Eddie Wong interviewed Charlie Chin, a leading figure in the development of Asian American culture. The interview was conducted in San Mateo on Nov. 26, 2019 and it explores Charlie Chin’s career from the 1960s folk music scene in Greenwich Village through the rock era when his group opened for Jimi Hendrix on to his major contributions as an Asian American singer/songwriter/storyteller and author.

EW:  Tell us about your childhood. I know your dad had a laundry; did you grow up hanging around the laundry?

CC:  I like to tell the story, which is basically true, that my father and mother were dating around 1942 and she was, because of a complicated situation, a U.S. citizen.  My maternal grandfather had fled from Shanghai, China. He was a wanted man. According to family legend, he had been involved in trying to help reform the character system to help public education, which was anti-Manchu Dynasty. He had a lot of European and British friends and they got him out by giving him membership the Scottish Freemasons which is how he got the last name Brown to get out of China. He went to his brother who had a small store in Costa Rica, but his brother said if you’re a wanted man, it’s still too dangerous here, you should go to Trinidad. There is an enclave of anti-Manchu Chinese there and he end up going there. He married a Caribbean/Indian woman and later had the opportunity of coming to New York City to work for the Hills Brothers Coffee Company. He entered the United States during the Chinese Exclusion era and he was able to do it because his last name was Brown and a citizen of the British Island Colony of Trinidad and Tobago. While he was here, he and his wife had a couple of children, my mother included. My mother was born in United States and automatically became an American citizen.

By the time World War II happened, my father, who is born in Toisan, China, was over here working as a laundryman. They were dating; she loved to dance and he loved to dance, They were part of a large group people who went out dancing every weekend and this is during the big band era. And they were thinking about getting married, but he was a national from China who can never ever become an American citizen because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and she was an American citizen who would lose her citizenship if she married my father who was an ineligible alien. It wasn’t until 1943 that the U.S. repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act because the U.S. had an exclusion act against one of its allies, Free China. So, the Exclusion Act was struck down and they got married. I was born in 1944 and had a very basic Chinese American upbringing during the late ‘40s in which Chinese Americans either worked on laundry or a restaurant. My father either had his own hand laundry or he worked in a shirt pressing factory where there were dozens of men pressing shirts and sheets. I actually did a little bit of that when I was ten years or 11 years old during the summers. During those days, we got three cents a shirt.  Men worked 12 hours a day, I was a boy so I only worked 10 hours a day, but it was Illuminating to me because it made me understand why you don’t want to work in a laundry and I understood the lesson very, very quickly.

Charlie Chin performed on Nov. 15, 2019 at the Eastside Cultural Center in Oakland, CA for East Wind Ezine. Photo by Eddie Wong

I grew up partially on the Upper West Side kind of like that background for the musical West Side Story. Later, we had an opportunity to move to Queens. My mother came to the realization that we weren’t going to go anywhere if we were depending on the income of one laundryman, so she put herself through night school and become a lab technician. That gave us enough money to move to Queens, a destination for people leaving the city but who are not well to do. They want to move to what were newly formed projects or co-ops and most of them were very heavily Jewish which was good because that meant that they were not going to be discriminatory especially against Asians. Most of the Jewish people had family who had actually been through the Holocaust, so they were very sensitive about any form of discrimination and they didn’t want to be guilty of it themselves. The result is that we moved to Jackson Heights, Queens which at that time was 1/4 African American middle class, for example Satchmo (musician Louis Armstrong) lived in Corona not that far from us; it was 1/4 Jewish; 1/4 Italian and 1/4 Irish so what you got was a very strong immigrant second generation influence, an emergent middle class influence and that’s where I grew up.

By the time I got the high school, I was becoming very dissatisfied with the kind of lifestyle we were leading in Queens. Don’t forget this is a very oppressive time, the ‘50s. I entered high school around 1957 and I became convinced that I didn’t want to become what the mainstream wanted me to do. In the interim, I ended up bouncing into a lot of progressive kids in high school which interested me immediately and I fell in love desperately in love with a Jewish American girl who used me like a welcome mat in front of the house. She walked all over me but amongst the other things since she was progressive, her mother was very Progressive, they introduced me to things like demonstrating against nuclear testing, civil rights, the works of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and half a dozen other artists who were darlings of the political left.

EW: Yeah, the Weavers.

CC: The Weavers, exactly. I learned about all that by the time I was a junior in high school and the girl that I liked so much, she played guitar and she hung out with other kids who played guitar and that convinced me that I should learn to play something. I already played which was the quatro, a sort of little four-stringed ukulele which comes from the West Indies. But they were all playing guitars and I decided after watching for a while that if I played guitar I’d always be at the end because everyone else played already, but I noticed that nobody played the banjo. Even if I wasn’t that good it would give me immediate access to the inner circle because there are no other banjo players. I took some money from my after-school job and bought this little $45 banjo from a pawn shop. I learned to play it with a Pete Seeger record, and I got close enough to hang out with them and found out that she was a real jerk. She was paper thin and not very deep at all, but by this time I was turning 18 and hanging out a lot with the African American guys knew about drinking, smoking marijuana and going down to Greenwich Village on the weekend to look for rent parties you go hang out and meet girls who were  alleged to be very casual when it came to virtue. So, I said that’s for me, and I joined them and hung out in Greenwich Village.

In Greenwich village I saw a whole bunch of guys who sing and seem to be living free. They call themselves beatniks, so I said I’m going to school and all this conventional stuff and it’s boring. These guys are just hanging out and relaxing, discussing intellectual stuff.  As a matter, my real college education was in the Village. I left home with that banjo, survived by playing coffee houses and hung around with a lot of these guys who were basically academic dropouts who weren’t doing anything important, but they had the benefit of a very good education. So, I listen to these guys talk and they make references to Diogenes, Aristotle, Goethe and I say who the heck are these people. Luckily, we live the United States of America which has amongst other things a wealth of paperback books which could have been bought at that time for 75 cents or a dollar. So, every time I heard the name of someone I didn’t know, I would go out to a bookstore and buy a little Bantam or Penguin book of that person and slowly but surely, I gained more information about what was really going on in the world.

Izzy Young, founder of the Folklore Center in Greenwich Village, leads demonstration against the ban on folk music in Washington Square Park. Newsday photo by Bill Krause. April 1961.

I was also lucky enough to have a mentor Maurice, Prince of the Bohemians, who was ageless. It was rumored that he had been around since the ‘20s and it was by this time the ‘60s. He had shoulder-length white hair and a full, long white beard and he loved to sit back and sort of be a mentor. You bought him a cup of coffee and he would say, “Ah yes, let us look at the Greeks, the body beautiful, yes, Athens wonderful, wonderful”…and he would start pontificating and explaining what happened to the Romans and how the Romans owe so much to the Etruscans. It was like a little lecture series right there for a cup of coffee or scrambled eggs. He mostly ate scrambled eggs because he didn’t have many teeth left. I learned a lot from him, especially about philosophy.

So, from 1962, I was working as a folkie in Greenwich Village. It was a great time. Things were inexpensive, it was post birth control and at that time anything that you could catch could be easily cured with penicillin, so nobody worried about anything. You just noticed that some people just didn’t drink for 10 days so you guess they’re probably taking some medication, but it was great. It was a lot of fun. But then bapa de bapa, bump da bum, the folk music thing began to die out and rock and roll came in.

EW: Let’s back up a little bit, when you left home, how did your parents react?  Was there a cultural clash at home between your father who was born in China and your mother who grew up in New York?

CC: Yes, of course. Neither one of them really understood what I was doing. My mother cried every night according to my father who said to me, “She has no idea what you’re doing down there; what are you doing down there; why don’t you get a job?” I said that I like to play music so he said “Why can’t you do that on the weekend and get a regular job during the week?” Luckily for me, I started getting reviews in newspapers with my picture. Then at one point in 1966 or 1967, a TV station did a short little piece on me and my father immediately relaxed – you’re on TV… that means that you can make a living at this. My mother still didn’t understand what was going on, but she backed off too because they’re working class people; they had no idea what it meant. Getting a job meant you had something to fall back on – the laundry, the restaurant – whatever it might be.

EW:   Did you have brothers or sisters?

CC:  I have two brothers Danny and Ken. Ken’s still alive, Danny died when he was about 21 years old. Ken lives near Morristown, New Jersey with his wife Jodie. He has two kids, but we’re very,very different. There’s four years difference and I left home at 18 when he was 14 so we were never really that close, and I spent years living in Greenwich Village. My parents had no idea what was going, but then around 1970, we reconciled on one level or another.

Rock ‘n roll comes in 1967, to be more exact folk-rock begins. People said, “What do you mean rock and roll is coming back; it’s over.” But there’s this thing that’s been going on in England, these kids were playing American blues and rock and that’s what’s happening now; it’s folk-rock. One of the reasons why it was folk rock was a very large percentage of the American players had been in folk music for several years before they got back in rock and roll. It just meant that clubs that were folk music clubs became rock and roll palaces overnight.

EW:  Dylan went electric at Newport Folk Festival in ’65.

CC:  Yeah.

EW:   Did you see Dylan in the village? What did you think of him?

CC:  There wasn’t much to say. He hit on my first wife a couple of times which annoyed me, but that worked out since they were both Jewish. They were okay with that, but I wasn’t okay with it. I never thought he’d make it very big because he couldn’t sing and couldn’t play well. What I missed at the time was that he wrote very well and that’s what people noticed. It was a very important lesson; they didn’t care about the technical aspect, they cared about the message. He ended up starting a whole host of singer-songwriters.  There was a golden period for a couple of years before I got caught up in the rock scene.

Charlie Chin performs on Henry St., New York City. Photo courtesy of Bob Hsiang

EW:  Is that when you first met Stephen Stills?

CC:  Stephen Stills had come up from South America. His father was working in Venezuela. He used to play this big, blond Guild, a nice guitar, very nice guy.  I crashed with him for a short period of time, sort of like roommates.  Everyone knew everyone else. Greenwich Village in 1965-66 was an area not much bigger than two or three blocks. Over time, you got to meet everybody because everybody is working. This was especially true of what they used to call the basket houses. Those were coffee houses that were illegal in that they weren’t supposed to have entertainment, but you could go in there and play a set for 20 minutes and passed the hat. You could survive by playing in these cafes and that’s what most people did.  You did about five shows tonight and if you were really eager, you could go to another house down the block and do a set there; that would be called doubling so you end up working for nine times a night doing 20-minute sets.

EW: Is that how you developed your style?

CC:  It’s the best education you can have because you’re on stage more than you’re off stage. You learn to conquer the problem that all beginner performers have which is they get tense when they’re on stage. If you actually live on stage that gives you a center; you’re not intimidated by being on stage, Later, in what we refer to as Green Room wisdom, you pick up tips from other performers and put together your performance style.

Susie Rotolo and Jose Feliciano perform at Folk City. Photo by Bill Greene/New York Daily News

I also started to play a lot more instruments because as time went on you realize that the basic  folk combo was guitar, banjo mandolin, fiddle sometimes bass,  The more you can cover, the more you can play and the greater the your chances for getting hired. If you got a guy that has a band and you have four people, and he wants to have a tune with a harmonica solo. Instead of hiring a guy whose only job is to play the harmonica, you look for a guy who can play the guitar and also play the harmonica. So very quickly, I learned how to double on things like autoharp, banjo, guitar, dulcimer. You learn to play them because if you’re living as a musician, you convince your girlfriend that you were home practicing all the time when she’s out at work whether it’s true or not is not the issue. Sometimes, it’s actually true and you’re practicing, not just watching TV. So, you can become adept very quickly and I was able double and of course be able to sing.

I had never really studied singing. I grew up singing with my family which was West Indian. Whenever there was a house party, everyone would sing, everybody dances. Most people can play something.

The Chinese of the West Indies were notable in that they first came as workers but within a generation or two became the middle class. After they worked the fields, they saved their money and opened a little store, At the end of seven years, one thing led to another and they became small shopkeepers. The Europeans are a thin, little strata on top.  They run everything, but then there’s a thin middle class. The greater portion of people are workers usually African Americans, but the British and Spanish brought in outside workers like the Chinese and the Punjabi Indians, but they also did the same thing. They became farmers, many were workers originally, and saved their money and eventually became the shopkeepers.

In a plantation economy, if you’re a small shopkeeper, people have to go to you every week to buy butter, salt, sugar or flour, but there’s only money in the area when the crop comes in or when the crop is sold. So, people live on chits; they live on scrip so the guy who runs the plantations says well here’s a scrip for $20. You go to the Chinese guy and he says, “What do you want? Salt, flour or whatever? That’s $6. You give me the scrip and I’ll give you my scrip back worth $14.” But since you can only spend that scrip at the Chinese store slowly but surely capital starts to amass and the Chinese become the middle class.

Charlie Chin. Photo from Museum of Chinese in America website.

EW:  How did your father who was an immigrant from Toisan fit in with this West Indian community?

CC:  He actually didn’t talk much about it. To him, it came with his wife and some of us know when you marry a woman, you just don’t marry her; you marry her family and a whole trainload of luggage that comes along with her. It’s quite common for them to accept the other culture, particularly if the woman is going to be responsible for raising the children. Don’t forget we’re living now in a different time and place. Only two generations ago when I was a kid, most tasks were gender-specific; women cooked and cleaned and took care of the kids, men worked. When they weren’t working, they came home and relaxed. They were served food, whatever was put in front of them was what they ate.

When I was growing up the role models were these heavies like John Wayne, guys who represented an ideal, a man who was inflexible and hard-nosed but trustworthy. He took care of things but was no Mr. Nice Guy. He didn’t talk about intimate feelings.  He didn’t talk about things that were touchy feely. His job was to take care of things and protect people. Part of the problem was that like a lot of overseas Chinese, my father went to another country, he married a woman from another group, and for whatever reasons he was never going to go back to China.

EW:  So he never told you about the village?

CC:   He didn’t talk about it, but I learned through the family that he had had an extremely violent argument with his father, my grandfather. My paternal grandfather was not a nice man categorically across-the-board. Everybody who ever knew or heard of him said he was a terrible man. What had happened was he had several children and he sent my father to America as insurance. The older brothers and sisters were doing other things; he sent my father to America with a strict instruction. You’re supposed to go to America and send money home.

There’s a family anecdote that my father’s working in a little hand laundry up in the Bronx and a distant cousin came to visit him and walked into the laundry and looks around, steps into the back room and sees a little cot, a little two-burner gas stove, a little table and says, “This is where you live? Everybody back home thinks you’re rich.” My father says, “What do you mean?” The cousin says, “Your brothers don’t work anymore, your sisters have a new dress every month. They think you’re rich.”  My father wrote this letter to my grandfather and said, “What are you doing? I’m working like a horse here and you’re taking all the money and spending it.” My grandfather wrote a letter back: “It is not your place to question what I do.” That led to an argument. To this day, I don’t know the man’s name because my father refused to say his name. So, he just severed everything. That was it.

EW:  After the folk period, how did you get into Cat Mother and the rock scene?

CC: There’s this guy named Roy Michaels, great guy, we used to call him Bones because he’s very skinny. He played the banjo and all the banjo players knew each other and hung out together. He had been in several groups and at that time there’s a push for folk music groups like the New Christy Minstrels, The Serendipity Singers and he was with a group called Up with America, totally clean scrub kids. I’m walking down the street and I say, “Hey here comes Roy Michaels.” I haven’t seen him a long time and I say, “Hey what’s going on?” Roy said, “Hi, this is Bob Smith, how are you doing, we just got back from California we went to something called Monterey Pop.” I said, “What was it?” Roy said, “It was absolutely great. We’re going to form a rock and roll band. You want to be in it?”  I said, “Sure” and that was it.

Charlie Chin is on the far right in this publicity photo for the band.

At one point we were rehearsing at the old Polish Ukrainian National Hall and we had a job coming up and we needed a name and we couldn’t agree on a name. We used those old funky names like Rubber Band, Porcelain Convenience, all these strange names. One of the kids hanging out with us said, “Why don’t you call yourselves Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys?” We said that’s ridiculous, but we agreed we’ll use the name for this job, and we’ll choose a better name when we finish. We did the job and we were apparently a hit so all of a sudden, we were stuck with the name. The next thing we knew, we are playing on the Lower East Side with groups coming up like The Lovin’ Spoonful. In late ‘68 the band wanted to move up to Woodstock, New York. Why I don’t know, but everybody was moving up to the country. This is still part of the whole hippie thing, go back to nature.

EW: Yeah, like The Band.

CC:  They were not far from where we ended, a place called Saugerties. You can walk from Woodstock to Saugerties if you had strong legs. Bubba found an old abandoned farmhouse and it had 19 rooms. It was on a side of a hill, the first part has been built in the 1700s, and it was available very, very cheap and the reason why it was so cheap was that it was supposedly haunted. We went in there and checked it out and there were some strange things that happened, but it was so cheap, and it came with a piece of land and a big backyard and the sloping hill that went up forming a natural amphitheater.

So, we moved in and divided up the work, I ended up in the kitchen, of course, because I could cook number one and I was not going to be chopping down foliage or fixing cars. It was relatively easy because back in those days macaroni and cheese went a long way.  People weren’t super conscious of what they were eating, and it was relatively easy to feed everybody there. There were five band members and women and children.

Then we thought what we should do is invite some of our friends from the city and tell them we’re going to put together an outdoor concert. We had a sister organization Mother Pablo’s Dispensary of Joy. They later moved out to San Francisco, and they said, “Hey, we’ll set up the stage, sounds and lights and you get the acts.”  We said, “Sure, come on up for a weekend all you got to do is play; I will feed you and we’ve got 19 rooms; you can have any room you want and crash.” This went on for two summers; it was getting to be quite a thing and we were drawing two or three thousand people a weekend for a couple of weekends every summer.

By the time of the second year we were saying I’m getting tired of this. Larry, the fiddle player and the guitar player, wanted to quit, but then it was the last night of the show and we always finish the show because we didn’t have to go anyplace. Most of the other acts had to start driving back to New York. So, we are finishing this last set and when you’re on stage and facing a couple of thousand people on the side of a hill, the lights on the stage allow you to see about 20 feet out but the rest of it is kind of dark. I can see way in the distance at the top of the hill a guy running towards the stage. It’s a white guy, he’s got long hair and he stripped to the waist and he’s running toward the stage and I said “Oh,no I hope this guy’s not on acid.” He starts running towards the stage and getting closer and closer until finally he jumps on the stage. I drew back, he grabbed the microphone and says out loud, “Hey everybody, let’s dance” and as one person, the entire group of people stood up and started dancing.  It was blowing my mind.

We closed the show, but someone says come back to the house, there’s a guy who wants to talk to you. We go back to the house and there’s an English guy there, Michael Jeffrey. He said he was very interested in signing us up and we said who are you and he said, “Oh I’m with Jeffrey Chandlers, we handle Jimi Hendrix.” So, we said whoa. We had to have a little conference in a side room. We were planning to break up, but we’ve already logged in a couple years and this could mean a record contract. That being the case, why don’t we stay together for another year or two. If you want to leave, everybody takes their cut and leave. My thought immediately was I’ll log in a year or two, take my portion and open up a little restaurant. This shows you how young and stupid I was. I didn’t realize that nine out of ten restaurants fail. I didn’t find that out till later, but I said all right.

We sign on to the Michael Jeffrey office where Jimi Hendrix was the headliner and he wanted to produce our group’s first album. We did about 36 shows opening up for Jimi Hendrix which was really an experience. It taught me a lot about what happens when you go with big money. That’s a whole book onto itself, the horror stories of what happens and what people will do to themselves and what they’ll do to other people. At one point, I just can’t deal with it. So I said “I’m quitting.” I go to the office to get my money and I find out there’s no money. “What happened,” I said. The managers said, “Well, you have to go see so and so blah blah blah so I said, “Just give me what you got and let me get out of here.” I figure I’m getting out of here with my life so I’m happy.

I got out and I started doing folk gigs again. There was a bar in Greenwich Village called Nobody’s run by the Chin family, distant relatives, and there was a bartender, Harry Lowe, old-timer. He worked all the clubs in Vegas; he worked in the Bahamas; he was a real old pro bartender. We’re talking one night, and I had gotten back from a road trip of two weeks. After expenses I had about $100 in my pocket and I said that’s good, that means I can hang out for about two weeks before I have to go out again. So, I’m talking to Harry and he’s kind of distraught looking and he said it’s so slow tonight and I said, “What’s wrong?” He said, “I don’t think I’ll make $100 tonight” and he glances at the tip cup. And I said to myself he can make $100 in one night. I said, “Harry, could you teach me how to bartend?” and he said, “Yeah sure.” I spent many years being a bartender while I was performing with Nobuko and Chris. I started taking classes at night, wine classes, food and beverage management, because my assumption was that I’d end up probably working for a hotel or some other chain where you get good perks like healthcare.

EW: During that rock period you ended up playing on “Bluebird,” the Buffalo Springfield song. How did that come about?

CC: Steve Stills used to be one of the guys who hung out in the Village. He was friends with my first wife Carlin and used to come over. Because he didn’t have a place at the time, he’d come over to use our phone to make calls to the West Coast. There was another guy, Peter Torkelson. He’s another banjo player and he had gone out to the West Coast already because people are saying by ‘67 going to ‘68 that’s where the action is. It’s in LA. Steve decided to follow and the next thing I hear is some guys are putting together a band and one of them looks like Peter.

This is what happened: Peter and Steve go out to LA start hitting all the traps, making all the calls, reading Variety every day, making all the auditions. Steve Stills makes an audition and they want four well-scrubbed guys to be on a band that’s going to be on TV. He auditions and they like him, but they say, “Do you have an older brother who’s a little taller? We already have a short guy.” Steve thinks for a second and says I’ll be right back, jumps in the car, goes across town to the Golden Bear Cafe and picks up Peter Torkelson who’s washing dishes in the café. Steve says, “Do you have your banjo at home?”  He picks it up and goes to the audition. They like him and sign him up for $350 a week, which was big money. He figures like the other guys in the group that this is good because how many pilots actually survive and meanwhile for half a year he’ll be making $350 a week. The whole thing had been produced even before they stepped through the door. There are lunch boxes, t-shirts, comic books. They weren’t going to write their own songs; they’re weren’t going to play their own music. (note: the show and group was called The Monkees and they eventually sold 75 million records worldwide.)

Meanwhile Steve Stills can’t get arrested. He runs into a bunch of guys used to know from the East Coast and formed a group called Buffalo Springfield. They’re starting to get some action, and late one night I get this phone call: “Hey what’s going on? Who is this? This is Steve Stills. Listen, are you free?” “ Yeah sure, what’s up?”  “I’m in town for like a day or two. I want to catch up but I’m working, mixing an album up at Columbia in midtown.  Why don’t you come up and we can talk in between the time I’m doing the engineering. I got an hour free, let’s talk. I don’t have time to come downtown. By the way, do you still play the banjo?” I said, “yeah.”  Steve said, “Bring the banjo.”

I go to Columbia Records and as I get off the elevator, it’s like 11 at night, and Steve’s standing the hall and playing the guitar. He says, “Can you play this?” and I say let me see and he goes and bling, bling, bling and I said, “Sure, no problem.”  He said, “Come on into Studio A.” We lay one track down, then two just to play it safe.  I play the second track ding, a ding, a ding, ding, ding, dang. We sit down talk in the studio – blah blah blah, what happened to so and so, oh yeah yakety, yak, yak, and then about an hour and a half later he says, “Well I have to get back to work but thanks. Good to see you. Next time you’re in town, give me a call, we’ll have lunch.”

He goes back to the West Coast and a couple of months later I hear the album (Buffalo Springfield Again) was released and the selection from the album that they used for the single was a piece called “Bluebird” and there’s a banjo solo at the end of it. Now this is a surprise to me because it was just done separate from the rest of the song and added on. If you listen, you’ll hear a nice piece and there’s a board fade and when it comes back it’s the first or second take we did and that’s the end of the piece. It was a little strange at the time, but people thought it was genius. The next thing I know, I get a musician’s union check for $90 and ever since then people say, “That’s Charlie Chin, he played banjo on “Bluebird.” Less than three minutes of work and it has haunted me for the whole of my life (laughs).  I’ve worked on other projects for years and nobody cares, nobody knows. Take one, take two, how’s your wife doing blah blah – that was it.

EW: You made the part up?

CC:   He played the tune. I copied the tune. It was his genius to use a banjo solo at the end because it comes in from left field. It has nothing to do with whatever goes on before. That was his genius. I had nothing to do with it the way it sounded. When he was talking to me, he said that it had just occurred to him while he was moving the pots up and down. As it is, the piece is considered too long. The standard was three or three and a half minutes and at that time they were very strict about it. The only thing they would play that was longer than three and one-half minutes was a song like “MacArthur Park,” which is five minutes long. When you heard that on AM radio those days, it meant the DJ was going to the bathroom because he’d run down the hall, go to the bathroom and come back.

EW:  Were you happy with that piece?

CC: I didn’t care. It was just a little piece, nothing special. Then later, I was teaching banjo on and off and that actually worked out because people said he’s the guy that played on “Bluebird” and people said, “Oh, I’ll study with him so that I can say I learned to play the banjo from this Chinese guy from New York City.”

EW:  You also wrote songs as part of Cat Mother. I found “Charlie’s Waltz” on YouTube. What’s the origins of that song?

CC: In the folk days, everyone wrote songs, that was the paradigm: one guy, one guitar, singer-songwriters. I still write songs now. It’s not terribly complicated. After a decade of listening and learning songs, you begin to pick up the rhythm and styles. It’s not terribly difficult. You learn how to manipulate the words and you take a song for its purpose, which is to do a little painting, a little sumi-e painting, a little brush painting. You don’t have a lot of colors, you don’t have a lot of choices, but you can make a picture with a few little strokes, and that’s part of the genius of the great songs. They offer an image, a feeling, a suggestion but in just a few simple strokes. The height of that is haiku where you have 17 syllables to produce the image, the flavor, the atmosphere.

“Charlie’s Waltz” was based on walking down the street in this case St. Marks Place and seeing a very attractive woman wearing a big wrap around Indian print skirt, floppy hat, sandals. Lovely, gorgeous youth –  I’m drifting now – (laughing) –  the beauty of youth.  At that time, we didn’t realize people give off pheromones, and you find yourself captivated by someone and you’re not sure really why and then you realize later that the pheromones coming off that person must have been so intense; it’s like wow.

 

EW:  It’s still a very lovely tune. When you started singing with Chris and Joanne were you writing songs too?

CC:  How we met is key here. I’m bartending in Greenwich Village and this young Chinese guy comes in and says, “Hey, a lot of musicians hang out here?” and I said, “Yeah.” He says, “Are there any Asian musicians hanging out here?”  I wasn’t really sure what he meant for a split second and then I realized he meant Oriental and I said, “Yeah, I play a little.” And he says, “If you play bring your axe, man, to Pace College at 8 o’clock next Saturday, we’re having a conference.”  When he said college and conference well that means women will be there, right. I packed my guitar and showed up and listened to a whole bunch of stuff that I had never heard before. There are Asian American writers, Asian American theater group, Asian American dance group – people are making comments which was unheard of at the time.

There was supposed to be a couple that went on last, at that time Chris Ijima and Joanne Miyamoto; she hadn’t called herself Nobuko quite yet and I was supposed to go second to last. But there was no time because when you play at a college, you have to be out at a certain time or else the maintenance people just turn off the lights and leave. So I said, “You guys go ahead because I don’t need to” and she said “No, no, no. We’ll all go on together,” so I said okay because at this point I had already been playing for eight years as a professional so I knew that whatever they did, I could cover. So, Chris is playing a guitar and I’m doubling and she’s singing. I begin to realize what she’s singing about is interesting. This is about us and I look out in the audience and it’s all Asian faces. I had never seen an audience of all Asian faces before and I began to realize that something is going on here. I’ve got to check it out.

Chris said that we’re going to be at the Dot Cafe next week, do you want to come. I said sure where is it and they said it’s up in Harlem. So, I found the place; it was an abandoned storefront in a building that squatters had taken over. They had turned this abandoned storefront into a cafe where they painted a big dot on the wall. So, we’re hanging out there; it was cool, man. I met a half a dozen people who were part of this very new emerging Asian American consciousness. It was tied with a number of different things: number one, they were using the phrase Asian American which meant they weren’t Chinese or Japanese but that we were Asians and that  both groups had shared a post-World War II experience and that included watching all these movies on TV and being part of a stereotyped group because the mainstream didn’t differentiate between different Asian groups. So, this phrase Asian American allowed us a place of dialogue and with it came a heavy emphasis on being political and that political aspect was generally left.

Charlie Chin, Nobuko Miyamoto, and Chris Ijima. Photo courtesy of Bob Hsiang.

And as only young people can do, we got totally wrapped up in what we thought was this crusade to straighten things out. Number one, there was the Vietnam War. Number two, there was racism. Number three, there was sexism and all this different stuff. So we adopted as a guideline Mao Tse Tung’s Little Red Book. What I didn’t know and I had to talk to some people from China later to find out was that while we’re taking all this propaganda that’s coming out of the People’s Republic of China to be true, people in China are being killed, people are being sent to Xinjiang to pick carrots for the rest of their lives. There was deep, deep repression all kinds of purges at work, but we bought the propaganda because we didn’t know and used that propaganda as a guideline for the work that we wanted to do work with the community.

For the first year or two, the big thing was the dictatorship of the proletariat. I began to talk to different people, and I began to realize something – the proletariat, the rank-and-file people, the poor, wanted to be middle class and get the hell out of Chinatown. So maybe some of this rhetoric is not so bright because they’re trying to use a square peg in a round hole. The community will accept any help that’s offered to it and then yeah, yeah you to death if you’re helping them. But what they really want is to move out and be middle class. So that drew me back while Chris and Nobuko still maintained a very left position.

I happened to notice that some of the people who were the most violent voices, the most strident voices to overthrow the American system, were the children of the middle class. The children of the working class wanted to become part of the middle class; children of the middle class we’re posturing as revolutionaries and said we want to overthrow the system. This caused a great deal of confusion among certain people who are willing to take a good look at it. I didn’t particularly hate the middle class and was hounded about it. I grew up saying that I did restaurant and laundry work and we survived by serving the middle class. We resent them but we don’t hate them. But for the people who are extreme left and they’re often going to be the sons and daughters of engineers, doctors and lawyers, they are trying to not only overthrow the system but their parents as well. A lot of times my particular brand of humor didn’t go over very well with the Central Committee because I made jokes that were a little too satirical and people said “You have the wrong attitude, brother, you may need re-education” and I said, “Oh yeah, thanks, I’ll see you later.”

EW:  Are you still proud of the songs you wrote like “The Foolish Old Man Who Moved The Mountain?”

CC:  That was Chris’ song. Chris had a special gift, again that particular style of taking some specific phrases and putting it together where they are extremely plastic. You can imagine that you know what he’s actually thinking, but it’s actually quite general. There were other songs that were written at that time where it was very specific. We used to make jokes about it and chant “we have to intensify the struggle, we have to intensify the struggle, come on brother, we have to intensify the struggle.” The entire song was nothing but rhetoric and that’s off-putting, but a song that was well-crafted both musically and lyrically had a greater chance of really delivering its message because its message was embedded in it.

EW:  But you also wrote songs that were profiles of people like “The Only Chinaman in Great Falls, Montana.” What inspired you to write that song?

CC: A long time ago, I learned that when you’re writing songs, the first step is that you write about yourself. The emerging artists always writes about himself or herself – oh, how sorry you will be when you find out how sensitive I was when you mistreated me, oh, oh you’ll be so sorry well that’s all right. It’s a step in the right direction because it’s the work of an amateur who is discovering their voice. The problem is that it’s not much of interest to anyone else. Real artistry comes when you can write about somebody else, when you can write from another person’s perspective, when you can write a story about someone who has nothing to do with you other than in a most general way. When you give insight into their struggle, then you’re actually doing work.

If you take a look at the big picture, there’s no winning or losing; there’s no right or wrong. There’s just the process and the process for a real artist is the end isn’t the issue. The process is the issue; it’s a journey of discovery, learning by doing the work that’s necessary to accomplish the goal you set for yourself. That’s the real enjoyment, that’s the real satisfaction.

EW: What are some of the songs that you’re most proud of?

CC: I haven’t written them yet.

EW: Ah, come on, you’ve written some great songs.

CC:   Haven’t written them yet.

EW:  That’s an interesting observation.

CC:  Who I am now compared to who I was then, it’s so different that I really can’t judge. I can just take a look and say that’s what I did back then.

EW:   You have a lot of Latin influence in your guitar playing; how did that come about?

CC:  I was raised basically with West Indian music and that meant having an ear for the Caribbean and Central and South America.

EW: When the Asian American movement wound down, you moved into storytelling and also study with a master. How did all that happen?

CC:   Okay, I’m working at the old Chinatown History Project in New York City, later it morphed into the Museum of the Chinese in America. At that time, it was just a little community organization and we were struggling within the same community organization parameters as everyone else – no money, there are no resources, and no one’s got any experience. No one’s qualified to do anything except “let’s put it together” so in 1979 or ‘80 we started getting these calls from librarians and teachers who were searching for programs that are suitable for our students. Over at PS 23, half the student body is ethnic Chinese and we don’t have any programs for them because they all showed up overnight after the United States normalized its relationships with the People’s Republic of China. So, librarians say, “Do you have storytellers?”  The staff point to me and say Charlie, “You take that because you know all those stories.”  I start telling stories a very quickly and I realized that I have to put a program together; this is like performing.

I used to do walking tours and lectures for the old Chinatown history project and for that I usually wore a suit and this is because and, it can’t be helped, when you’re dealing with groups of people, the more official you look the easier it is. The history project was in an old school building catty-cornered to Columbus Park where everybody hangs out, old timers play penny-ante poker and what not, and I see this guy one day standing on top of a bench gesturing and talking to a crowd of old-timers around him. I got a little closer and I realized he was speaking in Toisanese which I recognize because my father spoke Toisanese. He was telling a story and under him was a little plastic tub where people are putting coins in. He sees me, shuts up, grabs the tub and leaves.

Two or three days later, I see him there again and he sees me. He’s a little nervous; I walk up and I realize I’m wearing a suit. He must think I’m somebody official and he doesn’t want to talk to anybody official. So, before he left, I reach into my pocket and took out a dollar and very conspicuously put a dollar bill into his little plastic tub. The following week he was there again and again I make a big show of putting in a dollar bill. After one or two more times, I said, “Sinsaang, can you speak English?” He said, “I don’t speak much English” and I asked him what are you doing and he said I’m telling stories. He says to me basically do you like it. I said yeah can I interview you sometime.  He said you could be my student. I said to myself this is too good to be true. He tells me where he lives which is over on Elizabeth Street not that far away in this little apartment. I show up and there’s three or four other guys there sitting around talking most of the time in Cantonese and Toisanese. I couldn’t understand what the hell is going on, but I realized that as a student, I was expected to bring oranges or bring a half a dozen cha sui bow.

He (Master Leong Chi Ming) told me, in a roundabout fashion between my broken Chinese and his broken English, that his father used to run a tea house in China and you would hire a storyteller for two weeks to tell stories in the afternoon and the evening for about an hour and a half or two hours each time to encourage people to come and drink tea and buy snacks. And that’s how he learned all these different stories. Later he came over with his son and daughter-in-law and like a lot of old-timers he would hit the streets to try to raise a few dollars like in San Francisco, there’s the guy who plays er-hu (Chinese lute). They’re raising a few dollars because they’re too old to work and their English is not too good, but they can bring home a few extra bucks and make sure the kids get to school on time etc. He introduced me to how to use the fan, how to use a handkerchief. There’s a little thing that you don’t see it too much, but there’s a little piece of wood that is called a see muk; it’s a wake up stick, a gavel that goes tat, tat, tat to announce that you’re going to be singing or storytelling.  You’re supposed to play an instrument, usually a sanxian, a Chinese banjo. There’s a chair, a table a teapot, there’s a teacup, there’s the see muk. So, I got the basic outline the parameters of it.

Then, I started reviewing the stories. The problem is that most of the really old-fashioned Chinese stories were really racist, sexist, and feudalistic. They were unsuitable often deeply drenched in superstition and fear of ghosts. If you tell ghost stories to people who are uneducated and working class, they think it’s real and that’s really not doing them any good to encourage superstitious beliefs. It’s paralyzing. A lot of people make some bad decisions and hurtful decisions because they believed in such superstitions so that had to go. My storytelling style has some traditional techniques but the material is basically about the relationship between people. The other element that was told to me was that all stories take place in the past, which I didn’t understand at first, but then I realized all stories have to take place in the past because you can’t be saying anything that the current administration might think is questionable. You can only talk about history – this happened a long time ago – any similarity to what’s going on now is simply coincidental. That’s the way you kind of saved your butt.

EW:  But you also wrote stories like the “Uncle Toisan”.

CC: “Uncle Toisan” is a representative sample. He’s based on old timers’ stories and I’ve got over two hours of stories. Not all of them are interesting, but these are all the stories old guys used to tell when I was a young kid and they took their time telling me all these things that they remember when they came over in the ‘20s and ‘30s and then what happened during the war. There were a surprising amount of Chinese American guys who ended up serving in the American Army, way out of proportion to their numbers because according to the immigration papers that they had, they were unmarried and they are often younger than they actually were. They bought a paper from somebody else’s family. There are guys who were 39 or 40 years old who said they were 25 and the American guys couldn’t tell the difference.

EW:   Are you writing new stories now?

CC: What I’m working on now is two things: One is the stories of the Chinatown Wars from the 1880s to the 1920s when Chinatown was basically a closed society and there were all these various troubles among these associations. The bloodshed easily matched and surpassed the desperados of the American West when it came to murder and betrayal. And there’s a lot of interesting stuff in just a general history of Chinatown.

I usually lecture four to six times a year on the history of Chinatown and I’m always mildly stunned by how little people know, and these are educated people, teachers, how little they know about the history of Chinese in United States, But that’s not really surprising when you consider that the average American doesn’t know much about history in general. There are even Chinese Americans who are clueless about anything that happened before they were born. I think I mentioned that anecdote about working with the City Guides and at the end I always ask if they have any questions and this Chinese America woman in her thirties said, “Are you saying that Chinese people had to live in Chinatown.” She was born after the Civil Rights Act, after it was possible for Chinese people to move out of Chinatown. So even Chinese Americans are short on the history and that is especially true for the people from the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan to whom America is a mystery. A classic example is when I was dealing with a group of people from Anhui (eastern China) who were shocked that they were Chinese people in America. They had no idea because they come from a province that didn’t send very many people out.

EW:  With all the Chinese Americans in the suburbs today, do you see any continuity of stories? Are you meeting any younger singers or storytellers from the suburbs?

CC: Not really. What I’m discovering is a huge deficit of knowledge about the Chinese American experience. There is this phenomenon where Asians who are being raised as middle class in the suburbs think that they are honorary white people and it works a very large percentage of the time because the society tolerates it here in the SF Bay Area and in the northeastern corridor – Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Washington DC. The further away you get from those centers, there’s less and less tolerance. There’s kind of a Catch-22. Most Asians tend to move to where there are a lot of Asians. They’re not made to feel that they’re foreigners or outsiders. My wife and I and my son moved to the Bay Area because Asians are a substantial portion the population and there’s a spread of working-class, middle-class and upper-class Asians and there’s a nice balance of various ethnic groups also because my son is technically hapa, half Chinese and half Japanese. Being hapa in the Bay Area is no big deal, but when they leave this area, that’s when the problems come out.

Asian American at rally in SF Japantown. Photo by Eddie Wong

The real issue is that when they’re formulating their self-identity, it’s got to be someplace where it’s not challenged. When parents make a decision to settle in Ohio or Iowa or someplace where they’re the only Asian family in a town of 20,000 people, it leaves a distinctive impression, a distinctive scar. On the other hand, growing up in the Bay Area, people have the impression that they’re quote normal unquote, like everybody else. That’s going to be a problem later but better to be dealing with it from that point of view than the opposite where you feel guilty by race by the time you’re born.

EW: Do you still see a value in unearthing Chinese American history and passing it on?

CC: I see a value because I’m interested in it. The day when I woke up and said who am I really, which is normal for people in their 20s, I began pulling that thread on a sweater and then after a while it’s like wait a minute how long is this? I began to investigate who am I, why are we here, that one thing led to another. Studying Chinese American history helped me orient myself – forgive the pun – to understand where I came from and where I should be going.

On the other hand, there are young people now who think they can do without it. I sincerely hope that might be the case in the long run, but the bottom line is for all of its benefits and all of its greatness, it’s a racist country. If the Civil War was actually finished, we wouldn’t have a divide politically and socially between the northern and southern states. There wouldn’t be problems for African American people. There are injustices that happen every day and they are still treated as second-class citizens. There wouldn’t still be problems with these Confederate statues being torn down; they still represent something to somebody. So, the Civil War was never really over. There are so many ways to demonstrate that this is still essentially a racist country.

Right now, a phenomenon is that Asians have moved into this kind of a gray area where they’re not really considered a true minority because they’ve been economically and socially successful, which is ridiculous. Most Asian Americans have no idea of how few of us are actually here. When you take a good look, we represent and that includes Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, Vietnamese, Cambodians and South Asians, five percent of the entire population. There are more Puerto Ricans in this country than there are Chinese people for instance. You could go on and on but because Asians in general tend to live where there are a lot of other Asians tend to live, we’re under the mistaken impression that they’re a lot more of us than there actually is. If you can imagine someone raised in the Bay Area being told that if they go to some place like in Milwaukee that they won’t be able to get ramen, you will see a heart attack happening. What do you mean no ramen, how could there be such a place. Well, it happens. There really is a place like that, Joe.

Editor’s Note:  “Charlie Chin In Concert June 2, 1979,” a music CD was produced by Peter Horikoshi and released in summer 2019. Peter Horikoshi was a member of Yokohama, California, an Asian American “movement” band in the late 1970s.  The CD is available at Eastwind Books in Berkeley, the Asian American Curriculum Project in San Mateo, Nikkei Traditions in San Jose, the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center in Wyoming and through this website: http://www.yokohamaca.com/

6 Comments

  1. Dale Minami on January 17, 2020 at 8:15 pm

    Very cool interview. The complicated story of his father was pretty amazing. Would like to know more about his life wIth Chris and Joanne and the context of, and response to, their path breaking music. I actually think I have a Grain if Sand in vinyl somewhere!

  2. Victor Huey on January 22, 2020 at 3:14 pm

    it was fate that we met at nobody’s when I was working for Stanley Chin’s run for assemblyman of the 65th district. Part of the deal we had made to get a space as the Young Demo’s. I had just come back from a trip out west to check out the emerging Asian American movement. Modeled after the Lee Ways, in SF, i came back to help build a base to work with at risk youth recently arrived from HK. There was a Asian American Conference at Pace college and I asked Charlie, did you play banjo on Bluebird? Buffalo springfield being one of my favorite bands, and it was hard not to notice Charlie Chin’s name on the credit. The rest was history!

  3. Ken Shung on September 24, 2020 at 5:48 am

    charlie’s waltz was one of my favorite songs he taught me at the Guitar Workshop when i was in 5th grade. My first mentor and role model in my life, i am deeply honored to have met you and love you charlie. ps- i wish i had the photographs of you in 1970 , i was there shooting, when cat mother opened for Jimi~ at Madison Square Garden…I was tripping out~ best memories , seeing you on stage~!

  4. Jeff on September 24, 2020 at 8:22 am

    Fascinating on so many levels!!

  5. Aiyoung Choi on September 25, 2020 at 8:22 am

    thank you. i thoroughly enjoyed learning more about charlie & listening to his music; so much passion & life there. we all loved his mother mary who was part of “asian women united,” and my sons carlos garcia & cris garcia were incredibly fortunate to have had chris iijima as their teacher & mentor at manhattan country school; both are in their 50s now. having lived in nyc since 1963 i loved the stories & music of the old days in greenwich village. also loved seeing more of eddie wong’s great documentary films!

  6. Dom Magwili on September 26, 2020 at 4:33 pm

    It was in the 70s at the original Amerasia Bookstore on 2nd street in L.A.’s LIttle Tokyo. The bookstore had a real “Berkeley” vibe. The Asians there wore long hair and work shirts. They cleared out the store room area, put in a small stage, and set up some lights and suddenly there was a performing space. I remember Chris Ijima, Charlie Chin, and Nobuko Miyamoto walk in through the back door. I keyed in on Charlie Chin. In those days he wore a white shirt, dark tie, and jeans. For the longest time, when I performed I wore the same garments. Some time later Amerasia move to Towne Street and Charlie did a one person set that I got a tape of (but have since lost). I loved his music and his musicianship. Charlie is a walking national treasure. He knows so much and can serve up so much in storytelling and music. Pleased you have this article.

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