Encouraging the audience to inhale deeply, Charlie Chin replaces the fluorescent lights of a library basement with gray skies on Grant Avenue in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The performance artist, historian, and musician inhabits “Uncle Toisan,” a synecdochical character representing early 20th-century Taishanese migrants in San Francisco.
The sharp sound of an erhu scratches in the story’s present day. Uncle Toisan sits in retirement, serenading a street corner. Neither polished performer nor starving beggar, Toisan explains that he just wants to make a few extra dollars. A shake of the elbow concludes the performance, and Toisan casually mentions an old war injury that earned him a Purple Heart.
This symbol of sacrifice and military achievement should disrupt the nonchalant introduction. However, the World War II veteran continues with his melancholy reflection. Emotionless when describing his wound, Toisan embellishes his story through humor rather than regret or sorrow. Toisan quips that an erhu screeches the same way regardless of the performer’s skill. Undiscerning tourists will always tip for the novel sound.
Chin inhabits neither a honored war hero nor a debilitated veteran. Toisan occupies a state of in-between, surviving and casually dismissing a seemingly traumatic past. Therefore, Toisan’s rare displays of emotion attract viewers’ attention.
Toisan’s ordeals include unknowingly seeing his father for the last time at 17, an ocean journey below deck, months of detention at Angel Island, and being drafted into service during WWII. However, light-heartedness puzzlingly accompanies most of these trials. Rather than sharing the stress of immigrating under a false identity, Toisan mocks white American culture and elicits laughter from his audience.
Toisan’s observations include:
- White Americans are unable to tell Asians apart. Lining up on the street, Toisan forgets to lie about his age when recruited for work. Toisan returns the next day and explains to the same man that he is 21. Unsurprisingly, the ploy succeeds.
- Americans think that the stick and ball they give detainees at Angel Island are luxurious gifts.
- The key to working a restaurant’s front of house is laughing at the clients’ terrible jokes.
- Obsessing over cheese is absurd considering that the food is “old milk.”
- Relaxed immigration quotas for Europeans have led to questionable cuisine in the American Midwest.
- White people love goopy sauce covering their Chinese food while black people douse dishes in salty soy sauce.
This humor reveals the absurdity behind an assumed superiority of American taste. Toisan offers an outsiders’ critique that challenges the belief that American taste should be the global palette.
An inability to tell Asians apart conveys an ignorance of details. Toisan’s baseball comment ridicules a presumption that detainees share an American reverence for the sport. Restaurant patrons’ egos convey a simple-mindedness and entitlement to others’ adulation. When it comes to literal taste, diners impose familiar textures and flavors rather than learning from Chinese cuisine.
Toisan internalizes a sense of superiority, a belief that he possesses superior taste. After each of his statements, Toisan chuckles to himself. The rehearsed, slow staccato laugh shows Toisan savoring his performance. The audience then laughs along, affirming the clever observations.
However, after these brief moments where Toisan controls the audience, the tale often returns to tragedy. The story continues, and Toisan lives a life of servitude catering to American taste. Much of Toisan’s past emphasizes how his internal confidence has little effect on his melancholy state of being.
The climax and conclusion of the story come with a description of Toisan’s time in the Army. Delivering Christmas turkeys to the Battle of the Bulge’s front line, Toisan feels a jolt and flies out of his truck. When he wakes up, he notices a Purple Heart pinned on his chest. A nurse explains that he was found in the snow, likely a victim of artillery fire. Toisan has suffered a “million dollar wound,” a minor elbow injury that will send him back to the United States. However, Toisan does not recall hearing fired rounds and realizes that he had driven into a crater on the road. He must have been struck by frozen turkeys, not German fire.
This symbol of the American holiday feast saves Toisan from the war but leaves a scar that aches in the present day. Catering to a literal American taste for turkey sends Toisan home safely. However, freed from military service, Toisan transports egg rolls and wonton soup in place of canned cranberry sauce. Despite Toisan’s belief that he possesses a superior sense of taste, he perpetually carries the duty of satisfying an American palette from delivering holiday meals to performing “exotic” music on the street.
One might ask whether Toisan suffers through necessary sacrifices in order to provide for his children. However, Toisan never has a family that experiences American life. Immigration restrictions create a bachelor society where laborers’ wives and children cannot reach America. Toisan’s father and wife both pass away in China due to diseases carried by the human waste that fertilizes their fields. When Toisan falls in love with an American-born Chinese woman, her father denies his proposal due to Toisan’s status as a resident non-citizen. External barriers of legislation limit Toisan’s agency and restrict him from citizenship despite his internal resoluteness.
Furthermore, Toisan must conceal his jokes and expressions of superiority. Upon his arrival in San Francisco, Toisan receives a code of survival. Toisan must take off his hat when speaking to white people. Toisan asks why and receives a clear answer: because you aren’t white! Toisan must never stay in a closed room alone with a white woman. Toisan must smile when a white person says something stupid or face defenestration. Most importantly, Toisan must always keep the kitchen open for a white customer. White people are always hungry and the best way to please them is through feeding them.
Toisan’s body and actions are defined by the America he once visualized as a paradise. His role is to satiate, feeding white men who are hungry even after the dinner hours pass. Inserting Toisan’s humor into a tragic narrative, Chin emphasizes how exclusion hurts America. Toisan’s cleverness and belief in a superior sense of taste convey his capacity to teach this nation, yet he lacks the citizenship to affect his country. A history of restriction and subjugation creates a myopic sense of taste that dominates other cultures’ contributions.
The performance ends with a Clark Kent-like transformation. Removing a gray flat cap and a Chinese accent transfigures Toisan into Charlie Chin. This simple costume minimizes the difference between performer and character. The main contrast exists in the duo’s voices, one accented and muted with the other sliding between refined French-dropping waiter and streetwise Queens smart-talker. This voice and fluency allow Chin to share Toisan’s stories, those of the older men Chin grew up around in Chinatown. The strong resemblance of Chin and Toisan suggests that the elder’s internalized superiority persists in Asian Americans today who might have a stronger voice.