HomeAsian AmericansThoughts on Jeff Chan, an O.G. of Asian American Literature

Thoughts on Jeff Chan, an O.G. of Asian American Literature

by Christopher Chow

I first heard about Jeff Chan in Asian American Authors, the first Asian American book I ever had. It introduced me to Asian American lit that I’d never heard of before and was blown away that writers like Jeff, who was like me, were published in a book.

I identified with him – the editors Kai-yu Hsu and Helen Palubinskas of SF State quoted Jeff as saying that he was ” in a way, tired of being Chinese, not because I was too conscious of the racial line… but because I was tired of following the crowd, because all the Chinese students I knew were pursuing such scientific, technological careers as medicine and engineering.” 

He turned away from pre-med and dove into literature and languages. He became a writer and teacher, and with Frank Chin, Lawson Inada and Shawn Wong, articulated the genre we now know as Asian American literature. 

Jeff was also a champion for Asian American artists trying to break through white-dominated cultural institutions, like the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Manongs Film Project, which eventually became Fall of the I Hotel, was up for an NEH grant.

Jeff was on the review panel. He later told me that one reason why it didn’t get the grant was because some panelists couldn’t understand why there was poetry being voiced by Al Robles as he walked down a dimly-lit hallway to open a window to a fire escape that dissolved to reveal a scene of eviction protesters shouting, “Long Live the I Hotel, We Won’t Move!”

Jeff told the review panel that this scene was evocative of a state of mind. That this was poetry being political: International Hotel Night Watch. A turn of consciousness. Now, some 40 years after the film premiered, that film continues to be taught in classrooms across the country and that scene highlighted for its depth by professors, filmmakers and viewers even now. 

When I got my chance to teach Asian American Studies at SF State (1985-1995), it was jarring and flattering to be greeted in the hallways by students, bright, brash and beautiful and even middle-aged adults saying, “Hi Jeff!,” to me!

Christopher Chow By Nancy Wong via Wikimedia Creative Commons

That was during my SF State period when I wore silver, wire -framed glasses and the only hair atop my head was flowing from the sides of my brain. That kind of adulation was heady indeed. I was a lecturer then, teaching AAS 693, ASIAN AMERICANS AND MASS MEDIA, and cribbing from his syllabus notes of that course to plan my semester. I was reaping the harvest from seeds sown by Jeff and the other AAS originals of 1969. What academic or intellectual rigor my students got were based on many ideas and content I got from Jeff, and of course, from some of my own experience and expertise. 

Jeff’s passing is profoundly sad for those of us who found our voice and purpose as Asian/Chinese Americans when he and the CARP boys were riding across the landscape jousting with pig publishers and institutions of higher learning while helping those of us who came right behind them and astride them to learn and perfect the art and craft of storytelling, truth-telling. It’s the beginning of the ending of an epoch, our epoch of awakening in cultural social economic political sense. 

People like the late Janice Mirikitani were part of this epochal awakening and uprising too but those four guys created AIIIEEEEE! They wrote the manifesto on establishing Asian American writing as a vibrant heroic rich literary field, a creative and artistic genre all its own, to be read appreciated celebrated for its beauty bravura and soul.  

His was the steady hand, the level head, the critical editing eye. The loss of such gifts is what’s sad to me. Still he would want us to carry on while he got to his resting place, with his pen, his typewriter, his computer , his lyre in heaven, perhaps trading notes or nods with Janice and others in the pantheon of yellow writers and teachers. 

At times like this, when someone important to the directions and trajectories of our lives passes, words seem utterly inadequate. He was in some way was a muse and a beacon to our ambitions and aspirations. His personal words or casual remarks gave us sustenance or hope or encouragement or appreciation or otherwise made us feel good, better or even redeemed. He goes on to the other life without us as we grasp for ways to handle our grief, sorrow, loneliness or just to express them, share them with the world so that there is someone/something to fill the void left behind.

As a friend who admired him, a colleague who never worked with him on a project yet merely felt the same way as him about Asian American culture and writing in literature, film, music, journalism and the arts, I offer my thoughts of love and respect to Jeffery Paul Chan, and all his family and friends. 

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