In the midst of current discussions about race and racism, there’s a piece we don’t address as much: that it’s not just about Black people and white people, the descendants of slaves and the inheritors of white privilege. Often left out of the discussion, or referenced in a way that treats it as a point on the continuum between the Black/white divide, racism against Asian-Americans, Latinx, Indigenous people and others is not just a diluted version of what happens to Black people; it plays out with its own dynamic and its own history, with a unique impact on its victims.
Charles Yu, in his novel “Interior Chinatown,” opens a window to how Chinese-Americans experience their assigned place in this society. Structured as a screenplay for a cop show on TV, the novel follows Willis Wu, who plays Generic Asian Man.
“In the world of Black and [w]hite, everyone starts out as Generic Asian Man. Everyone who looks like you, anyway. Unless you’re a woman. ...” Generic Asian Man works in and lives above the similarly generic Golden Palace Restaurant.
Willis has played other roles, such as Disgraced Son, Delivery Guy, Silent Henchman and Striving Immigrant. His ambition is, first, to get a speaking role (which requires him to adopt a fake accent and use broken English). Eventually, he wants to become a star as Kung Fu Guy, the highest role an Asian-American can aspire to.
Willis gets his break when a pair of homicide detectives, Turner (male, Black and bigoted towards Asians) and Green (female, white and ostensibly non-racist) show up to investigate the disappearance of Older Brother. In the one-hour episode, Willis leads them to an illegal gambling den (the participants are played by his old school buddies), where he ends up saving the day with an impressive display of Kung Fu before he’s shot and killed.
Dying means that Willis has to wait 45 days before he can take a role in another cop show. This gives Yu a chance to show Willis’ real life, outside his internalized role — his father, his mother, his real older brother — and for Willis to fall in love with a mixed-race woman, Karen, who seems to know a way out of Interior Chinatown.
Yu intersperses his chapters (called “Acts”) with bits of Chinese immigrant history — the Exclusion acts, which banned permanent Chinese immigration; loss of citizenship for white women marrying Chinese immigrants; denial of voting rights to Chinese-Americans; denial of standing as witnesses in courts of law.
After Willis leaves Chinatown to be with Karen and their child, he is absurdly tried in court for his own disappearance from his assigned role. His defense lawyer is his “Older Brother,” who has been off at law school and had not disappeared at all as the cop show suggested! Older Brother’s education allows him to persuasively argue that the status of Chinese-Americans is that of permanent foreigners, no matter how many generations they’ve lived in the United States.
Unfortunately, Yu’s screenplay format, which works well to capture the media image of Chinese-Americans and contrast it with their actual lives, becomes rhetorical at this point, however correct the conclusion is. This would be the place to have “witnesses” talking about the actual Chinese immigrant and Chinese-American experiences, rather than just Older Brother giving his analysis. The novel is shorter than its page count would suggest because of the screenplay format, and it feels truncated. It would work better if Yu developed the insight about people who are permanent foreigners, never allowed to be considered “Americans.”
Yu also doesn’t develop a thread in the narrative about relative exploitation of different races — Willis wonders how he can express his experience with racism if his people weren’t slaves and ex-slaves. Yet Yu neglects to mention the severe workplace exploitation of Chinese and other Asian immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, missing chances to develop a more nuanced understanding of how racism operates differently for different groups. Along the same lines, while the cop show plot references the racial tension between Turner and Generic Asian Man, and at one point suggests that Turner understands that he and Willis are really on the same side, it never develops this relationship between them.
Willis’ aspiration, once he breaks out of his role as Generic Asian Man, is just to become real: “You are not Kung Fu Guy. You are Willis Wu, dad. Maybe husband. Your dad skills are B, B-plus on a good day. But you’ve been practicing...Try to build a life...Life at the margins, made from bit pieces.”
Yet, given all that’s been done to his people, a reader longs for Willis to go a little farther than just to aspire to a quiet suburban life in an otherwise racist America. It’s one thing for him to be generic when he’s in his assigned role, but we want to see who Willis could become beyond the flawed and typical American Dream.
Other than leaving a number of interesting threads undeveloped and being too short in its denouement, Interior Chinatown works as a novel; it’s funny and interesting and definitely provides something to think about.
Read more in the Mar. 10-16, 2021 issue.