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.

1 comment:

  1. I once attended Frank Chin's talk about the Chinese-American experience, which he gave in SF's Chinatown in the late 1980s or early 1990s. It was an experience. It was raw. He was a perfectionist in regard to how Chinese-American writers should portray their hybrid experiences. And it made for lively discussions with the audience, especially when names like Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan came up. He was very critical of their works. Afterwards, I wanted to ask him if he had worked briefly as a librarian's assistant at SFSU in the late 1960s. This young Frank Chin at SFSU had told me he was a writer, he was quiet and soft-spoken, not the angry out-spoken man I came to hear twenty years later in Chinatown. But I never got the chance to ask him, so many people surrounded him with questions. Auntie Soo-Yin.