Interior Chinatown: Guest starring in America

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsInterior Chinatown by Charles Yu science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsInterior Chinatown by Charles Yu

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.

Charles Yu

Charles Yu

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.

Published in January 2020. From the infinitely inventive author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe comes a deeply personal novel about race, pop culture, immigration, assimilation, and escaping the roles we are forced to play. Willis Wu doesn’t perceive himself as a protagonist even in his own life: he’s merely Generic Asian Man. Every day, he leaves his tiny room in a Chinatown SRO and enters the Golden Palace restaurant, where Black and White, a procedural cop show, is in perpetual production. He’s a bit player here too. . . but he dreams of being Kung Fu Guy—the highest aspiration he can imagine for a Chinatown denizen. Or is it? After stumbling into the spotlight, Willis finds himself launched into a wider world than he’s ever known, discovering not only the secret history of Chinatown, but the buried legacy of his own family, and what that means for him, in today’s America. Playful but heartfelt, a send-up of Hollywood tropes and Asian stereotypes—Interior Chinatown is Charles Yu’s most moving, daring, and masterful novel yet.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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2 comments

  1. This sounds wonderful.

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