Willis Wu is a first-generation Chinese American whose dream is to become a movie star. Not just any movie star, but the role of Kung Fu Guy—the pinnacle of Asian acting, according to childhood memories. It turns out those memories weren’t so off-base, at least in Hollywood, and Kung Fu Guy is hard to get as it is. Wu soon finds himself in an uphill battle to escape the role of Generic Asian Man, stuck as Guest Star in a crime TV series called Black and White with no room for Asian leads. Meanwhile, he watches the people in his life—father, mother, girlfriend—morphing between different roles and stereotypes, trying to find a good life for themselves and their families.

I really, really liked this book. But first—a digression.

The election approaches, and I’m still disappointed by the end of Andrew Yang’s run for presidency. There was much evidence he was systematically ignored or silenced by certain media outlets (this was one of many examples). Though I believe he was sidelined for his relatively centrist message rather than his Taiwanese heritage, it seems to me there is a prejudice against successful Asian Americans by certain people, especially when it does not fit their political narrative. (Which is particularly ironic since Yang experienced this marginalization by said people.)

Yes… I digress. But it is things like this that made me want to read Interior Chinatown. Also, as a half-Asian American, I’ve been trying to find books, films, and documentaries related to Asian history and/or experience in the U.S. So many of them are very good but very depressing. This novel managed to make me laugh out loud (and cry, naturally). I learned quite a few things, too.

The story takes you on a surrealist coming-of-age journey told entirely in the format of a TV script. It’s often hard to tell if you are watching Willis the Movie Role, or Willis the real person. I find this concept highly immersive, and it allows Yu to call a spade a spade without even hiding it under prose. Instead of attempting subtlety (which rarely works), he makes a full inventory of Asian stereotypes and just calls them out for what they are.

There is a lot of humor around the stereotypes, and Yu doesn’t shy away from it, which is kind of refreshing. He also draws distinctions between non-malicious cultural clash and actual racism. Still, you feel like you get to know these people as real human beings, who happen to play bit parts in Black and White. As for the black and white titular characters, both cops—they, too, are stereotypes, which is the double punchline of the book.

There is a substantial amount of history in Interior Chinatown. Of course, we learn it through osmosis as he paints the pictures of Wu’s parents, both actors themselves. (Or are they?) Yu sketches immigrants’ and immigrants’ children’s experiences in rapid succession, and in one chapter shows a scene from the White Terror, a piece of Taiwanese history I was not familiar with. Later in the book, Yu lists the various past U.S. laws aimed against Chinese immigrants, such as preventing them from becoming citizens, preventing them from owning land, and stripping American women married to Chinese men of their citizenship. Again, I learned things I did not know before.

One flaw of the book is that sometimes it’s hard to tell if the author is speaking or Wu is. Wu has a pretty dire outlook—in one scene he describes the “American Dream-Immigrant Success Story” as a “rare variation, the mythical promised land.” The idea that Asian immigrants getting rich, having families, and moving to the suburbs is “rare” seems qualitatively and statistically silly to me. However, let’s say it’s Wu’s depression talking.

The other weak point of the book is that towards the end most of the humor is lost and the message gets heavy-handed. It would’ve been stronger if Yu had held back a little. He made his point brilliantly in the first part of the novel; there was no need to turn it into a sermon.

Overall, Interior Chinatown was a fun yet substantial novel, very poignant and creative as well. I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads but it’s a solid 4.5.

10 thoughts on “Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

  1. Sounds like an interesting book. I don’t ignore 3rd party presidential hopefuls. I just think they are a throw away vote. It is interesting that Asians destroy the whole narrative that racism is what keeps certain people groups down. Asians and Jews experienced tremendous racism, but their work ethic and drive for success and, frankly, their intact nuclear families, have allowed them to become some of the most productive members of society.

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  2. effective synopsis, i must say… and a different slant on inter-racial relations… i can’t help thinking about George Takei, Mr. Sulu in Star Trek… i wonder if he wrote an autobiography; it’d be interesting to read it…

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      1. Thomas Sowell’s work on affirmative action and the like may be of interest to you, Marian – -he noted in one of his essay collections that Asian-Americans are minorities of convenience, counted or discounted as minorities depending on the political needs of the commentor! I came by to ask if you’d heard of “The Transpacific Experiment”, a book on California and China’s economic ties. Given your past interest in China I thought it might be up your ally!

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        1. That’s an apt way of putting it! And it reminds me to read Sowell; I have a few of his books on my TBR list.

          The Transpacific Experiment – hadn’t heard of it, actually! I’d like to read it and compare with AI Superpowers. I bet this topic is going to get big over the next couple of years, along with the general push-back against big tech.

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  3. This novel does indeed pique my interest. It may be just me, but I don’t often hear about works from Asian writers where they deal with the Asian stereotypes with humor, wit, and plain old truth. Somehow this mingling as you describe it sounds promising and quite an fascinating take. It seems more effective than the same old racist type of inter-racial narratives that you usually think of when delving into this deep subject matter. I too like the idea of the T.V. script platform. Another wonderful review. As usual, you make me want to read this and then start a book-club with you! 🙂
    Dean

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