Academic journal article MELUS

'Tripmaster Monkey': Kingston's Postmodern Representation of a New "China Man."

Academic journal article MELUS

'Tripmaster Monkey': Kingston's Postmodern Representation of a New "China Man."

Article excerpt

I am a naturalized citizen, your Excellency, of Charleston, South Carolina, and a Christian, too; and so hope you will stand corrected in your assertion "that none of the Asiatic class" as you are pleased to term them, have applied for benefits under our naturalization act.

- To His Excellency Governor Bigler [of California] from Norman Asing (Jacobs and Landa 128)(2)

Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1987) introduces into American literature a new national type. The hero, Tripmaster Monkey or Wittman Ah Sing, is a fifth generation Asian American male, a graduate from Berkeley in the 1960s, a liberal arts major, an actor, a writer, a musician, a "Yale Younger Poet of 1967 or 1968 or 1969," now a director of his own theater in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park (Tripmaster Monkey 51). With his colorful features and a locomotive voice - Wit Man/Aaaaaieeeeee/Ah/IIIIII III/I Sing, Kingston's Monkey is an interestingly fabricated fictional character, a very complex aesthetic object, many-facaded, all-inclusive, and pluralistic. He is as fictional and theatrical as he is poetic. By appearance, he is a "Grub Street" wit in 1980s' America, an actor/activist, a King Kong on the Bay Bridge, a Cowboy in the city of San Francisco, a Chinatown Hamlet/Garrick. He is, in my opinion, the maker/magician created in the wake of Joyce's "bygmester," conceived in the mind's fancy of a metafictionist.(3) Tripmaster Monkey is Kingston's Idea - Kingston's Postmodern representation of a new "China Man," who redefines the national character of an American.

Kingston speaks of him as an "archetype" (Moyers). The word "archetype" in modern literature reminds us of Joyce's Ulysses. Tripmaster Monkey is indeed Kingston's Postmodern re-creation of such an archetype, but with a significant difference - he is an American hero with Asian features and an Asian last name. Can a character, even a fictional character, with an Asian last name be an all-American hero? Wittman is an American hero, as he is born and educated in America and named after Walt Whitman, the poet who once created our national identity with the language of "en masse." But Ah Sing may also be named after a China Man, Norman Asing, a naturalized US citizen, who, as early as 1855, served as a spokesman of his people by writing to Governor Bigler of California claiming his identity as an American and protesting against racism and the exclusion of the Chinese in America (see epigraph). Governor Bigler was the first governmental official to advocate the Chinese Exclusion Act.(4) Norman Asing's letter, composed in a well controlled style of Mandarin English, was published in the Daily Alta California in 1855, the year Whitman published his Leaves of Grass. Thus conceived in the democratic tradition of American letters, Wittman Ah Sing is undeniably a spokesman of the common people, a singer of "Song of Myself," and a maker of American identity. But whether he will be accepted as such by his contemporaries, particularly readers, critics, reviewers, professors, and students of American literature, is another question; as we know, Whitman was not in his time.

Whether he is accepted or not, Tripmaster Monkey advocates his own right. Kingston's book is quite a challenge. The volcanic eloquence of Ah Sing challenges the reader and critic: Can a Chinese be American and an American have Chinese features? Can a Chinese American writer create a character undeniably American? The most responsive and sympathetic voices, deeply touched by Ah Sing's eloquence, come from North Beach and Greenwich Village, recognizing Kingston's Monkey as "an extraordinary and unforgettable creation, indeed an American creation." Those who enjoy the "verbal rhythm," the body language of the text, sense the "verve" and share the "spirit" of Tripmaster Monkey, accept him as "a sixties Berkeley rebel, a self-conscious poet, an uneasy street stylist, an overwrought theatrical visionary," a "Jack Kerouac or James Baldwin or Allen Ginsberg," "a modern American hero. …

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