An Interview with Frank Chin (1970)
Jeffery Paul Chan
The era of the antiwar, black power, and Asian American movements motivated many second-generation Chinese Americans to challenge white racism and assert their ethnic identity as neither Oriental nor white American, but uniquely and integrally as Chinese American. One of the most outspoken and influential writers of this period was Frank Chin. Born in 1940 in Berkeley, California, he did his undergraduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley, and also attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of California at Santa Barbara. Upon graduation, Chin purposefully got a job as a brakeman with the Southern Pacific Railroad before moving to Seattle to write scripts for the King Broadcasting Company. In 1969 he moved back to California, where he lectured in Asian American studies at the University of California, Davis, and San Francisco State College while helping to found the Combined Asian Resources Project (CARP)1 and the Asian American Theater Workshop.
At the time of this interview with his colleague Jeffery Paul Chan, a short story writer and chair of Asian American studies at San Francisco State College, Chin had just been physically knocked down by Alex Hing, leader of the Red Guard, a revolutionary organization in San Francisco Chinatown, for calling the organization “a yellow minstrel show.” More important, the interview is one of the earliest records of Chin’s views on white racism, the emasculation of Chinese men in mainstream media, and the need for Chinese American writers to reclaim an authentic cultural identity— themes that would reoccur in his later writings. The interview was published in East / West, a bilingual weekly founded in 1967 to cover events and concerns of interest to Chinese Americans throughout the country. The paper folded in 1985.
(Photo by Connie Hwang)
Why did you come back from Seattle to Chinatown?
I didn’t come back just to be beaten up . . . I came back because . . . well, there was you [the interviewer, Jeffery Paul Chan] and a few others, and I felt that the Chinese were beginning to speak out more on their own. It seemed that Chinatown was becoming more aware of itself and its own terms. It was also very obvious to me, outside working in an admittedly white world, that the stereotypes were very confining. That even though I was out, a free individual, an agent, that I was very confined by the stereotypes. I was always being measured against the stereotypes and having to say I was or I wasn’t what someone else thought I was before he’d ever met me.
The Chinese American, native born, has attributed to him all of Chinese culture. Well, not all of Chinese culture, but the good image—the high aesthetic Chinese culture. This is the China of the literary . . . the China of the watercolor painting, the China of the civil service administration, and it’s the China I don’t relate to because I don’t relate to China at all. I was born here. The other side of the coin, well, besides having all this great Chinese culture—we’re very Americanized. And the proof of this is . . . well, we’re engineers, we enter the professions . . . but these are all . . . as a mass . . . the apex of our achievement . . . places us in the role of being nothing but servants . . . servants to a larger machine, servants of Boeing, of Lockheed, of TRW [Thompson-Remo-Woolridge Corporation]. That we have not among us any who are known for pushing just something Chinese American, achieving on just Chinese American terms, the way the blacks have, Chicanos, the Indians. That we never really contributed to the culture.
What’s wrong with a benign stereotype . . . we seem to live comfortably within it, under it?
Yes, it’s benign, yet it becomes very frustrating to individual Chinese Americans, I think. The most insidious part of the stereotype is . . . not in so many words—they don’t say this—but under analysis, looking for masculine characteristics, you find none. That the stereotype of the Chinese is utterly without masculine prerogatives. The only images of Chinese Americans— Chinese here under Western eyes—are waiters, laundrymen—okay, that’s the old. And the new ones, you know, the good engineers, the nice doctors, all very nice, all very conservative . . . all passive. This makes them the ideal subject race, the ideal employees, the ideal servants.
Have you modified your thinking about “masculine prerogatives” when you were met with a street faction within Chinatown that displayed a hostile, aggressive posture toward you?
(laughter) Well, no. I’ve been beaten up, and I’ve been beaten up. (laughter) Ahh . . . I don’t consider the American Legion more masculine or more manly because they beat me up. I think I was beaten up kind of Western style. Maybe I was lucky in that . . . that I didn’t have one of these legendary forms of Oriental self-defense used on me. But what style of masculinity were they asserting? Styles of masculinity are important. If we consider ourselves to have no style of our own and are compelled, therefore, to imitate others—and this is something I think we’ve been taught from birth. We have to imitate English, or we have to imitate Chinese, though we’re neither. Then, when we hit puberty, to become men, we have to imitate the Chicanos or the blacks or the whites or somebody else. And this serves to keep us in Chinatown . . . because in imitation—you know there is something contemptible about imitation—and when that’s the only option open to us . . . when we adopt a role, when we imitate, we are also taking on a certain amount of self- contempt. And this is something the culture itself has taught us to do here.
Make a distinction between imitation and assimilation.
Assimilation is a very general term. To my mind it’s not just adapting or adjusting to the culture, it’s being able to take certain traits, certain values of the culture and turn them into your own. And then, turn them into something else. Just what the blacks have done. Let’s say they assimilated the English language. But they turned the language into something of their own. It’s not just strictly American English. So that the language they speak is an act of assimilation in that it’s based in English, but it is not the English that is generally spoken or acceptable in schools. It’s simply Black English. The language communicates the unique black experience. And in turn it has affected the general culture. So it demands that the general culture assimilate some of the black experience.
How can you compare the black experience to the Chinese experience in America? I mean, haven’t the unique Chinese institutions, language, etc., done a lot to keep the two cultures distinct?
Well, I think the continuity of Chinese culture from China to America is largely mythical. One of the institutions . . . the family . . . we’re told the strong Chinese family—this is why the low crime rate and this is why Chinese are more obedient and passive. Well, you know, women were barred from entry, Chinese women were barred from entering California into this country. Until the turn of the century, when a few of them began to appear in noticeable numbers, then . . . at the turn of the century, there were twenty-eight men for every woman. This means that for the larger part of our history here, our population has been male. And I ask you, what kind of Chinese family do you maintain with just a transient male population? The other part of the mythical Chinese culture is that . . . well we are culturally passive. This is not so, and it isn’t even so of Chinese American history: that between 1850 and 1905, there were Chinese in the Supreme Court of the United States or California protesting against city ordinances, state laws, union activities that they felt were unconstitutional. Going to the Supreme Court is far from passive resistance. The stereotypes, historically, of Chinese having no manhood, were false. The stereotypes of the continuity of Chinese culture between China and here were false. And this myth of Chinese culture has been used to confine us, to oppress intellectually, culturally, and to certainly suppress and restrain our individual development. I don’t know that this was a calculated plot, but it’s working out that way.
What has all this got to do with this play you’ve written? Does the play take the above into account?
Well, now, with this play, we dredge up a lot of these old stereotypes that are still operating here, now.
What’s it called?
Dear lo fan, fan gwai, whitey, honey babe.2 It’s addressed to the whites, because I see that the stereotypes were not manufactured by the Chinese at all, but by the whites. The white point of view is—well, “You Chinese, you take care of yourselves. If you have any problems in Chinatown, why, that’s your hang-up.” I don’t think that’s so. If we have problems in Chinatown, it’s largely the fault of the whites. They don’t want to take responsibility, they don’t admit to holding these stereotypes, and yet when you talk to them long enough, you see that they do. I think they have to be convinced that Chinese can speak for themselves. Remember that Mary Ellen Leary article in the Atlantic Monthly, in March, she says the most aggrieved minority in San Francisco cannot speak for themselves, and that’s supposed to be us.3
Now in the play, we hit Mary Ellen Leary by name. I mean, we’re obviously speaking English, or a kind of English, and at least enough so we can understand her. And we dress up in the play in grotesque imitation of her, just as whites have dressed up in grotesque images of us and we read what she has to say: That the Chinese can’t speak English. If this doesn’t make her nervous, well . . . there’s nothing we can do but blow up everything. I think it will make her nervous.
Do you attack other writers who have written similarly about the Chinese in the play?
Yeah. A Christian writer, a Rev. John L. Nevius who pushes very hard . . . in the positive sense . . . the stereotype of the Chinese who has no masculinity.4 He justifies this by saying that we are characteristically timid and docile and he rationalizes that this is good. Remember this is from the white point of view about a subject race, and he reasons that while the Chinese are deficient in active courage and daring, they are not in passive resistance. Now this attitude comes out more clearly in another writer we attack in the play, Jack London, great American author. If you’re deficient in active courage and daring, this means that when you get whipped, you’re not going to jump up and do anything about it. But in passive resistance, if you have a lot of passive resistance, you’ll just sit there and endure it. Some things we’ll endure and some things we won’t, as a people, as an individual. I am not personally up to enduring much more white trash written about us. Over the past year, about eight articles have been written about us, in national magazines. Only two were written by Chinese—one by you, and they boxed that, they put a black border around it, as if to say gee whiz, Jeffery Chan’s a real Chinaman.5 So again, you were put in the role of a servant, to a white man at that. And that’s a crime.
Look at the other one by Min Yee in Newsweek, February 23rd.6 It was an article on Chinatown written by a Chinese American, it ran down old information about Chinatown but information that has not received national attention from a major news magazine. But what he did wrong was close his article with the admission that he was whitewashed. This is not just an individual confession, it was for us. You can see this if you were to pick up an article by a black writer on the ills of the black ghetto in Oakland, California. No black writer in his right mind would end such an article saying, I never had such problems, but then, I’m an Uncle Tom. Min Yee does just that by ending his article saying “but then I never had such problems because I was whitewashed.” Here he is, our only national journalist in how many years, admitting that the only way to success is to become white. And he’s not talking to Chinese, nor is he talking for them, but he’s talking for whites and the Chinese are again eavesdroppers.
This play doesn’t do that. Here we are, speaking as Chinese Americans. We hold our audience in contempt, the white audiences, and we are talking to the whites not about the problems in Chinatown as isolated incidents, but as problems that they were and are largely responsible for. Chinese America is larger than any one community, even larger than San Francisco’s Chinatown. The identity problem that faces many Chinese Americans is centered around the myth that the only real Chinatown, the real Chinese America, is San Francisco’s Chinatown. If they were all to act on that, the density rate would be a lot worse than it is now. As we travel with this play, I hope we’ll give the Chinese themselves a larger view of Chinese America. That they should think of Chinese America not just in terms of Chinatown, San Francisco, but in terms of the whole country.
The opening passage of the play introduces what you would call a Chinese American folk song: Chink, Chink Chinaman, etc. I find that objectionable. Nobody calls me a Chink or Chinaman.
This is a white folk song that came out of the gold rush . . . and if we forget it, we’ve lost proof, documentary proof of white racism against the Chinese. This is a grotesque but not unfair analogy: ask the Jews, why talk about Auschwitz and the concentration camps? Just forget the names. But . . . they remember the names. Not for their own humiliation, but to remind Germany of their guilt. If we lose Chink, Chink Chinaman, then we’ve effectively buried white guilt.
Now dramatically, in the play, the puppet narrator is the character who represents the Chinese American controlled, being puppeted by the white culture. He sings Chink, Chink Chinaman. In the play, he encourages the audience to sing along with him. And once they get involved singing, we tell them to shut up. That this is a terrible song, that they’ve been singing it to us for a long time, for over a hundred years, and that tonight we’re going to sing them this song . . . we don’t want it anymore . . . it’s their song . . . not ours. And the gesture is to insult the audience, to make them aware that the song is offensive. That it has offended us. The way to respond to that—the insults—was to say, that kid’s stupid, don’t pay any attention. Well, I don’t think our kids have to put up with that anymore. I think we should try to encourage people who sing these songs to not sing them anymore. We are the right people to sing this song, to remind the whites, to document their white racism.
Do you think of yourself as a Chinese, Chinese American, Chinaman?
I do think of myself as a Chinaman. I’m fifth generation here. My great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather came over here to work on the railroad. He was called a Chinaman. He worked honorably as a Chinaman. He probably lost his life as a Chinaman. The whites, they laughed at that name. But, it’s the only name I know my ancestors by and it’s not my ancestors who made it a bad name. Great-grandfather was an honorable guy, as a Chinaman . . . that’s what the whites called him. So . . . I’m a Chinaman. But, I do demand respect for the name. Not as a term of derision . . . in the same way that black used to be a term of humiliation . . . and they fight over it. But they’ve turned this word into an act of pride. And I think the term Chinaman, because it is our only connection with our ancestors, is something to be proud of. I think we should all be Chinamen.
1. CARP consisted of a group of teachers, scholars, and writers who were interested in promoting a deeper understanding of Chinese American sensibilities through conducting oral histories and creating curriculum materials for schools. The group also helped to get literary classics such as John Okada’s No No Boy
and Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea
2. The play consisted of a series of skits written by students, staff, and faculty at San Francisco State College that attempted to skew racial stereotypes of Chinese Americans.
3. Mary Ellen Leary, “San Francisco Chinatown,” Atlantic Monthly, March 1970, pp. 32–42.
4. John L. Nevius (1829–93) served as a Presbyterian missionary in China for over forty years and wrote China and the Chinese (New York: Harper & Bros., 1869).
5. Jeffery Paul Chan’s “Let 100 Problems Bloom” appeared in the Los Angeles Times’s West magazine on January 4, 1970, p. 15, following a longer article by Kenneth Lamott, “The Awakening of Chinatown,” pp. 6–14.
6. Min Yee, “Chinatown in Crisis,” Newsweek, February 23, 1970, pp. 57–58.
SOURCE: East/West, April 22, 1970, pp. 5, 8
Frank Chin, “Confessions of the Chinatown Cowboy,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 4, no. 3 (fall 1972): 58–70.
Frank Chin and Jeffery Paul Chan, “Racist Love,” in Seeing through Shuck, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York: Ballantine, 1972), pp. 65–79.
Gloria Heyung Chun, Of Orphans and Warriors: Inventing Chinese American Culture and Identity (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000).
David L. Eng, Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001).
Elaine Kim, “Chinatown Cowboys and Warrior Women: Searching for a New Self-Image,” in Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982), pp. 173–213.