Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Jeffery Paul Chan (1942-2022)

After he gave me (Eddie) permission to post an interview, Chan's last words to me were: "Yours, the endless mission..."

(photo by Nancy Wong)

More on Jeffery Paul Chan's passing:

Sunday, January 02, 2022

"I'm a Chinaman"

An Interview with Frank Chin (1970)
 Jeffery Paul Chan 

[The following interview conducted by Jeffery Paul Chan was compiled and edited by Judy Yung, Gordon H. Chang, and Him Mark Lai in Chinese American Voices: From The Gold Rush to the Present]

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.

Regarded as the “Godfather of Asian American literature,” Chin first won acclaim when his plays The Chickencoop Chinaman (1972) and The Year of the Dragon (1974) became the first Chinese American plays to be produced on the New York stage and on national television. Chin is also known for the groundbreaking Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers (1974) and The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature (1991), both of which he coedited with Lawson Inada, Shawn Wong, and Jeffery Paul Chan. His other published works include The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R.R. Co., a collection of short stories; two novels, Donald Duk and Gunga Din Highway; and Bulletproof Buddhists and Other Essays.

Frank Chin
(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. 

What stereotype/types? 
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 republished. 

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.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Mentions Frank Chin

in his latest article "Hollywood Must Do More to Combat Asian Stereotypes" in The Hollywood Reporter, Kareem says:

I remember reading a book in the '70s called Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers. The title comes from the typical expression uttered by Asian characters in old TV and radio shows, movies and comic books. Ironically, when the traditional publishing houses turned the book down, the press at historically Black Howard University took up the challenge. 

Explained Frank Chin, one of the editors of Aiiieeeee!, “The Blacks were the first to take us seriously and sustained the spirit of many Asian American writers.” Even then, both groups understood that unless every marginalized group was treated equally, no one would be.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Monday, December 07, 2020

Pearl Harbor Revisited

 Amerasia Journal 27:3 (2001)/28:1(2002): 63-68

The laughter stopped on September 11, 2001. A day America likened to Pearl Harbor. Till that day we were still laughing at the foolishness of the Organization of Chinese Americans, a self styled civil rights and education organization, linking up with the Japanese American Citizen's League, the group known to have used and abandoned the title "civil rights organization" at their convenience. The OCA might not know what their civil rights organization is or does, in fact there's real doubt that the Organization of Chinese Americans knows what a Chinese American is. In their scrambling around to match their name and title with meaning, I would think the OCA would know that the JACL is the one organization that would sink their credibility as a civil rights group. Everybody knows that. But obviously the OCA didn't.

They invited Norman Mineta, the Japanese American Secretary of Transportation, and former congressman, to speak and the JACL to give them instruction. Norman Mineta told them, that in WWII, his people, the Japanese Americans, had been unfairly interned in concentration camps, and had their civil rights stripped from them. Mineta did not say that the leader of the JACL had asked for the camps, and had advocated the drafting of the Nisei from the camps while their families were held hostage. The JACL, at the time was led by Mike Masaoka, Mineta's brother-in-law and political mentor. 

Mike Masaoka had convinced congress that the JACL was the only national organization with the membership and the leadership to represent Japanese American civil rights. He used the words: "civil rights" in describing the JACL.  And civil rights described the cases of Gordon Hirabayashi, arrested in Seattle, and Minoru Yasui in Portland, for violating a curfew that applied to Japanese only.  Mike Masaoka and the JACL refused to support Hirabayashi and Yasui's case saying, "The JACL is unalterably opposed to cases to determine the constitutionality of the military orders at this time. " An act blatantly against civil rights, and there's more, much more. 

(Mike Masaoka)

Masaoka offered a hundred thousand of his people—men, women and children—in concentration camps, as hostages to ensure the loyalty of the men of his proposed "suicide battalion." The army refused the suicide battalion idea, in name only. They did accept an all Nisei combat unit. Masaoka convinced the army that the Japanese Americans were so anxious to "prove their loyalty" that they would volunteer in overwhelming numbers, and leave their families hostage in the camps. Masaoka was embarrassed when Japanese America proved him wrong. It seemed the Japanese Americans were interested in the return of their civil rights before they volunteered. But not the JACL. 

In 1944 the government reinstated the draft for Nisei whether they were in camp or not. Now was the time for the JACL to prove they were a civil rights organization. They proved they were not. "Perhaps we Japanese Americans have not yet earned our right to unqualified citizenship." Thus spoke Masaoka, on April 22, 1944. Instead of defending the citizenship of the American-born-and-raised Japanese Americans, he offers a formula for the subjects of the white race to be accepted. 

 "Therefore, in order to be in a position to legitimately demand that our full citizenship rights and privileges be restored and maintained for all time to come, JACL has worked unceasingly for the reinstitution of the Selective Service ever since the War Department changed its policy and announced that Japanese Americans were not wanted for military service. That arbitrary classification of 4-C granted us was embarrassing and humiliating." 

(Colorado Japanese American Concentration Camp)

What was embarrassing and humiliating was the JACL's slavish acceptance of concentration camps and white approval— instead of the law—as a condition of their Amencan citizenship. Perhaps embarrassing is the wrong word for what the JACL did. The JACL whipped up America's war of revenge against Japanese-America. They abandoned civil rights and the Japanese culture of their people for one man's vision of a "better American for a greater America," enforced with lies and an intimidating identification with Masaoka's vision of a monstrous white man. 

The Organization of Chinese American has come across the interesting fact that all of the mainland Japanese Americans to achieve elective office, at any level of government, from dog-catcher to either house of congress have been members of the JACL.  The JACL is rightfully known as a patriotic organization that encouraged Nisei men to accept being drafted from camp. The JACL was wrong in its assertion that their recruiting for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was responsible for the closing of concentration camps. The 442nd might have helped mightily to win WWII, but everything they—and the whole American army—did was irrelevant to any of the issues of camp. 

(442nd in Camp Shelby, Mississippi)

The JACL was performing for the whites, the JACL sent Japanese Americans to camp for the whites, turned against civil rights for the whites, and wanted to prove Japanese American loyalty to the whites. During the forties of WWII, when the Japanese were the despised people of the day, it took no courage for the JACL to satisfy the whites. Such craven behavior was precisely what the whites wanted and expected. It took real courage for a Japanese American, in camp to say he would not answer the call to go to war, like a normal American, until he was a normal American. In Hawai'i, the site of Pearl Harbor, Japanese were not interned, and produced 10,000 volunteers and answered the draft with less resistance than the mainland, where only 805 volunteered from the camps. The numbers suggest that, if the mainlanders were not in camps, they would have responded to the call for volunteers and the draft more positively. But the Japanese Americans on the mainland weren't treated like normal Americans, they were interned. In a mimeographed bulletin March 4,1944, the draft resistance tells everyone where they stood: 

Without any hearings, without due process of law as guaranteed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights, without any charges filed against us, without any evidence of wrong doing on our part, one hundred and ten thousand innocent people were kicked out of their homes, literally uprooted from where they have lived for the greater part of their life, and herded like dangerous criminals into concentration camps with barbed wire fence and military Police guarding it, AND THEN, WITHOUT RECTIFICATION OF THE INJUSTICES COMMITTED AGAINST US AND WITHOUT RESTORATION OF OUR RIGHTS AS GUARANTEED BY THE CONSTITUTION, WE ARE ORDERED TO JOIN THE ARMY THRU DISCRIMINATORY PROCEDURES INTO A SEGREGATED COMBAT UNIT!  Is that the American Way?  No. 

And it took real courage for Frank Emi to write and insist on the words he knew would get them arrested:

We feel that the present program of drafting us from this concentration camp is unjust, unconstitutional, and against all principles of civilized usage, and therefore, WE MEMBERS OF THE FAIR PLAY COMMITTEE HEREBY REFUSE TO GO TO THE PHYSICAL EXAMINATION OR TO THE INDUCTION IF OR WHEN WE ARE CALLED IN ORDER TO CONTEST THE ISSUE. 

All the draft resisters wanted was the camps closed, then they would accept the draft. The JACL as a civil rights organization should have supported this clear cut civil rights stand, but instead, they accused the draft resisters of sedition, cowardice and treason, and stood against their civil rights. Whether or not the JACL has ever been a civil rights organization has been a matter of internal debate since Pearl Harbor. Outside of Japanese America and the JACL, there is no debate. It is not a civil rights organization. 

Mineta and the JACL's insistence that the WWII monument include Masaoka's words exalting the government moved National Park Service Director Robert Stanton to reject petitions signed by more than a thousand Japanese Americans. Stanton, likewise, refused to read a protest pamphlet prepared by two members of Stanton's board, Francis Sogi, who'd seen service m WWII, in the Military Intelligence Service, and Kelly Kuwayama, a member of the 442nd. "JAPANESE AMERICANS DISUNITED: How a memorial to unify the Japanese American community became a symbol of disunity" at the very least, is an indication of how deep the controversy of the JACL runs through Japanese America. 

The Organization of Chinese Americans says it is a civil rights and an education organization. Because of the events of September 11, 2001, its Washington office finds itself in the right place at the right time to speak for us. But don't count on OCA to stand for Chinese America. When asked what Chinese America is, they say, they're really more than Chinese American, that they have Korean American members and Japanese Americans in the organization. When asked to define Korean American and Japanese American they offer double talk and distraction but no answer. 

As an education organization, they seem to be equally inept. Chinese stories one would expect every Chinese to know are foreign to the ears of OCA. Their members manning the phones of their Washington office can tell any number of European children's stories The Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, a few Jewish stories, The Golem, and not one Chinese children's story.  Why is it that only in America do we find this contempt for the Chinese children's story?  So what Chinese or Chinese American knowledge do they teach? 

Their magazine IMAGE is full of self-congratulatory stories on working with Norman Mineta and the JACL. The OCA membership is saying things like, "We're the Chinese JACL." 

Seen in action, the OCA is right to liken themselves to the JACL. They don't know and don't like Chinese Americans. Where do we go when we need an organization that knows Chinese America—knows the stories, knows the history, knows the facts and knows the difference between a real Chinese-American spy and an FBI face-saving fake, or between a real Chinese American threat and a fake. When the government moves to put us into concentration camps for our own protection—will the OCA, defender of our civil rights—go to the Supreme Court, or will they sacrifice our rights as a proof of our loyalty?

- Frank Chin