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Book Review: Donald Duk

Chin, Frank. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Chin (1991). Donald Duk. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press.

Twelve-year-old Donald Duk is Chinese-American, lives in San Francisco, takes weekly tap dance lessons and attends a private school where Chinese-American kids like himself are comfortable hating Chinese. His father is a cook and runs a Chinese restaurant he owns and his uncle is a Cantonese opera entrepreneur and star.

With the approach of the Chinese New Year, the teacher of California History is busy introducing the history of Chinese-Americans at the beginning of the novel.  The lessons given from a dominant Anglo-American perspective does little to help Donald take pride in his Chinese heritage.  The Chinese migrant workers building the railway are depicted as passive and non-assertive and the classmates’ questions as to what the Chinese eat and do during their New Year celebration seem demeaning to him. 

He hates his name that immediately brings to mind the all-too-famous character in the Disney animation film and regrets the fact that his family member’s first names are not much better.  His father’s name is King, his mother’s name is Daisy, and his sisters who are twins are called Venus and Penny.  When he walks in the streets in the neighborhood, the gang kids pick on him.  His parents give him a lesson in Chinese psychology and Donald learns to tell Donald Duk jokes in Chinese to make the street kids laugh. 

In his spare time, Donald’s father is building 108 “stick and paper” model airplanes, one for each of the outlaw heroes of a famous Chinese book he read when still a child.  He plans to set them on fire and fly them off of Angel Island on the fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year after the dragon parade.  Donald’s best friend Arnold, an Anglo-American boy who likes Chinese food, will be spending the two weeks of Chinese New Year at Donald’s.  The two boys are enrolled in the White Crane Kung Fu Club to insure a place inside the dragon lantern during the New Year parade.  As Donald is thrown into the preparation for the Chinese New Year, he is exposed to many aspects of the Chinese culture, which had remained obscure in the history lessons at school.  He learns for example that the Chinese mandate of heaven, supposedly responsible for the migrant workers’ passivity, is about being adaptable to the changing fortunes. 

The novel is organized in two alternating parts, one being a recurrent and progressive dream Donald has about the migrant workers as depicted in a Chinese opera and the other being his life during the days leading up to the Chinese New Year.   The down-to-earth daily interactions between family members and friends come through vividly in the narrative with numerous dialogues and the way Donald comes to terms with his Chinese heritage is quite dynamic.  

The text is dense and suitable for students in 7th grade and up through high school.   It lends itself well to literary criticism in a college course as well. Its complexity makes it suitable for advanced ESL students.