Contemporary Literature

Interior Chinatown

In high school, I co-wrote a full-length screenplay with a friend of mine. It was called The Five Stages of Baldness and was (very) loosely based on another friend who had shaved her head, chronicling the stages of hair re-growth alongside a number of other high school dramas. I believe there might have been a song performance in there somewhere? I was clearly very cool in high school. Anyways, I bring this up because my co-author actually went ahead and converted the script into official screenplay formatting (something I legitimately had no idea was a thing, nor really had any inclination to do). So first, all credit to her for that time (because seriously the formatting regulations are kind of intense). And second, that experience is one of the main reasons I was drawn to this novel, written in official screenplay type/setting. That’s something I’ve never seen before in a major literary release and I was super interested to see how it was executed. Spoiler alert: it was so well done.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

“Two words the define you, flatten you, trap you and keep you here. Who you are. All you are. Your most salient feature, overshadowing any other feature about you, making irrelevant any other characteristic. Both necessary and sufficient for a complete definition of your identity: Asian Guy.”

In Interior Chinatown we are told the story of Willis Wu, Generic Asian Man, with dreams of one day becoming Kung Fu Guy. He lives in a Chinatown SRO above the Golden Palace restaurant, which also happens to be a common set for the police procedural Black and White. Wu’s story plays out in bit role after bit role, as he tries to achieve his Kung Fu Guy end game, while he simultaneously figures out the role(s) he plays in his own life, as a son, a maybe-husband, a father and, always, an Asian man in America.

This was such a fantastic read! It moved so fast (in part because of the format) that I almost read it in one day; I couldn’t (didn’t want to) put it down. Yu’s writing is sarcastic, darkly humorous, with a detached tone of genuine social interrogation in a completely creative and easy (as in, straightforward) to digest way. At the same time, there is just enough individual character history/development (particularly in regards to our MC Willis and his parents) to make an emotional connection to “real life,” the way these laws/theories/social realities actually impact people. (However, do note that if you are a reader that loves deep character development, this may not be the book for you – I’ve said it already and will say it more, but this novel deals in the surface-level stereotypes, so you won’t get a deep individual emotional connection here.) The imagination, and small manipulations of reality versus script, that Yu wields in this exploratory look at life as a series of roles, scripted or off-script, casting/character stereotypes and plot tropes, is so freaking clever. He shows the way roles are assigned, forced on you, accepted internally as protection or in resignation, and the difficulty in breaking from them (especially after generations of ingrain-ment). On almost every page, Yu calls out the many contradictory expectations and options for Asians in this country, the formulas written into the screen and real life, with clear exactitude and an almost humorous self-deprecating awareness that makes the reader sit up and pay attention.

As far as the social commentary (I would say satire, but I think by the end I decided it was too factual for that), Yu focuses primarily, and understandably, on the dual, and parallel, prejudices and stereotypes of Asians in America and in Hollywood. He talks clearly, and centrally, about the loss of individual identity characteristics in favor of archetypes in both scripted roles and “regular life” public expectation of who Asians are/what Asians should be, as well as how they are reacted to as a result. This includes, in addition to a general primer, a look at the way all Asians (regardless of the many different heritages/ancestry they have) are all considered the same, a quick addressing of people who identify as multiracial (and the entirely different set of challenges and expectations that come with that), and the complex interplay of Asians with other oppressed and discriminated-against groups in America (the fallacy of comparing oppressions that creates divide where there could be support, as well as general solidarity in frustration/futility in the fight against a system stacked against you). Overall, the reader gets a thorough critique of the status quo, the clear limitations on success that come from living in a place where you are legally and socially codified against, historically and contemporarily, and the internalization of those systems that end up forcing complicity with a system that you don’t support and doesn’t support you. Honestly, that so much was conveyed in such a short time, in such a strict framework for communication, and with a delivery that keeps things [darkly] amusing – I was so impressed.  

Yu creates a story with such blurred lines between reality and the Hollywood performance/procedural show plot with the way he literarily wields stereotypical roles. It messes with your head and challenges what you accept in a way that truly promotes an interrogation of reality and how badly awry it’s been/remains. This novel is an amalgamation of tropes that delivers an educational message about the perpetual foreigner status for Asians in America in a most unique, dryly entertaining delivery.

A few passages that stuck out to me as I read:

“He’d played his role for so long he’d lost himself in it…”

“But the widest gulf in the world is the distance between getting by and not quite getting by. Crossing that gap can happen in a hundred ways, almost all by accident.”

“…there were limits to the dream of assimilation, to how far any of you could make your way into the world…”

“…as if nothing matters because nothing does matter because the idea was you came here, your parents and their parents and their parents and their parents, and you always seem to have just arrived and yet never seem to have actually arrived. You’re here, supposedly, in a new land full of opportunity, but somehow have gotten trapped in a pretend version of the old country.”

“The son who was born here, raised here, a stranger to his own dad for what. For this. So he could be part of this, part of the American show, black and white, no part for yellow.”

“To be yellow in America. A special guest star, forever the guest.”

“…telling a love story is something one person does. Being in love takes both of them. Putting her on a pedestal is just a different way of being alone.”

“You got exactly what you wanted. Didn’t you? Or did they give it to you. The thing you thought you wanted. The role of a lifetime is one you can never bring yourself to quit. […] was right: you are trapped. Doing well is the trap. A different kind, but still a trap. Because you’re still in a show that doesn’t have a role for you.”

“Location, location, location, three of them, composited into one perfect synthesis incorporated and flattening, the world as a children’s illustrated atlas, primary colors and rounded edges, smoothing out the map, blurring the boundaries and natural barriers, an optimistic amnesiac’s retelling of the age-old story of immigration, acculturation, assimilation.”

“Chinatown. A place for preservation and self-preservation. Give them what they feel is right, is safe. Make it fit their ideas of what is out there. Don’t threaten them. Chinatown and indeed being Chinese is and always has been, from the very beginning, a construction, a performance of features, gestures, culture, and exoticism. An invention, a reinvention, a stylization. Figuring out the show, finding our place in it, which was the background, as scenery, as nonspeaking players. Figuring out what you’re allowed to say. Above all, trying to never, ever offend. To watch the mainstream, find out what kind of fiction they are telling themselves, find a bit part in it. Be appealing and acceptable, be what they want to see.”


5 thoughts on “Interior Chinatown

    1. This is the first I’ve read from him, but it definitely makes me want to try more. Next time I’m in the mood for something really different/unique, it seems like he’s a great author to pick up!


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