In The Chickencoop Chinaman, Frank Chin confronts the issue of what it means to be an Asian American man living in the United States. The audience accompanies Tam Lum, a Chinese American filmmaker, during his journey to Pittsburgh as he reunites with his childhood friend, Kenji, and interviews a much-anticipated figure for his latest documentary. In order to take a glimpse into the deep-seated concerns of the Asian American male identity, Chin accounts for both Tam’s reality and subconscious by not only portraying his interactions within the city but also through dream-like sequences that serve as the opening scenes of each act. With that said, Chin utilizes historical references, cultural assimilation, and racial stereotypes to illustrates the difficulty in reconciling the conflicting forms of Tam’s identity – to be Chinese, to be an American, and to be a man.
Tam’s conflict with his Chinese heritage is evident through Chin’s choice of historical references when characterizing the origin of a Chinaman. In the opening dream sequence, when asked by a Hong Kong dream girl where he was born, he asserts “Chinamen are made, not born, my dear” (6). He goes on to say that he was born from items such as “junk-imports… railroad scrap iron… and lots of milk of amnesia” thus associating his Chinese identity with cheap or low quality imports, the maltreated labor force that built US railways yet could not attain citizenship, and a sense that it is better to suffer from cultural amnesia – forgetting being Chinese – rather than embracing it (6). Just as the audience thinks Tam is making a positive and thus appreciative allusion to his Chinese culture, such as the case with his reference to the “memory of gun powder’s invention,” Chin soils the Chinese accomplishment by converting it into a sexual euphemism. By doing so, Chin successfully establishes the belittling attitude towards Asian Americans of the time.
Chin’s depiction of Tam’s struggle to identify with his Chinese identity is similarly represented in Tam and Kenji’s inability to determine what constitutes as an American identity. Tam is constantly changing his dialect whether it is stereotypically American such as that of the “Bible belt preacher” or that of “a colored man” – an arguably more accepted minority group of the time (20, 40). For Kenji, assimilating to the African American minority was not a choice but rather necessity. He would rather be known as “BlackJap Kenji… [who] hated yellow people” than get beaten in the school yard for being Japanese (20). Kenji’s identification with African Americans furthered when a “black dishwasher” took Kenji to a restroom during an instance when Kenji was “stuck on the colored side” and unsure of what restroom he should use (20). When he found himself in a similar situation – that is urinating next to a colored man who happened to be a professional boxer and subject of Tam’s documentary – Kenji realized how absurd it was to feel the need to share his experience of urinating next to a colored man in the company of a colored a man. By drawing on the segregation of African Americans, Chin creates a parallel between the Asian and African minority groups in the United States. Although nonsensical on the surface, being able to urinate next to a man of color seemed to be a way of justifying the fact that they were equals both as minorities and Americans.
In addition to defining an Asian and an American identity, Chin addresses the concept of masculinity through the stereotypical characterizations of the “crazy old [Chinese] dishwasher,” the Lone Ranger, Ovaltine Dancer, and Charley Popcorn (17). The Chinese dishwasher is described as an elderly man who “depended on [Tam’s] English [and Tam’s] bad Chinese” but was “crazy about boxing” (17) whereas the Lone Ranger was Tam’s childhood hero who “wore a mask to hide his Asian eyes” (32). However when Tam learns that the Lone Ranger wasn’t the “CHINESE AMERICAN BOY” that he thought he was, Tam finds a replacement role model in the renowned boxer, Ovaltine Dancer. Moreover, Tam develops a father figure in Ovaltine’s alleged father and trainer, Charley Popcorn – a role that needed to be filled after the death of his own father, the Chinese dishwasher. Upon meeting Popcorn for an interview, Tam learns that Popcorn knew his father as “the Chinatown Kid” who went to many matches but refused to go in without paying admission (44). He then discovers that Popcorn is not the supportive biological father that Ovaltine had described in his books. It is at this point in the production that Chin leaves Tam without a stable masculine figure with which he can identify. All American masculine role models in Tam’s life have failed him – the Lone Ranger was a “legendary white racist,” Ovaltine was a liar, and Popcorn was essentially a nobody (5). The only other male figure left is that of the Chinese dishwasher – the man who loved boxing and “would not be free” (44). Instead of appreciating his father’s dignity, Tam overlooks another admirable quality of his Chinese culture and instead frantically insists that Popcorn has “gotta be [Ovaltine’s] father” (50). Chin thus suggests that what may signify masculinity in an Asian American culture may be undermined by the conventions of masculinity that is defined by white American culture.
As the title illustrates, The Chickencoop Chinaman is a complex representation of what it means to possess a masculine Asian American identity. Chin emphasizes each aspect of identification within the production whether referring to the historical references of China’s past, the products of assimilation from the Chickencoop, or the cultural characterizations that make one a man. Together they form an identity that is “no more born than nylon or acrylic” asserting that the Chinaman is shaped by the word before the man has a chance to define himself (8). With that said, Chin successfully portrays the outward and inner struggle that try the Asian American male who aspires to develop a stable identity that represents his masculinity, culture, and country in which he lives.
Chin, Frank. “The Chickencoop Chinaman.” The Chickencoop Chinaman /The Year of the Dragon.
Seattle: U of Washington P, 2002. 1 – 66.