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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Frank Chin
(b. 1940)

Frank Chin was born on February 25, 1940, in Berkeley, California. His father was an immigrant and his mother a fourth-generation resident of Oakland Chinatown, where Chin spent much of his childhood. He attended the University of California at Berkeley and at Santa Barbara and participated in the Program in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. Chin is a tireless and influential promoter of Asian American literature, though his vision of it has often been criticized for its exclusionary tendencies. He has written novels, short stories, plays, comic books, and numerous essays; produced documentaries; worked as a script consultant in Hollywood; taught college courses in Asian American literature; and helped form the Asian American Theatre Workshop in San Francisco.

He co-edited (with Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong) a foundational anthology of Asian American writings entitled Aiiieeeee! (1974). A second volume, The Big Aiiieeeee!, was published in 1991. Much of Chin’s notoriety stems from the positions he and his colleagues take in the introductory essays in those collections. One of their central concerns is the emasculating effect of anti-Asian racism as epitomized by stereotypical figures like Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu. Another controversial aspect of Chin’s nonfictional writing has been his relentless criticism of writers such as David Henry Hwang, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Amy Tan; in his view, these writers falsify Asian and Asian American culture. Critics point out the misogyny and homophobia that propel Chin’s polemics, but they also acknowledge the significance of his pioneering work as a literary historian. Indeed many of the writers that Chin and his colleagues champion—such as Louis Chu, John Okada, and Hisaye Yamamoto—have been accorded a privileged place in Asia American literary studies.

The controversy generated by Chin’s polemics has tended to overshadow his fictional and dramatic works. First staged in 1972, The Chickencoop Chinaman was one of the first plays written by an Asian American to be produced in New York. A second play, The Year of the Dragon, premiered two years later. Many of Chin’s early writings contain an autobiographical element. They often revolve around a male protagonist—usually a would-be writer—alienated from his family or from his Chinatown community. This is the predicament shared by Johnny in Chin’s first published short story, "Food for All His Dead" (1962), and by Fred in The Year of the Dragon. Much of Chin’s early fiction was published in The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R.R. Co. (1988), which won the National Book Award and from which “Railroad Standard Time” has been excerpted. The writings from this period tend to revel in masochistic self-loathing. The male heroes find only momentary relief when they are able to articulate their agony in elaborate monologues and when they gain tenuous access to a Chinese American history of mythical dimensions—a history usually associated with the railroad.

A shift can be detected in Chin’s writings around the mid-eighties: he begins to forge a new vision of literary and racial authenticity based on a selective reading of classic Chinese texts, including Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. At the heart of the Chinese “real,” Chin asserts, is an essentially martial view of the world: Life is War. His recent works feature protagonists who embrace these values; furthermore, they frequently allude to the figure of Kwan Kung, a warrior deified in Chinese folklore. The novel Donald Duk (1991) recounts the coming-of-age of its eponymous twelve-year-old protagonist: unlike the anti-heroes of Chin’s earlier fiction, Donald is able to move beyond racial self-loathing by discovering the history of the Chinese American laborers who built the railroad and the world of Chinese mythology. The novel Gunga Din Highway (1994) features characters who are more exuberant and virile versions of the tortured protagonists of Chin’s early writings, for the male heroes of this later work have access to the heroic tradition Chin identifies with Kwan Kung. In Bulletproof Buddhists and Other Essays (1998) Chin finds evidence for the persistence of “real” Chinese values in a wide range of cultural locations: in the rituals of Southeast Asian youth gangs in southern California, in the Chinese American communities along the California-Mexico border, and in the works of dissident writers in Singapore.

Daniel Y. Kim
Brown University

In the Heath Anthology
Railroad Standard Time (1960)

Other Works
The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon (1981)
The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R.R. Co. (1988)
Donald Duk (1991)
Gunga Din Highway (1994)

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"The Dragon Is a Lantern": Frank Chin's Counter-Hegemonic Donald Duk
An article from 49th Parallel by David Goldstein-Shirley.

Feminists Censor Frank Chin, Again
A letter to Ishmael Reed by Frank Chin.

Secondary Sources