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Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 134-152

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Sentimentalism and Sui Sin Far

Boston College

Perhaps it was because some "funny people" saw Sui Sin Far, the earliest known American author of Chinese ancestry to write in English, struggling to survive and publish that they advised her to "trade upon" her "nationality." As she relates in her autobiographical essay, "Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian,"

They tell me that if I wish to succeed in literature in America I should dress in Chinese costume, carry a fan in my hand, wear a pair of scarlet beaded slippers, live in New York, and come of high birth. Instead of making myself familiar with the Chinese Americans around me, I should discourse on my spirit acquaintances with Chinese ancestors.
(Mrs. Spring Fragrance 230) 1

It is because she resisted this advice to conform to a highly conventional notion of Chineseness, one that would have forced her to ignore the ethnic Chinese living in the United States, that a group of young activists in the early 1970s called attention to her work. In the second paragraph of the introduction to Aiiieeeee!, arguably the most influential early anthology of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino American writings, its editors refer to Sui Sin Far as "one of the first to speak for an Asian American sensibility that was neither Asian nor white American" (Chin et al. 3). She accomplished this feat because she had, unlike most of her American contemporaries, succeeded in making herself "familiar with the Chinese Americans around" her (3). She spent time with Chinese Americans, made her home in their racial ghettoes, and identified herself with their struggles. Unfortunately, the editors of Aiiieeeee! are quick to point out, she interpreted these experiences through the filters of American cultural prejudices: "Working within the terms of the stereotype of the Chinese as laundryman, prostitute, smuggler, coolie, she presents 'John Chinaman' as little more than a comic caricature, giving him a sensibility that was her own" (4). Despite her best efforts, in other words, Sui Sin Far could not quite write as a Chinese American even though she was herself of Chinese descent and, as a result, she could only be sympathetic (as opposed to empathetic) with their lives as a concerned outsider.

Clearly, the editors of Aiiieeeee! have an a priori idea in mind of what writing as a Chinese American, and by extension, an Asian American, should entail—being in large part heroic, manly, openly resistant to prejudice—and take issue with writers like Sui Sin Far who do not [End Page 134] replicate this idea exactly. A second group of scholars and activists, heavily influenced by the rise of feminism and less by a muscular black power movement, responded to this portrayal of an Asian American authentic by positing instead a critique of Asian and American patriarchy as crucial to an understanding of Asian American literature. "In taking whites to task for demeaning Asians," King-Kok Cheung explains, "these writers [mainly the editors of Aiiieeeee! ] seem nevertheless to be buttressing patriarchy by invoking gender stereotypes, by disparaging domestic efficiency as 'feminine,' and by slotting desirable traits such as originality, daring, physical courage, and creativity under the rubric of masculinity" ("The Woman Warrior" 237). The debate between these two groups of Asian Americanists, mainly centered on the disagreement between Frank Chin, easily the most vocal of all the editors of Aiiieeeee!, and Maxine Hong Kingston, whose popularity as a writer seemed especially to inflame Chin's enmity, has had a profound impact upon the way Asian American literature has been taught in English classes, either as a heroic masculine tradition or as one epitomized by female oppression and resistance. Because of its significance to the formation of Asian American literary studies, this debate has left an uneasy legacy of pitting feminism against what Rachel Lee calls "ethnopolitical critique" (8). Critics may often feel, in response to this legacy, the need to make a choice between a concern for gender-related issues and a desire to take a strong stance against racism in their interpretation...


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