My first novel is in the bookstores. My name and, here and there, my picture pop up in newspaper book reviews and Asian-American weeklies. “Are you famous?” Sam asks. What is fame to a five-year-old kid? How am I, the almighty daddyisimo, to explain it to my son? Someday he’s going to leave home—for college, or to go to war, or take a job, or marry a woman out of state or on the moon. If he grows up thinking I'm famous, he might not want to go.
And when the time comes for Sam to set off to fight the monsters on his own, as it came for all the little boys in all the stories I told him — even the little boy who was one inch tall when the old couple found him, and when he was five or six inches tall and it was time for him to take to the river in a rice bowl for a boat — I want Sam to go. Short, skinny, fat, deaf, dumb, or blind, when it's time for him to go, I want him to go. Till that time, I can do my best to see he doesn't hit the road stupid.
I’m not famous. Yellow writers who get famous are afraid of offending whites, who buy their books and make them famous. They’re overawed by whites and their acceptance by whites. My first play was about to open in New York. My name, the name of my play, the name of the theater about to open it were in the New York papers. Betty Lee Sung, the famous Chinese-American author of the moment, with her book of Christian white racist stereotypes cast in sociological jargon, Mountain of Gold, called me at the theater. More a preacher than scientist or teacher, she pounds away at the moral necessity for Chinese to lose their culture and acculturate, so they can be accepted by the dominant society. And as we are accepted so shall we be absorbed, and once all absorbed we shall be assimilated, meaning racially extinct. American at last!
At the time she wrote, the majority of Chinese Americans alive were American born. The old immigrants were very old or dead. The Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1925, combined with the Chinese Exclusion Act, limited to 105 the number of Chinese entering the United States from any part of the world. The number of new immigrants was insignificant. The white racist laws designed to accomplish the extinction of the yellow races in America made it possible for us Chinese Americans born after 1925 to become the adult majority by the ’70s. To the generations of American-born, the acculturated, Betty Lee Sung mounts the pulpit of the church of acceptance, absorption, and assimilation and tells us to shut up and lay low, playing the role of the stereotypes, and disappear from view until that great day of assimilation.
“Much to their credit,” she writes, “the Chinese view prejudice with a very healthy attitude. They were never overly bitter. They have gone into occupations which command respect and which lessen conflict from competition. The Chinese are not concentrated entirely in one section of the country. More dispersion away from the vortexes of San Francisco and New York should be encouraged. This ought to be the long-range goal of the Chinese because distribution reduces the degree of invisibility.”
She’s so positive and cheerful about showing her contempt for everything Chinese. The morality of despising the Chinese and cherishing the stereotype in the name of white acceptance got her published by a “big,” and the book made her the queen of the Asian-American studies university programs and departments emerging around the country in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
The stage manager called me out of a rehearsal to take a phone call from Betty Lee Sung. She congratulated me on succeeding in getting a play mounted in New York and said she expected I would now stop saying terrible things about her book because “you’re on my side now.”
“Which side is that?” I asked.
“The Americans have accepted you. You are now in the mainstream.”
I don’t want to be famous, I tell Sam.
I’m well-known enough among the American yellows to make the famous nervous and think I want their fame for myself. I don’t want to be famous. Is fame the only reason yellows write in America? To be famous is to be TV, even if you’re not on TV. The only way Asian Americans become famous is by ornamenting white fantasy. The only way yellows get to be TV is putting their faces and bodies to Charlie Chan-Fu Manchu, Gunga Din cute, sissy, sexually repulsive men and to the sexually and personally unfulfilled pathological white supremacist women with an infinite number of weird, cute, and strange ways of saying, “Hey, sailor, wanna date?” over and over and over.
Grow up with the movies and TV as your storyteller and you can’t blame a kid growing up to believe yellow men are so unmanly they can’t even play themselves in the movies. TV and Hollywood prove the point by giving us movies with Asian-American actors playing the same Imperial Japanese naval officers, Japanese actors like Toshiro Mifune playing in Tora! Tora! Tora!, the Hollywood-Japanese co-production that recreated the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Compare an admiral played by Toshiro Mifune to the same admiral played by James Shigeta. Case closed. Asian-American men not only can’t cut the mustard, they can’t even lick the jar. That’s Hollywood. That’s TV. Those are the most famous Asian Americans in the world. But TV is our friend. There are exceptions.
The actor George Takei does not play Sulu, the helmsman of the Starship Enterprise, as the stereotypical yellow kissass sissy, nor, thanks to genre fantasy science fiction, as either an Asian or American creature. It’s not for nothing science fiction is called escapist. George Takei, along with Pat Morita, of Karate Kid fame, and Mako, the definitive Hollywood Asian heavy, were exceptional among Asian-American actors for lending their names to the Japanese-American campaign to redress the constitutional damages the Nikkei — people of Japanese ancestry — suffered in the American concentration camps of World War II.