As we started to discuss in class today, Gene Luen Yang used a number of stereotypical images of Chinese and Chinese American’s to create his character Chin-Kee. In his 2007 Printz Award Acceptance Speech, he states,
“I suddenly appreciated how lucky I am to be able to count librarians among the most ardent supporters of American Born Chinese. My Cousin Chin-Kee character, especially, has the potential to be reduced to nothing more than a YouTube video clip in the mind of the reader. Now, it’s okay for you to find him funny, but I want you to laugh at him with a knot in your stomach. Without at least a passing knowledge of Chin-Kees historical roots, a young reader might not develop that knot.”
He goes on to discuss a number of the images that helped to create Chin-Kee. He starts in the 1880s discussing a cartoon from around the time the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted.
The next example he discusses has to do with the Detective Comics (DC Comics) of the 1930s. The inaugural issue of Detective Comics featured the character Ching Lung.
He goes on to discuss how the words and actions of Chin-Kee are more modern than the origins of his appearance. Yang comments on political cartoonist Pat Oliphant’s cartoon created shortly after the Chinese Spy-Plane Incident.
“On April 9, 2001, in response to the Chinese spy plane crisis, American political cartoonist Pat Oliphant drew a six-panel strip depicting Uncle Sam’s visit to a Chinese restaurant, where he is served “crispy fried cat gizzards with noodles” by a slant-eyed, bucktoothed waiter.”
Yang goes on to discuss the character of Long Duc Dong from John Hughes’ 1984 film Sixteen Candles seen here in a small scene from the film.
“Most Asian American men of my generation can vividly recall the sting of this character. In a strip drawn for Giant Robot magazine, Adrian Tomine, a fellow thirtysomething Asian American cartoonist, recounts his phone interview with Gedde Watanabe, the actor who portrayed Long Due Dong, Tomine doesn’t just speak for himself when he ends the strip with an emphatic, “I hate that f***ingguy!”
Yang goes on to say,
“Since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, America has generally acknowledged that Fu Manchu and other historical caricatures of Asians and Asian Americans are racist. But what do we make of modern-day stereotypes? Often these are treated as little more than impolite jokes. After all, Asians and Asian Americans are largely seen as successful in American society.
Images, however, have power. And images have history. Today’s depictions of Asians and Asian Americans rest on a tradition. They draw on visual cues and shorthands already established in the mind of the audience. When we encounter John Hughes’ Long Due Dong or Pat Oliphant’s Chinese waiter, we must remember who their grandfathers are. And we must ensure that the next generation does the same.
Getting the next generation to read and watch and listen with all their minds and all their hearts is no small task. Generation Next is constantly tempted to communicate through ten-letter text messages, make snap judgments based on two-minute video clips, and understand the world through a rotating set of Yahoo! homepage headlines, all the while having more information at their fingertips than was available to all previous generations combined. Whether you realized it or not, when you got your librarian’s degree and chose to work with teenagers, you enlisted yourself in the frontlines of this struggle.
So am I robbing graphic novels of all their cool by this very act of presenting to a group of librarians? That really isn’t the right question. Instead, I should ask, “Can graphic novels-and all young adult literature, really-nurture thought, passion, and understanding within our young people?” “
What do you think? Do you agree with Yang? Do you need to know about this history? Do you need to know these images to appreciate American Born Chinese and to understand what Yang is attempting to do in his work? Is it an appropriate medium for him to use to push discussions of racism and racist images in our society?
Yang, Gene Leun. Young Adult Library Services. 6.1 (2007): 11-14.