There has been a spate of violent attacks targeted against Asians and Asian- Americans in recent times. However Anti-Asian harassment is not new. Although exacerbated during the pandemic, the prejudice is rooted in a long history of discrimination towards Asian-Americans since the earliest Asian immigrants came to the US centuries ago. Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2020, is a satirical novel on the Chinese-American immigrant experience. The most unique feature of the novel is its unconventional format.
The characters of the book are part of a procedural cop show called ‘Black and White’ and the book itself is written in the form of a screenplay for a TV show. It is divided into seven acts with scene headings and even presented in the Courier font used in scripts. ‘Black and White'(ostensibly a spoof of ‘Law and Order’) has a charismatic black man and a beautiful white woman in the lead roles of detectives. Willis Wu, a Taiwanese- American has the role of ‘Background Oriental Male’. He is relegated to the background as all Asian-Americans are in the formulaic world of Hollywood. They only get bit parts and are sometimes reduced to playing props and corpses.
Willis Wu mostly gets to play Generic Asian Man. If he is lucky, sometimes he gets to be Background Oriental Making a Weird Face or even Disgraced Son. For now he is a bit player: but he dreams that one day he will be offered the most coveted role someone who looks like him might aspire to: Kung Fu Guy.
The Golden Palace restaurant in Chinatown serves as the set for the television show. Willis Wu, his friends and parents live in SRO ( Single Room Occupancy) apartments directly above the restaurant and are all Asian American extras. Their highest aspiration is to become ‘ Kung Fu Guy’ emulating an ‘older brother’, one of their gang who has made it. To land the coveted role of ‘Kung- Fu Guy’, Willis Wu practices martial arts and perfects his fake accent. In other words, he tries to fit his stereotype. He eventually makes his way up to ‘Special Guest Star’. Even Willis’ father’ Sifu’ was once ‘Kung Fu Guy’ but is now ‘Old Asian Man’ and his mother has been demoted from ‘Seductress’ to ‘Old Asian Woman’. These immigrants with their dreams and struggles are trapped in Chinatown just as they are trapped in these roles. The real world is only an extension of the entertainment world.
An elegant paifang or archway marks the official entrance to Chinatown in most cities. It is symbolic as an entryway for immigrants settling there. But the book cover design shows vertical bars that resemble a prison under the pagoda-like structure. The title Interior Chinatown is the description of the setting written on the script and could also refer to the claustrophobic lives of the residents living in humble conditions eking out a hand to mouth existence. They live in a physical and mental prison. And a metaphorical one too for they are also trapped in prisons of prejudice and stereotypes.
While reading the book there are times when you don’t know where the reel life ends and the real life begins. The boundaries are blurred between the two for Hollywood is nothing but the microcosm of the macrocosm. White people raise their voices and speak slowly to Asian people as if they won’t be able to understand anything they are saying. Asia is seen as a monolith. Every Asian is believed to be from mainland China. They are all lumped together just as all five of Willis Wu’s housemates are lumped together.
According to a witness, as the first man hit Allen in the temple, knocking him to the ground, they said, “This is for Pearl Harbor.” Young Wu thinks: it could have been him. Nakamoto says: it should have been him. All of the housemates realize: it was them. All of them. That was the point. They are all the same. All the same to the people who struck Allen in the head until his eyes swelled shut. All the same as they filled a large sack with batteries and stones, and hit Allen in the stomach with it until blood came up from his throat. Allen was Wu and Park and Kim and Nakamoto, and they were all Allen. Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam. Whatever. Anywhere over there. Slope. Jap. Nip. Chink. Towelhead. Whatever. All of them in the house, after that, they should become closer. But they don’t. They don’t sit around the table anymore, comparing names. because now they know what they are. Will always be. Asian Man.
Willis falls in love with Karen, a mixed race actress who used to play the role of ‘Ethnically Ambiguous girl’. They get married and have a daughter together. She receives an offer for a show of her own with a part included for Willis but he refuses to get out of Chinatown and give up on his ‘Kung Fu Guy’ dream. They get divorced and she moves to the suburbs with their daughter. When Willis eventually gets the coveted role of ‘Kung Fu Guy’, he wonders why he even wanted it. He will only be perpetuating the stereotype. How much of the racism has he internalized? In order to be accepted, you have to live according to the script. You live to fit into the stereotype and it then becomes a self -fulfilling prophecy. In his quest for the fake role of ‘Kung Fu Guy’, he has lost the real life role of family man. He leaves Chinatown to rejoin Karen and his daughter and is tried in court in the ‘Case of the Missing Man’ for running away from the role assigned to him with who else but his successful ‘older brother’ as his defense lawyer. The unusual court case culminating in the denouement is a brilliant tour de force by the author.
The script format is occasionally interspersed with disturbing facts about the history of anti-immigration laws in the US and narration in the second person when Willis reflects on his life and on his parents’ lives. The use of the second person creates instant empathy in the reader. There is a moving passage where Willis’ father sings at the local karaoke bar. As an immigrant myself, I could relate to that feeling that even if you have left the country, it never leaves you.
If you don’t believe it, go down to your local karaoke bar on a busy night. Wait until the third hour, when the drunk frat boys and gastropub waitresses with headshots are all done with Backstreet Boys and Alicia Keys and locate the slightly older Asian businessman standing patiently in line for his turn, his face warmly rouged on Crown or Japanese lager, and when he steps up and starts slaying “Country Roads,” try not to laugh, or wink knowingly or clap a little too hard, because by the time he gets to “West Virginia, mountain mama,” you’re going to be singing along, and by the time he’s done, you might understand why a seventy-seven-year-old guy from a tiny island in the Taiwan Strait who’s been in a foreign country for two-thirds of his life can nail a song, note perfect, about wanting to go home.”
Yu ingeniously exposes the marginalization of Asian Americans through the lens of ‘Black and White’, the clever title revealing how we view the world with no nuance, no shades in between. There were two things that bothered me slightly about the book; the first the implication that black people are more visible than Asians and are treated the same as white actors, and, the second, the focus on just the working class diaspora without any mention of the more successful Asian immigrants like the author himself. The only accomplished immigrant we come across is this mystical ‘older brother’ who seems to represent an ideal. In this aspect, the book seems a little dated in its depiction. Is the author guilty of the same kind of ‘Generic Asian Man’ portrayal that he is criticizing? Or was that deliberate to reinforce the premise of the book? Nevertheless, it is an ambitious and brilliant book both thematically and stylistically that makes us think more deeply about race, identity and assimilation.