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Great Fiction: Donald Duk by Frank Chin

Three scenes in Curtis Choy’s documentary What’s wrong with Frank Chin? sure to give anyone pause. The first of these occurs when the camera slowly pans through Chin’s file boxes of data he has collected on every Chinese-American actor who has ever played a role in a Hollywood film. The second, authentic footage from Chin’s 1970s wedding to author and illustrator Kathleen Chang, shows the couple wearing elaborate traditional attire designed by poet Lawson Inada (who plays preacher and “marries people with a $1 license”). Masks made by Chin, and Chin reads an account of Chinese railroad workers on the Union Pacific as part of the ceremony. (This is one of Chin’s constant themes – perhaps the best of his works is an American Book Award-winning collection of stories, the so-called Chinaman Pacific & Frisco RR Co). In the third, Chin attacks his opposition at a hearing on the question of redress for Japanese-Americans (Chin is largely responsible for the US government granting the redress and why many Japanese-Americans now celebrate it as Memorial Day). Whether one agrees with Chin or not—and it seems many Japanese-Americans do not—it is hard not to be moved by the urgency of his conviction. The guy is absolutely on fire as he makes his arguments. And when he says he went back and looked up a speech given by an army colonel in 1943 (this was all before the internet!), we understand that this is a man who is completely drove in a way that few of us are. It’s clearly the same passion he has when addressing audiences with the relentless bluster of writers like Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston — what he calls “fake.” In his novel Donald Duke the main character, twelve-year-old Donald, is an example of a young “fake” – he wants to turn his back on his Chinese heritage and assimilate completely. For Chin, assimilation, or what American society sees as assimilation, equals sin. Donald Duke it echoes the themes set out in the film’s three vivid scenes, noted above, and marks a shift in Chin’s tone from polemic, even hostility, in the storybook and plays that first attracted him. recognition on the literary and cultural scene. This novel is more playful, more playful, rather inviting the reader to consider aspects and ponder, as opposed to those early works that beat the reader over their own ignorance, prejudices and stupidity.

This is Chinatown in San Francisco, the present day (that is, 1990) and it’s the beginning of the Chinese New Year celebration. Donald is approaching his twelfth birthday, a momentary occasion, for there are twelve years in the Asian lunar zodiac; this is how it completes its first life cycle. But Donald has the idea that “every Chinese in his life seems terrible.” He describes himself as American to anyone who asks, refusing to acknowledge the obvious fact that he is of Chinese descent. The way he eventually begins to get around is through the dreams he experiences throughout the novel—he dreams that he is a worker on the railroad. When the Golden Spike ceremony is planned, when it is revealed that not only the governor of California will be present, but also photographers from all over the world, one of the railroad bosses obnoxiously comments:

“I promise you, Mr. Durant, there won’t be a heathen in sight at tomorrow’s ceremonies… The Last Spike will be hammered home, the telegram will be sent, our photograph was taken to preserve a great moment in our nation’s history without being Chinese.” Admire and respect them as I do. I’ll show them who built the railroad. White men. White dreams. White brains and white skin.”

As a result of witnessing these events in his dreams, Donald begins to change, becoming interested in his heritage and race. Towards the end of the book, he has this conversation with his father:

“The Chinese. The Chinese who built the railroad. I dream of laying tracks with them when I sleep and nobody knows what we’ve done. Nobody but me. And I don’t want to be the only one who knows and it makes me mad that I I’m the only one who knows about it, and all I dream about is being mad at white people and hating them. They lie about us all the time.”

“No, don’t hate all white people. Only the liars,” Dad says.

In the film, Chin speaks very eloquently about the terrible way the whites made sure that no Chinese were in any railway photos. And the accounts of contemporary historians certainly support Chin, especially HW Brands The Golden Age: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream and Stephen E. Ambrose in Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869. Ambrose actually studied Chinese-English phrasebooks from 1867. He notes that the “How are you?” and “Thank you” is not included in any of them.

Essentially, the novel has only this theme, overcoming the denial of roots and racial identity in order to be “American”, but as with all of Chin’s writing – this is especially true for the long novel. Gunga Din Highway – it is an undeniable fact that Chin himself is American to the core, so steeped in American culture, folklore and especially in movies that one has to wonder if he is not one of its brightest examples true multiculturalism (he would despise the term) that we have.

So – if the book is somewhat limited thematically, what can readers take away from it to learn and enjoy? In short, fun! During Donald’s journey from self-hater who accepts negative white attitudes toward Chinese-Americans to proud Chinese-American, he crosses paths with many interesting characters, not the least of which is his family. His father, King Duk, owns one of the best restaurants in Chinatown. His namesake, Uncle Donald, is a Cantonese opera star whom he visits. Mom supports and often tries to rein in Donald’s twin sisters, Venus and Penelope, who are cute literary creations, often speaking as if they were commentators rather than participants. (Tapible Chin’s sense of play and fun.) Crawdad Man and his son Crawdad Jr., a Vietnam vet, Victor Lee, an old pair of twins who haunt the streets of Chinatown at night, the Frog Twins, and a dance teacher who is China’s Fred Astaire calls himself, completes the cast. Each exists within the structure of the fiction to reinforce Donald’s main lesson in a generally humorous situation. I think it’s a sign of a really developed intelligence – we make deadly serious arguments with humor. And because Chin insists on initially confusing the non-Chinese reader by incorporating the culture’s customs and traditions into the story without explaining them, he engages the reader in experiencing how the white power structure has humiliated and degraded his people since the U.S. . railways. That sort of thing is always delicious – I’m not sure non-Chinese, non-Indian, non-African-American can always empathize. Sympathy, yes, but empathy is difficult, it’s like a man trying to understand what it’s like to be pregnant. Chin makes a big effort.

In closing, I would like to comment briefly on what I see as Chin’s intensity and integrity of purpose. Sometimes I read that Chin’s attacks on other writers are really out of malice or jealousy. This statement is incorrect. Of course, Chin’s books don’t sell in the same numbers as Tan’s or Kingston’s; however, we don’t even have to argue the point to disprove it. All we need to know is that a top Hollywood director, Wayne Wang, approached Chin about filming his play. year of the dragon and Chin dismissed the idea on the grounds that he didn’t want Hollywood to mess with his story. Turning down potentially millions of dollars in royalties isn’t the act of someone who doesn’t believe in himself—Chin practices what he preaches. So its integrity is intact. So is its intensity. I mentioned Chin’s files on Asian-American actors at the beginning. This came about because, incredibly, no Asian-American actors had played Charlie Chan in the movies. Chin’s long novel Gunga Din Highway it’s about this ridiculous, bewildering state of affairs, and in it they make full use of his research on actors. This research was indeed a huge scientific project, as the reading of the novel clearly shows. No one would ever call this “fake” – Chin’s intensity is also intact. Whatever Chin’s merits or demerits, love him or hate him, he is one of those rare authors of fantasy literature who truly leaves an impact on the times.

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