"American Knees" and "Americanese"

The racial politics of "intra-Asian" miscegenation

By William Wetherall

First posted 20 July 2006
Last updated 1 August 2006

Shawn Wong, American Knees, 1995
Shawn Wong, Homebase, 1979


American Knees

Shawn Wong
American Knees
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995
240 pages, hardcover (paperback, 1996)
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005
229 pages, paperback

A structural reading of the novel

I am not in favor of reading fiction as biography. I certainly would not want anyone who reads my stories to equate their characters with me in one incarnation or another.

Yet all writers I have known, including myself, who I've come to know fairly well, disguise parts of themselves in many of their otherwise imaginary characters. They also draw from the lives of those they know.

American Knees is full of elements that reflect Wong's life at personal, generational, and professional levels.

Professionally Wong is a professor of English who, from the very start of his literary career, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, has been deeply involved in what can still be called an "ethnic studies movement". Wong undoubedly puts ideas into the brain of his protagonist -- Raymond Ding -- that he, Wong, might not himself embrace or endorse. But there is little doubt that Raymond Ding's committment to improving the social status of Asian Americans in their own eyes -- as well as in the eyes of the larger, sometimes inclusive, sometimes exclusive mainstream -- reflects Wong's personal goals as a writer, educator, and activist.

While Wong may regard himself as an American of Chinese descent, he has also had to think of himself as an American of a more diffuse, geographically and politically defined Asian ancestry. As a teacher of general courses on Asian American literature, too, he has had to become familiar with the histories of all putatively Asian American ethnic groups. It is through his eyes as an Asian Americanist that Wong is able to lace American Knees with all the benchmarks of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese American history and contemporary life.

To be continued.



What changed in the film and why

By William Wetherall

American Knees Productions
Written by Eric Byler and Shawn Wong
Produced by Lisa Onodera
Directed by Eric Byler
Starring Chris Tashima, Allison Sie, Joan Chen, Kelly Hu, Ben Shenkman, Sab Shimono, Michale Paul Chan, and others

The following "Editorial Review" on Amazon.com shows what Shawn Wong's very interesting but less than perfect novel, and its less interesting but more problematic film version, are up against in the racialist world that makes both inevitable.

From Library Journal
In this light-hearted novel, Raymond Deng finds true happiness with a half-Asian, half-American beauty.

There is nothing "light-hearted" about Wong's romantic comedy. Every laugh is a calculated break in Wong's ultraserious effort to dramatize the racialist concerns of his characters as human if not also futile.

The protagonist's name is Raymond Ding, not Deng Xiaoping.

Raymond, his father, his lovers, and his friends are Americans. They are Americans by birth and would cringe at being called "half-American" simply because they might, by their own or someone else's racialist measure, also be "Asian" or "half-Asian".

To be continued.



Plume Book edition (March 1996)
University of Washington Press (2008)


Shawn Wong
Berkeley: Reed, 1979
Oakland: Bookpeople, 1979
New York: I. Reed Books, 1979
114 pages, softcover
New York: Plume, January 1991
104 pages, softcover
Afterword by S. E. Solberg, July 1990, pages 99-104

Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008
112 pages, softcover
With a new introduction by the author

This novella, in six short chapters, was first published by Ishmael Reed, the founder of Yardbird Reader, in 1979. Parts of the story go back to work Wong contributed to publications like Aiiieeeee! (1974) and Yardbird Reader Volume 3 (1974) in his more radical youth. For reviews of these and related publications, see Asian Americans under the "Identity fiction" section of the Bibliography feature of this website.

Solberg states that "Homebase is where we come from, where we go back to" and says Wong's novel is about America -- "America as homebase for four generations of one Chinese-American family" (page 99).

The first-person protagonist is a young man who was orphaned at age 15, since which time has been a journey, part of it the sort of hippy trek that Wong and some of his Berkeley and other writer friends took, literally and literately, in the 1960s and 1970s.


The third paragraph of Chapter One says everything about Wong's fluid and inviting style (Plume edition, pages 1-2).

I was named after my great-grandfather's town, the twon he first settled in when he came to California from China: Rainsford, California. Rainsford Chan (Chan is short for California). Rainsford doesn't exist anymore. There's no record of it ever having existed, but I've heard stories about it. I've spent many days hiking and skiing through the Sierra Nevada looking for it. I've never found exactly where it was, but I'm almost sure I've seen it or passed by in on one of those days. I recognized it from a hill. It was one of those long, wide Sierra meadows. A place of shade. The sound of a stream reaches my ears. Dogwood trees make the place sound like a river when the breeze moves through the leaves.

Later Wong meets an old Indian man in whom he sees his grandfather's face (Plume edition, pages 82-83).

"You know, people say I look Chinese," he said.

[ omitted ]

I looked at him in the dim light. He did look Chinese.

"Where are you from?" I asked.


Lots of Chinese in New Mexico?"

He started laughing and lit up another cigarette. "Where are you from?"


"Where are you from originally?"


"How long you been here?"

"Three days."

"No. How long you been in the United States?"

"All my life."

"You mean you ain't born in China?"

"What do you you mean? Don't I look like I come from Gallup?"

"You ain't Navajo. You Chinese. You like me."

"You ain't Chinese, though."

"My ancestors came from China thirty thousand years ago and settled in Acoma Pueblo."

"Is that why you look Chinese?"

"Naw, my grandfather was Chinese."

"Your grandfather was Chinese?"

I turned to look at the old man and tore our newspaper.

"He wandered into New Mexico and married a widow before anyone knew he was Chinese." He crushed his cigarette on the floor and smiled to himself. I was looking at his face more closely. he started chcukling then turned to me. "You pretty lucky" -- he pointed into the room I was sleeping in -- "to sleep in isolation with two women."

"Oh, they're just friends from school."

That one, Sandy, the Nez Percé, looks Japanese."

Yeah, me and your grandfather . . ."

"What does she call you?"

"What do you mean?"

"What's your name?"



"That's my name. Rainsford."

"Sounds like the name of a town."

"It was. My great-grandfather lived there."

This stretch of the novel, as the story winds both up and down, gets better and better.

This is one of my favorite stories, by any author.