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Author Profile: Searching for Frank Chin [in aMagazine: Inside Asian America]

Frank ChinSearching for Frank Chin

Last summer, I spent what seemed like an inordinate amount of time and effort searching for Frank Chin. Frank Chin, the controversial literary figure, the co-editor of the seminal Asian American texts, Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers and The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature– the self-appointed leader in the Asian American literary war between what he calls “the fake” and “the real.”

I had been assigned a freelance project – a short biographical profile for a research publication – and I had hoped to interview him. Getting his phone number was no little feat– I had to swear and hope to be burned alive before my ultimate source begrudgingly revealed it to me. I spent about a week calling at random times trying to catch him in (no machine). When I finally got in touch with him, he politely refused to give me an interview, but agreed to send a biographical statement he had written to use as background for my profile.

The promised materials arrived promptly. I wrote the profile and sent a copy to Frank Abe, a close friend of Chin’s who had been one of the original members of Chin’s Asian American Theatre Workshop in San Francisco. Abe, who is currently director of communications for the Office of the King County Executive in Seattle, Washington, was extremely helpful. He made a few corrections, and I sent the piece on to the publisher. I thought that was it for my little experience with the enigmatic Frank Chin.

Then I get a call from my editor, who wants me to interview Chin. I think long and hard before I agree to give it another try. At least this time, I already have the number. I call Abe for advice and he gives me a whole spiel to give Chin, of which I take careful notes: “Tell Frank that I said that the readers of A. Magazine represent the constituency he wants to reach, regardless of his opinion of the magazine. These readers are the as-yet-unformed consciences he wants to reach,” Abe coaches me. He even gives me a rundown of Chin’s daily schedule so I’ll know the best times to reach him.

I’m armed and ready. I dial the phone. Chin picks it up on the second ring. I have the notes in front of me and Chin listens patiently before he again politely refuses. “No, I’m not doing interviews. No interviews at all,” he says evenly.

“But Frank Abe says that the reason you refuse to give interviews is because you think most reporters haven’t done their homework. And Frank Abe says to tell you that I’ve definitely done my homework. And Frank Abe says…” I stammer. But he interrupts me with an astounding offer.

“Okay, I’ll do your interview if you’ll complete an assignment I give you,” he counters. Silently I listen. “I want you to determine the existence of the story of Fu Mu Lan, the woman warrior whose body is supposedly mutilated with words engraved on her back. I want you to determine the existence of a fairy tale about the kitchen god’s wife, or the kitchen queen as she is sometimes referred to, who was abused by her husband. I want you to determine the existence of a fairy tale that measures the worth of a woman by her husband’s belch. I want you to find out for yourself that there are no versions of such myths, I want you to prove for yourself the nonexistence of these stories. Then I’ll give you your interview.

“This is my gripe with Christians like Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan and David Henry Hwang,” he continues before I can agree. “What they’ re doing is faking text. They claim insights into the Chinese culture, but it’s all a fake. If the original works don’t exist, then they don’t exist. If they do exist, then I’m all wet. It’s a black and white issue of text, not of opinion. Anyone can determine the existence of these myths without the involvement of my rotten personality or the scintillating personality of others not like me. That’s what you have to do for yourself. Find their nonexistence. Then I’ll talk to you.”

When I hang up, I’m frantic. I take down all my Chinese literature in translation books from classes I took at Yale. I look at bibliographies. I take notes. I call a friend who puts me in touch with a Chinese literature professor at the University of Texas at Austin who provides more names and titles I can look up. I try the libraries in Dallas, have no luck, and go down to Austin and spend a day at the university. I come back with a pile of Xeroxes with which I can report back to Chin.

“I’ve done my homework,” I announce when I call him again a week later.

“And what did you find out?” he says with encouragement. And I’m thinking to myself how surprised I am that this is Frank Chin most often described as “acerbic” that I’m talking to.

“I have a translation of the Ballad of Mu Lan that is different from the version in your essay in The Big Aiiieeeee! In it, there is no mention of the engraving of Mu Lan’s back. But I did find out about Yue Fei, a Sung Dynasty military hero whose back was tattooed with battle messages,” I report. “I could not find anything about a woman’ s worth being measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch. I asked a Chinese literature professor at U.T. Austin who also checked with some of her associates and no one had heard of any tales like that.”

“Because it doesn’t exist, of course,” he adds.

“I found out the myth of the kitchen god comes in many versions, that he is a minor god,” I continue. “The basic story is about a man who is so poor he must give up his wife. The wife, newly married, tries to help her ex-husband by baking gold pieces into cakes which she gives to him. The poor man does not eat the cakes but sells them hoping to make a little money, thus losing the gift his ex-wife prepared for him. He eventually becomes convinced that there is no point to his existence and kills himself. The gods take pity on him and make him a small deity. I also found some engraved images of the kitchen god, pictured with the wife,” I tell Chin.

“So you found out that he is a local, regional hero. That means he has no influence on the Chinese culture, because no one version dominates. The story itself is a series of fairy tales that are not influential. He’s like Santa Claus, a figure manufactured as an excuse to give kids candy at the end of the year. And you found out the kitchen god’ s image is always depicted as part of a double poster with the wife, that both the husband and wife are honored, and therefore the wife is not denigrated,” he says. “In Tan’s book, she asks why the kitchen queen is not honored. But she is. That means the whole premise of Tan’s book is wrong.

“That’s my gripe,” Chin says, and I realize that my interview is beginning. “All those works are based on fabrication, on false text. If this were a white issue, say a book that asked why George Washington was never elected president, if there was a whole novel based on that, it would never be accepted. That crime is equal only to plagiarism. These false books are great literary flaws that only work in the western language, that only appeal to those who believe in the western stereotype of the Chinese. It’s white racist text. I mean it. There is no justification for falsifying text.

“Their defenders are trying to drum up justifications to save their reputations. But there are no such justifications. It’s racist work. And to enjoy it, you have to be a white racist, someone who believes that the white race’s culture and literature are the only morally acceptable, universal literature and that everything else is evil and doesn’t deserve to survive. Their version of Chinese America wants to be white, to think white, to marry whites, and therefore become culturally and racially extinct,” Chin warns.

With all this talk of “the fake,” I ask Chin about how, in his opinion, writers and readers can be “real.” What does this whole question of “realness” and “fakeness” mean, anyway?

“The only way,” Chin replies, “is to read. The empirical method. Call your local Asian language and literature departments. Take courses. Go by the library, check out Edward Werner’s Dictionary of Chinese Mythology or read reliable sources like Anthony Christie. You could almost pick up any nonfiction book and start working from the bibliography. You could even go to the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology and check the bibliography in back. Some of the information you’ll find will be wrong, but that will lead you to other sources, the contradictions will lead to other knowledge and you go on until the confusion gets cleared up. You can talk to people who know about the subject, then check their sources out. Do as I had you do. You’ll find the information you’re looking for. This stuff [Chinese literature] is not that inaccessible. It exists in good translations,” Chin encourages.

When I ask him specifically about Asian American literature, he advises, “Start with The Big Aiiieeeee! It has the Asian American history and literature, it has comparative literature, it has the history of where the stereotypes come from, it has the comparisons of Asian and Western philosophies. The philosophies are the core. Asian philosophy is much more individualistic. Western philosophy is founded on religion as a system of social conformity to create the perpetual state. Asian philosophy is founded on struggle for perfection of personal individuality; there’s no concept of original sin, no dialectic thinking, no social contracts. In Asian philosophy, you would never give up the individual to the state; that’s sissy philosophy. Western philosophy says we’ re all losers and sinners and victims. In Chinese philosophy, we’re all soldiers; if we’re not fighting for personal integrity, then we deserve to be victims, we deserve to die.

“What’s happened is that Asian Americans don’t know how to fight. If they did, they would be fighting, not whimpering. They would not be asserting the Chinese as victims. They would not be asserting phony literature as being literature that perpetuates the victimization of women. There were more women heroes in Chinese history and literature than in the West!”

There is a noticeable silence and I wait for Chin to continue. But when he doesn’t, I take the hint and realize that my time is probably up. I look at my watch and am surprised to find that my 15 minutes have become 40.

“Is it okay with you to publish parts of this interview?” I finally ask.

Another pause, before Chin answers, “Yes. Yes, you can publish it.”

Author profile: “Searching for Frank Chin,” aMagazine: Inside Asian America, February/March 1995

Readers: Adult



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