EHII – You’ve been an outspoken champion of Japanese American civil rights, and a fierce critic of the internment camps and your documentary book “Born in America” is a rigorous and very scholarly excavation of the official justifications that lead to the resettlement camps as well as the fights by the No-No Boys and others to stand up for Japanese American dignity, you are also the originator of the idea which is now an annual feature of Japanese American cultural life, “The Day of Remembrance,” yet you are vilified by some critics within the Japanese American community, why is that?
CHIN – [laughing] Well, I’m vilified by the JACL. The JACL is the Japanese American Citizens League, they were given unofficial charge of the Japanese American’s in the camps during the war. And the Japanese American Citizens League was a traitorous organization. They posed as a civil rights organization. And if you went to them and you said, ‘I want to defend my civil rights,’ what the JACL was not telling you was that they were also – an official title – ‘confidential informants’ to the FBI. And so when you went and said, ‘I want to sue the government for my civil rights,’ they’d say, ‘We’ll help you,’ and then they’d go to the FBI and say, ‘So-and-so is a traitor.’ They convinced Japanese America that it was in their best interest to give up their civil rights. A civil rights organization telling you to give up your civil rights. And so they came out in April of ’41, with that statement that they are opposed to all suits against the government, or [all efforts] to determine whether the military orders are constitutional or not. They just waived that. Which was the position they should be taking – they just waived that. And naturally, I found out all this stuff and I talk about it in the book. I published their statement. Their statements don’t need me to improve upon them..
EHII – But the detective work you did to uncover that, it reads like a crime novel. And it really is crime being perpetrated, but it’s so grippingly documented and paced. Did you have a sensibility that you were actually constructing a narrative that served all of the functions of narrative fiction, although it is nonfiction – were you trying to do that?
CHIN – Yes.
EHII – Tell us about that.
CHIN – Well, I modeled the book on the USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos. And in that book he tries to write a novel of modern times and he saw that in his lifetime, the telegraph had come in and it had become the radio, that newspapers proliferated, that communications by wire had proliferated, that transportation by rail and air had happened. Life seemed to be improving, becoming more complicated, becoming louder, becoming more musical. More people, and all of this was centered on the
EHII – Tell me about your use of stereotypes in your literature, not only in your plays but in your essays – and your essays also have the poetics of fiction, you seem to be shooting for a higher mark that is occurring at that particular moment. Much has been said about your use of motifs like the railroads, and Charlie Chan and Gunga Din, but you also use the flamenco guitar, and cowboy motifs and Indian motifs. If we isolate the stereotypes that you use of the railroad, and Charlie Chan and Gunga Din, you seem to be ‘a Chinese American writer,’ but if you look at the whole body of things that you lampoon and have fun with, and the whole sweep of the fun that you are having you can’t be anything other than an American writer -- an all-American writer. How are you using the stereotype; what are the advantages; are there any limitations; are there any dangers?
CHIN – I see the stereotype as an invitation to either prove it or disprove it. And if you study it, I’ve been lucky enough to find that the stereotype is mostly disproved. For instance, we were not slaves building the railroad. There has been a campaign to pity the poor workers on the railroad. The only thing that we should be pitied for was that when we struck we didn’t ask for more pay at that time. But we did go on strike. We did strike for back pay, we did strike for food allowance, we did strike for Chinese foremen. None of that is in the railroad history. We say that we work on the railroad, yet at the Golden Spike ceremony, that famous photograph of the two engines meeting cowcatcher to cowcatcher, and the men leaning across with bottles of champagne toasting each other, there was not one Chinese in that photo. And yet we are mentioned in the caption that Chinese were there, or that we had finished building the railroad just that day, but no Chinese in the photo. And what really pissed me off was, that not one Chinese had noticed.
EHII – Not one Chinese historian or scholar, you are saying?
CHIN – Right. And we don’t write about the railroad. We seem to be ashamed of the railroad. And I was always taught to be proud of the railroad because we built it. That the Irish were always leaving the railroad to get drunk and they refused to work with nitroglycerin, which was just invented. [laughs] And the Chinese said, ‘Oh, any explosive, we’re not afraid of.’ And the Chinese weren’t afraid, and they’d go out and they mastered it. But the Irish? – no. There were accomplishments to be proud of: we won the track-laying contest, et cetera, etc. But no one had really gone and looked. The Chinese seemed just to accept what Whites said about us and not look for themselves. I mean, we were at such a point in ’69-’70 when I was teaching the first Asian American studies class, this head of the program for old folks in Chinatown we went out to lunch and were walking through Chinatown, we went out to lunch and he was complaining about how the Chinese were so passive, and I just laid into him. I said, What do you mean ‘passive’? You’ve been to the opera, and you know that the audiences in the opera never shut up. They are always arguing and always fighting with the opera stars. And he said, ‘Yeah, I wondered about that. Why don’t they quiet down?’ And I said, You can say that and yet you say that the Chinese are passive? What’s wrong with you? And he was confused. [laughs]
EHII – It’s like the character from
CHIN – [laughing] Yes.
EHII – So, why did you move to
CHIN – Well, I was thinking that I would work with the East-West Players. I came around 1980-81. Unfortunately at that time the East-West Players was in the process of ousting Mako from the directorship. I had come to work with Mako. And the East-West Players without Mako was not East-West Players anymore, and I was stuck here.
EHII – So have you given up writing plays?
CHIN – Pretty much.
EHII – Why is that?
CHIN – Because there was no real Asian American theater, there was no real Asian American acting. What passes for acting is pretty faces wanting to be on television or the movies. There isn’t the same care for acting that you find in White acting. White actors wanting to do Shakespeare will take courses in how to read verse. Mako has said to me that my language is just too hard. The first speech in the opening to “Chickencoop…” there were very few actors – in fact, none – that could handle all the language in that first speech.
EHII – There are so many textural changes, and changes in the pace and the music of that speech, that the timing alone is probably enough for an actor to settle on, but you are also dealing with shifts race identity, you move from seriousness to comedy, there are so many currents of theatrical authority that come together in that voice – how was that to write that?
CHIN – Fun. I loved that.
EHII – Because you had never seen anything like that on the page, I imagine.
CHIN – No.
EHII – Did you believe it would be fun or difficult to do?
CHIN – At that time, a new production of Charlie Chan was …David W. Tebet, vice president of NBC was advertised in the Honolulu Star Bulletin that he was on a tour looking for a Chinese actor who spoke English well enough to be understood by American audiences. [laughs] And I said, ‘wow.’ So he was going around looking for this actor to play Charlie Chan and that enraged me. And so I said, ‘Well, what about a role that will prove that we can act?’ And anyone that can do Tam Lum’s speech would have to be an actor. And I had visions, well, East-West Players had all these actors and they are just waiting for my play. Well, they weren’t waiting for my play. Mako recognized something in my play. But he also recognized that none of his actors had the talent for the language.
EHII – What did you think about the PBS adaptation of “Chickencoop Chinaman” for the small screen?
CHIN – I have mixed feelings about it. I was glad to see it on TV. George Takei, there are times I see it when I see it and I say, Gee, George is pretty good. Other times I see it and I say, Gee George is terrible. But every time I see it… I was there when George auditioned for the part, and he gave a brilliant audition. But once he had the part, the part began to leave him.
EHII – Why did you turn down Wayne Wang’s offer to re-make the play as a film?
CHIN – Because he wanted to re-write the play.
EHII – He wanted to adapt it – without you?
CHIN – Well, with me. And I felt the play had been written; it had been written about a specific time and a specific place and I saw no reason to re-write it. And what he had done to Eat A Bowl of Tea… I loved that book, Louis Chu’s book. We published it ourselves [in “Aiiieeeee!” --1975] and he just ignored the book. And it was all him and this feminist writer who just missed the point of the book entirely. And he just did another story. And I didn’t want that to happen to me.
EHII – Are there any screenplays in your future?
CHIN – No. There may be one, but that’s just in the back of my mind. The Japanese American resisters. The real stories of Japanese America during World War II have been ignored. And the behavior of the Chinese to the Japanese, I mean, we were neighbors. And so when the Japanese were taken, they were taken out of the house next door, and we remained silent. We knew that the Japanese Americans weren’t Japanese; just as we knew that we Chinese Americans weren’t Chinese. And so it made no sense to take the Japanese away and give us buttons.
EHII – Buttons that said…?
CHIN – 'I am a Loyal Chinese'. Yeah. Now you can tell us apart. We haven’t dealt with that. And the texture of life of the resisters – how you went from being a successful groceryman to being a leader of the resistance. In camp this was a very natural process as I try to show in the book. It was a natural logical process. And yet it was only possible under the artificial terms of camp. And I think there’s a movie there.
EHII – You suffered a debilitating stroke in 1999, do you remember any of the interior journey that you might have taken – people talk about ‘going toward the light in the tunnel and all of that’ – and have you begun to contemplate your legacy?
CHIN – I remember the stroke, or my walking up to it. I was in
EHII – Since then have you contemplated your legacy or immortality or any of that?
CHIN – No. After my stroke, I decided to get to work on “Born in the USA,” since I had done all of the research and I had gathered all of the materials and I though this would be an easy book for me to write, it’s just a matter for me to edit the transcripts that I’ve done. It’s not a lot of original writing, since I intend to do a lot of [unintelligible] anyway. And so I went though all of the stuff. And I said, Well, since I had planned on modeling it on the “USA Trilogy,” so I planned on three volumes, but when I got through the first volume and was working on the second, I said, ‘Wow, no one will read this. It’s so depressing.’ And it doesn’t begin to get better until the end of the second volume. And I said, ‘Gee, no one will read this. I have to get it down into one volume.’ And then the work became hard. Because there were a lot of other people that I wanted to include. I had to confine it to the Japanese Americans and what they knew.