Monday, December 17, 2007

A review of "What's Wrong With Frank Chin?"



Film praises trailblazer without ignoring faults

"What's Wrong with Frank Chin?"


4 stars

Review by Nadine Kam

With a title like "What's Wrong with Frank Chin?," Curtis Choy's "novel documentary" may win over an audience of more than just a handful of literary and activist types.

The work turns out to be a respectful homage to Asian-American literature's original angry young man. While striving for balance, Choy makes a case for what's right with Frank Chin, even while detailing his run-ins with actors, producers, publishers and fellow writers throughout a career in which he's never achieved the mainstream renown of those he despises.

As a young writer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, I had my own encounter with Chin, the author of such works as "Bulletproof Buddhists and Other Essays," "Donald Duk," "Gunga Din Highway," "The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R.R. Co." and "Born in the USA: A Story of Japanese
America, 1889-1947," when he visited our campus in the early 1980s. I was too naive to tremble with fear at the thought of interviewing the Chinese-American bad boy with the Fu Manchu mustache.

I listened to him spit out his desk-pounding tirades about Asian-American stereotypes and Hollywood's emasculation of Asian men. What I remember most was the conviction and vitriol of a man certain of his rightness, establishment's wrongness and frustration with others' blindness or indifference to his truth.

I reported the message but didn't embrace it, attributing our differences to geography and gender. Maybe things were different for him in San Francisco, but I had grown up in Hawaii as part of an Asian-American majority. What did I know of discrimination? I was an Asian-American female, a double model minority in an era of equal opportunity.

I look back and wonder why he didn't reach across the table and shake me awake. It must have been hard for him to be perceived as forever railing at invisible demons. But my reaction was typical and I imagine many of my generation are just beginning to realize Chin is getting the
last laugh.

As he says in the documentary, on teaching a course in Asian-American Studies in the late 1960s: "I wasn't prepared for Asian-American Studies. Students were taking it as a Mickey Mouse course, easy grades. They had no idea of where they were in Asian-America, except they were above it. They were, each and every one of them -- this was common -- the first Asian of their kind to be accepted as white among whites. They call this assimilation."

When students asked, "What's wrong with acceptance?," Chin's response was "On whose terms?"

At the time, no books dealt with Asian-American history or culture, so Chin started oral-history projects, speaking to old actors and immigrants about their experiences. With writer Shawn Wong and San Francisco State College Asian-American Studies chairman Jeffery Chan, Chin searched for earlier Asian-American writing and what they found became the basis for the seminal anthology "Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers" and its successor "The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature."

Choy's documentary follows Chin's experiences as the founder of San Francisco's Asian-American Theatre Workshop, an experiment that did not end well when the group's aims diverged from his vision.

One of the most entertaining segments involves a long-running feud between Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston, author of "The Woman Warrior," whom Chin describes, along with Amy Tan, as being "Pocahontas yellows" delivering a "mixed-up East-West soul struggle" in works that "falsify Chinese culture." Never mind that little thing called literary license.

When Choy poses the question of whether such writers are sell-outs, Chin initially sounds as if he is trying to be diplomatic, before reverting to his belligerent tone. "I don't think writers are selling out," he says. "All writers really believe what they're doing is right. It's just that they're stupid."

"That's Frank," explained Frank Abe, one of the original members of Chin's Asian American Theatre Workshop. "He draws clean lines. It's black and white, yes or no."

Another interesting aspect to Chin's work is his little-known role in recognizing the "Day of Remembrance" for Pearl Harbor and his pursuit of redress for Japanese-Americans who lost civil liberties and property during World War II. Chin organized one of the first rallies for the
cause in Seattle, explaining to Abe in urging him to go north: "The Japanese-Americans are making their move. They're going for redress but they don't know how to do it. If you lose redress you lose your history; if you lose your history you can kiss Japanese-American art

If the status of Asian-Americans has improved over the past 30 years, we have Chin to thank for some of the initial volleys. Through his theatrical and printed works, he opened himself up to society's slings and arrows, while opening eyes to continuing inequities.

Consider Choy's work a belated thank-you.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Searching for Frank Chin

[The following article comes from A. Magazine's March 1995 edition]

Searching for Frank Chin

"[Maxine Hong] Kingston, [David Henry] Hwang, and [Amy] Tan are the first writers of any race, and certainly the first writers of Asian Ancestry, to so boldly fake the best-known works from the most universally known body of Asian literature and lore in history. And, to legitimize their faking, they have to fake all of Asian American history and literature, and argue that the immigrants who settled and established Chinese America lost touch with Chinese culture, and that faulty memory combined with new experience produced new versions of these traditional stories. This version of history is their contribution to the stereotype." -- Frank Chin

By Terry Hong
A. Magazine
March 1995

Last summer, I spent what seemed like an inordinate amount of time and effort searching for Frank Chin. Frank Chin, the controversial literary figure, the co-editor of the seminal Asian American texts, Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers and The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature -- the self-appointed leader in the Asian American literary war between what he calls "the fake" and "the real."

I had been assigned a freelance project -- a short biographical profile for a research publication -- and I had hoped to interview him. Getting his phone number was no little feat -- I had to swear and hope to be burned alive before my ultimate source begrudgingly revealed it to me. I spent about a week calling at random times trying to catch him in (no machine). When I finally got in touch with him, he politely refused to give me an interview, but agreed to send a biographical statement he had written to use as background for my profile.

The promised materials arrived promptly. I wrote the profile and sent a copy to Frank Abe, a close friend of Chin's who had been one of the original members of Chin's Asian American Theatre Workshop in San Francisco. Abe, who is currently director of communications for the Office of the King County Executive in Seattle, Washington, was extremely helpful. He made a few corrections, and I sent the piece on to the publisher. I thought that was it for my little experience with the enigmatic Frank Chin.

Then I get a call from my editor, who wants me to interview Chin. I think long and hard before I agree to give it another try. At least this time, I already have the number. I call Abe for advice and he gives me a whole spiel to give Chin, of which I take careful notes: "Tell Frank that I said that the readers of A. Magazine represent the constituency he wants to reach, regardless of his opinion of the magazine. These readers are the as-yet-unformed consciences he wants to reach," Abe coaches me. He even gives me a rundown of Chin's daily schedule so I'll know the best times to reach him.

I'm armed and ready. I dial the phone. Chin picks it up on the second ring. I have the notes in front of me and Chin listens patiently before he again politely refuses. "No, I'm not doing interviews. No interviews at all," he says evenly.

"But Frank Abe says that the reason you refuse to give interviews is because you think most reporters haven't done their homework. And Frank Abe says to tell you that I've definitely done my homework. And Frank Abe says..." I stammer. But he interrupts me with an astounding offer.

"Okay, I'll do your interview if you'll complete an assignment I give you," he counters. Silently I listen. "I want you to determine the existence of the story of Fu Mu Lan, the woman warrior whose body is supposedly mutilated with words engraved on her back. I want you to determine the existence of a fairy tale about the kitchen god's wife, or the kitchen queen as she is sometimes referred to, who was abused by her husband. I want you to determine the existence of a fairy tale that measures the worth of a woman by her husband's belch. I want you to find out for yourself that there are no versions of such myths, I want you to prove for yourself the nonexistence of these stories. Then I'll give you your interview.

"This is my gripe with Christians like Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan and David Henry Hwang," he continues before I can agree. "What they' re doing is faking text. They claim insights into the Chinese culture, but it's all a fake. If the original works don't exist, then they don't exist. If they do exist, then I'm all wet. It's a black and white issue of text, not of opinion. Anyone can determine the existence of these myths without the involvement of my rotten personality or the scintillating personality of others not like me. That's what you have to do for yourself. Find their nonexistence. Then I'll talk to you."

When I hang up, I'm frantic. I take down all my Chinese literature in translation books from classes I took at Yale. I look at bibliographies. I take notes. I call a friend who puts me in touch with a Chinese literature professor at the University of Texas at Austin who provides more names and titles I can look up. I try the libraries in Dallas, have no luck and go down to Austin and spend a day at the university. I come back with a pile of Xeroxes with which I can report back to Chin.

"I've done my homework," I announce when I call him again a week later.

"And what did you find out?" he says with encouragement. And I'm thinking to myself how surprised I am that this is Frank Chin most often described as "acerbic" that I'm talking to.

"I have a translation of the Ballad of Mu Lan that is different from the version in your essay in The Big Aiiieeeee! In it, there is no mention of the engraving of Mu Lan's back. But I did find out about Yue Fei, a Sung Dynasty military hero whose back was tattooed with battle messages," I report. "I could not find anything about a woman' s worth being measured by the loudness of her husband's belch. I asked a Chinese literature professor at U.T. Austin who also checked with some of her associates and no one had heard of any tales like that."

"Because it doesn't exist, of course," he adds.

"I found out the the myth of the kitchen god comes in many versions, that he is a minor god," I continue. "The basic story is about a man who is so poor he must give up his wife. The wife, newly married, tries to help her ex-husband by baking gold pieces into cakes which she gives to him. The poor man does not eat the cakes but sells them hoping to make a little money, thus losing the gift his ex-wife prepared for him. He eventually becomes convinced that there is no point to his existence and kills himself. The gods take pity on him and make him a small deity. I also found some engraved images of the kitchen god, pictured with the wife," I tell Chin.

"So you found out that he is a local, regional hero. That means he has no influence on the Chinese culture, because no one version dominates. The story itself is a series of fairy tales that are not influential. He's like Santa Claus, a figure manufactured as an excuse to give kids candy at the end of the year. And you found out the kitchen god' s image is always depicted as part of a double poster with the wife, that both the husband and wife are honored, and therefore the wife is not denigrated," he says. "In Tan's book, she asks why the kitchen queen is not honored. But she is. That means the whole premise of Tan's book is wrong.

"That's my gripe," Chin says, and I realize that my interview is beginning. "All those works are based on fabrication, on false text. If this were a white issue, say a book that asked why George Washington was never elected president, if there was a whole novel based on that, it would never be accepted. That crime is equal only to plagiarism. These false books are great literary flaws that only work in the western language, that only appeal to those who believe in the western stereotype of the Chinese. It's white racist text. I mean it. There is no justification for falsifying text.

"Their defenders are trying to drum up justifications to save their reputations. But there are no such justifications. It's racist work. And to enjoy it, you have to be a white racist, someone who believes that the white race's culture and literature are the only morally acceptable, universal literature and that everything else is evil and doesn't deserve to survive. Their version of Chinese America wants to be white, to think white, to marry whites, and therefore become culturally and racially extinct," Chin warns.

With all this talk of "the fake," I ask Chin about how, in his opinion, writers and readers can be "real." What does this whole question of "realness" and "fakeness" mean, anyway?

"The only way," Chin replies, "is to read. The empirical method. Call your local Asian language and literature departments. Take courses. Go by the library, check out Edward Werner's Dictionary of Chinese Mythology or read reliable sources like Anthony Christie. You could almost pick up any non-fiction book and start working from the bibliography. You could even go to the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology and check the bibliography in back. Some of the information you'll find will be wrong, but that will lead you to other sources, the contradictions will lead to other knowledge and you go on until the confusion gets cleared up. You can talk to people who know about the subject, then check their sources out. Do as I had you do. You'll find the information you're looking for. This stuff {Chinese literature} is not that inaccessible. It exists in good translations," Chin encourages.

When I ask him specifically about Asian American literature, he advises, "Start with The Big Aiiieeeee! It has the Asian American history and literature, it has comparative literature, it has the history of where the stereotypes come from, it has the comparisons of Asian and Western philosophies. The philosophies are the core. Asian philosophy is much more individualistic. Western philosophy is founded on religion as a system of social conformity to create the perpetual state. Asian philosophy is founded on struggle for perfection of personal individuality; there's no concept of original sin, no dialectic thinking, no social contracts. In Asian philosophy, you would never give up the individual to the state; that's sissy philosophy. Western philosophy says we' re all losers and sinners and victims. In Chinese philosophy, we're all soldiers; if we're not fighting for personal integrity, then we deserve to be victims, we deserve to die.

"What's happened is that Asian Americans don't know how to fight. If they did, they would be fighting, not whimpering. They would not be asserting the Chinese as victims. They would not be asserting phony literature as being literature that perpetuates the victimization of women. There were more women heroes in Chinese history and literature than in the West!"

There is a noticeable silence and I wait for Chin to continue. But when he doesn't, I take the hint and realize that my time is probably up. I look at my watch and am surprised to find that my 15 minutes have become 40.

"Is it okay with you to publish parts of this interview?" I finally ask.

Another pause, before Chin answers, "Yes. Yes, you can publish it."