“Bulletproof Buddhists & Other Essays” by Frank Chin – A Review by Larry Leopoldo

Ancient Chinese Secret Huh?

No. It’s not a secret. In fact its laid down in Chinese texts. We’re on the topic of laundry here or what are we on? The subject of this text is “Bulletproof Buddhists and Other Essays”, Frank Chin’s latest work, a collection of essays written over a twenty year period.

Allow me to be your humble guide through this underground network of Chinese myth and folklore illustrated by real life example. I’ll be as brief and quick as I can. Or is real life illustrated by it? Walk with me – the fine line that’s hard to come by in the texts of “Asian American” writers as we shall see in this extensive volume.

In the first essay “I Am Talking to the Strategist Sun Tzu about Life When the Subject of War Comes Up”, Chin tells of his experience with the U.S. and Cuban militaries (one attempting to recruit him the other trying to interrogate him) and subverts institutional racism embodied by Paul Engle in Iowa at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, as well as in the segregated South through the narrative line of vacationing in Cuba circa 1960. He comes off as a rebel, a howler in the wilderness, a confrontor of weak positions, even blasphemer, but really an individual tweaking the balance of other folks ignorant, street-level, or wacky ideas about him at, quite literally, face value. Incessantly people attempt to put their finger on him but Chin attacks or retreats a la Sun Tzu and at tense moments addresses the conflict they have with him at point-blank range in their own unabashed credo, or he talks his way out of a fight by wit. In America he is seen as a dark-skinned, tall lanky Indian, or inscrutable Chinaman, or foreigner, or one who is deemed likely to give up integrity for acceptance. In Cuba, he is asked repeatedly, upon meeting Cubans on his vacation, if he is from the People’s Republic of China, and despite his answer in the negative, he is still assumed to be part of that international revolutionary brotherhood and eventually taken to see a secret project bungled by a technical commandante.

What adds dimensions are the kernels at the beginning of each event/passage lifted from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”. They do not read as a meditation upon “The Art of War”, nor upon the recollection of episodes in his life. They do, however, read as a mediation of the two. And upon doubling back and forth, just like dialogue, Chin’s crot to the opening of Sun Tzu’s crot, the two make, upon reflection, well thought-out thorough sense. Sometimes crystalline, occasionally cryptic, this Chinese classical myth-flotation device lays the groundwork for all the essays, at the intersection of Chinese classic textual myth and folklore and real life.

In this dialogue with Sun Tzu, a rhythm builds itself (and its own ironic credence) into a hilarious comedy of mistaken identity. But if you identify with some or all of these experiences, its hilarity can disintegrate into dust at your feet and you find yourself staring at the ugly head of stereotyped identity–like a Hollywood extra being blown away by the frequent spray of machine guns at non-white caricatures, or Charlie Chan’s number one son, or the dark-skinned cardboard cutout foil-villain (as Flavor Flav says, “Fuck Hollywood.”). You feel the urge to fight or run, or turn to stone as if looking at the head of Medusa, but Chin offers a nice suggestion: life is war and so let’s fight.

But fighting, according to the Chinese text of Sun Tzu does not aways result in literal battle. On the contrary, Chin quotes the text in various ways and occasions and in a nutshell says: “The acme of military skill is in winning without taking a life or losing a life and taking the state intact.” The situations are so well illustrated by Sun Tzu (or was it Sun Tzu illustrated by real-life situations?) that it appears to me Chin could very well have been a comic book illustrator in another life (to turn you on to Chinese myth, here commends comic book versions as opposed to the original text of “Monkey’s Journey to the West”, for example which runs 4 volumes at 400+pp. each).

Of the six essays, the second, “Confessions of a Chinatown Cowboy” and the second to last,”A Chinaman in Singapore”, strike a fine balance of attack and retreat. The former, written in the early seventies goes down on the overt racism inherent in Hollywood and TV productions of characterizations and/or caricatures of Chinese such as Charlie Chan and Gunga Din. In the latter essay, during a multicultural state-supported writer’s conference, Chin glides easily towards Singapore. Having been initially mistaken for Frank Ching the journalist, Chin turns the table enough to be interviewed anyway and because of his teleplay is invited to the conference. Once there he discovers more of the same: Chinese writers who write along the lines of cultural stereotypes. At his turn he speaks avery terse five minutes, responds to confrontational questions a la Sun Tzu and at conference end is literally followed by a very curious entourage of writers intrigued by what he had to say, or hadn’t said. Up in his hotel room now with four or five of these writers as a captive audience, he explains the difference between the real and the fake, those who write with the Chinese myths in view, and those who distort those myths such as Maxine Hong Kingston, David Henry Hwang, and Amy Tan playing up to white racist ideology, compellingly safe writing that kowtows to what the big publishing houses will publish, without any factual basis in any Chinese text. In “Confessions” he sums it up: John Okada, Toshio Mori, Rose Hum Lee ran into extreme dificulty in publishing their works because of white racist propaganda–it is the “control and censorship of Asian American publishing “versus those of C.Y Lee, Francis L.K Hsu and Betty Lee Sung all of whom have seen big printings and in this regard, Chin says, “It’s not a matter of, ‘It doesn’t pay to write about Asian America,’ as it is, ‘It doesn’t pay to challenge Charlie Chan.’”

To me the most interesting take in “Confessions” is Chin’s description of the activism of one legendary Ben Fee. Chin uses the tale of “The Fox and the Tiger” to show how Ben Fee, in the early 1960s used his own creative activism through real inter-action, to not only get the point across to those dealing in discrimination in San Francisco, but how he made it an effective means of simultaneous ‘fundraising,’ getting them to also ‘pay for it.’ It is a very short passage, but in the 400+pp.,it is one glowing red hot moment I shall not forget, and allow the reader to take down the book and find it for themselves.

By far the most lengthy pieces in the book, “Bulletproof Buddhists” and “Lowe Hoy and the “Three-Legged Toad” are journalistic pieces: the first deals succintly with Asian gangs in San Diego; and the second with Chinese oral history in the Imperial Valley, Southern California, and Mexicali, Mexico. More intriguing than a Hollywood flick on Asian gangsters, “Bulletproof Buddhists” details through different perspectives: that of Roy Moody, who has a better repoire with Asian immigrant or refugee gang youth than many, if not all, Asian American cops, that of gang kids who tattoo themselves and get into violent scenarios, some who get into youth groups and do carwashes and the young women who get pregnant and raise their kids. The title of the piece stems from the cultural motivations of the gangsters who at some point begin to believe that Buddha will protect them from bullets as they have chosen parts of stories that their fathers or uncles have told them about the war in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam. Roy Moody says “That’s why we’ve had so many with Southeast Asians is that they will walk right up to their adversary…they will walk right up, vastly outnumbered, and shoot point-blank range.” “The Book of Thirty-Six Stratgems, Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, “108 Outlaws of the Water Margin”, these are some of the texts by which their models operate. And models upon which the Chinese M. for mafia have operated historically, by appealing to a common culture and common values through the vehicle of, Chin says, folk lit.

“Lowe Hoy” is filled with oral history generally given over meals and sometimes drinking bouts with the ‘tough-as-nails’ Chinese Mexicans Chin and his photographer friend Pok Chi encounter on a nine day trip that begins in the Imperial Valley where Chin discovers through Phil McGee that the blacks taught the Chinese citizenship. Having had their children either barred or violently threatened, the blacks established an independent African American high school that the Chinese sent their kids to for the same reasons. The narrative goes on in the vein of oral history how Chinese came to Imperial Valley, and to Mexicali, a town built by Chinese over a century ago. Some swam from Taiwan to Hong Kong, some crossed the Pacific in junks, others came on the President Coolidge. It’s a dog-eared experience as Chin relates but it’s interesting to me to hear the other side of the story of ‘those Chinese people’ I’m used to hearing about just about anywhere I go, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Santa Fe, El Paso, Cebu City, Manila, those shopkeepers and businessmen behind all those Chinese stores, in Chinatowns, the Chinese side of the cemetery. Imperial Valleyand Mexicali sure sounds a lot like anywhere, yet its interesting to read oral history spoken from the lips of Chinese in Mexico.

“Pidgin Contest Along I-5” is a short essay during the time of the Gulf War,when Chin and his son ran into fresh cut bigotry (that harks back to the first essay) driving along I-5 in Oregon and California. Chin mocks the hell out of those Gulf War T-shirts, while they get surrounded by gnarly skinhead youth in Oregon and then are refused service at a truckstop diner in Northern California. Back in LA, the riots are in full swing and Chin and his son run into freaked out paranoia in their middle-class neighborhood trying to find good fish to eat.

Chinese myth and folklore run throughout this enriching, engrossing and bad-ass book of essays and it convinces me to read these to understand Chinese culture and Chinese people more fully. As a young fella, it leads me to take a closer look at my own Filipino myths and folklore as a solid basis for the creation of new narrative texts that ring true. One word of warning before you read Bulletproof Buddhists: don’t start on an empty stomach and don’t even think of getting through it on just coffee and cigarettes, it just won’t work. There’s Chinese food eating every step of the way, an average of what? every ten pages or so, and it just doesn’t let up. Too bad I don’t know Cantonese to order the good stuff in Chinatown. I don’t think I can afford it at this point anyway. Since reading this book for the past few days now, me and my stomach, ayh, we’re all the better for it. Belch.