March 9, 2020: “The Chinatown Kid” by Frank Chin

It’s Monday, Story366, so let’s dive in, head-first.

No more AWP talk, right? Other than what I’m doing right, which means, of course, more AWP talk. Since last Monday, when I decided not to go and to not take Moon City Press or the van full of students to the conference, a lot has happened and a lot has not happened. San Antonio has not fallen. Much of the conference went on without us. As of yet, none of my friends are reporting any illness. I know, that last one wouldn’t show up yet, but still, that’s the one I’m most worried bout. After hearing “State of Emergency” or “Disaster” or whatever the term was, that cruise patient hanging out at the mall and in a hotel, we feared worst, and so far, the worst hasn’t happened.

In the last week, the virus has, however, spread quite a bit, to various states, with a rising death toll. The numbers are still small, but growing exponentially. Last Monday, San Antonio looked like it could be Ground Zero. This week, there really isn’t a Ground Zero: It’s all over the place. Even Ted Cruz has quarantined himself, and he killed all those people when he was the Zodiac. What does this tell us? Ageless, immortal, puzzle-loving serial killers are susceptible to this thing, too.

I talked to one of my brothers last night, for the first time this week, and he said he was glad I didn’t go to San Antonio. I told him that I was, too, based on the information I had last Monday. If AWP were about to happen this week, however, I might go, I said. This kind of baffled him. Last Monday: San Antonio, and Washington state, were the epicenters of the virus. This week, with it more well distributed, I’m kind of hearing that it doesn’t matter where you are, that it’s unavoidable. Best just to pack yourself with vitamin C, dip yourself in hand sanitizer, and avoid touching people. So, yeah, if we had to leave tomorrow, I think I’d go. I think a lot more people would.

What it all came down to was the wrong city, in the wrong week, or maybe even on the wrong day. Sucks for us who wanted to go, sucks for anyone who went and had things cancelled or didn’t sell enogh, and sucks for AWP the organization, which I’m sure took a big hit, both financially and reputationwise.

It doesn’t suck as much, however, as it does for anyone who’s already gotten sick or who has died: I truly feel sorry for them, wish everyone a speedy recovery who can still recover, and offer peace to those who cannot. If I’ve not mentioned that—focused on my books and my fun and my adventure—I’m sorry. Condolences and apologies to those who aren’t just afraid, but already living this.

For today’s entry, I read from Frank Chin‘s 1988 collection The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R.R. Co., brought to us by Coffee House Press. I saw Chin read at Bowling Green twenty years ago, when the Asian Studies Department used to have this fantastic reading series, the Asian-American Literary Caravan. It was run by my friend, program director Theresa Mah, who soon after pulled a huge career 180 and moved to Chicago and became an Illinois State Representative of the 2nd District—Chinatown. But anyway, we were so lucky that Mah loved contemporary writers and sunk a ton of money, for three or four years, into this series. She brought in people like Chin, Thrity Umrigar, Brian Leung, and Agha Shahid-Ali, right before he died. Chin read a really funny story, signed my book—the copy I read from today—and now, twenty years later, I’m covering it on Story366.

Chin’s collection addresses several themes, like his growing up in America as a first-generation Chinese-American, as well as Chinese myth and legend. More than anything, Chin addresses the Chinese stereotypes he faced as a kid, stereotypes that still exist today. These stereotypes reached him via his classmates and neighbors, but especially via pop culture,  China was represented in movies and TV by the like of Hop Sing and Charlie Chan (Note: the same guy who played Charlie Chan’s son, Victor Sen Yung,  went on to play Hop Sing; this guy apparently grabbed up most of the available roles—at least they used someone Chinese, unlike all three Charlie Chans). Chin’s characters grapple with their identities, all while facing this scrutiny and racism. These themes can be found in every story I read.

I should also note that Chin has a very particular style of storytelling, one that involves very little in terms of plotting, small actions and movements often surrounded by long, lyrical sentences and paragraphs, sidebars that include backstories and anecdotes, and ruminations, lots and lots of ruminations. Plus, time jumps, reverse time jumps, and some liberties with perspective and stream of consciousness. Reading Chin’s stories is rewarding, his style so original, though on the demanding side.

The story I’m covering today, “The Chinatown Kid,” is an example of this, a story I read a few times over before I got a real feel for it, enough to compose this post. I got the voice and the character and the tone down right away, but what’s happening is something I had to uncover. “The Chinatown Kid” is about Pete, a widower raising a young daughter, Hyacincth, the product of his union with Maria. Maria was Mexican, and since Pete is Chinese, their marriage raised a lot of eyebrows, in both families. Not as many eyebrows as Pete as a widower, however. Pete, at the present point of the story, is run down. He’s an older dad, for one, but also unkempt. Characters in the story say he looks like a bum, and the fact he’s living with Hyacinth in a one-room, dingy apartment doesn’t help.

It takes a while to get to, but eventually, we find out that Pete’s family has decided to take Hyacinth from him. He has a little brother whose wife is willing, plus fully grown daughters of their own who can help. Basically, Pete is being told by the women in his family he can’t raise his own daughter, not being who he is, not under the conditions he’s established. Near the end of the story, they’ve showed up to take Hyacinth away from him.

The worst part is, Pete isn’t doing anything to fight it. He’s sad, doesn’t want to lose his daughter—it’s clear he loves her and she loves him—but Pete’s a broken man. Losing Maria ruined him, so by the time his relatives make their play, he’s lost the fight to resist. This is all happening because Pete is letting them.

Remember, a lot of this story takes place inside the narration, between exposition and description and those sidenotes and anecdotes. Pete, not healthy now, ruminates on a former self, a time when he was The Chinatown Kid, pretty hot shit, the son of a madame and master of all the martial arts. When Pete thinks too long about Hyacinth, about her leaving, about reality, his mind takes him back to those days, this larger-than-life character, this ideal self he’s created. Pete has a happy place and he’s been going to it a lot, though not nearly as much as he will, considering what’s ahead.

I enjoyed meeting Frank Chin twenty years ago and enjoyed reading through The Chinaman Pacific & Frisco R.R. Co. today. Chin has a unique style and still tells a mean story. Glad to spend today with him.