Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.
_______. “Frank Chin: The Chinatown Cowboy and His Backtalk.” Midwest Quarterly 20 (Autumn, 1978): 78-91.
Kroll, Jack. “Primary Color.” Newsweek, June 19, 1972, 55.
Ling, Jinqi. Narrating Nationalisms: Ideology and Form in Asian American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
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.
Oliver, Edith. “Off Broadway.” The New Yorker 48 ( June 24, 1972): 46.
Wong, Sau-ling. Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Yin, Xiao-huang. Chinese American Literature Since the 1850’s. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Categories: American Literature, Drama Criticism, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Theatre Studies

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