Tuesday, August 11, 2015

An Interview with Calvin McMillin

Dear Readers,

Eddie here—editor of ChinTalks and Frank Chin’s personal assistant. I hope you got your copy of The Confessions of a Number One Son.  If you notice the front cover of the book, Calvin McMillin’s name appears as the editor. So, who is Calvin? With Frank’s blessing I decided to interview him for the blog. Enjoy!

[My questions in bold]

(Calvin McMillin, PhD)

How are you doing?

I’m doing fine, Eddie. How are you?

I’m great! Thanks. Tell us a little bit about yourself. What was your upbringing like and what’s your educational background?

I was born a long time ago in a country far, far way—Singapore to be precise. I’m the son of a Chinese Singaporean mother and a white, West Texas-raised father. After living in Singapore and Texas for a few years, we moved to Rush Springs, Oklahoma—the Watermelon Capital of the World. For the most part, it was an idyllic, rural childhood. Rush Springs is a lot like Smallville, Kansas [Superman's hometown], and I mean that as a compliment.

Anyway, after graduating high school, I went on to earn bachelors’ degrees in English and secondary education from Oklahoma State University. After teaching junior high for a year, I left for Hawaii and obtained a master’s degree in English from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa with an emphasis in Cultural Studies in Asia/Pacific. After that, I pursued a doctorate in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz where I specialized in Asian American literature.

Why Asian American Literature?

There are all sorts of reasons why I’m interested in Asian American literature, but making it a category of study was something that evolved over time.

In college, my literary tastes were—and still are—pretty eclectic, running the gamut from Shakespeare to hardboiled detective fiction, from Gothic novels to the works of Haruki Murakami. To tell you the truth, before I went to grad school I actually thought I’d end up being a Mark Twain scholar!

At OSU, I became involved in the Asian American Student Association, and I had read a number of works of Asian American literature by the time I graduated, but it wasn’t until I got to the University of Hawai‘i that it became a serious scholarly pursuit. Not only was I exposed to the local literature of Hawaii, but there were so many used bookstores around, that it was easy—and affordable—to amass a sizable collection of works by Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander authors. I also took an eye-opening class on pre-1960s Asian American literature taught by writer Gary Pak, and things sort of evolved from there. It wasn’t just the subject matter or the authors we covered that appealed to me, but a certain critical perspective that slowly emerged—one that I don’t think I even recognized until recently. Much of my research and pedagogy centers on the uncovering of hidden histories—that is, muted narratives that contradict or unsettle accepted knowledge. In so many respects, Asian American literature affords me that opportunity.

When did you first learn about Frank Chin and his writings?

I first read Frank Chin’s work as an undergraduate at OSU. I suspect that I might have been exposed to a snippet of his critical writing when I read The Woman Warrior or maybe The Joy Luck Club in one of my college classes. Granted, that might be a false memory! In any case, I eventually got my hands on that double volume edition of The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon.

What were your impressions when you read his plays?

At the time, I don’t think I completely understood them—for a great many reasons, I’m sure. After all, plays are meant to be seen, not read. Back then, you couldn’t just order a DVD from Amazon to see George Takei’s interpretation of Fred Eng in The Year of the Dragon. That kind of access was still a few years away, unfortunately. And watching a play being performed can make all the difference. Pacing, intonation, body language—none of that is available to you when you read a play in isolation.

Now, those conditions aren’t necessarily important; people read plays all the time without ever seeing a performance and still "get it." Even so, you have to remember that Frank’s plays were unlike anything I’d ever read, especially in regard to his inventive use of language. Also, I think the tendency of his protagonists to break with the norms of social etiquette—the sudden insults, the refusal to keep quiet, the bizarre non sequitur here and there—can be bewildering, alienating, perhaps even infuriating to the uninitiated. It’s like walking into a room and finding yourself in the middle of a heated argument. You’ve left the confines of your home behind only to step into a war zone, and suddenly, you’re scrambling to understand the stakes of the argument because maybe you’re going to be forced to pick sides! In a way, Frank’s plays operate in a similar manner. They don’t let the audience off the hook; he doesn’t give them the luxury of remaining neutral, at least not for long. So, I’m sure all of that was contributing to my initial response to his plays.

And yet, the plays still spoke to me. I’m not sure if I could articulate it at the time, but looking back, I can see why I found certain elements appealing—and why they stayed with me. In both of those plays, Frank was trying to articulate a Chinese American identity—not Chinese from China, not a white American identity, but something else. Of course, he’d probably use the word “Chinaman” since he was hell-bent on reclaiming that word from its racist connotations, but whatever you want to call it, his characters were attempting to assert a distinctive cultural identity. In other writings, Frank has argued that the so-called “Asian American identity crisis,” is something imposed from the outside, not from within. It was only as real as you allowed it to be. And as person of mixed race descent, I could identify with that. For some whites, I wasn’t white enough or American enough to fit in. For some Asians, I wasn’t Asian enough or was too American for their liking. So, despite having very little in common with Tam Lum or Fred Eng, I couldn’t help but be moved by their plight. They were deeply-flawed characters who were raging back against ethnic stereotypes and racist expectations. They were attempting to assert not just their identities, but their very right to exist by proclaiming “I AM!” in a primal scream that emanated deep from the heart of Asian America.

(Author Frank Chin. Photo by Nancy Wong)

How did you discover The Confessions of a Number One Son?

Like a lot of great discoveries, it happened quite by accident. I was conducting research for my doctoral dissertation, and part of that research involved Charlie Chan, the fictional Chinese detective created by Earl Derr Biggers. I knew Frank was an outspoken critic of Charlie Chan, so I was looking for an essay that might feature his definitive critique of the character. During that search, I stumbled upon a curious reference to Charlie Chan on Maui, a Frank Chin novel that was never published. It shocked me. I’m supposed to be a scholar of Asian American literature, and I had never even heard of this novel! How could that be possible? That tiny reference piqued my interest, so I decided to do some investigating, and the project took off from there.

Why wasn't the book published in the 1970s?

I think Frank is the only one who knows the full story. Through my discussions with him and the independent research I conducted, it seems like a number of factors contributed to the book’s demise—at least in its original form. There was the initial obstacle involving the lawyers for the Earl Derr Biggers estate. Soon after, the book evolved into a play and parts of it were used for short stories. After that, I think Frank just moved on. That’s the short version anyway. I devote quite a bit of space tracing the book’s evolution in my introduction.

What motivated you to get Confessions published?

Well, the funny thing is that I sought out the original manuscripts simply from a research perspective. I just wanted to see what Frank wrote and whether it would be relevant to my project. I had no intention of pursuing publication. However, once I started reading these manuscripts, I realized I’d found something special. This wasn’t just a lost novel—it was a great novel, one that should have been published. So, despite having a dissertation of my own to complete, I embarked on a restoration project—with no guarantees that Frank would even say yes. I didn’t even know how to get in contact with him!

In the introduction of Confessions, you mentioned you wrote a letter to Frank Chin, telling him you were the right person to edit the book and have it published. Obviously, you convinced him. In so many words, what exactly did you tell him?

I actually didn’t pitch myself to Frank as “the right person to edit the book”—not explicitly anyway. Certainly, I introduced myself, discussed my research, and told him what I thought about the novel. But really, I just encouraged him to seek a publisher and offered to help him in whatever way I could. At the very least, I was hoping he would agree to an interview.

By the time I contacted Frank, I had already created a master copy of the novel from multiple existing drafts. That took a year, maybe two years of work. I did this all in secret. I didn’t ask Frank if I could do it; I just did it—knowing full well that nothing might come from it. I hoped he might be impressed that I took the initiative, but even if he didn’t want the novel to be published, at least he’d have a clean, full-length copy on Microsoft Word to do with as he pleased.

The letter I sent to Frank became the basis for my introduction to the novel, particularly the section in which I talk about the restoration process. When I learned of the existence of Frank’s unpublished novel, I was really excited. I suggested to him that perhaps it was a lot like how he felt when he learned about John Okada, Louis Chu, and Toshio Mori. Maybe he responded to that, I don’t know. Something I said must have convinced him to give me—a total stranger—a shot. And I’ll always be grateful for that.

The original manuscripts of Confessions came out to over 660 pages. You edited it down to a little over 260 pages. Can you describe the editing process of the book? How did you work with Frank on it?

At one point, during a phone conversation with Frank, I tried to feel him out on how we would work together during the editing process. To my surprise, he handed over full editorial control. It was an amazing moment. I couldn’t believe it. It was truly beyond my wildest dreams. Of course, I wanted to be the editor, but that was a wish I dared not speak aloud, for fear that it would never come true. And then it did. That was a supremely generous move on Frank’s part, and again, I can’t thank him enough for giving me that opportunity.

The maximum page count was a restriction set by the publisher, and while you might think that would be detrimental to the editing process, it was actually quite liberating. Even before I became aware of this edict, I was concerned about publishing a “new novel” by Frank Chin that contained material that was published elsewhere, so the first thing I did was cut out anything that had already appeared in The Chickencoop Chinaman, The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R.R. Co, and Gunga Din Highway. It was pretty easy to remove some of these elements because a handful of Frank’s short stories are actually chapters from this novel. In other cases, however, there were similarities deeply embedded into stray passages throughout the book, and that required both an attentive eye and some creative editing. All sorts of decisions had to be made in regard to structure and chapter breaks.

As I discuss in my introduction, I approached the project like a film editor. I treated my job as if I’d been handed a rough cut of a movie, and the studio was asking me to edit it down to a manageable length for release. In my case, the director had moved on to the next project, so it was up to me to complete the project while staying true to his vision the best I could.

What’s your opinion of Charlie Chan? This fictional character is obviously a theme in Confessions. And it's astonishing how influential Charlie Chan is regarding Chinese stereotypes. We have Yunte Huang's controversial book on him; and there are Hollywood rumors of a movie developing on Chan. But what do you make of him?

Charlie Chan is a racist icon. Many fans of the character will tell you differently. Some feel very protective of him because they enjoyed those movies as children. Some will even accuse critics of the character of not knowing what they’re talking about—of not doing the proper research. But I can assure you that I have seen every Charlie Chan movie ever made that is still in existence, even a Spanish-language adaptation. I have read every Charlie Chan novel Earl Derr Biggers ever wrote and every subsequent spin-off novel and short story that’s come out. I’ve seen every episode of the Charlie Chan TV series, and every episode of the cartoon. I’ve read the comic strips and the comic books. Charlie Chan is a racist icon.

I think what confuses some people is that Charlie Chan is depicted as a hero. He’s a good guy, they say. And that’s one-hundred-percent true. He isn’t a villain. From the fan’s perspective, since Charlie Chan is portrayed as a positive figure then he can’t possibly be racist. I think that interpretation is actually reflective of a larger problem we have in our country when it comes to racism. According to this line of thinking, racism is equated with ill intent. For something to be considered racist, you have to mean someone harm. Racism, from this perspective, has to be an expression of outright hate, even violence to qualify as racism. And yet even when hatred is obvious and violence occurs, we only have to turn on the news or scroll through social media to see that some people are still not willing to concede that racism is a contributing factor. But Frank Chin and Jeffery Paul Chan have already addressed and debunked that mindset back in the 1970s by arguing that there are such things as racist hate and racist love. Charlie Chan is an example of racist love. I won’t rehash the argument here, but, in many ways, you can view characters like Charlie Chan as precursors to the model minority myth—although in this case, the minority has been, quite conspicuously, played by white men.

Although the first three Charlie Chans were of Asian descent, ever since the first Warner Oland film for Fox, Charlie Chan has been exclusively played by white men—even as late as 1981. Former Number One Son Keye Luke—who loved the films, was a faithful defender of Charlie Chan, and actually wanted to play Charlie Chan on the big screen—only got to provide the voice for the character in the cartoon! Now, I know that Russell Wong and later Lucy Liu were slated for separate, never produced Charlie Chan films, and I’ve even seen people suggest that Charlie Chan should be rebooted with an Asian American actor in the lead. I totally understand that sentiment, and perhaps even subscribed to it once, but if you really think about it, one of the reasons why they kept casting a white man in the role is because Charlie Chan only “works” as racial impersonation. Yellowface is the appeal of the character. That’s the novelty. That’s the joke. Even Roland Winters, one of the actors who portrayed the character, admitted as much in an interview with Frank Chin. As Chin himself once said, “Charlie Chan will always be a symbol of white racism, no matter who plays him. If you put a black man in a hood, does that make the Ku Klux Klan a civil rights organization?”

Sure, Frank has a flair for the dramatic, but the larger point still stands. Rebooting Charlie Chan isn’t the same as putting a new twist on James Bond or Sherlock Holmes. Racial impersonation is at the very core of the character. If you want an Asian American detective on the big screen, I say create a brand new one, divorced from all that baggage.

Now, having said all that, let me clarify that if you enjoy the Charlie Chan series, that’s fine with me. A lot of the films are pretty terrible, but some are fairly amusing, and a select few are actually good. They have their charms. It really depends on the director. These weren’t prestige pictures or big budget blockbusters; they were B-movies churned out one right after the other. All these years later, what I find most interesting about these films are the performances of actors like Keye Luke, Victor Sen Yung, and Benson Fong, not to mention a number of Asian American actresses who appear throughout the series. So, just because I say Charlie Chan is a racist icon that doesn’t mean I’m saying that these movies should be banned or that you’re a bad person for liking them. All I’m saying is that if people bring up the racism inherent in the films, there’s no reason for Charlie Chan fans to get defensive.

I mean, look at the James Bond series. I have loved those movies for as long as I can remember, but there’s no denying that a lot of the films, especially the early ones, are horribly racist, sexist, and imperialist. The books, I’m afraid, are far worse. Still, you can enjoy something and be critical of it at the same time.

In my opinion, the introduction alone is worth the price of the book. If anybody is unfamiliar with who Frank Chin is they ought to read the intro to Confessions. There’s so much information you found on him. Of all the things you discovered about Frank, what was the most interesting in your opinion?

Thank you for saying that. I’m glad you liked it. I put a lot of work into that introduction, so it’s gratifying to hear that people are responding to it. As far as the most interesting thing I learned about Frank, well, that’s difficult to say. I learned a lot of interesting things—many of them I’m saving for a later project! Indeed, Frank has led an interesting life, and I hope readers get a sense of that when they read my introduction.

The unfortunate thing is that some people only know Frank by reputation or not at all. I’ve encountered Asian American scholars who have never read his work or have only read excerpts, albeit quoted in someone else’s critique. And that’s completely understandable. There are gaps in anyone’s knowledge, including my own. I’m not faulting them for that. But this apparent lack of familiarity with his work is one of the primary reasons I decided to write an extensive introduction—or reintroduction, if you will—as I firmly believe this novel can provide readers with a new vantage point from which to judge his work. The Confessions of a Number One Son is not a polemic. It’s a work of art.

I think it’s a shame this book wasn’t published earlier. What do you think would have happened had this book been published in the 70s?

Honestly, I have no idea. But just imagine an Asian American novel with all the resources of a New York publishing house behind it: a publisher that would be able to garner media coverage, book reviews in major print publications, and placement in major bookstores all across the country. Also, consider the cultural moment: Bruce Lee is dead, filmmakers are actively trying to resurrect Charlie Chan on the big screen, and moviegoers are flocking to theaters to see the films of the American New Wave, that whole post-Easy Rider movement full of rebellious characters who—while predominantly white—are not unlike Tam Lum in terms of outlook and personality. Now, if you factor into this equation a very outspoken Asian American author, especially one who would have at least one groundbreaking New York play to his name at that point, then I think one can at least imagine an alternate universe in which the novel makes a big splash. It could have been, at the very least, controversial.

Of course, it’s just as possible that none of that would have happened. Readers might have rejected Frank’s work. For all I know, the novel could have been a dud. But to paraphrase Marlon Brando, it coulda been a contender.

Of all the books you read of Frank’s where would you rank Confessions?

Number one, of course. Maybe I’m biased because of my involvement, but I honestly think it’s his strongest work.

Finally, finish this sentence: “In the movie about me, ________”

“In the movie about me, I live happily ever after.”



  1. Good blog. Have you seen r/aznidentity or r/hapas on reddit? It is the goto place for a new generation of Asian activism.

  2. Many admirers of your work on our subreddits.

    I forgot to mention r/asianmasculinity and r/easternsunrising as well.