In his whimsical way, Charles Yu writes about the Asian-American immigrant experience in Interior Chinatown (2020). The story is about Willis Wu, a young man whose family lives in an SRO (Single-Room Occupancy Hotel) in the Chinatown of mid-20th century San Francisco. He’s the son of immigrants who came to America looking for a better life but who have been misunderstood, alienated, marginalized, ghettoized, and further discriminated against by an American government and populace that is always putting people into boxes and insisting that they stay there.
Willis’ goal in life is to appear as a “Generic Asian Man” in the popular TV show called Black and White, a police procedural that is filmed in Chinatown. By diligently practicing Kung Fu, he hopes to rise up the ranks to eventually reach the pinnacle of achievement for Asian men living in Chinatown: to become “Kung Fu Guy.” The problem is that not only is he competing with every other Asian man in Chinatown, but generic Asians tend to get killed off and can’t reappear on the show for 45 days after dying (until the fans forget he died). So, each time he gets killed off, he has to wait and then start all over again. Eventually something happens that, though he doesn’t recognize it at first, gives Willis an unusual opportunity to break the cycle, not just for himself, but perhaps for Asian-Americans in general.
The Black and White show, besides being a hilarious parody of police procedurals, is a metaphor for the roles that Asian-Americans are forced to play, as well as those they feel they can’t play, in the United States. Chinese-Americans feel like they are guest stars in America. They are perpetual visitors, they have their foot in the door, they make the best of their small roles, but they don’t get to be real Americans. You have to be Black or White for that. Chinese-Americans are trapped in Chinatown — a pretend version of the country they came from. Yet they feel like they shouldn’t complain because the racism they’ve experienced doesn’t compare to what Black Americans have experienced.
I’m ashamed to admit that I knew little about the Asian-American immigration experience. I didn’t know much about Chinatown and its SROs. After reading Interior Chinatown, I did a little research and educated myself (here are just a couple of helpful sources). I’m thankful that Charles Yu, in an entertaining and non-judgmental way, gave me a glimpse into this life and helped me make me aware of the difficulty that Asian-Americans feel when trying to assimilate into American culture. I feel like I’m better for having read Interior Chinatown.
The audio version of Interior Chinatown (Penguin Random House Audio) is narrated by actor Joel de la Fuente. This must have been challenging since the book is, at least in parts, written as a script. But de la Fuente, who starred as Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido in Man in the High Castle knows his way around a script, and he’s spectacular. I loved his delivery. There are a few sound effects that help out, too, such as the sound of a movie reel that indicates the beginning and end of a film montage. Clever.
Interior Chinatown isn’t all about being Asian in America. Yu also writes eloquently and poignantly about milestones that humans in all cultures experience and the changing roles we play as we grow up, get married, have children, balance family and career, and watch parents decline as they age. I loved every moment of this book and highly recommend it.
Update: Worth a read: The desexualization of the Asian American male.