Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bruce Lee - Another Look

Bruce Lee has had an enduring effect on our culture despite his untimely death . The images of him on the screen have become iconic . There is , however, something deeper in Bruce Lee's story , in his life, and in the history of his family.... something to learn there about images, stereotypes, assimilation , change , multi- racial and multicultural experience.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Louise Leung Larson- "Sweet Bamboo"

In preparing our Jue Joe Clan History Blog , I have become interested in other family memoirs , One fascinating memoir was published in 1989 by Louise Leung Larson . It is of the Thomas Leung family in Los Angeles. Thomas Leung was a successful Chinese herbalist in Los Angeles who primarily had a Caucasian clientele .
He was a contemporary of Jue Joe and San Tong Jue. In fact in the book there is mention that Thomas enjoyed spending time at the ranch in the San Fernando Valley of one of his fellow herbalists. I think the reference is to the Asparagus ranch of Yitang Chang ( father of Sam Chang ) . That ranch was close by to the Jue Joe Asparagus ranch .
The memoir was written by Louise , one of Thomas Leung's daughters and is a wonderful first person account of her family's history.
The history of the Los Angeles Chinese herbalists is very fascinating to me ,especially the fact that they catered in the 1920's and 1930's to a large Caucasian clientele . Despite the racial prejudice of the Exclusion era , many Caucasians were willing to pay handsomely to see Chinese "doctors " who could treat their ailments with herbs.

They were so successful that the Chinese herbalists raised the ire of the medical establishment.

"Father did well as an herbalist, too well, in the opinion of the American Medical Association and the Board of Medical Examiners. He and the other Chinese herbalists in Los Angeles at that time were accused of practicing medicine without a license because they used the title "Doctor" and felt the pulse as one way of diagnosis. Papa was a special target and was arrested over 100 times on the misdemeanor charge . . . . The police, at times, used stool pigeons--people pretending to be patients--and would arrest Papa after the usual consultation. Sometimes [End Page 186] a whole squad of police would arrive in a patrol car and raid our home. I came to view the AMA and the Board, as well as the police, as our mortal enemies. Papa was unflappable, even the time when he was hauled off in the patrol wagon. He had set up a routine for these crises. As soon as the police came, the secretary phoned A. C. Way of the First National Bank to arrange for bail."

Haiming Liu has written an excellent paper in which he discusses the history of Chinese Herbalists in Calfornia .
"From the mid-nineteenth to the first half of the twentieth century, Chinese herbalists offered indispensable medical services to both Chinese and non-Chinese patrons in the American West, especially in California. Their thriving herbal business survived a racist, hostile society which treated the Chinese as an inferior race, Chinese civilization as an alien culture, and channeled many of the Chinese immigrants into racialized occupations in the laundry and restaurant sectors. The examination of the history of Chinese herbalists, therefore, offers new insights into racial discourse. The herbalist's career enriches our understanding of the American West as a culturally diverse region. For a long time, the American medical profession was a field in which many different ethnic healing systems co-existed and competed with each other for clientele. Chinese herbal medicine was one of the most successful practices in this field. Its success as an ethnic heritage in a racially stratified society also requires us to make further inquiry into the resilience of ethnic culture. The viability of a culture often depends on whether its agents can creatively practice it as both a form of accommodation and resistance. To document the activities of Chinese herbalists involves addressing the issue of dependence and autonomy between the minority and dominant societies and re-centering Asians in U.S. history.

Here is Thomas Leung , newly immigrated to the United States still dressed in traditional Chinese clothes and queue learning English from Paul Howard. Later Howard became his front office assistant in his herbal practice .

Tom Leung had a pamphlet in English which he distributed to prospective patients.
Notice the signage on his Herb business, no Chinese characters . The vast majority of his clients were caucasians.

Here was his waiting room where his patients waited to see him .

"Dr. " Tom Leung at his desk .

The herb pharmacy in the back of the office.

The practice was quite lucrative and allowed Tom Leung to buy a nice house for his growing family . Unfortunately , after his untimely death the family had a very hard time keeping the herbal business afloat and the family fell on hard times.

I highly recommend the book. Here is a link to google books where you can read some of the book

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Frank Chin-"Gunga Din Highway"

Frank Chin 1975

"photo by Nancy Wong, 1975."
Frank Chin 2005

­"Chinamen are made not born, my dear. Out of junk-imports, lies, railroad scrap iron, dirty jokes, broken bottles, cigar smoke , Cosquilla Indian blood, wine spit and milk amnesia."
-Frank Chin

"His soul was seeded here in America... the soul of "hollow bamboo" ....a Chinese without its innards .... a "JOOK SING" to all the authentic Chinamen over the globe. He was both an ALIEN to the real-deal Chinamen ­ as well as an ALIEN to White America. It is little wonder that he would assume the life of a Phantom Chinaman, a solitary loner throughout his life. His role models were the Lone Ranger,... The Man with No Name.... Kurosawa's Samurai without a master... The Last of the Mohican tribe. ­­ lost, solitary figures seeking meaning and definition."
¬ Frank Chin

"What seems to hold Asian American literature together is the popularity among whites of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior (450,000 copies sold since 1976); David Henry Hwang’s F.O.B. (Obie, best off- Broadway play) and M. Butterfly (Tony, best Broadway play); and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. These works are held up before us as icons of our pride, symbols of our freedom from the icky-gooey evil of . . . Chinese culture."
- Frank Chin

I attended UC Berkeley in 1969-1972 . One of the original angry Chinese American voices at the time was Frank Chin , whose play "Chickencoop Chinaman " came out in 1972. Frank Chin in the ensuing years , he is 70 years old now , has been strident in his criticism of many of the popular Chinese American writers of our time .

"Chin’s immense passion is directed especially against Kingston, Tan and Hwang—writers he disparages as “traitors” to their race for perpetuating age-old stereotypes through their “white racist art.”
“Oh, does he hate Amy Tan, too?” asked David Henry Hwang in a recent interview. “Interesting how we all care who Frank hates.”
“Being a Chinese-American does not mean I suck up to whites and falsify Chinese culture,” says Chin, a fury building in his voice. “And in Chinese-American literature, that’s what’s happening"
Having recently read Yunte Huang's new book on Charlie Chan , it was interesting reading Frank Chin's 1994 novel , "Gunga Din Highway". Charlie Chan figures prominently in this book as well. Although Frank Chin, continued his critical approach in a recent "conversation " with Yunte Huang . I do feel that both authors have common ground . Gunga Din Highway and Yunte's " Charlie Chan " help us understand the American Yellowface interpretation of the Charlie Chan character, and how Chinese Americans and Chinese American actors reacted to that stereotype . In Chin's book the character, Longman Kwan , who had played Charlie Chan's number 4 son in previous films, promises to his wife and mother in law that he will be the first Chinese to actually play Charlie Chan in a upcoming new movie.

"For our sons," I tell her, "I promise to be the first Chinese to play Charlie Chan in the movies."
"Charlie Chan?" Hyacinth and her mother ask.

"You are not Christian, but as you see, I do love you anyway. As Charlie Chan I shall lead you to your great salvation. For, it is written: As God the Father gave up a son in the image of the perfect white man, to lead whites to walk the path of righteousness toward salvation, and praise God, so the White Man gave up a son in the image of the perfect Chinese American to lead the yellows to build the road to acceptance toward assimilation. Ah, sweet assimilation. Charlie Chan was his name. "
"Of course Charlie Chan. Where would any of us be without Charlie Chan?" the brothers say and we laugh like the dreams and hallucinations of a star alone in his limousine. The privacy, the intimacy me and the five brothers feel inside the unreal quiet and cushiness of the limo turns us into laughing fools. And it's nice to feel like a movie star again."
Frank Chin -Gunga Din Highway

Here is a plot summary of "Gunga Din Highway"

"Gunga Din Highway (Magill’s Survey of American Literature, )

At a glance:

  • Author: Frank Chin
  • First Published: 1994
Gunga Din Highway is a passionately argued novel about Chinese American identity. It opens with Longman Kwan, a Chinese American actor who is given bit parts in Hollywood movies that stereotype Asians, generally dying for whites or as their enemy. Now, Longman reunites with the (fictional) last white actor who played the Chinese detective Charlie Chan opposite Longman's role as Chan's fourth son.
As throughout his oeuvre, Chin deftly mixes the real with the imaginary. Charlie Chan was indeed played by three different whites and never an Asian actor. His subordinate sons were played by Chinese Americans such as Keye Luke, whose real filmography looks much like Longman Kwan's imaginary one.
Soon the novel turns to Longman's third, rebellious son. Named Ulysses Kwan after James Joyce's modernist novel once banned in America for its erotic content, Ulysses's life is inspired by Chin's own. As a boy, Ulysses rebels against Chinese and whites alike and associates with African Americans. He torments his Chinese language teachers and forms a lifelong brotherhood with two friends, Diego Chang and Benjamin Han. Playing on Chin's concern with father-son relationships, Benjamin changes his last name to Mo, that of his father who was killed by his mother's lover, who then became his despised stepfather.
As a young man, Ulysses lives a bohemian lifestyle vindicated by the cultural upheaval of late 1950's and 1960's America when California became a haven of counterculture. Working as brakeman for a railroad company, Ulysses eventually moves up to Seattle. There, he and his father meet again at a Woodstock-like rock festival. Yet his father does not recognize the pony-tailed rock musician as his son, and on stage, the old man satirizes his own role as Charlie Chan's fourth son.
Benjamin bears traits of the author as well. Like Chin, Benjamin studies creative writing in Santa Barbara and becomes famous with a radical play. Benjamin's wife, writer Pandora Toy, is a thinly disguised caricature of Chin's female Asian adversaries. On the opening night of Benjamin's play, Pandora attempts suicide out of professional jealousy, and her Conquering Woman is an obvious allusion to Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior (1976). Pandora fakes Chinese mythology just as Chin accused Kingston and Tan of doing.
The novel reaches a climax with Longman Kwan's funeral, organized by his first Chinese-born son who has become a millionaire in America. When the arrival of a white actor to play Charlie Chan in the remake adds to the insult of a Catholic funeral for Buddhist Kwan, Ulysses takes charge and delivers the eulogy. Now the meaning of the novel's title is revealed, as Ulysses quotes from the end of Rudyard Kipling's poem “Gunga Din” (1892). Ostensibly, the poem praises an Indian water carrier who sacrifices himself for a British soldier. In Ulysses's interpretation, the poem reveals what is wrong about Asian Americans sacrificing themselves for whites. He and his friends will not travel along his father's Gunga Din highway but will choose another road."

I recommend highly reading the first chapter of Frank Chin's book which is available free as a preview on Google Books . It is a wild and entertaining read.

Frank Chin maintains a blog which is an archive of his recent writings.

Yunte Huang- " Charlie Chan"

I grew up watching old Charlie Chan movies on TV. White guys (Warner Oland and Sidney Toler ) playing a humble Chinese detective solving mysteries while spouting fortune cookie like aphorisms. His foils were his movie sons- Chinese actors such as Keye Luke and Benson Fong playing the throughly Americanized off spring against the Chinese patriarch father . There is an opening scene in "Charlie Chan in Honolulu" where Charlie played by Sidney Toler is sitting at the end of a family of 11 children and his wife , eating dinner . Although Charlie is played by a white man , the scene perfectly captures the noisy dynamics of a Chinese family meal !

The Charlie Chan movies did give a lot of talented Chinese American actors their first start in the film industry and though Charlie himself was always played by a Caucasian the other Chinese roles were always played by Chinese actors.
Here is Charlie with his large film family in the movie "Charlie Chan in Honolulu."

Later Charlie Chan became politically incorrect , as the idea of a caricature of a Chinese man played by white actors became offensive to Asian American activists and caused Fox and Warner Brothers to pull the films from late night TV reruns and Charlie dropped below the radar .

A fascinating new look at Charlie Chan recently was published by Yunte Huang. This is a great and entertaining read . Yunte Huang was born and raised in China , studied English at Beijing University and immigrated to the United States where he became a PHD in English and now teaches in the English Department as a professor at UC Santa Barbara. So here we have quite a new unique voice in Chinese American literature , a native born Chinese academic making his life career studying American literature and culture and teaching English literature to college students in America ! His look at an American cultural icon , a "yellowface" portrayal of Chinese created by Americans is absolutely fascinating . He weaves the story of the real Charlie Chan , Chang Apana, , with the Charlie Chan books written by Earl Biggers , the Hollywood movies , the enthusiastic and positive Chinese reception of Charlie Chan in China in the 1930s' , and the anti Charlie Chan feelings of Asian Americans all into a wonderfully rich book .

More information on Yunte Huang is here .

Yunte Huang speaks about his book in a recent NPR interview here.

More information about Yunte Huang's book and excerpt to read here.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Shawna Yang Ryan -"Water Ghosts"

Locke is a tiny Chinese town that is close by to Sacramento and I visit often.
It seems lost in time , the buildings seem ready to fall down any time . It is so representative of all the small Chinatowns that were such a part of the story of the Chinese bachelor immigrant experience in the late 19th and early twentieth century. Recently I finished reading "Water Ghosts" a terrific atmospheric first novel by Shawna Yang Ryan.
"Born in Sacramento, California, the child of parents who met during the Vietnam War when her father was stationed in Taiwan, Shawna Yang Ryan graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and received an M.A. from the University of California, Davis. In 2002, she was a Fulbright scholar in Taiwan. Water Ghosts (originally published in 2007 as Locke 1928) was a finalist for the 2008 Northern California Book Award. She currently lives in Berkeley, California."

Speaking recently at the Chinese American Historical Society in San Francisco , Shawna discusses her book and it's relationship with Chinese American history.
You can preview the book and read some of it here on Google Books.

Chop Suey/ "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles"/

Definition of chop suey :

"Thought to date back at least to the mid-19th century, this Chinese-American dish includes small pieces of meat (usually chicken) or shrimp, mushrooms, bean sprouts, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots and onions. These ingredients are cooked together and served over rice. Chop suey doesn't exist as a dish in China "

The Chinese American experience is something uniquely different from both the American experience and the Chinese experience in China , it is a strange amalgam of things Chinese and things American . There are creative new voices exploring this experience . Think of this blog as my personal menu of some of the unique offerings you can take home to sample !

Jennifer Lee is a Chinese American writer who has written a fabulous new book about Chinese American Food called the :"Fortune Cookie Chronicles"

Here is a link to her blog and her book .

Here is Jennifer discussing Chinese American Food . Enjoy!