Archive | June, 2011

Frances Chung: A “barrio” Role Model for Chinatown & LES or A Chinese American Woman’s Plight

15 Jun

“Plenty” in her short life is what she wrote, knowledgably. She was emerging as a public figure to become a spokesperson for life in Chinatown, which is the Chinese immigrant story as reflected like the Jews of Lower East. In 1977, inside a “slum” ghettoized neighborhood, Frances prepared her first manuscript that she had “written a secret book entitled “Crazy Melon”.[1] She submitted to various funding sources for publications and routinely, had been rejected. It would be a social class problem where at that time, (is the norm) … to be reckoned as amateurish writings by elite writers like Kimiko Hahn, graduate of Columbia University, or Kenneth Roth. Nevertheless, by 1980, Frances began to receive a poetry grant from New York State Council on the Arts-Creative Artists Public Service (NYSCCA CAPS) in 1980-81; A New York Times Co Foundation scholarship (1986); and a NYSCA Writer-in-Residence fellowship (1987-1988). This gave her confidence to submit her second manuscript, “Green Apple” for “conventional poetry competitions”[2] such as the publication Walt Whitman Award sponsored by the Academy American Poets in NYC. Her brief poems, short vignettes and prose reflect her precise selection of words. Her sparse lines describes a single Asian woman’s (maybe feminist) subtle thoughts during the Ethnic (Black, Hispanic and Asian) Civil Rights movement of the 60s-80s. Her work is “not prophetic, but the creation of deeper silences in which to safeguard personal or community thought, feeling and relationships from the onslaught of real estate speculation, … exploitation by the garment industry, and the ideology of a nation at war against yet another Asian populace, the Vietnamese.”[3] She never joined union, NGO organizations or participated in Chinatown worker’s issues. Her sole participation had been in women’s writers groups of LES ore whenever they had blossomed in the late 70s. Eventually, such women’s intellectual groups diminished in late 80s. Maybe, she lacked political motivations or her fragile strength limited her from participating in any activities such as attending marches, rallies, demonstrations and other radical/revolutionary changes.

In Frances Chung’s 40 years, she poetically, with a touch of sardonic humor, described the boundaries of NYC’s Chinatown from Canal St to the diverse culture of Lower East Side during the years of 1966-1990. She died in 1990. However, there is only one posthumously book that has been published by Wesleyan College and edited by Walter K. Lew, a poet and Korean-American scholar. He had total access of her two manuscripts to print this singular book entitled “Crazy Melon & Chinese Apple-the Poems of Frances Chung”. The book came out in 2000; 10 years after her tragic death and it took me twenty years later to find the book to peruse. By now, any trace of this poet’s qualitative experiences are forgotten and there are more writers of Asian American descent in NYC capable of writing about the same perpetual struggles as experienced in the 60s & 70s.

The paperback book has 144 pages of Frances’ poems, vignettes and prose writings with 30 pages of Walter K. Lew’s afterwords with titles of “Commentary”, “About the Text” and “Appendix.” His intensive research and faithful chronology of her writings portrays the writer’s development from adolescent to a matured woman with speculative lovers as a person. He even directed her cover design that trivializes her manuscript into a small illustration. Frances’ intent is to utilize a Chinese wrapper’s design where she had scotch taped for her front manuscript, “Crazy Melon”. The wrapper enclosed dried sweet plums where Westerners are unfamiliar with its tart sweet taste and flavor. (Hard to explain.) I would prefer if the artwork had been blown-up full size to appreciate the candy wrapper’s artistry since it reflects the art of Asia. The cover’s design is important for marketing of the book’s contents especially if it is a foreign culture to an ignorant mainstream American culture.

Luckily, I had survived NYC’s various stereotypical labels and can enumerate or reflect the similar experiences as well as go beyond the melding compatibilities or incongruences of Eastern (mainland China) and Western cultures due to my various travels to third world nations. I seem to complete the cycle of growing up in a Chinatown and returning to the same ghetto/barrio problems that are inherent throughout the world.

Frances and I were classmates in Junior High School and High School. I had moved into the Chinatown neighborhood at the age of 12 from 2 years in the Bronx and 10 years in Portland, Oregon, my birth state. NYC’s cultural shock had affected me grandly since my family in Portland, Oregon were the only Chinese living within a mile from another Chinese family. The NYC culture of finding Asian families of 7-10 people living in close vicinities crammed in three room apartments can be disorientating and especially in a classroom of 30 Chinese students who were highly smart with competitive grades. In addition, most of my classmates went to Chinese schools to learn reading and writing calligraphy as well as speak Cantonese from 3:30-5:30 at the Consolidated Benevolent Association on Mott St. Thus their capacities to be studious, smart, intellectually observant, lacking leisure time to enjoy competitive sports, artistic activities, attending social functions and events such as rock concerts, dating, dance mixers, and other social activities to mold their futures and become the model minority for other ethnic groups in NYC. These were high achievers whose parents were employed in the laundries, restaurant businesses and garment factories. There were some students whose parent’s were from Chinatown’s small businesses that lined the streets of Chinatown retaining the village traditions of Mainland China. Rarely, were their parents in the professional professions such as MDs, PhDs, lawyers, professors, architects, engineers, corporations, etc. Thus, the environment and experiences that Frances Chung grew up motivated her to be a role model for her classmates. Being a straight “A” student enabled her to escape a future of poverty. She expresses her hopes, childhood traumas, and “observations” of the local, residential eccentrics and/or eccentricities. She traveled as a tourist or “was it a jet-setter lifestyle”? Upon her return to Chinatown as her home base, Frances makes comparisons of her world wind travels and her life in provincial Chinatown, as cited in the following lines:

The echoes of the night trucks
bouncing off the cobblestones
on Canal Street play on the
silences in my bones. Playing
games with the red and green
light on the corner of Mott and
Canal, we find an excuse to run—
we who know that those  who are
brave cross Mott Street on a
diagonal. (page 4)

Her quick terse observations become humorously timeless. She purposely focused on her subjects depending on quick descriptions that embodies the brief moment, lingering the experience with unforgettable words different from her mother tongue. Her sensitive observations can, to a Westerner, be considered neurotic. She could be bipolar, a schizoid silently suffering the contradictions while developing a voice contrary to the Chinese traditions, as well as develop a vocabulary to emote feelings and subtly suggest a precocious mind.

…the young man stopping her in the street  to say “Arigato” and then looking hurt when she explained she was not Japanese. And then the man whisered as she walked past on Mott Street “do you ever play with yourself? You and me … I could really sock it to you.” 
Friends wrote from Europe wishing her a Happy Valentine’s Day. (p. 41)
  … mannequin eye. Some brides stood proudly without
heads, one-armed, even one naked bride with no nipples. (p. 34)
 He will jump out of his hospital window. Before
you leave, he will ask you to bring toothpicks the next
time you come. (p.70)
the Mexican night
fresh smell of el campo
luciérnagas (p.118)

Her sharp wit encompasses the years of living in a confined, stifling community describing bitter hardships and taboo traditions that need broken as in:

There is a group of Chinese-American men who think of
themselves as Chinese warriors. They are beautiful
anachronisms. They study the martial arts, practice
calligraphy, consult the I Ching and go to sword flicks to
blow their minds. (p.61)

The reader can decipher double innuendos subtly expressed with select words as in

“…see her taking care of teacups in the
association. She seems imported.” (p.67)

These lines suggest the dormant domesticity of an immigrant woman. Frances abhors the servitude by highlighting the activity and ending in a simple statement. The word “association”, for a Chinese person, automatically indicates the family’s village name of colloquial China and their patriarchal history of migrating to America. It is the alternative social services provided in an insular community behind the gift shops, restaurants, & grocers familiar to tourists. However, due to the Exclusion Act of 1864 the sojourner men had to organize a methodology to legitimize a system of protection for their assimilations and survival in White dominating America. These family associations provided loans for small businesses, shelters for family arrivals, filed paper works for citizenships, provide translators, keep records of village members with same name sakes, locate separated family members, etc.

Often, Frances references the exotic teas, foods: Hispanic and Chinese as only some readers can experience due to their individual family upbringings. She reminisces her childhood of identifying peculiar actions as normal such as “banging on the kitchen table” and observing roaches scattering in seven directions which she states “I must reread “Metamorphosis” She describes stealing a snail from a grocer’s stall and once in the apartment, “spraying drops of water from our fingers to see if it was home.” (p.28). These childhood memories are unusual little moments of joy for a ghetto child to ruminate.

Frances’ quick observant words express feelings that many Asian artists and writers lack. Most major AA writers only write about their ID crises whereby they are constantly dependent and too busy finding a role model to emulate. For example: for men it would be “Bruce Lee” and for women “Suzie Wong”. There are other occupations to be pre-occupying as filmmakers, photographers, writers, or musicians, poets etc. So in American history Asians will be portrayed or considered as some form of enemy as oppose as just American. Maybe it becomes rites of passage to call a Chink “Chink”, Japanese “Jap” whatever…. Thus we’ll be stuck as a template Bruce Lee and Suzy Wong characters, a fundamental stereotype for Americans to fall back on and thus stalemating the cultural definitions of Asian Americans. In the following poem, Frances indicates her rebellious attitude, minimizing the words:

We use newspaper for a
tablecloth.  And when I
want to make my mother
sad I tell her that I’m
going to cook American
food when I get older. (p.52)

In the book’s afterword, Walter Lew did an intensive research of Frances short-lived life where many of her poems express the static turmoil of living/growing up in a ghetto and her desires to go beyond the boundaries of Chinatown as well as travel before settling into a sedate profession.

Frances had prepared two manuscripts for publications, “Crazy Melon” and “Chinese Apple”. The latter has “a richer conception of the scope and achievement of Chung’s writing” as described by Lew. He footnoted and charted France’s chronological progress of writing each poem, prose etc. This can be quite obsessive and stringently limiting for further interpretations since we will never witness Frances’ full maturity through her writings. Her early form of expression and early writings of an Asian American woman is obliterated by other living women writers. Frances Chung’s sensitive works precedes the west coast notables Maxine Kingston Hong and Amy Tan. These two women write about the first generation Chinese coping with an unfamiliar culture in a new country while Frances reflects the struggles of living in a ghettoized neighborhood. Her subtle words slowly stings with angry. Unfortunately, she never expressed it through participatory demonstrations, joined any grassroots organizations, became a political activist or bona fide artist. She just became a teacher in the Lower East Side and slowly submitted her ms to various funding sources. It took awhile for recognition but by then it became too late.  To know the source of her brain tumor … was it from too much overuse in being a straight “A” student or the adult stresses of being Asian in a Hispanic community or never understanding a loved one?

In her poems, Frances’ last lines as experienced in the ghetto, constantly stings the mind with ironies that reaches a certain level of timeless miseries. Often it can be stifling and her escape route would be

“…every cockroach that runs across
my mind
whispers that I haven’t seen Peking.” (p. 44)

Here are a few other extracted last lines:

“everything in life being guesswork
cooking without teaspoons
eternal windowshoppers
we women were sometimes like children (p.60)
 Chinese New Year …….Banners
across Chinatown. So many dragons to
follow. Oranges to cut. Shrimp chips
flowering. (p. 24)
 When I went to JHS 65 on Forsyth St, many of my friends were fascinated with Frances’ straight “A” grades and her competitiveness to outshine their intelligences. I seemed to only surpass her with my math and history grades. However, I felt her quiet complacent solitude disturbing as an introvert incapable to speak out or make complaints as I became rebellious to NYC’s education system and often spoke my mind to various teachers. Even when we were in Washington HS, an all girl’s school, Frances kept to herself and achieved all the straight A’s. After graduation, she managed to go to an elite school, Smith College with scholarships while I attended Hunter College. After college, I participated in a non-profit cultural organization, Baasement Workshop to become an expressive artist. Via this organization, with other peer groups of identical begrudges, we were able to culminate in a Confucius Plaza demonstration as our civil rights movement.

However, Frances shied from such demonstrative activities and would submit her manuscripts to the Basement Workshop in the hopes of publication. The organization was too busy dealing with internal logistics of mobilizing volunteers into a collective consciousness and administering an arts space to prevent street gangs rather than finance a publication. At that time, she had finished her 2 years foray in the Peace Corps situated in Central and South America. In addition, she taught in LES as a trilingual teacher, Spanish, Chinese, & English. Poetry became her outlet of expression and she taught poetry at St. Mark’s Project and Henry St. Settlement. She was able to receive 3 poetry awards: NYSCA CAPs (1980-81), NY Times Co. Foundation scholarship (1986) and a NYSCA Writer-in Residence fellowship (1987-88). Besides South America, she traveled extensively to Europe, Asia and Africa. Frances was slowly becoming acknowledged until she was overtaken by her brain tumor. Thus after her death does her poems become a significant testimony to a life style that is slowly disappearing due to encroaching gentrification of Chinatown after LES’s final gentrification.

I find myself falling into Frances’ affinities and identify closely with her struggles that it often becomes painful to reflect how our lives are parallel of self-destruction and resurrections. However, in the late 80s, Frances fell a victim of an institution’s negligence. Once diagnosed, she underwent surgery. While in a coma, Frances was injected with antibodies that the doctors had unknowingly been unaware of her allergies. During her unconsciousness, she died with the poison burning through her veins. I also had the same allergy reaction when recuperating from surgery and luckily; I was conscience to complain the burning sensation coursing through my veins. The doctors were able to counter the poisonous drug with the correct antibody.

As Frances relies on selected words to describe a lifestyle in Chinatown, I tend to record with a camera, stills and videos. Thus, I been able to also travel, record and compare similarities of foreignness and isolated observations on the hopes that social changes would be evitable, especially in the socio-economic improvements. However, little has evolved through such expressions in the arts to expedite these social changes. As Asians in America, we are still imbued with stereotypical labels due to mainstream resistances. Recently in the past year of 2008, there had been a rash of fires and evictions occurring in Chinatown. For example, in 2008, on a very cold winter night, prompted by a landlord’s complaints, the Department of Buildings evicted 50 Chinese men from their SRO rooms and relocated them up in the Bronx. These men were unable to read or speak English and were alienated in a Hispanic community. With the assistances of the young determined community activists of Chinese Americans Against Anti-Violence (CAAAV) and the rallying efforts of Chinatown Tenants Union (CTU), it took a year for the men to return to their familiar environment-Chinatown.

There are more Chinese bums
in the neighborhood now. No
one knows where they come from
but they appear with crazy
smiles and unshaven faces.
One of them looks like a poet. (p.19)

The following poem written much earlier describes a similar plight:

the winter wind sits in the living room
so we huddle in the kitchen
in our winter coats looking silly
and too cold to do anything
but light a candle eat melon seeds
as I wonder
what do we wear when we go outside? (p. 25)

Did ALL these poems caused her brain to develop a tumor? Was it the wait and frustration of submitting her ms to publishing houses and the constant rejections? Or the wait until other Asian friends could print them in “another Asian” collective anthology every 10 years. She had been a member of Ordinary Women, Basement Workshop, St Marks Poetry Project, and Henry St Settlement. Like Iris Chang’s tragic suicide in 2004 (a well known published writer of Chinese American History who died at the age of 38. See my written article entitled: Iris Chang: A Deceased Role Model Minority). Both died in the same age range, which can be suspiciously speculative. Frances’ goals were the same … to explain 20th century modern hardships in order to become an artistic entity as a writer & poet. In the 21st century, Chinatown is being gentrified where many prime properties are converted to skyscrapers leaving nothing to be preserved or become historic landmarks, to retrace and hide the miseries of the still inherent oppressions of an ethnic immigrant slum life.

Frances Chung subliminal speculative poems & prose writings describe the barrios/ghettoes like Jacob Riis’ photos of LES. She praises or glorifies no mentors, persons, or spiritual beings. The reader is introduced to a lifestyle that Luc Sante, writer of “Low Life”, might write if he was Asian. Frances might be described as the sweet, romantic Asian American “muckracker” who unlike the anarchist, Emma Goldman, wrote about her present situation in the hopes of being published as a contemporary writer.

Like an American pioneer, Frances Chung’s writings are before her time. Her narrative voice preludes the writings of Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston. Frances’ enduring words have historic significance as her voice transcends and echoes the 20th Century innocence of life in a slum/ghettoe/barrio during an era of restitution and reconstruction of an American eye sore called “oppression and racism” which leads us to our present situation of Age of Terrorism and Anarchism. As gentrification encroaches and eradicates areas of ol’ Chinatown starting from Park Row’s middle class neighborhood to Mott St’s small businesses, Frances words will haunt my generation while the next generation welds with the New Recession of unemployments, scapegoatings, glass ceilings, inflationary rent increases, lack of labor skills, lack of artists reflecting a minorities’ subculture.

RIP, Frances Chung

[1]1. Chung, Frances, Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple Lew, ed.,Walter K. Lew (Wesleyan University Press, 2000) p. 148.

[2]2. Ibid p. 151. Unfortunately, Walter Lew did not expand. I extracted from his commentary”Chinese Apple”, unlike “Crazy Melon”, contains no prose poems or vignettes, and it could be suggested that this is one perhaps negative consequence of the manuscript being prepared for a conventional poetry competition.”

[3] Ibid p. 171


reprinted from Tribes website, check out other articles:


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