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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Search for Identity Maxine Hong Kingston (b. 1940)

[7437] Eric Risberg, Author Maxine Hong Kingston (2001), courtesy of the Associated Press.

Maxine Hong Kingston, née Maxine Ting Hong, was born in Stockton, California, to Chinese immigrant parents who left successful careers in China to raise their children in the United States. Her fiction thematically deals almost exclusively with her heritage as a Chinese American woman, including the struggles of trying to balance her parents’ cultural values with American customs and expectations. It also more broadly addresses the challenge for all Americans of living in a country in which so many different cultures coexist. Kingston combines fact and fiction in her writing, culling from her mother’s stories about China while adding elements of history, legend, autobiography, and “outsider” observation.

While most famous for her first novel, the 1976 National Book Critics Circle award-winning The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, which addresses the complex issues facing Chinese American women, Kingston also wrote a companion novel, China Men, that does the same for Chinese American men. Kingston is adept at weaving China’s oral tradition of storytelling into her fiction, but her fiction says as much about mainstream America as it does about Chinese Americans. She is also a keen observer of the ways people interact with and judge each other and, like Toni Morrison, provides provocative critiques of how people from all ethnic groups are guilty of stereotyping rather than sincerely trying to know each other.

In Tripmaster Monkey, Kingston returns to the locale of her college days, Berkeley, California, to tell the story of a struggling Chinese American playwright. We see in the sometimes-disagreeable character Wittman Ah Sing that Kingston is not afraid to tackle complicated issues that may cause some discomfort for readers both within and outside of Chinese American communities. Kingston’s stories are not only for or about Chinese Americans: she strives to create literature that illuminates what it means to be an American, period, and as such resonates with readers from any ethnic group.

Teaching Tips

  • Many students seem to automatically sympathize with a story’s protagonist. While Wittman Ah Sing is a sympathetic character in many ways, you may want to discuss his own areas of blindness or prejudice. Consider, especially, his discussion of “F.O.B.” Chinese Americans and his reasons for contacting Nanci Lee. Ask your students to think about why Kingston chooses to depict Wittman as she does. Consider that Wittman has one perspective, but the narrative on the whole may have another. Use this story to teach students how to distinguish the main character’s biases from the text’s.
  • Ah Sing is a fifth-generation Chinese American man. Look at the early-twentieth-century photographs of San Francisco Chinatown in the archive; these could be very similar to the San Francisco homes and neighborhoods of Ah Sing’s ancestors. Compare these images to Ah Sing’s descriptions of San Francisco and Chinatown in the 1980s.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What does “F.O.B.” mean? Who uses this term and why?
  2. Comprehension: Of all the women that he knew at college, why does Ah Sing choose to call Nanci Lee?
  3. Comprehension: Ah Sing and Nanci Lee discuss the problems they face in trying to become successful; for example, Nanci Lee, an actress, is frustrated by the roles that she receives. What is the problem? Why is she frustrated?
  4. Comprehension: Ah Sing tells us his family history and, at the same time, allows us insight into white stereotypes about and expectations of Chinese Americans. Read the story closely to come up with a description of Chinese Americans as Ah Sing thinks whites see them. Consider phrasing such as “credits to our race.”
  5. Context: Compare Ah Sing’s representation of the Chinatown community to Toni Cade Bambara’s representation of an African American community in “Medley.” What do they tell us about the significance of minorities living in a “city within a city”? Consider those who may be excluded from these communities (e.g., Nanci Lee) and why.
  6. Context: Why do you think Kingston uses such detail about Nanci Lee and Ah Sing’s conversation, as well as Ah Sing’s thoughts during the conversation? Think about their conversation in light of the “communication theory” discussed by Saul and Meatball in Thomas Pynchon’s “Entropy.”
  7. Context: Consider Ah Sing’s reading on the bus as an example of performance art. What is he trying to accomplish by reading aloud? Why do you think he chooses this medium to communicate? Do you think this is a successful performance?
  8. Exploration: In naming her main character Wittman Ah Sing, Kingston seems to invite us to identify him with the nineteenth-century American poet Alice Walker, who is famous for celebrating America’s democracy and diversity. In fact, as Wittman reads Rilke on the bus, his fellow passengers are described as “Alice Walker’s ‘classless society’ of ‘everyone who could read or be read to.'” What does this mean? Read Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.” What does it mean to “sing”? Write a poem or song that represents Wittman Ah Sing’s “song” or your own.
  9. Exploration: Ah Sing again recalls Alice Walker (who included many long lists in his poems) when he lists the writers and texts that he would like to read on various trains that traverse the American West. What is the significance of this list? Read all or part of one of the texts that he lists and compare its representation of the American West or California to Kingston’s in Tripmaster Monkey.
  10. Exploration: In The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois explains the difficulty of “double consciousness” for African Americans: “One ever feels his two-ness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Can we adapt this idea to better understand Wittman Ah Sing as both an American and a Chinese American? You might also consider how Leslie Feinberg references Du Boisian double-consciousness to discuss both race and gender issues in Stone Butch Blues.

Selected Archive Items

[6166] Anonymous, Police and Detectives Guarding Chinatown, July 6, 1909 (1909), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-69697]. 
Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, Sui Sin Far (Edith Maud Eaton) made efforts to combat stereotypes of Chinese immigrants as “heathen,” “unclean,” and “untrustworthy.” She provided insight into the unique culture of America’s Chinatowns.

[6170] Anonymous, Chinese New Year (1909), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-120168]. 
Chinese immigrants brought their traditions and customs to America, where they established strong communities to provide support in an unfamiliar world. Maxine Hong Kingston offers personal and deeply reflective portraits of how Chinese immigrants’ experiences, from the mid-nineteenth century through the present, have affected their sense of American identity.

[6171] Arnold Genthe, Children Were the Pride, Joy, Beauty, and Chief Delight of the Quarter, Chinatown, San Francisco (c. 1896-1906), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-5265]. 
Four children in traditional Chinese clothing on a sidewalk in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Writing about the time this photograph was taken, Sui Sin Far (Edith Maud Eaton) sought to make the lives of Chinese immigrants understandable to white audiences.

[6501] Marc Cohen, Cover: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston (1989), 
courtesy of Vintage International. 
Maxine Hong Kingston published her first novel, The Woman Warrior, in 1976. Kingston was born in California to Chinese parents and grew up speaking Say Yup, a Cantonese dialect. Her prose is infused with Chinese rhythms and Chinese American speech.

[7437] Eric Risberg, Author Maxine Hong Kingston (2001), 
courtesy of the Associated Press. 
“We approach the truth with metaphors.”–Kingston, from “An Imagined Life.” Kingston draws much of the inspiration for her writing from the stories her mother told her as a child, which kept Chinese tradition alive for her.

[8183] Anonymous, The Voyage, No. 8 (c. 1920), reprinted in Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940
courtesy of the University of Washington Press. 
“How has anyone to know that my dwelling place would be a prison?” asks this poem, one of many written on the walls of the Angel Island detention center by Chinese immigrants who were held there for extended periods by U.S. authorities. Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men focuses on the stories of early Chinese American immigrants.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Credits

Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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