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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 31, 2004

Five Questions: Play it again, Chan. 'David Carradine' not Chinese'?

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Nephews Truman, center, played by Brent Yoshikami, and Lincoln Wat, right, played by Tristan Hiraishi, learn how Uncle Pull-My-Finger, played by Alvin Chan, got his name in Darrell Lum's "David Carradine Not Chinese."

Brad Goda


A play by Darrell H.Y. Lum, commissioned by Kumu Kahua Theatre

Premieres at 8 p.m. Thursday; repeats at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 5

Kumu Kahua

$5 to $16


Featuring: Alvin Chan, Keith Kawashida, Rodney Kwock, Alissa Joy Lee, Tristan Hiraishi and Brent Yoshikami; directed by John H.Y. Yat

As a kid growing up in Hawai'i, Darrell H.Y. Lum admits he was intrigued, charmed and ultimately fooled by stereotypes of Chinese characters in TV and films.

"I honestly thought David Carradine was really Chinese in 'Kung Fu,'" said Lum, a prolific playwright, author and an academic adviser for Student Support Services at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.

His commissioned work, "David Carradine Not Chinese," was five years in the making. A light-hearted romp tapping outrageous racial stereotypes, the comedy will be world-premiered by Kumu Kahua Thursday.

We asked him Five Questions:

You continue to explore the theme of Asian identity — in this case, Chinese — in contemporary society. Why this, focusing on American media?

"Some people say that's all I do. It's just that our identities are formed by contemporary TV and movies. Even that idea of what's Chinese for local people — half of it is myth, made up. Somewhere along the way, I got to thinking about my parents; my father wanted me to be Chinese. And the most Chinese person I knew, as a kid, was my grandmother on my mother's side. She came to Hawai'i when she was 11; she was really a local girl, who spoke some Hawaiian, went to the market every day. But whatever her ethnicity is, it's what we invented over the years. The other part of writing this play was simply because I thought David Carradine was Chinese. Talk about the ultimate suspension of disbelief."

How damaging were early portrayals of Chinese — like Carradine and the Charlie Chan character?

"We all knew better, but the portrayal had nothing to do with our reality. It was television's invention. We saw houseboys and Chinese laundry people. As local people, we weren't performers; the last thing you wanted to do was call attention to yourself, to stick out. Yet, that's another myth; in everybody's family, there was always somebody who performed. I recall going to fancy Chinese banquets and there were musicians, magicians, dancers. Where did we get the notion that local Chinese people were reticent? That's another aspect of the play, which deals with a family of performers who dream dreams; the parents see themselves as Roy Rogers and Dale Evans."

How have stereotypical issues improved, say, in the past few decades?

"Things have improved. But basically, it's still an issue that we need to address as audiences, as movie-goers, as theater-goers. As Chinese, we have much to celebrate, but on the other hand, that makes the task difficult because we're not just one ethnicity anymore. Certainly, we're not what we've seen on TV."

How does the Kumu Kahua cast speak — like TV stereotypes or real people?

"By design, our 'David Carradine' cast is entirely Asian. They speak pidgin; the period is the 1970s. Most characters, at some point, take on some persona of David Carradine, speaking fortune-cookie talk, like on 'Kung Fu.' I stole many lines from the show's Web site, with actual sayings used on the show. Real funny."

So, is Darrell Lum Chinese?

"Other than liking Chinese food, it's about finding identity. I identify more as a local person; I know very little about Chinese, really. We go through a number of cultural practices — go to the cemetery and language school, give money to the lion at Chinese New Year — but the truth is, some of it, like burning firecrackers, has very little to do with Chinese. They don't burn fireworks in China. And looking back, I was a bad Chinese school student and a Chinese school dropout. I managed to avoid it (language school) till about sixth grade, but my father insisted I go ... and was placed in first grade with actual first graders. So I quit."

Reach Wayne Harada at wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com, 525-8067, or fax 525-8055.