Story by KEN MOCHIZUKI
“I’m a writer; writers tell stories”
Frank Chin in town telling children’s folktales?
That buzz traveled around Seattle’s Asian American community last month since Chin is better known as the fiery pioneer of Asian American literature and theater. As co-editor of “Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian-American Writers” (1974), that collection of excerpts from published but ignored Americans of Asian descent is said to have found “Asian American” literature. His first play, “The Chickencoop Chinaman” (1972) became, as stated in “Aiiieeeee!,” “the first Asian-American play in New York stage history.”
Chin, in addition to being an actor and theater director, went on to write three more plays (“Year of the Dragon,” 1974; “Gee, Pop,” 1977; “Oofty Goofty,” 1981). The first three plays were about the “state of Asian America” in the early- and mid-‘70s, he said, focusing on Asian American characters who “don’t know who they are, that sense the past, but don’t go searching for it.” Chin then co-edited “The Big Aiiieeeee!” (1991), wrote a short story collection (“Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R.R. Co.,” 1988), two novels (“Donald Duk,” 1991 and “Gunga Din Highway,” 1994), an essay collection (“Bulletproof Buddhists and Other Essays,” 1998) and his 2002 non-fiction history “Born in the USA.” The later, which Chin considers his best work, is the culmination of his three-decade-long passion: the story of Japanese Americans who refused to be drafted into the U.S. military out of incarceration camps during World War II.
“I’m a writer; writers tell stories,” Chin said before he told a series of Asian folktales to an audience of 11 children and over 20 adults at the International District’s Panama Hotel Tea House. “And, being an Asian American writer, I should know the Asian stories. To test whether I really know the Asian stories, I have to throw myself before an audience of Asian kids.”
He said he was inspired by “p’ansori” – “market storytelling” developed by Koreans while their country was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. The storytelling involves a simple drum and a storyteller “with nothing in his hands,” Chin said. “I can visualize myself as that, nothing in my hands, nothing up my sleeves — just me and the story.”
Chin is coming out with a new book of his “retelling” of folktales and traditional stories in which he will “extract the universal paraphrase,” he said. But he is “just here to write” in Seattle, a new novel which he says “may have something to do with Seattle, it may not. I like Seattle.”
During the almost 90-minute interview before his storytelling presentation, Chin touched on a number of past and current issues and causes, excerpted here for length, beginning with his championing of the World War II Japanese American draft resisters, its leader at the Heart Mountain, Wyo. camp, Frank Emi, and a condemnation of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) for its harassment of the resisters and subsequent suppression of their stories:
“I’ve said that the boys from the 442nd from the camps might have been the heroes from the war, but they were the cowards of camp. I said that at the Manzanar Pilgrimage this year. The Manzanar Committee took me to task for it. They said I should have said something that would benefit the people teaching how to prevent camps ever happening again. In response to that, I said that, to prevent camps from happening again, they should not take the advice of the JACL. They should instead get a lawyer like the resisters did. I’ve been known to speak out for the resisters as the heroes of camp. They’ve been waiting. If the people from camp enjoy citizens’ rights today, they owe it to the resisters, not to the 442nd. The 442nd had nothing to do, any of the issues, with camp. The resisters directly challenged the government in the courts as to the legality of the camps. Redress was based on their resistance, not anything JACL or the 442nd did.
“They [442nd members] volunteered to get out of camp. Nothing else. They could volunteer because they left their parents in camp, they sacrificed their brothers and sisters to camp. They abandoned them to camp to go to war. Their heroism on the field had nothing to do with being in camp. They did nothing to free the people in camp. They did nothing to challenge the government about the rightness of putting the people in camp.”
Chin continued that “JACL catered to American history to wipe out the resisters.”
“And not one Nisei, Sansei, Yonsei, Gosei dares cross the street and says, ‘You’re Frank Emi. I want to thank you for what you did for me.’ Won’t shake his hand. Because of the JACL. I waited 30 years, and still nobody would write that story … I spent three years writing the book. Japanese Americans should be embarrassed that the only book that tells the whole story of Japanese Americans in camp is written by a Chinese American [Chin]. The only books about the history of the camps are by whites. I was waiting for the Japanese Americans to write the books themselves.”
Shifting gears to the “issues of Asian American theater” and its actors in the Hollywood film and TV industry, Chin listed off European folktales and stories such as “Cinderella” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” alternating with Asian tales such as “Momotaro.”
“You get what I’m doing? If you are Asian American, you should know an Asian story for every white story you can tell.”
Should Asian American theater then be telling more folktales?
“If not folktales, they should be influenced by them. They have to somehow justify being called Asian American. If all they are doing is providing actors to the white theater, their doing a disservice. ‘We’re going to serve the white theater with nothing we know – we don’t know anything Asian. All we want is a job.’ That’s not Asian American theater. Asian American theater needs Asian American audiences, and they don’t have them. The audience is really white. Asian American theater does not exist in this country because Asian American theater has no concept of Asian America.
“I’ve seen no Asian actor who can do an authentic Asian accent. Give me a Chinese Mandarin accent as opposed to a Cantonese accent, nobody can do it. They do the same, fake Asian Accent – one accent fits all. They’re good looking guys but they can’t really act – it’s one of the ironies. I ask actors, ‘If I offered to write any role you want, in any time you want, in any period you want, what would it be? And they all would like to be James Bond – always a white character. And they can do Sean Connery, they can do John Wayne. But to do an authentic Asian? No.”
Chin then rewinds to over 30 years ago, when he and fellow writer/poets Jeffrey Paul Chan, Shawn Wong and Lawson Inada
“just collected books,” prowling bookstores in the San Francisco Bay Area for all the American authors of Asian descent they could find – “a merging of our lack of knowledge,” Chin said.
“No, there’s not going to be another ‘Aiiieeeee!’ And while it [the first ‘Aiiieeeee!’] was a pitch for the American born [writers], it was also a plea for critics. We have no critics. There was not one Asian American literary critic. Not one in one magazine, literary magazine, popular magazine like The New Yorker. Or better yet, a magazine like W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. That magazine brought together, created Black America.”
And over 30 years since the first “Aiiieeeee!,” how has Asian American literature progressed?
“The same state as Asian American theater, I’m afraid. There’s a lot of real phony stuff out there. Stuff that is made up as Asian and passed off as Asian.”
Chin cites as “phony stuff” Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior.” The 1976 novel, Chin said, “is being hailed as a feminist work because she discovered that Far Mulan, the Woman Warrior, was tattooed.”
“She took those tattoos off of Ngawk Fei [or Yue Fei in Mandarin, a legendary male warrior] who was tattooed, and put those tattoos on Mulan as an act of feminist warfare.”