Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown (Pantheon Books, 2020) was a bit of an unexpected delight. It’s witty and dark, entertaining and heartbreaking, insightful and inventive. I didn’t expect it to be as hilarious as it was, but Yu’s smart writing in this script format brings a lot of truth layered in comedy.
Willis Wu is an actor who dreams of being more than “generic Asian man.” His father had successfully managed a titled role as Sifu, the Mysterious Kung Fu Master, and Willis wants to follow in his footsteps. His father’s fame was short-lived, and Sifu soon became “Old Asian Man.” Willis’s mother is also an actress – her roles ranging from Pretty Oriental Flower to Girl with Almond Eyes to Old Asian Woman. Those in Chinatown don’t get title roles – they get stereotypes. It doesn’t matter if they’re Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, etc., Hollywood has carved out a limited role for Asians and treats them all the same.
The treatment in Hollywood is paralleled when Willis provides his father’s backstory: As a young man, Ming-Chen Wu attends graduate school and teaches undergraduates. Two of his roommates are from Korea, one is from Japan, and the fourth, Allen, is also from Taiwan. Allen is brutally attacked, and the assailant said, “this is for Pearl Harbor.”
“Young Wu thinks: it could have been him. Nakamoto says : it should have been him. All of the housemates realize: it was them. All of them. That was the point. They are all the same.”
In Chinatown, Ming-Chen loses his identity by first becoming Sifu and then slowly sinking into oblivion as “Old Asian Man.” Willis is well on his way to following in his father’s footsteps – losing himself while chasing a dream to be a top-billed star. Reality blends with fiction as he begins to struggle with differentiating the role he plays from the life he lives.
It’s a dark and witty take on #hollywoodsowhite, but also on America as a whole. The script writing style takes a minute to adjust to, but what a perfect way to tell this story.
Read this book.