Return to Left Curve no. 24 Table of Contents
From Chinatown to Gunga Din Highway: Reflections on Frank Chin and the Representation of Chinese America
E. San Juan, Jr.
Caught in the unflagging "culture wars" of the United States, any inquiry into the status of a region of creative expression as Asian American, more specifically here Chinese American, writing is fraught with all the old issues over the relation of art to the political and social formation which it inhabits. For the dominant liberal consensus, literature occupies a transcendent space free from prior moral or ideological commitments; hence readers can enjoy Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston on the same level as they would Gertrude Stein or Katherine Anne Porter. Since the sixties, however, the consensus has allowed for the reconfiguration of "minority" or ethnic writing in the new category of multicultural literature of the United States, according them "equal and separate" position. This gesture of tolerance is both compromising and complicitous.
One may ask: Is Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, inserted into the diversity curriculum, now to be celebrated as an integral part of American literature? That question is more contentious if trivial than the one of whether Maxine Hong Kingston, now canonized as a major American writer, is now so perfectly assimilated as to erase the ethnic patina and render her safe for general, not just elite, consumption. Has the original "Chinese" aura produced by reviews and public opinion of her novels been subsumed into the pluralist hegemony of white-supremacist America to make her representative? Clearly the question of nationality, of identifying with a nation or citizenship granted by the nation-state, becomes crucial when we (I from the Philippine perspective, my colleagues in Taiwan from another) view a concrete literary formation in the context of specific times, places, and interrelations among them.
Before I shift the focus from the general to the particular, I want to remind you that the antagonism between the aestheticist and the socially committed stance persists among the litterateurs of Asian America. Consider, for example, the opinions expressed by Garrett Hongo on Cynthia Kadohata and Pulitzer-winner Robert Butler. Hongo chides Asian Americans for being "immature" because they are "so unused to seeing cultural representations of [themselves]" so that they criticize Kadohata for not mentioning the internment camps in her novel, The Floating World. Hongo praises Butler for creating "commonality" in his stories of Vietnamese refugees, for his "humanistic politics" and "powerful artistry." Hongo then blames the confusion of "general thought in American culture (as enacted by media and the ephemeral communal mind) [which] tends to oversimplify complex social and artistic issues, with the habitual comminglings and false oppositions of matters of art with matters of social justice. The problem, ultimately, has to do with confusing and, finally, conflating the two realms" (55). Although Hongo evinces awareness of the dangers of "minstrelsy by the white culture ventriloquizing the ethnic experience and colonizing the mind of the Other for the purpose of reinforcing cultural dominance" (53-54), he is curiously naive in accepting the contrived separation between art and society, humanism and racism, that generated in the first place the confusions he himself suffers from. The symptoms of extreme alienation, instanced for example by the fragmentation of human activity and schizoid behavior found in late capitalist society, cannot be diagnosed without grasping the larger history of the socio-political formation of the United States as a complex overdetermined totality of social relations. Racism, the underlying cause of the "culture wars" between a racially segmented order and the subordinated peoples of color, cannot be grasped fully and resolved without transforming the material historical conditions that make it possible. What is imperative is a critical review of the racial/class hierarchy that constitutes the social order of the United States, its historical construction as a hegemonic articulation of classes, races, nationalities, sexualities, together with the manifold contradictions that define the parameters for change.
I initiate the outline of such a critical review here. On the question of where Chinese Americans are positioned in the historical development of the United States, and where its cultural modalities can be inscribed, a succinct response can be sampled in a recent essay by Ling Chi Wang. Wang is critical of two paradigms: the assimilationist one based on the melting-pot myth, which subsists on the ideology of white supremacy, and the loyalty paradigm. The latter involves the emphasis on preserving a Chinese cultural identity, which entails some kind of political/ economic loyalty of "overseas Chinese," the "sole obsession" of both government policies and scholarly inquiries by both governments in Taiwan and mainland China. Wang rightly criticizes both paradigms deployed in scholarly studies of Chinese in the United States as simplistic, biased and totally inadequate. Aside from assuming Chinese America to be homogeneous and monolith, the two frameworks "exclude the perspectives, interests, rights and well being of the Chinese American community."
Abstracting from the empirical record, Wang points to three crucial factors that define the Chinese diaspora in the U.S.:
(1) the resistance against racial oppression and extraterritorial domination; (2) the impact of U.S.-China relations on the formation and development of Chinese America; and (3) the segmentation and conflict within the community by class, gender and nativity over time, and the sentiment, perspective and voice of each segment (158)
By a simple inversion, Wang proposes an alternative paradigm that would reconceptualize assimilation and loyalty, substituting for assimilation the concept of racial exclusion or oppression, and for loyalty to the homeland the notion of extraterritorial domination. These two trends-racial exclusion and extraterritorial domination-then "converge and interact in the Chinese American community, establishing a permanent structure of dual domination and creating its own internal dynamics and unique institutions" (159). After reviewing the historical vicissitudes of these two trends, Wang concludes that "liberation from the structure of dual domination is therefore the goal for the emergence of a new Chinese America in the multiracial democracy of the U.S. envisioned by the Chinese Americans involved in the civil rights movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s" (165).
The invocation of a "multiracial democracy" without altering property/power relations is highly suspect if not disingenuous. Notwithstanding this reservation, I think Wang has insightfully summarized the political genealogy of Chinese America-the ideological foundation of exclusion in contract labor, the presumed non-assimilability of the Chinese, the conservative and reactionary local institutions and practices that permitted the intervention from the governments in Taiwan and mainland China, and lately the transnational movements of information, capital and people in global capitalism. What is starkly missing is any analysis of how precisely the ideological and cultural apparatuses of the hegemonic order -no radical change is suggested for this-continue to reproduce the assimilationist paradigm as well as reinforce the loyalty compulsion. In fact, Wang notes the influence of the cultures and lifestyles of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong on the already segmented Chinese American community.
No doubt times have changed. Chinese Americans are praised by arch conservative Linda Chavez as superperformers in climbing the ladder of social and economic mobility, serving as protowhites placed between African Americans and the Euro-American majority. Peter Gran describes the "buffer race" strategy for preserving the status quo: "The state through its immigration policy inserted one or more groups, the buffers, into society between black and whites to conflict with the interests of both, thereby deflecting the focus on race off the black-white issue, diffusing it into what is now called multiculturalism" (347). This complicates the race/class/ gender dialectic. The mutations in social relations of reproduction that accompany the change from finance capitalism at the turn of the century to the Depression, the Cold War, and the new globalization schemes of the industrialized states are elided by a narrow focus on bureaucratic adjustments. The absence of a dialectical construal between the logic of capital and the hegemonic process vitiates the critique of assimilationism and intervention from outside through local agencies. Taking account of transnationality will not challenge capital's corporate monopoly of power over the processes of immigration, job discrimination, residential segregation and other institutional mechanisms of the regulatory state.
Empiricism vitiates any simple tabulation of factors surrounding racism and extraterritorial intervention. Starkly absent from Wang's historical summary is the change of the older stereotypes of Fu Manchu or "heathen Chinese" as evil incarnate to the model minority exemplar in tandem with the rise of neoconservative Asian American "middlemen" as key players in the political scene. Neil Gotanda takes note of this dramatic transformation of the Asian American "yellow horde" into overachievers, an intermediate racial category or "racial buffer" between whites and a burgeoning "underclass." Add to this the phenomenon of what Peter Kwong calls the "new Chinatown," whose underground economy of "internal colonialism" outside the mainstream U.S. economy and labor market escapes Wang's dual paradigm and its alternative. We should factor in the conjuncture of the fin de siecle pettybourgeois anarchism and the neoliberal agenda for universalizing "free trade" and privatization everywhere. Glenn Omatsu describes the emergence of Asian neoconservatives in California, exploding the panethnic racialization of the sixties with the resurgent class antagonisms of a declining industrial economy.
In retrospect, I think it is perfectly conceivable to posit that freedom from the dual tyranny of racial exclusion and extraterritorial domination can take the form of a pluralist/multicultural ethos and an ethnocentric politics of identity. Despite its challenge to orthodoxy, both Tan's oeuvre (from The Joy Luck Club to The Thousand Secret Senses), as well as the more sophisticated inventions of David Hwang, Fae Mae Ng, Shawn Wong, Wing Tek Lum, Marilyn Chin and others, can and have been appropriated for disempowering their agents and entrenching a "separate but equal" prophylactic compromise. Kingston herself is now a sacred icon of pluralist feminism. Civil rights demands for some have been fulfilled by the fetishism of hybridity and heterogeneity, making the hyphen the erotic marker of a privileged difference. If the margin has moved to the center, or has been accommodated to the core by a strategy of co-optation and displacement, racism is preserved and strengthened in its political-economic functionality and ideological effects. Postmodernist discourse and criticism, eulogizing boutique multiculturalism above the political economy of maintaining consensus, runs rampant in the service of a pluralist metaphysics of the free market and individual freedom via consumerism (San Juan, Beyond; "From the Immigrant Paradigm").
One way of exploring how to seize the "weak link" in the U.S. sociopolitical formation is to pursue a historical-materialist critique of the contradictions that underlie the U.S. racial order. I want to use Frank Chin's writings as allegories of Chinese American historical specificity. This is not a task of recuperation-I have no special investment in the individual author-but a pedagogical and heuristic remapping of the political economy of literary value and meaning. In "Revisiting an 'Internal Colony': U.S. Asian Cultural Formations and the Meta-morphosis of Ethnic Discourse," a chapter in my book Beyond Postcolonial Theory, I alluded to Chin's attempt to dismantle the bipolarizing logic of the hyphenated sensibility found in Jade Snow Wong and other pre-World War II writers, and project instead a heroic myth of the Chinese workers who built the railroads, excavated tunnels, cleared the wilderness of Hawaii, and made enormous sacrifices to lay the infrastructure for industrial capitalist America. I alluded to how Chin has been able to neutralize the humanist, neoliberal reconstitution of the self with a "postmodern pastiche that may be an astute maneuver to undermine commodity fetishism" (189). "Commodity fetishism" is my shorthand term for the whole regime of alienation, more exactly reification (as defined by Lukacs and Goldmann), that distinguishes everyday life in a society centered on exchange-value, on the operations of the market. Reification manifests itself as racial oppression, exclusion, marginalization, and subordination of peoples marked as Others/aliens to constitute a majoritarian identity, articulated with class, sexuality, gender, and nationality.
Reification in the cultural field today expresses itself as the valorization of difference to compensate for the damages inflicted by a homogenizing Eurocentric universalism. What David Harvey calls the "Leibnizian conceit" (69), in which a monadic subjectivity internalizes the world and its totality of relations, was displayed earlier in Hongo's bifurcation of aesthetics and politics as two separate realms. This conceit also legitimizes the idea, so prevalent in postmodernist apologetics,of the artist as demiurgic force. Chin succeeds in destroying the Leibnizian conceit by emphasizing historical specificity and the sociopolitical constitution of the mode of literary production. Deploying a distancing slyness reminiscent of Brecht (see Jameson), Chin refunctions his own life-history as a means of carrying out a painstaking demystification of the paradigm of assimilation.
In a recent chronological survey of Chinese American literature, Sau-ling Cynthia Wong referred to Frank Chin, among others, as the "self-proclaimed heir to Louis Chu's "Chinatown tradition," which is distinguished by a "masculinist angst-ridden vision" ("Chinese American" 49). Chin's theatrical pieces and fiction composed in the seventies are supposed to register accurately the signature of that epoch in its "revolt against institutional racism and white cultural hegemony." Wong ascribes to Chin the project of forging a "uniquely 'Chinaman' language fusing the cadences of Cantonese and urban black vernacular to the English language." Wong remarks on Chin's verbal pyrotechnics and hybridity, on how his "programmatic ideological lucidity is also constantly overrun by dark psychic forces, as the author seeks to articulate a viable minority identity among multiple discourses, under contradiction-ridden material conditions" (49). Wong's commentary, however, has been overtaken by the Kingston-Chin controversy which staged literary history as a simplistic joust between Kingston's alleged neo-Orientalism and Chin's antifeminist and chauvinist heroics. For Wong, then, Chin's later production-not only Donald Duk and Gunga Din Highway but also the recent essays in Bulletproof Buddhists -"reprises issues of historical recuperation and male heroism" (54).
Against such drastic taxonomic pronouncements, which at times entertain but often fatigue, allow me to juxtapose this passage from Chin's story "The Only Real Day" from his 1988 collection, The Chinaman Pacific And Frisco RR Co.:
They all call me Jimmy. I'm becoming an American citizen, not because I want to be like them, but because it's good business Look! They like the Chinese better than Negroes because we're not many and we're not black. They don't like us as much as Germans or Norwegians because we're not white. They like us better than Jews because we can't be white like the Jews and disappear among the lo fan. But! They don't like a Chinaman being Chinese about life because they remind them of the Indians who, thirty-five thousand years ago, were Chinese themselves, see? So ! (69).
This passage, attributed to a shady character, Jimmy Chan, shows that underneath Chin's verbal exhibitionism and even carnivalesque disposition (see Fox), this alleged "Chinatown tradition" bespeaks a larger awareness of the political economy of U.S. social relations. Aside from speculative exaggerations surrounding cautionary advice, what Jimmy Chan represents is less a "real-life" surrogate than Chin's claim to actualize his recurrent view that life is war, life or art is an affair of strategy or what, in the current idiom, is called negotiation or articulation to preserve the collective life-form and wage counterhegemonic resistance under prohibitive constraints.
I think that Chin's satire of both white supremacy and the "orientalism" ascribed to best-sellers Kingston, Tan, Hwang and others, stems from this conception of his art as a repertoire of stratagems to deceive and undeceive. Stratagems are artifices or lures designed to outwit or surprise the enemy in order to obtain advantages. Chin's ruses are calculated both to mimic the Euro-American stereotypes and undercut them by a panoply of devices in the genre of satire or burlesque: exaggeration, simplification, sham naivete and other ironic techniques. If he imitates the cultural nationalism of the black movement, it is, I think, to accentuate its function as a moment in the playing out of the moves that a subordinated group-whether Asians, Latinos, blacks, or American Indians-needs to unfold and improve its precarious situation. Chin doesn't intend to foist beliefs that he disavows. Certainly he opposes the erasure of cultural difference in the multicultural "melting pot." But his singular strategy of asserting a heroic tradition is, in my view, not to be taken at face value, decontextualized and hypostatized; it should be interpreted as a phase or stage in the scheme of drawing in the enemy for an ambush. This caveat needs to be underscored in the light of a tendency among scholars to judge Chin removed from the socio-historic matrix of his imagination.
What is imperative then is the framing of judgments on Chin's literary achievement within a concrete historical conjuncture: Chin's plays and short stories, though conceived earlier, appeared in the seventies and eighties when the Civil Rights struggles had begun to be overtaken by a neoconservative resurgence, irrational and self-righteous, whose ebbtide is still to come. Though the nineties may have witnessed a neoliberal comeback in the proverbial "culture wars," we are no longer living fully in the milieu of a compassionate welfare state. Allow me to sketch broadly the parameters of Chin's cultural practice as well as that of minority discourse in general and its critical standards: the crisis of late capitalism and the Cold War from the end of World War II up to the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of rightwing fundamentalism, the onset of state-managed deregulation/privatization on the ruins of Civil Rights gains, NAFTA and globalization schemes at a time when global cities (Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco) have rapidly absorbed the old Chinatowns by Disneyfying them into theme parks or tourist simulacras in cyberspace.
Notwithstanding these developments, contradictions have not disappeared but sharpened: racism has become culturalized or rehabilitated into a matter of IQs and ultimately of ethical or moral values. Forms of life are now being interrogated and hierarchized while pragmatic moralism masquerading as cosmopolitanism substitutes for structural analysis. We now confront "ethnic cleansing" in benign and covert forms, variations of what Chin calls "racist love." In this light, when we discuss the problems and possibilities of Chinese America and its cultural practices, or those of the more artificial construction "Asian America," we enter a universe of discourse in which groups and collectivities, not individuals, are the appropriate analytic categories. They make intelligible the vagaries of identity politics in a class-divided formation. This is a level of theoretical abstraction far removed from the discourse of psychoanalysis and a psychologizing empiricism centered on the individual which motivates the orthodox literary historian and ethnic scholar.
Ethnicity, in this context, functions as the mode of differentiating groups by selected cultural attributes-language, religion, customs, phenotypical features, and so on. In U.S. intellectual exchange (since the intervention of Franz Boas), ethnicity has been used to replace "race" (that is, the use of phenotypical markers to categorize groups). Ethnicity deployed in public policy and educational planning, however, tends to conceal the mechanism of the U.S. racialization process, one of whose effects is to create buffer races between the dominant white society and people of color. When the politics of ethnic differentiation-multiculturalism, pluralism, and so on-is engaged, I think the more useful concept for us to use in enabling the comprehension of racial politics and class conflict in the United States is "hegemony." This concept of hegemony, borrowed from Gramsci, offers a more heuristic and explanatory potential in literary hermeneutics within the context of ideological-state legitimation. Construed as political rule by consensus, underwritten/reinforced by coercion, hegemony clarifies how ethnicity conceals or displaces racial categorization, which in turn hides class inequality. This is how the politics of recognition associated with ethnicity dialectically interacts with the politics of distribution (to adopt Nancy Fraser's terms) inflected by race.
Ethnicity finds itself problematized by racism in Chin's discursive practice. In a contribution to Studs Terkel's volume, Race, Chin explores the embeddedness of the Chinese habitus in American life and its indivisibility from the vicissitudes of the class/race/nationality parameters of subordination. He states that from his childhood he has been "trying to find out exactly what" he is, an American of Chinese descent. I should like to emphasize that this is not a quest for an essential quality or attribute of "Chineseness" but a cognitive and pragmatic mapping of the terrain of a racialized formation. Sucheng Chan, King-kok Cheung, and others, condemn Chin's "machismo" and his alleged claim to be the only "authentic" Asian American writer. There is some basis for this, but it does not appreciate the larger project of a disarticulation of the hegemonic order and re-interpellation of the erased and subjugated subject.
Unlike Asian postmodernists, Chin strives for a synthesizing appraisal of the social totality. Chin's mode of calculating how the "ethnic" negotiates the American scene implies a critique of liberal pluralism as well as the essentialism of an ethnicizing metaphysics:
Oakland is the Tower of Babel. All these languages. And nobody even speaks English like everybody else. I've come to believe that monotheism encourages racism, whoever practices it. There is only one God and everyone else is an infidel, a pagan, or a goy. The Chinese look on all behavior as tactics and strategy. It's like war. You have to know the terrain. You don't destroy the terrain, you deal with it. We get along, not because we share a belief in God or Original Sin or a social contract, but because we make little deals and alliances with each other (310).
Chin points out that because he was raised by white folks during World War II, he was saved from ideas of Chinese inferiority, of parents having proprietary rights over children, from the seductions of yellow minstrelsy. The powerful influence of the black radical movement in the sixties-dramatized in satiric and elegiac ways in The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon--is mediated in the typifying gestus of the Chinatown Red Guards, who violently command Chin to "Identify with China!"-the California Maoists beat him up and accuse him of being a "cultural nationalist." As a teacher, Chin was attacking stereotypes, racism in its overt forms, a racism that reduced Chinese Americans to "an enclave, like Americans working for Aramco in Saudi Arabia. Chinatown may be a stronghold of Chinese culture, but we're Chinese Americans" (312). He denounces the practices that have converted the Chinese Americans into "a race of Helen Kellers, mute, blind and deaf," the perfect minority worshipping Pearl Buck and embracing Charlie Chan, "an image of racist love," as "a strategy for white acceptance" (313).
Chin takes account of how social peace via individual/group competition is preserved by the inculcation of prejudice throughout the population. He recalls how David Hilliard of the Black Panthers got up in Portsmouth Square and said: "You Chinese are the Uncle Toms of the colored poples" (314). Chin finds this apt, but Chinese youth imitating black populism is not the solution. Nor is the temporary strategic ruse of using English "as a matter of necessity" in a white man's world, which he observes among the Indochinese immigrants whom he describes as "the unredeemed Chinese Chinese" (314).
A kind of peasant cunning using the "weapons of the weak" characterizes Chin's bravado, his predilection for exhibitionist belligerence. This has earned him sharp rebuke from self-avowed gatekeepers of Asian American culture and assorted academic moralists. Chin's method is not a matter of reversing discourse but a retrieval of a submerged tradition: the practical materialism of the Chinese plebeian grassroots, the proletariat in city and countryside (Needham). To interrogate self-contempt as a tactic of survival and legitimize a Chinese American sensibility in his works, Chin is often quoted as adopting a heroic martial posture and outlook based on his application of Sun Tzu's Art of War and the Chinese cultural tradition embodied in the classic texts of Three Kingdoms, The War Margin, and Monkey's Journey to the West. Some commentators also impute to Chin the role of reconstructing the Chinese tradition in the way of Caliban and Kwan Kung (Leiwei Li). But Chin, I think, is not interested in postcolonial mimicry or a recovery of a putative Chinese American tradition. In his essay "Our Life is War," Chin argues that "What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy" (28), hence the importance of surveying the terrain or context of the struggle, analyzing the contradictory trends immanent in the forces engaged, and seizing the "weak link" to resolve the contradictions by stages and enable a release of human potential for future projects of liberation. The latest re-statement of this ethico-political artistic creed is found in "A Chinaman in Singapore":
The Chinese Americans are a lovingly despised minority in America. I have been despised all my life in the country of my birth. Fear of white racism is a childhood disease. I am no longer a child. I don't write for white acceptance. I don't write to get along with anybody. I write to tell the truth. Writing is fighting. Nations come and go. It's a good day to die. Let the good times roll (Bulletproof 392).
For this occasion, it might be instructive to illustrate Chin's dialectical mode of problematizing with reference to his latest work, Gunga Din Highway. The novel is an elaborate neopicaresque staging of a pretext for parody and satire of American highbrow and mass culture, rehearsing the familiar repertoire of racist cliches, stereotypes, icons and folkloric doxa of mainstream United States. It is organized around the conflict of generations, specifically between Longman Kwan, the father of Ulysses, who aspires to be the first Chinese to play Charlie Chan, after having had a career of playing Chan's Number four Son and as "the Chinaman who dies." Ulysses, the third son of a father produced by incest, revolts against the patriarch who urges him to take on "the image of the perfect Chinese American to lead the yellows to build the road to acceptance towards assimilation" (Gunga 13)." Which road will the prodigal son take?
The parodic form leads to an inversion if not abortion of a young artist's development found in the traditional education novel. Ulysses and his friends, Diego Chang and Benedict Han, are instructed by their Chinese schoolteacher to "master all the knowledge of heaven and earthso as to see the difference between the real and the fake." They outwit their teacher. They anticipate the precept that good judgment springs from a hermeneutics of suspicion. The last chapter of the novel renders the success of Ulysses in refusing the legacy/ inheritance of Charlie Chan, a synecdoche for the systematic Americanization of the Chinese, even though at the end he accepts being a figurehead for the extended family. The father's prestige is vindicated as he is described in a fictional movie, Anna May Wong, an airplane movie with an all-Chinese bomber crew, in which the father departs from the Chan syndrome/Gunga Din Road and enjoys a symbolic resurrection and rehabilitation.
The lesson seems to be that the past is always redeemed in moments of danger, of crisis, when we seize the opportunities for transformative action. "Life is warLet the good times roll!" Diego Chang intones. If life is war and revolution, then Ulysses wins it when he refuses all the conventional expectations of the dominant society. Contrary to modernist decorum, Anna May Wong and its take-off sequence splices the father's death with the joyous drive toward birth, a delivery and deliverance at the same time. The trope of flight, passage, transition, etc. unfixes the dual reflex of assimilation/loyalty discussed earlier.
Still, we cannot evade the thematic burden of identity, whether filial, collective, private, decentered or intertextual. What are the conditions of its possibility? And is this task of identification meaningful for a novel that with its critical and deconstructive thrust undermines the quest for origins, essences, authenticity, destinies, transcendent and/or primordial forms? Chin pokes fun at the notion of a singular isolated tradition: "If Charlie Chan uses first-person pronouns, does not walk in the fetal position, is not played by a white man, and looks and acts like a real Chinese, he's not Charlie Chan anymore" (Gunga 355). This suggests that identification is always dialogic (in Bakhtin's sense) or, better yet, heteroglossic and intertextual.
The form of Gunga Din Highway, at first glance, seeks to reconcile the disintegration of the traditional world with the artist's desire for wholeness of understanding. As we shall see, the attempt executed partly through mimesis of Joyce and Homer only heightens the contradictions and, at best, instigates us to react to the crisis of the old order. Broadly surveyed, the four parts of the novel unfold the history of the Chinese in the United States in the adventures of Ulysses Kwan, the descendant of the god of fighters and writers, and variants of his character. Before "Home" can be reached, the protagonists have to experience a protracted agon from "Creation" to "The World" and "the Underworld."
One can discern a chronological progression from the Mother Lode country of California in World War II to San Francisco coffee shops in the fifties, passing through a Seattle rock-flamenco-blues festival and the activities of radical groups in the sixties to off-Broadway and the orientalist version of Pandora's box in the seventies, to middle age in the eighties, and finally to the disclosure of family secrets in the nineties. In Chin's genealogy, the hero is basically the anti-hero, a subversion of identity politics by a cosmic metanarrative and a carnivalesque collage of episodes without much logical causality. The rationale is provided by his reading of Chinese mythology: "The world, the giant, and the Mother of Humanity create a world where every hero is an orphan, a failed scholar, an outlaw, an outcast, an exile on the road of life through danger, ignorance, deception, and enlightenment" (Gunga vii). The education of Ulysses attains a climactic point in his encounter with the Horse, their Chinese teacher, at a historic juncture when the United States is fighting a war in Korea while the French have just suffered defeat at Dien Bien Phu in colonial IndoChina. The Horse's teaching sketches the secular, open-ended triangulation of Ulysses' emergent identity:
"I can teach you to read and write Chinese," the Horse said, "but you will never be Chinese. And by now you should all know no matter how well you speak English and how many of the great books of western civilization you memorize, you will never be bokgwai, white European Americans. The Chinese kick you around for not being Chinese. And the whites kick you around for not being American. Obviously you are neither white nor Chinese, but you tell me what does that mean? What is it? You are the stone monkey come to life. To learn the difference between stone idea and living flesh and blood, you must learn everything Chinese and American there is to know, you must master all the knowledge of heaven and earth, become The Sage equal to The Emperor of Heaven so as to see the difference between the real and the fake, the knowledge of what being neither Chinese nor bokgwai means." (Gunga 93)
In Chin's aesthetics, a strong modernist conception of the artist's singularity coexists with a profound sense of art's ethical responsibility. This is translated in the novel when Ulysses and his friends respond: "The Horse made us feel special. Unlike anyone else in the world, we were neither Chinese nor American. All things were possible. No guilt. We were pure self-invention," something like Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost: "self-begat." Lest this theory of self-invention, eloquently invoked also at the beginning of The Chickencoop Chinaman, induce us to ascribe to Chin an ethnic refurbishing of neoPlatonic individualism, with a touch of Emersonian pragmatism, I want to stress the circumstantial density that limits the affirmation of freedom or independent agency that Chin's characters embody in their comic resilience and vitality. I don't see any warrant here for egotism or a metaphysics of the Flaubertian artist-deity. The discourse of Gunga Din Highway can only lend itself to a fullblown nihilistic interpretation if the weight of history and the sociopolitical determinants that afford "objective correlatives" or, Raymond Williams' term, "structures of feeling," are wilfully ignored.
Judging from the meager reviews, this historicising aspect of Chin's fiction has been neglected in favor of its colorful rhetoric and somewhat exhibitionist idiosyncracies. For example, the New York Times reviewer focuses on Chin's fascination with Hollywood stereotypes and the penchant of superimposing on life a cinematic pattern that makes "The Movie About Me" the foil to the real world. The "Me," however, is a defensive mimicry of the hegemonic individualist liberal ethos. Public anxiety with Chin's alleged humorous if "deadly cynicism" and canny ironic tone that distance the characters from the reader may indicate a certain resistance to the critique of media and mass culture in the novel, a critique that the publishing industry would be loathe to endorse. Another reviewer calls attention to the "frenetic, irreverent and episodic father-and-son saga that encompasses some five decades of American cliches, moviemaking and image bashing Chin sets Ulysses' serendipitous adventures within a comic book-style cultural survey that mocks everything American, from movies to music, drugs, politics, the media, pornography and racism" (Seaman 111). One reviewer, Robert Murray Davis, speculates that the reader is expected to have seen every movie from M to Wild in the Streets and Night of the Living Dead, as well as some invented ones like Charlie Chan in Winnemucca and Ana May Wong, to get a full appreciation of Chin's demystification of their aura. But the reference to these numerous artifacts of mass culture need not detract from the writer's purpose of carrying out a general demystification of appearances, especially when such appearances provide pleasure and catharsis that prevent the acquisition of knowledge required for unmasking the ideology of what is considered normal, natural and reasonable.
Chin's programmatic satire aims to interrogate the ideology of reification, in particular the reification of ethnicized gender and sexual practices. In the third section, "The Underworld," Chin recounts an incident he reported in the aforementioned interview with Studs Terkel. This deals with the time when he was challenged by the Chinatown Red Guards as he led his students reciting "Ching Chong Chinaman " Ulysses explains the rationale: "Satire is where you make fun of how they think and what they say in order to make them look stupid" (Gunga 257). This satiric motivation acquires a Rabelaisian accent in the summary of Benedict Mo's Fu Manchu Plays Flamenco; the play, according to Ulysses, aims to create not a hybrid artifact symbolically overcoming exclusion and anti-miscegenation laws, but "a Chinese-American culture that kicks white racism in the balls with a shit-eating grin" (Gunga 261). The play functions as the antithesis to the Charlie Chan archetype. But what is the play really about? Here is a partial summary:
In the play, Fu Manchu tells the white captive to give up the secret to Kool-Aid or he will let his beautiful nympho daughter give him the dreaded torture of a thousand excruciating fucks and exotic sucks. But the white man defends the secret to Kool-Aid, and Fu's luscious daughter wheels the captive off to her silk-sheeted torture chamber. When the director sees Ulysses offstage watching, still in character, he tries putting Fu Manchu back onstage, reciting classical Japanese haiku of Issa and Basho, breathlessly watching his daughter torture the white man by seduction. Then Ulysses gets the idea to have Fu play the guitar in rhythm to his daughter's hips while badmouthing the white captive's sexual organs, skills, and style in Spanish, English and three dialects of Chinese
So who knows and who cares whose idea it is for Fu Manchu to end his flamenco in the torture chamber by ripping open his robe and showing his body in a bra, panties, garter belt and black net stockings, licking his lips as he makes a move on the white man, while Fu's daughter straps on an eight-inch dildo? The captive American screams the secret formula, not only for Kool-Aid but for Bisquick and Crisco, too (Gunga 258).
The critic Sau-Ling Wong has commented on the preoccupation of American-born Chinese writers with the effects of the gendering of ethnicity-the reflex of effeminizing the Asian men and ultrafeminizing Asian women-while recent immigrant writers are more concerned with the ethnicizing of gender. The quotation above shows Chin's hyperbolic displacement of the stereotypes by the manipulation of a sign system immanent in commodity aesthetics (Haug).
Chin's strategy of deploying various perspectives-not only Ulysses but also his sworn blood brothers Diego Chang and Benedict Mo-is designed to counter any single narrative authority, even though his voice with its mocking insinuations and insouciance seems to predominate. Ego-building is not the agenda but the collective response to white racism.
It may be noted here also that Chin's carnivalesque stance linked to the revolutionary social impulse of comedy effectively counters any psychologizing of racism and liberal ideology. The satiric and comic framework neutralizes the psychoanalytic obsession over the enigma formulated by Suzanne Yang: "What is the opposite of an Asian woman?" We confront again the problematic of Orientalism-the objectification of the exoticized Other-that inheres in the valorization of difference as such. Yang analyzes the enigma of racist love as the "scopic constitution of racial identity mediated through an imaginary representation of the desire of the Other" (140). This Lacanian formula of ethnicity as a syndrome of ignorance, love and hatred coalesced together, leads to an answer to the question of representation: the remainder (of what?) imagined as lost in the Other produces an aporia, which is the terrain of curiosity, desire, racism. It is this aporia that Gunga Din Highway exposes as an illusion generated by the contradictions in real life. Racial categorizing, chief symptom of lived contradictions, results from the spontaneous reproduction of bourgeois social relations mediated by money, commercial transactions and the pervasiveness of commodity fetishism in media and all cultural practices. In the everyday interaction of stratified groups in a racialized milieu, the legitimacy of the system can thrive on the continued reproduction of differences normalized in a system of dependency: the Other lacks what I (the white master) as owner of the means of production/reproduction have, and I know it. In short, the role of the actor Charlie Chan, born from this system of dependency and representation, can never be played by a Chinese.
The conclusion of the novel returns us to George Stevens' film Gunga Din, after whom this highway of negotiation of "subject-positions," as the fashionable idiom has it, is named. Ulysses confidently asserts that "this is not The Movie About Me," his father is patently absent in it. It is "nothing but the real old movie." Aside from indexing the circumstantial conjunctures of the individual episodes, variants of a talk-story addressed to a select audience (mainly aficionados of Asian American literature), the Hollywood productions referenced throughout exemplify the ideological apparatus of racialization which, once internalized, produces symptoms of the Gunga Din complex. But what I want to call attention to is not this accumulation of period references and artifacts that give us a sense of how the racial subordination of the Chinese and other Asians has been maintained. Rather, I want to stress that it is from the subtle undercutting of the postmodernist styles of pastiche, collage, discordant rhetorical registers, and so on, counterpointed to a narrative scaffolding derived from Chinese and Western mythology and modernist artistic practices, that Chin fabricates this peculiar form of literary "installation" meant to dereify the alienation of social relations in the United States. Heterogeneity of novelistic form is thus meant to lay bare, expose, or defamiliarize the real contradictions taken for granted in the commercial routine of everyday life.
For Chin, the project of dereification began in the sixties with the inception of the Civil Rights movement. He tried out deploying the "weapons of the weak" in the absurdist scenarios of The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon: cliches, stereotypes, and the doxa of white supremacy were dismantled by techniques of allegory, reverse ventriloquism, theatrical distancing, and so on. From the somewhat mannerist, self-conscious Faulknerian rhetoric of "The Chinatown Kid" and other stories in his collection The Chinaman Pacific and Frisco R.R. Co., Chin switches to the flat reportorial idiom of Donald Duk, in which the whole saga of thousands of Chinese workers building the trans-Pacific railroad is spliced with the artifice of sustaining a communal ethos in Chinatown (indigenized ghetto/reservation and locus of pacification) through the shared dreams of parents and children. Chin repeats his injunction via the Father's declaration to his son: "History is war, not sport! You gotta keep the history yourself or lose it forever, boy. That's the mandate of heaven." A sense of long duration in historiography is evoked at the end of Donald Duk as the 108 toy airplanes explode in flight:
... and Donald Duk remembers dreams, the 108 horsemen galloping across the cloud over the ten miles of track just layed by the 1,200 Chinese and eight Irishmen. And very quickly they are all gone. Not a sound. Not a flash. All 108 stick-and-paper model airplanes gone. "Anybody hungry?" Dad asks Like everything else, it begins and ends with Kingdoms rise and fall. Nations come and go, and food. (173)
Food of course functions here as a marker of an oppositional cultural politics, as in much Asian American fiction (Waller), but surely this whole culinary knowledge/praxis cannot be dissociated from the nexus of gender, sexuality, class and other patterns of socialization. The transitory, the cyclical and the permanent coexist in the mythmaking impulse of the novelist, but what endures is the totality of history in which the Chinese in America, stratified by class, gender and sexuality, continue as a racialized collectivity to participate in a struggle for hegemony and social transformation.
Ultimately, Chin's strategy of calculating social relations harbors a utopian elem ent. His vision of the place of the Chinese in an evolving multicultural and egalitarian American society inheres in transfiguring the idea of process-in this case, the topos of the road/physical route institutionalized by Jack Kerouac, Robert Frost, Robert Penn Warren, Paul Bowles, and others--into a matter of geopolitical strategizing (life/history is articulated as antagonism of forces). What is at stake is not a heroic masculinist dispensation but the recognition of Chinese creativity and the communal virtues of discipline and cooperation. In the essay "Rashomon Road: On the Tao to San Diego" (circa 1995), Chin continues his attack on Betty Lee Sung and others who preach from "the pulpit of acceptance, absorption, and assimilation," who persist in "ornamenting white fantasy" and denying the place of the Chinese as producers and contributors to an evolving American civilization. In a gesture of "militant particularism" (Harvey), Chin inscribes Chinese American history in the recursive texts/memory of concrete locales and sites, hyphenating ethnicities in the geopolitical arena:
The history of the Chinese in California is written in miles of old mining roads, and the railroad The road was going to be an adventure with father and son discovering the deserts, valleys, mountains, volcanoes, birds, cities, friends Asian American writers born and raised in America without feeling split between two incompatible cultures the Asian American identity crisis didn't exist for us. We knew Chinese or Japanese culture and knew white American culture, and knew we were not both, nor were we the best of the East and the best of the West. We knew we were neither. Being neither did not mean we contemptuously ridiculed and stereotyped every culture we were not For us, the adventure in Asian American writing was not just in the writing but in the study, the discovery, the history (290).
Writing and living, for Chin, are matters of strategy concerned with relations, transitions and passages from one position to another. Strategy is involved with establishing connections, linkages and modalities of change from one situation to another. One authority, Harro von Senger, remarks that stratagems are "the exact opposite of Confucian humanity and virtue" (12). Stratagems apply more to the armaments of the weak, who deploy practical knowledge and prudence for defense that doubles as offense. All groups oppressed and exploited over the centuries acquire the habitus of wariness as they perpetually seek to secure the initiative. Chin's signifying practice may be considered a craft of wariness. It is an attempt to exploit a potential force or resource, not to apply efficiently a force or resource already available. This potential force operates as a comic principle (ethnicity thrives on mistaken identities, a comedy of errors) that experiments with "variable-sum" games, not constant-sum games. That is, it is concerned "not just with enemies who dislike each other but with partners who distrust or disagree with each other" (Schelling quoted in Scruton 1982).
Here is a passage from the story "A Chinese Lady Dies," an elegiac testimony to the passing of the putative "Chinatown tradition," that epitomizes Chin's variable-sum game in which ethnic and racial factors permutate in the chief protagonist's consciousness:
I'm not Chinese, boys, they say I'm no good! "Whoa up there, Chinaman, what the fuck's goin on here?" Confucius asks. I'm having me one identity crisis, Confucius. They hide their daughters from me. Don't invite me in to supper. "Identity crisis, my ass," Confucius says. "Don't you know there's no such thing, boy? Don't be a sucker for Christian tragedy" (125-26).
For all his insistence that life/art is strategy, Chin also realizes that there is a hegemonic social order which co-opts, displaces and incorporates resistant forces acknowledged in the well-known aphorism to the effect that humans make history but not under conditions of their own making. Chin knows that the fabric of the dominant social order is pervaded with violence, and that apart from a war of maneuver (frontal assaults), one has to conduct a guerilla strategy of taking flexible positions in the Gramscian scheme of winning hegemony through versatile means. The trenches of civil society that Chin attacks are the feudal family, Euro-American patriarchy and the commodity-fetishism immanent in what George Lukács has called "reification" in bourgeois industrial society. This society is rhetorically figured in Chin as the Hollywood star system (Fu Manchu/Charlie Chan) and the culture of people of color rendered as spectacles/ movie fetishes. Dirigible chides his mother: "You've been watching too many movies" (126).
Chin's use of Charlie Chan in his novels may be conceived as an attack on the logic of the market system that sets up equivalencies in a reductive racial circuit of exchange. Because any critique of this racial formation requires that one engage it on the terrain of institutions and collective practices (racism is never an individual phenomenon but always a relation of groups) which preserve and maintain inequalities of gender, race, class, sexuality, and so on, Chin cannot avoid contamination with both its regressive metaphysics and residual progressive impulses. Chin's anarchist individualism may be considered a symptom of his derivation from the conflicted history of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. What this foregrounds is the complex nature of the strategy of any cultural revolution in which Chin, like other ethnic artists, is obliged to participate: to disarticulate the relay of hegemonic messages, demystify the epistemic codes of the dominant system and rearticulate them by negating some, preserving others, and elevating the new constellation on a higher level.
A dialectic of selective negation/affirmation underlies Chin's critique of white supremacist America. Using a grotesque and ludic realism that destabilizes the formalities of market exchange, Chin's art seeks to invade the hegemonic social order of capital and its racializing logic with dispersed forces-Chin's allusive and digressive style of understatement is one such force-so as to unbalance or decenter that status quo (Atkinson). When Chin therefore announces a slogan such as "Give the Enemy Sweet Sissies and Women to Infatuate Him, and Jades and Silks to Blind Him with Greed" (the title of one of his stories), this move is obviously not a way of preaching instrumentalism or materialist quid-pro-quo opportunism. It is an act of appropriation and reconstruction of the democratic-popular tradition for emancipatory goals (Palumbo-Liu). Infiltrating the enemy's ground, Chin reads the conflicted history of the bourgeoisie as the palimpsest in which he inscribes the genealogy of resistance of Chinese America as both continuation and disruption, a break as well as a fresh beginning.
From this vantage point, we can now reassess the polemics against Chin's sexism and claim to authentic heroism. While possessing a measure of validity, the polemics have done enough disservice by distracting our attention from Chin's overall strategic intention, whether successfully accomplished or not, of broad social transformation of the U.S. racial/class system. Certainly, sexism and gender inequality are to be combated, but they need to be concretely located within the totality of social relations of late capitalism, with its complex political and ideological articulations. No one, I hope, mistakes this for a plea for economic reductionism, or vulgar materialism. On the other hand, when we see metaphysics run wild in postcolonial deconstruction and all sorts of speculative fantasies not grounded in historical specificities, then I think that Frank Chin's emphasis on what his character Yuen calls "too moochie shi-yet" is right on the mark.
From this perspective, the Chin-Kingston exchange becomes understandable as one expression of the historical vicissitudes sketched earlier. It can be instructive only when we apprehend it symptomatically as a mediation or translation of the dialectic between various social movements that consider diverse points of departure centering on tactical definitions of gender, race, class, locality, sexuality, and so on. Cultural and ideological conflicts need to be inscribed in the larger social text, replete with what David Harvey calls "permanencies," within the flows of diverse social changes. The parallel in Filipino American discourse is the polarity between the line of proletarian commitment (Carlos Bulosan) and Jose Garcia Villa's aestheticism. Both of them are reflections, direct and oblique, of class and sectoral antagonisms in the only Asian colony of the United States, the Philippines. The dynamics of that polarity refract the clash between leftwing progressive trends and the formalist New Critical trends in American literary culture in the thirties and forties. Because Filipino national culture is more hybridized (that is, subalternized or neocolonized because of capitalist uneven and combined development), we have less controversy on who is more or less authentic, who is more faithful to the native tradition, since our cultural practice is not strictly indexed to certain sacred and authoritative texts of origin (except perhaps Jose Rizal's novels). The anti-U.S. colonial tradition in Filipino American discourse finds analogue in the anti-internal colonialist position in Chin, Hwang, Kingston, the Aiieeee! Editors and other Asian American artists. It might be of interest to add here that Jessica Hagedorn, now the most acclaimed Filipino American writer, is a product of a decaying sixties trend when the internal Filipino colony became transmogrified into a diasporic or transnational entity, with the stake of postcolonial citizenship becoming devalued and cheapened by globalized corporate flows (San Juan, From Exile). Meanwhile, at the turn of this century, the revolutionary national-liberation forces in the Philippines experiences a resurgence unique in that region between Asia and the Pacific, where collapsing economies measure the triumphal march of global capital, a convergence prefigured in Chin's 1998 account, "A Chinaman in Singapore."
Like Filipino writers in the United States, Chin is situated in the site of multiple convergences, of continuities and disruptions. Structured between two cultures/ histories-China/America, the Chinese American artist in general confronts the additional predicament of mediating differences brought about by the whole racialized history of the United States: genocide of the American Indians, slavery and segregation of African Americans, colonization of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, Hawaiians, and so on. Asians as a "buffer race," the "model minority" disengaged from the State apparatus of institutional racism-this condition is one way the in-between predicament is resolved, but ironically it reproduces the lower classes of the group as inassimilable or permanent aliens. In "Back Talk," Chin urged that the strategy of resistance must replace the psychology of lying low, the habitual exercise of "forestalling the Great Deportation" for those who have accepted the status of sojourners (557). Lacking "an articulated, organic sense of our identity" and plagued by a suicidal "dual personality" produced by America's racist love, Asians need to reflect on their history, on their positions and locations in the American landscape. Although Chin insists that Asian culture is martial and migratory, not migrant, he is unable to escape the nexus of America as the road, depot, marketplace, and its tropological construction as a moving terrain for immigrants. By indigenizing this trope, Chin safeguards himself from being instrumentalized by a conservative cultural nationalism such as that of Singapore, for example, which recuperated David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly to serve reactionary authoritarian-capitalist ends (Lye).
Given this materialization of history for Chin, American culture is not a fixed but a pidgin or bastard culture; like the language it is "a pidgin marketplace culture" (295). Anything has value so long as it can be exchanged (the sensuous particulars reduced to quantitative abstraction), so long as it enters into market circulation. If this is so, then what awaits the new immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong and China who conceive of the United States not as a temporary place to work but as a new home with great economic opportunities (Takaki)? Why are these new immigrants still perceived as the perpetual foreigners, countless potential Vincent Chins indistinguishable from the aggressive "oriental" competitor, the Japanese (Chasin)? In fact, we now have a situation where the new rich Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong, whom Aihwa Ong calls "transnational cosmopolitans," have rearticulated the resonance of extraterritorial domination with their familial biopolitics and parachute kids, a force strong enough to supposedly challenge the "American class ethos of moral liberalism" (284). We can raise the questions that Chin has tried to narrativize: is racist love now eliminated by this new phenomenon of performative, not normative or even "accidental." Asians: "cultural citizenship as subjectification and cultual performance" (Ong 286)? Or are those now gifted with exorbitant symbolic capital still compelled to traverse Gunga Din Highway filled with supermalls, reproducing an exchangeable use-value (a quintessential Chineseness, whatever that is) in the service of global capitalism? These are questions that Chin has attempted to answer and that Chinese as well as other Asian writers will have to respond to in the next millenium for the sake of much more worthy ideals.
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