The Chickencoop Chinaman (Frank Chin)
This play was much more abstract than I originally expected. I’ll admit that I’m still puzzled by the idea of the “Chickencoop Chinaman.” Chin introduces this character in the very first scene, when Tam says that he is “THE NOTORIOUS ONE AND ONLY CHICKENCOOP CHINAMAN HIMSELF” — the “result of a pile of pork chop suey thrown up into the chickencoop in the dead of night and the riot of dark birds, night cocks and insomniac nympho hens running after strange food that followed” (7). He says that “in the beginning there was the Word! Then there was me! And the Word was CHINAMAN. And there was me. [...] I lived the Word! The Word is my heritage” (6). He goes on to say that he was not born: “Created! Not born. No more born than the heaven and earth. No more born than nylon or acrylic. For I am a Chinaman! A miracle synthetic” (8). So I get that he’s supposed to be more a product of his environment than the result of generations of cultural history — he’s born of a word, the product of a mad night in an Oakland chickencoop. But is that it? It hardly seems like Chin would continue bringing up this Chickencoop Chinaman thing throughout the entire play if there wasn’t more to it than that. I’m stuck, though. What else could it mean? What is the deeper meaning? Maybe there isn’t one??
Okay, so on to something I have more conclusions about. There’s this whole idea of cultural blending that continues to plague the play. Tam’s speech is described as jumping “between black and white rhythms and accents” (6), and when he meets Charley Popcorn, the old man is thoroughly confused. Popcorn tells Tam, “The way you talked, why, I took you for colored over the phone. [...] Why would a Chinese talk like a colored man?” (40) — a question that Kenji understands more thoroughly. Kenji’s nickname is “BlackJap Kenji” because he “hated yellow-people” (20) and also talks like Tam does. But Tam’s nickname was “Tampax” — a nickname that grew out of another nickname: “Ragmouth” for his “fancy yakity yak” (26). The speech patters aren’t the only indication of different cultures rubbing off on each other. Kenji’s apartment itself is a visual indication of the influences that informed him: “Tatami on the floor. The walls are covered with posters of black country, blues and jazz musicians that clash with the few Japanese prints and art objects” (9). And of course, there’s Lee herself — a woman who’s at least part Chinese, but has been passing as white. In fact, even her ex-husband thinks she’s entirely white — Tam is the only one who realizes she’s not. Despite that, she’s supposedly on her way to Africa and gets offended when other people try to criticize Blacks. Chin makes an interesting statement about what it means to be American, what it means to be Asian American, African American, etc. — and how these different identities relate to and rub against each other.
Finally, how can I pass over the Lone Ranger and Tonto? Here’s Tonto, played by the same actor who plays Tom. But when he was growing up, Tam was certain that the Lone Ranger was Chinese. He surfed the radio waves listening for a Chinese presence, and he thought he’d found it in the Lone Ranger: “I heard of the masked man. And I listened to him. And in the Sunday funnies he had black hair, and Chinatown was nothing but black hair, and for years, listen, years! I grew blind looking hard through the holes of his funnypaper mask for slanty eyes. Slanty eyes, boys! You see, I knew, children, I knew with all my heart’s insight [...] he wore that mask to hide his Asian eyes! And that made sense of me. I knew he wore a red shirt for good luck. I knew he rode a white horse named Silver cuz white be our color of death. [...] And he was lucky Chinaman vengeance on the West…and silver bullets cuz death for a Chinaman is always expensive. [...] I knew the Lone Ranger was the CHINESE AMERICAN BOY of the radio I’d looked for” (32). But when the Lone Ranger turns out to be an old, white racist and Tonto is willing to butcher his perfectly good English to speak in the broken English the Lone Ranger insists he use, Tam is deeply injured (as symbolized by the gunshot to his hand — a significant choice of places on the body since Tam is an aspiring author).