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Black Panthers, Red Guards, and Chinamen: Constructing Asian American Identity through Performing Blackness, 1969-1972

From: American Quarterly
Volume 57, Number 4, December 2005
pp. 1079-1103 | 10.1353/aq.2006.0012

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American Quarterly 57.4 (2005) 1079-1103

Constructing Asian American Identity through Performing Blackness, 1969–1972

Daryl J. Maeda

On March 22, 1969, in Portsmouth Square, a public gathering place in San Francisco's Chinatown, a group of young Chinese Americans calling themselves the Red Guard Party held a rally to unveil their "10 Point Program." Clad in berets and armbands, they announced a Free Breakfast program for children at the Commodore Stockton school, denounced the planned destruction of the Chinese Playground, and called for the "removal of colonialist police from Chinatown." The Red Guard Party's style, language, and politics clearly recalled those of the Black Panther Party, with whom they had significant contact and by whom they were profoundly influenced. At the rally, the Red Guards performed an Asian American version of black nationalism by adopting the Panthers' garb, confrontational manner, and emphasis on self-determination.

Many years later, the Asian American playwright and critic Frank Chin dismissed the Red Guards' rally as a "yellow minstrel show." But while Chin rejected the Red Guards' performance as a vain attempt to imitate blackness, in 1971, just two years after the rally, he offered his own dramatic take on the interplay between Asian Americans and blacks in his play The Chickencoop Chinaman. Widely acknowledged as a germinal work of Asian American literature, Chin's play explores the relationship between Asian American identity and blackness by featuring Chinese American and Japanese American protagonists who associate with, claim sympathy for, and exhibit speech and dress patterns most commonly associated with African Americans. Set in the late 1960s, The Chickencoop Chinaman chronicles the adventures of Tam Lum, a fast-talking Chinese American, and his Japanese American sidekick, Kenji, as they attempt to produce a film about the career of their childhood hero, the African American boxer Ovaltine Jack Dancer and his putative father, Charley Popcorn. As a story about the search for heroes, fathers, and a usable past, The Chickencoop Chinaman provides a powerful meditation on the relationship between masculinity, race, and Asian American identity.

Both the Red Guard Party and Frank Chin were key players in the Asian American political and cultural mobilization of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Red Guards were among the first radicals to arise from Asian American communities and in their later incarnation as I Wor Kuen (IWK) constituted one of the two preeminent Asian American leftist organizations. They built community programs, organized Asian American workers, fought for better living conditions, protested against the Vietnam War, and became integrally entwined in the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist left. Chin was highly influential in his own right as a writer, critic, and activist. His play The Chickencoop Chinaman marked his emergence as a major figure. It won the 1971 playwriting contest sponsored by the East West Players, the prominent Los Angeles–based Asian American theater company, and became the first Asian American play to be produced off-Broadway. Chin published numerous works of searing criticism, fiction, and nonfiction, cofounded the Asian American Theater Workshop in San Francisco, one of the most important venues for Asian American dramatic productions, coedited AIIIEEEEE!, a foundational anthology of Asian American literature, and organized the first Day of Remembrance to commemorate the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Yet Chin is also a controversial figure who has leveled highly gendered criticism at authors—most notably Maxine Hong Kingston—whom he believes to peddle "fake" depictions of Asian American culture for white consumption. Critics charge that his attempts to create a heroic Asian American tradition inevitably "reassert male authority over the cultural domain by subordinating feminism to nationalist terms." It is not my intent here to rehash these critiques, but instead to point out that critical perspectives on Chin have thus far failed to locate his rehearsals of Asian American masculinity in the historical context of the black power period. Reading The Chickencoop Chinaman through a racial lens reveals the play's linkages of Asian American identity to blackness.

The Red Guard Party and Frank Chin engaged in divergent modes of performance. While rallies on the street and drama on stage constitute different genres, both were scripted with intentionality and visually constructed and...

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