Sunday, April 15, 2007

Chin to China, part 4

[cont'd from part 3]


The critics and the Chinese have not talked about the theme of the heroic family resistance to the imperial government.

What’s familial about the THREE KINGDOMS from the Han, THE BALLAD OF MULAN from the Five Dynasties of 550 AD, MONKEY from the Tang (618-907), WATER MARGIN, and GENERAL YUE FEI of the Northern Song (Sung), 960-1127?

3 Kingdoms. Every character is introduced by his name, his birthplace, his parents, their occupation, his nickname, his occupation, his colors, his weapon. The three blood brothers use the family as the model for their relationship. The same for MULAN and MONKEY. WATER MARGIN has 108 blood brothers, modeled on the 3 brothers of the Oath in the Peach Garden, in 3 KINGDOMS, including character descended from Kwan Kung, the hero the 3 KINGDOMS. Everyone knows the WATER MARGIN might be true, but the relative of Kwan Kung was fiction. Descendants of heroes from 3 Kingdoms and the grandsons of the 108 outlaws of the Water Margin, show up at Yue Fei’s mother’s in the last chapters on GENERAL YUE FEI, after he’s dead and buried.

The only protectors of the people were brotherhoods of outlaws forced to fight the emperor’s army and the invaders from the north. Always the invaders from the north. Dynastic stories seeded and spread to Korea and Japan the way Greek myth spread to Rome and the west. With one huge exception. The Greeks died and spread. The Chinese didn’t die. The stories spread.

During the Chinese rule of the Ming, the stories become codified in the first vernacular novels aimed at the people, not the ruling class, the Chinese still live by. My plays were seen as bitter by the Asia-born and Americans yellow, black and white saw them as comic.

I began my career as a novelist from the beginning, at the beginning. A kid’s book written in the present tense that goes to dreams and the past without transitional devices. The book could talk about horsemen from China thundering in the clouds over Utah and whites banning us from the photo session with workmen from the Union Pacific gang in front of two locomotives meeting cowcatcher to cowcatcher at Promontory Point without arousing the whites to cursing me. The fear of the yellows of my kid’s book kicking off a white tantrum has proven unjustified.

The name of picture: Meeting of the Rails. All rendered so nice and so warm that adults gave DONALD DUK to their children to read themselves to sleep with for company. None of the reviews noticed it was a kid’s book with flash changes in time and space.



The Chinese-Americans reviewing in the white press didn’t notice I wrote an English all-present tense grammar as my advance on and tribute to Louis Chu being the first to use English as a dialect of Cantonese. (No reviewer noticed Louis Chu at all) He duplicated Cantonese regional folk sayings from China. He loaded conversation and narrative with the significant expressions and people with signals that English-only readers wouldn’t stumble over. He was using both languages to construct a third level of understanding in EAT A BOWL OF TEA. For some reason Louis Chu didn’t go all the way to the present tense nature of Cantonese. So I did it. Ah me! That was a long write ago.

Is my word “chickendrop” the same as a “chicken dropping”? They’re preparing footnotes for the publication of my work for the Chinese. (DONALD DUK is being published in China?) What do I mean when I say “race,” when there’s no biological basis for race? That’s my kind of question. I can explain what “race” means in America means on the multi-cultural west coast of the United States. But what I want to know is what does “race” mean to the Chinese?


“What is the meaning of ‘Aiiieeeee’” They have AIIIEEEEE!? That’s another book altogether. They didn’t find the word “Aiiieeeee” in any English dictionary. We were four writers, were the first Chinese and Japanese American-born writers to brandish our writer’s childhood experience as facts of our being American-born and raised, but we had to check the facts. Facts like when a bucktoothed slanty-eyed yellow man was shot in the American comics he threw up his rifle and yelled “Aiiieeeee!” Americans that were discovered shot, asked for a cigarette and gave a short soliloquy for a death scene. Aiiieeeee! Might have been spelled differently from strip to strip, to Big Little Books, to 32 page comic books, but “Aiiieeeee!” shot-yellow after shot-yellow screamed in the movies. And died.

It was 1968 and we’d been in California in numbers since 1849, and in Mexico since 1840. There were Chinese newspapers in Chinese. As the Chinese committed their futures to America they would begin to publish in English for the yellows that read English. English year by year became the language that more and more yellows were born to use. We’d been in America for nearly fifty years, two generations by the time the US Congress passed The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Out for a nightly cappuccino we’d stop in a different used bookstore and search “C’s” “L’s” and “W’s” for books by Chan, Chin, Chew, Leong, Long, Lam, Wong, Wing, Wooey and again for Japanese names. If we found one, we cast aside our egos and read the book. Shawn and I found Lawson Inada scowling on the back of DOWN AT THE SANTA FE DEPOT a collection of poetry from Fresno on sale at Cody’s Books across the street from the Mediterreaneum Caffe known as the “Med” by long time habitu├ęs, like me. I spent an hour over a nightly morning cappuccino like a kids in I VITELLONE up late at night in Italy. I’ve never been to Italy either. But I’ve seen a lot of movies. I grew up learning an Italian accent from J. Carroll Naish in his weekly half hour on the radio with LIFE WITH LUIGI. AMOS’N’ANDY a half hour about blacks played by white actors was a show I as a kid two years in Oakland Chinatown found it funny. I read one of Lawson Inada’s poems. I handed the book to Shawn, the poet.

I felt pretty good. Every now and then it happened. Lawson had whatever I had and more. It usually takes me twenty twenty-five pages before I’m sure about the presence of a writer. One short half page poem, and I had to get another espresso to recover.

Shawn’s head jerks back sharply as he stares at the book. I raise my eyebrows, say “Eh?” and stare at him.


We didn’t expect the relief and joy we experienced at finding a book by a real writer. Oh, yes, there were others. NO-NO BOY was written by a real writer! John Okada was dead at 47, just last year. EAT A BOWL OF TEA is a superbly written book. He was dead also. But we found their books. As long as these books lived I was an American born yellow free to be irrelevant and trivial.

What a weight off my back. Proving that we American-born yellows have written and been published by “American” New York, San Francisco, Chicago publishers before, shouldn’t have been hard, but even with the dates and labels, presenting the proof proved difficult.

The whites assume that Christianity has given them a proprietary right to make and remake culture’s not Christian without reading the culture’s they are changing. The whites don’t treat us like writers. They treat us like waiters.

Whites knew the scripts we had in our hands without reading them. The whites patronizingly assumed we were new to writing new to America and were the first generation of talented pushing our writing and the writing of our “friends.” They told us they weren’t interested in a collection of writing by us and our friends. Gee! They knew us already from the movies.



We wish that John Okada, and Louis Chu had been alive when we read them. But I doubt that we would have been friends. Maybe Lawson, who turned out not to dress in a military field jacket and wear a beret, as in the photo on the back of DOWN AT THE SANTA FE DEPOT, or Shawn or Jeff. John was too prissy about his looks. He was a good looking guy. He added that polish of dressing like he was good looking. He could make a used paper bag look like a designer shirt designed for him. If the novel is as good as we say it is, there are things about the author I’d like to know. I’d like to know why, in his own words, he chose to write about a pariah rather than a heroic character like himself. And I’d like to know his service record and decorations.

For ourselves, we wanted to hook up with the writers we liked or their families to learn more about how to look at similar experiences in different generations. Why isn’t San Francisco the city where the American-born Chinese are recognized as artists and writers? Benson Fong was plucked off a barstool at Li Po’s on Grant Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown and taken to Hollywood to become Charlie Chan’s Number Two Son in the movies. San Francisco. Chinatown. Fog. The words are magic. J. Carroll Naish was the white man who played Charlie Chan in the black and white days of TV. James Hong played his number one son. He had an office in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Magic! I watched CHARLIE CHAN on TV and saw Jimmie Hong in his early TV portrayal of the stereotype invented by Keye Luke, playing Number One Son to Warner Oland’s white man playing Charlie Chan. If there was any doubt that Charlie Chan was a movie form, doomed or destined to rise every ten years and an attempt made at revival. The white man talking funny and the funny Chinese son talking perfect Chinese and near perfect American removed it. C. Y. Lee, a published China-born author of FLOWER DRUM SONG the stupid novel set in Frisco’s Chinatown that turned into the mix of insult and talent, the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, FLOWER DRUM SONG. San Francisco is the city where whites show their magic power over the yellows.


Where is the American Shangri-la with the climate light and air made for yellow artists and all yellow talents thrives and blooms year round.

San Francisco isn’t Shangri-la. Frisco’s where the whites kept the Chinese in the place given to them by the white Christians in the 72 churches and church institutions in Chinatown’s 29 blocks spouted out the ashes and remains of the Earthquake and Fire of 1906.

No city in America has been more hospitable to Chinese and Japanese artists of all kinds and politicians of all kinds, than Seattle. Kafu Nagai of Tokyo wrote of Chinese and Japanese who had come to settle in his AMERIKA MONOGATARI (1908) and Dr. Kyo Koike one of the Issei settlers wrote poetry, and on the theory and technique of photography, and published his photographs in magazines he published when photography was a new art. Significantly he translated and staged Japanese plays with Glenn Hughes of the University of Washington, Hughes was a director famous for his “theater in the round.” The whites of Seattle weren’t hostile to, or patronizing of yellow artists like Dr. Koike, who besides being a poet, a playwright, a photographer, an essayist, a publisher was also a physician and an instructor of midwifery. Seattle and Dr. Koike aren’t better known because the Japanese Americans, the Nikkei, don’t have a magazine of their own or writers not approved by the US government of WWII and their proxies, sociology, and the JACL. This raises the question: have the Chinese in China or Japanese in Japan ever had a privately owned popular magazine concerned with Chinese and Japanese culture and politics as LIFE and THE NEW YORKER are magazines of American identity?

In the 1950’s in my teens, in Oakland, California (across the Bay from San Francisco) I ran into the artwork of Paul Horiuchi, and George Tsutakawa two Seattle artists in a high school teacher’s home. She was a white Christian Scientist, divorced from a Mexican-American lawyer. I first heard of Seattle and yellow art from her.

From San Francisco came the white supremacist Christian autobiography FIFTH CHINESE DAUGHTER, by Jade Snow Wong in 1950. In 1951, from Seattle came the less tutored, more thoughtful NISEI DAUGHTER by Monica Sone.

Yellow artists dubbed “activists” by the whites newspapers of San Francisco moved to Seattle where they were embraced as “artists” by Seattle museums, their work critiqued by Seattle critics, including Mayumi Tsutakawa, the daughter of painter/sculptor George Tsutakawa and their livings made.

1957 was a year when art bloomed into politics by becoming the first city to elect a yellow to office. Wing Luke, a laundryman’s son come to America with his family at thirteen was elected to the Seattle City Council. 1957 also saw Charles Tuttle of Tokyo and Rutland Vt. release of N0-NO BOY a novel, set in Seattle by Seattle, authored by Seattle native John Okada. Unfortunately the JACL in a show of it’s secret police powers made sure NO-NO BOY never left the Rutland warehouse. And the JACL exercises exclusive control the image of the WWII Nisei in American culture, and Japanese American writing –In the 1980’s the JACL quietly stopped the showing of a Japanese made mini-series on Japanese Americans in camp, and no one noticed it never showed. That’s the JACL control of Japanese America today.

The Chinese kept using their mounting political capital to advance through City and County until a Chinese American was elected Governor of Washington State. No one seemed to have noticed the press that had made Chinatown and the Chinese a comfort in the white world. Stories of new lanterns in Chinatown, the Seattle Chinatown girls drill team visit Hong Kong, Fortune Cookies stuffed with candidate’s name were stories from the mouth of Ruby Chow to the ears of the news writers and anchormen that drank at places that Ruby hostessed till she opened her swanky out of Chinatown place of her own, Ruby Chow’s Chinese Cuisine.

Seattle has a warm Chinese Governor popular in Washington’s past and a Chinese America more a part of white politics. A mighty metro daily the Seattle Times editorialized against Ruby Chow’s daughter for the school board. She won her seat on the school board anyway. The white metro dailies have taken on certain Chinese sensibility, and feel free to criticize their Chinatown correspondent who in the late 50’s through the 70’s was the word from Chinatown and another word that that reporter’s or editor’s or the TV anchorman’s wife was at the restaurant entrance with a woman friend waiting for a table, and out the back door before Ruby shows the party to their table.

The Chinese and Japanese press that should be an indication of the community that sprouted a beloved Chinese-American governor into the world or artists, writers, and politicians in the cities and counties. But no. The two papers of the Asian-American community are embarrassingly amateurish. They should be taking apart the machine of Asian American political power that seems to lean toward a march Seattle on toward the Presidency.

But two Chinatown English language newspapers are embarrassments. They can’t write a proper headline. A reason to read, what you’ll read, right now! They don’t seem to have noticed the Chinese Japanese, Japanese Chinese marriages that gave you a start in the fifties and become more common in the sixties, are still a happening thing today. The Chinese and Japanese Americans have been intermarrying so long now to not notice the phenomena makes no sense. The yellow community doesn’t have the newspapers they deserve. A scaredy cat Jr. high school paper, and a community that elected a Wing Luke to the City Council in 1957 and Gary Locke governor in 1996 don’t gibe.

Aiiieeeee! In Seattle

The Aiiieeeee! Boys came to Seattle in the 70’s looking for Chinatown because John Okada had written about it. Gambling dens in the backrooms of restaurants along a certain dark street and a gambling club in an alley, the Club Oriental.

We went where the books we liked took us. Okada took us to Seattle, and the realm of Asian press queen Ruby Chow, a name that brings to a Seattle mind the beehived and French rolled hair of the Dragon Lady and the face and body of Edward G. Robinson. I told them to get the interview with Ruby Chow recording from the start. Don’t drink. I’ll be by after I get Judge Warren Chan’s parents. I walk in three or four hours later and Ben Tong is stuttering “I…I..,I am nnnnot a C-C-Communist!” Al Wong is scowling with a Scotch in his hand. Jeff Chan’s head is on the back of the banquette and his eyes are crossed.

The writers we sought out, met in the last rooms in their lives, and we collected interviews about their lives, in their voices. We were excited to whooping pie eyed at getting the American-born author of a work that we’ve read more than once. We got whiffs of someone as interested as we are now, in the ‘30s before the 2nd World War of December 7, 1941, in the fields of Japanese America came new American writers blooming into print in America, and he’d give writers he liked a job writing an article, for his magazine. Like Sushi I Have Eaten on a Leisurely Hitch hike from Seattle to Santa Fe” by that witty California apricot grower that called himself the Leisurely Hitch Hiker. (I don’t the mags on hand. The title is faked with respect). The JA’s had a magazine that hired writers to write? It was owned published and edited by James Omura. The writers had to pay their own travel expenses. And they did it anyway? His was the only magazine that paid. They were glad to tears to have a magazine that paid for their writing. What happened to it? They say the war killed it. Jimmie Omura would say the JACL killed it and were after him.

At 1737 Sutter Street in San Francisco there was a magazine called: CURRENT LIFE Subtitled: The Magazine for the American Born Japanese. The October 1940 issue carried a properly written headline. I know what I'm reading and why.


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