Posted by: Lizzie Ross | May 13, 2010

Working on the railroad, 1860s

Donald Duk, Frank Chin (1991), Coffee House Press, 172 pp.

This book has one of the great first lines: “Who would believe anyone named Donald Duk dances like Fred Astaire?”

The clash of Toon and Human, of oafishness and grace, of wrath and steadiness (Astaire may get harried, but he never throws a tantrum) provides a perfect sense of what’s inside the 12-year-old main character in this book, a young man embarrassed by his father’s business (owner and chef at a Chinese restaurant) and by his own Chinese heritage, as his family prepares for the Chinese New Year celebration.

Then, Donald starts to dream. His dreams take him back to the 1860s, when Chinese men were working on the Transcontinental Railroad,* and he finds himself allied with a man who turns out to be Lee Kuey [Li Kui], the Black Tornado, one of the 108 Heroes (or Outlaws) of The Water Margin. Other Heroes are there as well: Ten Feet of Steel, Kwan Kung, the Timely Rain, The Tattooed Wrestler, and more.

This books combines history, myth, and modern cultural dissonance so well. As Donald learns more about his Chinese heritage, he begins to lose his embarrassment. He becomes more angry at the long history of intolerance. His allegiance moves from Astaire to the 108 Heroes, from black and white movies to Chinese culture. All-in-all, a great coming-of-age novel.

*See Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men for more on this, especially the section delineating the history of exclusion laws designed to minimize the number of Chinese immigrants.


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