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Index to the Charlie Chin Interview

Introduction to the Interview With Charlie Chin

By Philip Chin (P.C.) (probably a distant relation somewhere along the family tree)

Leonard Chan (L.C.)(probably a distant relative too :-), Florence Hongo (F.H.), and I met Charlie Chin at the Tres Amigos Restaurant in San Mateo on June 9, 1998. Over a meal of salsa, corn chips, and burritos we conducted this interview about Charlie Chin's original book about Mulan entitled China's Bravest Girl: The Legend of Hua Mu Lan which was written seven years ago in 1991.

Our conversation covered a wide range of activities that Charlie Chin is involved in. As a true Renaissance man he is involved in music, acting, storytelling, writing, theatre, and in being a father. Mr. Chin himself is an extremely animated man who speaks with the accents of New York City, where he was born and raised. Two versions of the interview are presented here at this Web site. One is a complete transcript of our conversation and questions, the other is limited to what we discussed about Mr. Chin's book about Mulan and the implications that this held for such issues as feminine liberation, family duty, and the changing view of women through history.

This complete interview covers approximately 45 minutes of conversation while the Mulan section excerpts about 20 minutes. I hope that this will be enlightening for those teachers, students, and other people who are interested in all the issues raised by the story of Mulan, or Fa Muk Lan, as the Cantonese pronounce her name.

The complete version of the interview includes a long section at the end regarding Chinese philosophy. For those of you who aren't familiar with the subject, we were talking about a particular episode from the book attributed to the Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu who lived approximately in the 3rd or 4th Century B.C.E..

A frog lives in a well and is limited in it's world view to that well, where it plays happily with the fish and crabs during the day, and stares at the moon and stars at night. One day the Great Tortoise of the Eastern Sea happens to pass by and engages the frog in conversation. The frog describes the wonders and joy of living in the well and then invites the Great Tortoise to join him. The Great Tortoise tries to do this but discovers that he is much too large to fit even one foot into the well! The frog cannot believe that the Great Tortoise thinks his well is too small and is even further amazed when the Great Tortoise describes the Eastern Sea as being so large that seven years of drought and seven years of rain failed to raise or lower the sea level. Limited to his universal well, the frog accuses the Great Tortoise of being a liar about the wider nature of the world and refuses to talk to him anymore. Too often, Charlie Chin, pointed out, people limit their perception of the world to only their particular well. The only way for the frog to get out of the well is to change his view of the well and make it a bigger well. Chuang Tzu, along with his fellow Taoists, believed that eventually one could make the well so big that it encompassed the whole universe!

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Excerpts of the Interview With Charlie Chin

P.C. - Basically tell us about yourself, your background, where you were raised. Your career so far. Just basic background material.

All right. I was born in New York City. Spent most of my life as a musician, performer, writer. Moved out here about seven years ago. Since I've been out here I've been doing performances, plays, writing articles. Just as I was coming out here, I approached Children's Book Press of Emeryville, now San Francisco really. They moved out to San Francisco. I was interested in getting published as a writer. Somebody told me the two easiest books to get published are children's books and cookbooks. So I worked on that mostly because at that time, around eight years ago, several people had mentioned to me that they were looking for more books for Asian American youth. Younger, you know. So that added another element to it to. So surely I could put something together.

Currently I'm working at home as a writer, performing with a revival of "Grain of Sand" with Nobuko Miyamoto, myself, and a fellow by the name of Chris Iijima, singing stuff we did twenty five years ago, getting invitations from various groups to get together, which is a little difficult 'cause Chris lives in Massachusetts. Noboko lives in Los Angeles and I also heard Chris is thinking about moving to Hawaii, so we'll see.

I work for the California Council for the Humanities in their Chautauqua Program, "History Alive!" program portraying Dr. Yee Fung Cheung, who was a Chinese herbalist who arrived in California in 1850. I do storytelling, for children and adults. I visited the Northern California 13th Annual Storytelling Festival couple weeks ago. Still writing plays, performing. I did a one man piece called, "Eat In/Takeout at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts last Saturday. I direct the San Mateo Buddhist Temple Taiko. It's a local play group right in the San Mateo Buddhist Temple. I am the director, founder, general manager, and equipment manager for the Jataka Public Theater. Public theater that features teaching stories based on the Buddha, 2500 years ago.

What else? Nothing... None of this stuff makes money by the way. I'll point that out right away. Freelance articles for various magazines, Asian American and mainstream. Last season I've been doing a number of performances, musical performances centered on the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.

P.C. - How did you get interested in the story of Mulan?

OK. When I was a kid about ten or eleven years old. I was walking down the street in Chinatown in New York City with my father. I was looking in the window of you know the curio shops and I saw a little statue of what looked like a guy in a big floppy hat standing next to a horse. So I asked my father, "Who's that?" He said, "Oh, in Cantonese the name is Fa Muk Lan" Right? So, I didn't know that. Said that's a woman - it's not a guy. So I said really how come it's a woman? Well, so he explained to me this story that this girl, her father was called up for war by the emperor, but he was too old to go. He had no sons. In those days a man who had a family had to show up. So, the daughter to save her father from certain death, you know, he's too old to go, disguised herself as a boy and went instead. She was so good she became a general, he tells me, then he added that this is an example of what children should do for their parents. Filial piety, that's because she loved and respected her father that she did this totally unnatural thing in order to save him.

L.C. - The issue of her father is unclear from the poem.

All of this comes from a classical poem. There are histories, legends about this Fa Muk Lan, and there was a poem written I think Song Dynasty, maybe Tang Dynasty. So years later... I mean the whole issue of her father is that he apparently was a bigger issue in the beginning. But the character of Mulan ran away with the story. People were much more interested in Mulan than than they are in her father, her father is just a premise. Why would she go into war? She has to have a reason to go to war. The premise is because her father can't go to war so she has to go instead of her father.

Now the way I originally got the story was that she was supposed to be an example of real, traditional, feudalistic filial piety. And in the original story she comes back home after being successful. The emperor wants to reward his hero and she says, "No, no, that's all right. I did my duty, now I want to go home. Give me a camel and I'll see you." So her comrades, her subordinates basically said, "We'll see you home. Go on, we'll take you home." She goes home, she changes clothes, she comes back out and everybody's shocked. Aaaaahhhhhahhhhahhh! And that's the end of the story.

So years go by. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. All of a sudden the 1970's, the 80's, Mulan is revived as a character, first by Maxine King... huh Maxine Hong Kingston, who uses the title "Woman Warrior" in her book. Then John Hwang... David Henry Whang rather writes a play called "F.O.B." where as part of the dream sequence, the theater part of it. The girl in the cast becomes Fa Muk Lan. But again, I notice with great interest that Fa Muk Lan, shows up again. But now I see as I'm observing that she is changing from the original interpretation that I was given by my immigrant father, who reinforced the idea that she was really supposed to be this example of filial piety. You know like the kid who threw himself on the floor naked so that the mosquitoes wouldn't bother his parents. You know really intense filial piety. Now she is emerging as a feminist symbol of a woman warrior.

So, I look on this with great interest and I say well it's very interesting because it proves something which I've always believed, which is that legends, myths, and stories, traditional stories, whatever it maybe. Characters expand or contract, or sometimes are deleted altogether, or are introduced depending on the needs of the society that is using that story or that legend, or whatever that bit. If its to be a valid, not just a historical account written down in a book put on a library shelf, but if it's still used as a myth, still used as a story. So what happens now... Robin Hood's a good example.

All my life I've seen accounts of Robin Hood. The earliest one I remember is the Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood, in which Maid Marian doesn't have a lot to say. Right? She's like really just the love interest. She just there, the fluff. Then over the past several years, last couple of decades, in new version of Robin Hood, Maid Marian has more and more to say and more and more to do because it reflects the society we live in when more and more people think that she shouldn't just be sitting up there in a tower embroidering. She's got to get out there and say things. She's got to be threatened by marriage to somebody she hates and then she's got to tell this guy off.

Kevin Costner's version, Maid Marian has this really intense relationship, she talks a lot, she expresses herself. Even a generation before, she was just supposed to be a nice girl, not this spitfire who tells him off and does all this other stuff. So characters expand or contract depending on what the society needs. Robin Hood as we probably know was like this intensely dirty guy, who never took a bath, who lived in the 10th Century, illiterate, somebody's riff raff, him and a bunch of homeless guys living in the forest bothering people.


I'm serious! So they became heroes because people needed heroes. So Fa Muk Lan... what happens to Fa Muk Lan? Same thing. The original image was to reinforce something very feudalistic, but now she's becoming this very positive, feminine, heroine.

So sitting down. How to deal with this story? First thing, got to get the original poem. So I got some friends to get me a copy of the original poem. Second problem, can't read it. It's in Chinese. All right. Got to get another friend to translate it for me and sit down with me and explain to me and answer and compare some of the little questions. Poem is done in a traditional style, five syllables and seven syllables and the end kind of meanders and goes no place. The end is a short couplet about the male rabbit and the female rabbit running side by side, one looks to the left, one looks to the right, that's it, right? Very subtle, too subtle for me. I don't get it, other than the rabbits, who knows?

All right, so here we go. So the first part is very easy, she's got to go, the premise is her father's supposed to go, and she's instead dressed as a man. Next part is easy, she becomes the hero. Last part difficult, why? First is, what has to happen? The story has to have a resolution, and it's got to be a positive resolution. In the resolution there has to be implied or stated the meaning of the story, otherwise it's just pleasant but it has no point. If she just comes home and changes her clothes and everybody goes, "Ooohh gah gah." So what? Right?

What has this to say? It implies that amongst other things that she did this "totally unnatural thing" and now her life is over, cause it doesn't say any more about it. Gotta have a life after her career cause otherwise what are we saying? Woman can have a career but she can't have a home or a life? Or she's forced to have life but no career? No, no, no, can't do that. So, she's got to get married, right? Maybe she doesn't get married. Had to wrestle with that too. Suppose she doesn't want to get married? Right? But what does that imply? That implies that women who have a career are like feminists, lesbians, who are not interested in men. No, no, no. I don't know if I want to say that. It certainly could be true but I don't know. It's not necessarily what I want to say.

All right She's gonna get married. Who's she gonna marry? She can't marry some smuck back there in the village, cause he's just some guy you know, digging dirt, spreading manure, and pooping in his pants out there in the fields. This woman just won a major war, some guy like that she is certainly not gonna... Wait a minute, there you go. Takes it a step further. Who's she gonna marry, can't be someone whose gonna browbeat her telling her she has to be a traditional woman cause she's already been in a war. She's probably had to kill guys herself, lead men into war. She can't be sitting around, "Yes, dear. No, dear." Right?

So who is she going to marry? Well, obviously it has to be somebody who knows her and admires the qualities that she has. It would have to be one of the guys that she fought with. But, if she gets married to one of these guys, these guys are all like military guys, a real deep bastion of male dominance and supremacy. It's gonna have to be a guy who'll accept her for who she is.

How is she going to determine that? She's gotta make it perfectly clear before they get married that he has to respect her, he has to treat her the right way. So, at the end of my version, one of the guys said, "Wow, I can't believe it! The bravest guy is now the most beautiful woman. Let's get married!" And she tells him, "No, no, no. Will you treat me... I know you treat your friends well. Now that I won't be your friend I'll be your wife will you treat me the same way? Same respect?" So he has to promise you know... you can't get something for nothing. There's a big wedding and that's it.

So, the spin I had to put on it I felt was to make sure that in terms of "a happy ending" that she was able to marry, and settle down in a relationship that would be basically a positive relationship. To imply that when it was necessary to get up and take care of business, she got up and took care of business, and when that was over she went back and she was still able to have a life. Because this whole issue about career versus home and family is a big issue. Can't imply one or the other totally otherwise you'd be in big trouble. So, there you are.

P.C. - About Disney, do you know how they are portraying Chinese in it?

I don't know. I don't know. One of the struggles I had when I was working on the piece was I believe I wanted to keep it in verse in some kind of poem form because my thought was for very young children this would be read aloud. And so I thought to keep this a consistent idea about this being a saga, a big narrative poem, that it should be written in poetry. I had to struggle with that. I eventually ended up just settling for couplets. Though I experimented with several forms first. And then the publishing company wanted to have the Chinese text side by side, which led to an interesting situation which is that my poem about Fa Muk Lan is an English translation version based on the Chinese poem. So the guy who wrote the poem had to make it consistent to my version, so the Chinese version in the book is a translation of my poem. So the original in my version and then a translation of my version. But that's how things happen.

L.C. - How would you add to the story if you were making the movie?

How would I add to the story? Interesting. There's three or four different areas immediately that would be ripe for investigation. One is her relationship to her siblings. She has a younger brother or younger sister apparently. Also her father, the father in the poem and I think in most of the stories is just two dimensional, just incidental to the story. He could be a little more complex. Maybe he's not such a nice guy. That would really underline the fact that she did what she had to do partly out of love of her father but partly also because she wanted to get out. O-U-T. Out, out, and away. Out. And crossdressing has been a traditional method for a lot of women throughout history to get out of this very confining gender role. And this was suddenly the opportunity to go to war.

Now this happens not infrequently up to the turn of the century and there are... there's a whole Civil War group that's involved in tracking down all the women who dressed as men to fight in the Civil War. There's almost two hundred apparently that they know of. So, what this tells me is that this issue has been going on for a long time. It's hard for us to think of it now but at one time the role of women... one time still in most countries, the role of women is so confined and the gender roles so specific that I would think that this would be another element. Because if you had this women who is obviously courageous and intelligent in a feudal system that she would ache to somehow get out. The premise would be to save her father but she would have her own motivation to.

Then the whole issue of warfare - that's a really wonderful field to explore about the whole issue of war. Why war? What war is for? A great opportunity to make pacifist and anti-war statements. You could show the carnage, the stupidity, the ridiculousness of how things happen, also to expose the mental mindset of militarists. Because I don't believe it's really changed since the days before the Christian era, with people slinging swords against each other 'til today they're throwing rockets. What's the difference, the mindset's the same.

Then this relationship with this guy that she ends up having a relationship with. What is that story all about? How is he going to... obviously he must have liked this character as a man but then he has to make this choice after she reveals herself to be a woman. And how could she so convincingly be a man unless let's face it, she's a little on the butch side, you know what I'm saying there? How's that going to work itself out? Because a lot of times gender roles are what we think is attractive about a woman. And why should he care? And what's that all about? Where are they going to live? How are people going to treat them? There's all these things that spiral off of these branches that come off the main trunk of the story. The single most important thing to any story is the basic format.

There has to be a premise, introduce a conflict, raise the conflict, bring it to a climax, then have a resolution. So if those key elements are there, like any good story, then the rest of it can grow out, little side stories can grow out. But if it doesn't have a mainframe...

L.C. - Usually during the journey the hero learns something. What did Mulan learn by going off to war?

That's another issue. Henry Morgan, the great privateer in the 1600's, made an interesting comment. He was very successful as a pirate in the Caribbean, "Its not that I'm so smart, it's everybody else is so stupid." What could she learn? Well, one of the things that she would learn is that people are heir to all of these very foolish decisions, very foolish perspectives that they have on things. You don't have to be a genius to figure out how it works and how things go. What would she learn? She'd learn more about herself, who she is, what she's capable of. It's one thing to show the hero or heroine charging into battle, that's good, that's positive, but what makes the story, what gives it depth, is what the hero or heroine went through before they led the charge inside their own head. The wavering, the discussion within themselves. This is like Hamlet.

Hamlet has to do this thing, but half of this piece about Hamlet is that he's not sure if he wants to do it, should he do it, should he not do it, should he kill himself, should he stay alive, should he let it go, should he go away. This is the plight, this is the whole issue. He's struggling, struggling. What am I gonna do?

So certainly she could use this as an opportunity for her as a person to struggle, for her to question the whole issue. What is a person's responsibility? What is this whole issue of war in the first place? What is nationalism? What does a person owe to other people? Then when she's quavering or she's deciding, several examples could be shown that describe the purposelessness of war and convince her that her job is to end it as quickly as possible. There are endless possibilities to explore. But the mainframe of the story has to be solid enough to hang all this stuff off.

L.C. - Usually the journey takes you back home. So do you think the basic story is that home is where she really wanted to go back to?

No, no, no. That's another question I couldn't really deal with. How could she settle back into a little village, after she'd seen the world, led thousands of men, into the palace? Kind of hard to sit back down in that shed eat cold rice after you've been treated as a major general, with an entourage. You know, interesting questions. What would she have to do? Where would she go? We don't know. Leads to a story, "Daughter of Fa Mulan"!

P.C. - How do you think other people from other ethnic backgrounds will relate to the story?

Very well, I'll tell you why. Such a New York thing to say, and I'll tell you why! Because it has nothing to do with her ethnicity, it has to do with her gender, therefore it's immediately appealing. Because, Disney, I don't know what their think tank went through when they were deciding on choosing this other than I know they were looking for a heroine, a suitable heroine, for a long time, preferably Asian. Somebody found this story and it's a obvious choice. I mean obvious enough for me, I'm not that bright and I chose it, right? I don't think they spent a lot of time worrying about the ethnicity other than she not be a European-American girl. This has a combination of being exotic, another time, another place. But the real issue is that heroine, the fact that she is a girl, that this girl has to do something special.

That gets back to the story too, in line with the story of the hero, in a much expanded version, there would probably be some foreshadowing that she would do something great. When she was born some incident or something would indicate... like when the neighborhood bullies picked on her brother she stood up and beat them off, some kind of foreshadowing that she had the moxie. But this here again, if you had time and you had the space to really develop the story you could do this.

L.C. - Well that kind of wraps up our questions about the book...

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China's Bravest Girl: The Legend of Hua Mu Lan

Told by Charlie Chin, Illustrated by Tomie Arai. - 1993, 31 pages, hardback and paperback.

From the back cover -
"For love of her elderly father she will dress in warrior's clothes, walking and talking like a man, so no one ever knows."

Hua Mu Lan convinces her father that she must go to war to protect the family's honor - because there is no eldest son.

In this adaptation of the beloved Chinese legend of the maiden warrior, poet Charlie Chin shows us a heroine who is courageous and wise, respectful and loving, and able to meet men on equal terms.

ORDER -- Item #2176, Price $14.95 HB
ORDER -- Item #2526, Price $6.95 PB

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Charlie Chin, Mulan, and Other Related Links

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