Novel by Frank Chin. The book is set around the time of Chinese New Year in San Francisco. While I couldn’t tell exactly when the book was set, it was after the Vietnam War. The book’s namesake is its main character, an 11-year-old Chinese-American child in Chinatown who suffers from an unfortunate coincidence of name. Donald is occasionally mocked by his peers, but soon manages to joke about it by speaking Cantonese in a Donald Duck voice.
Born in the U.S. to Chinese immigrants, Donald Duk struggles with his identity around the New Year. He has very little interest in Chinese culture and just wants to be American, while his father insists that he learn about Chinese culture, participate in the Chinese New Year celebrations, and take T’ai Chi lessons. Donald’s father, King Duk, has built, with the help of his family, 108 model airplanes to represent the 108 heroes in a traditional Cantonese fairy tale. They are all packed with fireworks and have wind-up engines, and King has planned to launch them all off of Angel Island and burn them on the last day of Chinese New Year. But one night before New Year, Donald goes up onto the roof of his apartment building, launches one of the airplanes, and burns it.
Donald Duk’s indifference to Chinese culture starts to fade, though, during Chinese New Year when his (white) friend Arnold is staying with Donald and his family. They repeatedly experience very vivid dreams about the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, and after some research at the library, they find these dreams to be mysteriously accurate. Donald learns of the hard work done by the Chinese on the railroad, when the Chinese set the world record for miles of track laid in a day, and of the day when the Chinese workers all signed the last crosstie on the railroad. When the white businessmen who run the railroad project see this crosstie, they plan to remove it and replace it with a new, clean, unsigned one. A crowd of Chinese workers, angered at this, rush up to the tracks, rip the tracks off the ties, and smash the crosstie to bits to prevent these arrogant whites from ever having it.
Meanwhile, during the festivities of Chinese New Year, Donald pays much more attention to the Chinese culture and learns much. His father runs a Chinese restaurant, and his uncle is in the Cantonese opera, so Donald learns about the stories and traditions of his ancestors’ culture and comes to appreciate them.
I enjoyed this book very much. During the days when Donald is dreaming, the writer produced a very dreamlike work indeed, switching between real and dream scenes without signal. I found this to be a pleasurable, trancelike experience. I was also fascinated by the many stories and traditions of the Chinese cultural tradition that are discussed in the book.
Chin, Frank. Donald Duk: A Novel. Minneapolis-St. Paul: Coffee House Press, 1991.