01 Jan / Author Profile: Frank Chin [in Notable Asian Americans]
Frank Chin describes himself first and foremost as “a writer.” In the biographical profile he provided after declining to be interviewed, he wrote, “I have written short fiction, plays, nonfiction, reviews, essays, research pieces on Chinese and Japanese America. I have also written the backs of bubble gum cards, ‘stupid’ radio contests, documentary films on fishing and boxing, and hacked.” His writing career is marked with milestones, including the distinction of being the first Asian American playwright produced on a New York stage – The Chickencoop Chinaman at American Place Theatre in 1972. A year later, Chin founded San Francisco’s Asian American Theatre Workshop which evolved into the Asian American Theater Company, one of the nation’s foremost Asian American theaters. Together with Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, Chin also was responsible for creating what is widely considered the seminal text of Asian American literature, Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers, published in 1974. Its follow-up companion, The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature, was published in 1991.
In addition to his status as an established and respected writer, Chin is equally well known as a critic of Asian American literature. He and his three Aiiieeeee! editors have been dubbed “the gang of four,” fighting in an Asian American literary war between what they describe in an introductory essay as “the real,” with its “sources in the Asian fairy tale and the Confucian heroic tradition,” and “the fake,” with its “sources in Christian dogma and in Western philosophy, history and literature,” as represented by such Asian American writers as Maxine Hong Kingston, David Henry Hwang, and Amy Tan.
History of a Chinaman
Frank Chin was born in Berkeley, California, in 1940. In his biographical profile he described himself as a “fifth- generation Chinaman.” In the past, particularly early in his career, Chin made a clear distinction between the use of “Chinaman” and the term “Chinese American” which for him was inscribed with a sense of complicit assimilation into the controlling white society. Chin wrote that he is “the son of a Chinese immigrant father and fourth-generation Chinatown mother whose father worked in the steward service of the Southern Pacific Railroad.” Chin followed his grandfather’s career on the railroad, first working “clerk jobs” around the Western Pacific Railway’s Oakland Yard between 1962 and 1965. “Between tracks of standing and moving boxcars I did everything but get hurt, get lost and get scared,” Chin recalled. He left the railroad for the University of California at Berkeley from which he graduated in 1966 with a degree in English. After a brief stint at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Chin returned again to the tracks, becoming “the first Chinese-American brakeman on the Southern Pacific since Chinese built the Central Pacific over the Sierras.” … [click here for more]
Author photo credit: Nancy Wong, 1975, San Francisco