Interior Chinatown: A Novel

by Charles Yu

Hardcover, 2020

Status

Available

Publication

Pantheon (2020), Edition: 1st Edition, 288 pages

Description

Willis Wu doesn't perceive himself as a protagonist even in his own life: He's merely Generic Asian man. Sometimes he gets to be Background Oriental Making a Weird Face or even Disgraced Son, but he is always relegated to a prop. Yet 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 most respected role that anyone who looks like him can attain. At least that's what he has been told, time and time again. Except by one person, his mother. Who says to him: Be more.

Media reviews

Charles Yu’s funny and surreal new novel, Interior Chinatown, hijacks the leaden tropes of Hollywood and the bare form of screenwriting to excavate the inner life of an Asian American man struggling to repudiate the hard-baked boundaries of marginalization.... Willis embodies the ambient anxiety
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of lacking an explicit identity—Asian Americans take up what Cathy Park Hong calls “apologetic space”—which Yu gestures toward humorously in these ironic naming choices. Willis’s mother once was a Pretty Oriental Flower and a Restaurant Hostess, his father a Kung Fu Master and an Egg Roll Cook....Getting cast as Kung Fu Guy was never the challenge Willis made it out to be. What actually eludes him—and his family, friends, and neighbors who populate Interior Chinatown—is real, emotional freedom.... there are a few places where we catch its glimmers: a karaoke song performed while intoxicated, a love that has forgiving margins, an identity that asserts itself without performance.
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3 more
On the surface, Yu’s title refers to a location setting, in this case a generic Chinese restaurant in a generic Chinatown in a fictional police series entitled White and Black. The protagonist Willis Wu, a veteran of bit parts ranging from Disgraced Son to Striving Immigrant, finds himself at a
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murder scene in a family restaurant playing yet another variation of Generic Asian Man.... Yu freely weaves satire with social commentary, speculative fiction with identity politics. Without leaving its fantasy world, the story often turns bracingly real. Though much of his protagonist’s insecurities are narrowly focused—not just Asian, but specifically Asian American—his accumulation of concerns becomes surprisingly and relatably inclusive.
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CHARLES YU SPECIALIZES in ferreting out that peculiar angle, that spark of the unexpected, that re-illumination of an otherwise age-old narrative, and then taking that fantastical story element and spreading it horizontally until it coats the entirety of his writing’s universe. In other words, he
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writes in conceit.... It’s speculative in its surreal setting. It’s family drama in the centrality of family relationships. It’s satire in its political and social commentary. It’s comedic. It’s literary. It’s weird and experimental. It’s an identity story couched in a kind of a fantasy setting, a kind of a George Saundersesque alternate reality. It’s all of those things, but maybe mostly, it’s allegory. And Yu does allegory as well as anybody, taking an outrageous concept and using it to communicate the dire mundanity and the resonant emotional struggles of the human experience.
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An acid indictment of Asian stereotypes and a parable for outcasts feeling invisible in this fast-moving world.

User reviews

LibraryThing member bell7
Willis Wu has always been Generic Asian Man in the set happening in interior Chinatown, the cop drama Black and White constantly in production. He dreams of moving to bit parts in the shadow to becoming Kung Fu Guy, the highest attainable job for him, but it becomes more and more difficult for him
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to fit into this narrative.

Playfully using the format of a screenplay and making the reader work to tease out reality and the "show", Yu shows how racism in America has made Asian Americans - Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, and more - a generic "other", and how that could play out when internalized. The screenplay really cleverly makes you realize how ridiculous our stereotypical roles in movies have played out to give us a generic Asian man or exotic Asian woman, instead of recognizing the wide variety of experiences and personalities of individuals. It's a fast read and incredibly thought-provoking. I have a hunch I would get even more out of it on a reread.
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LibraryThing member ffortsa
We had an interesting and lively discussion last night about this book. Since we do this online via Zoom and Meetup, some books bring in new faces, and last night this was so.

Precis: Willis Wu presents his life and struggles in a screen-play format, where Chinatown is the setting and we get to see
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both the 'backstage' and TV set of a typical Chinese restaurant in a typical police procedural show. He aspires to progress from unnamed 'Asian man' through various rungs to 'Kung Fu Man', the highest he thinks an Asian can get in the entertainment business, and a role his father played when younger. Much of the novel satirizes the telegraphed racial attitudes of the entertainment industry as a stand-in for the larger country. Will he break out of the stereotype he himself has embraced? Will he be able to defend his choices?

Some of our members rejected the screenplay format and complained about lack of character development, which I think means they didn't care for the satiric approach. I disagree - I think we see characters deeply in these strobe-light episodes of their lives, especially if we imagine ourselves in their place. Others loved it, or at least liked it. It's easy to read - lots of white space on the page and short 'scenes' - and I'm afraid I rushed through it just because it went down so easily., and maybe because it sometimes made me very sad. If you read it, take your time. It merits an immediate reread in my case.

One of our members, an immigrant himself, objected to what he saw as 'America-bashing', because he said other countries were at least as bad. (Not much of a recommendation, is it?) A woman living in Queens, New York, New York born and raised, related her experience of Asian ethnic stereotyping - she is now afraid to leave her apartment because of the many reported attacks against Asians, even here in New York. The rest of us (comfy white folks) learned something about the country and ourselves and others. Definitely worth the read. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
This year's National Book Award Winner was an unusually structured novel which told the narrative of Willis Wu who struggles to become something more than the Ordinary Asian bit actor in the popular show called Black and White. The story is written as a screen play, setting the scenes as if
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providing the actors with background and direction. It's an original idea and one that obviously captured the attention of the judges for this year's prize . Throughout the story the readers are provided a detailed look at the forgettable life of the Asian American, cast into roles where if they are killed off in a script, they need to wait the formulated 45 days, death days, before they can return to another role.
"I know, Will. I know. I wish it didn’t have to be like this, but you know how it is. You’re an Asian Man. Your story was great, while it lasted, but now it’s done. I hope our paths cross again. Maybe somewhere else."
Yu does manage to provide a great portrait of the Wu family, his parent's immigration, his brother's success, and his relationship with a another actress who can pass for bit parts as a representative of many countries:
"You’re like a magical creature. A chameleon.” “Able to pass in any situation as may be required,” she says. “I get it all. Brazilian, Filipina, Mediterranean, Eurasian. Or just a really tan White girl with exotic-looking eyes. Everywhere I go, people think I’m one of them. They want to claim me for their tribe.” “Must be amazing.” “Yeah, I mean, I can be objectified by men of all races.”
His parents have gotten older and the once great Kung Fu master, his father Sifu, is now reduced to working in the restaurant at the ground floor of the SRO apartments where his family lives. "Sifu had gotten this old without anyone noticing. Including your mother—deemed to have aged out of Asian Seductress, no longer Girl with the Almond Eyes, now Old Asian Woman—living down the hall, their marriage having entered its own dusky phase, bound for eternity but separate in life."
On karaoke nights, (one of my favorite scenes) his father sings John Denver's Country Roads: "by the time he’s done, you might understand why a seventy-seven-year-old guy from a tiny island in the Taiwan Strait who’s been in a foreign country for two-thirds of his life can nail a song, note perfect, about wanting to go home."
I have to admit that by summarizing the novel and reflecting on the lines I highlighted, I liked the book even more. I would be interested in reading some of his earlier work and find out about his ideas in his contribution to the HBO show Westworld.

Lines:

Sifu had gotten this old without anyone noticing. Including your mother—deemed to have aged out of Asian Seductress, no longer Girl with the Almond Eyes, now Old Asian Woman—living down the hall, their marriage having entered its own dusky phase, bound for eternity but separate in life.

Bruce Lee proved too much. He was a living, breathing video game boss-level, a human cheat code, an idealized avatar of Asian-ness and awesomeness permanently set on Expert difficulty. Not a man so much as a personification, not a mortal so much as a deity on loan to you and your kind for a fixed period of time. A flame that burned for all yellow to understand, however briefly, what perfection was like.

There’s just something about Asians that makes reality a little too real, overcomplicates the clarity, the duality, the clean elegance of BLACK and WHITE, the proven template and so the decision is made not in some overarching conspiracy to exclude Asians but because it’s just easier to keep it how we have it.

MILES TURNER, 33. Tall and built. Really built. Like, if-gray-T-shirts-hadn’t-been-invented-already-they-would-have-to-be-invented-just-so-Miles-could-wear-the-shit-out-of-them built. That kind of built.

by the time he’s done, you might understand why a seventy-seven-year-old guy from a tiny island in the Taiwan Strait who’s been in a foreign country for two-thirds of his life can nail a song, note perfect, about wanting to go home.

I know, Will. I know. I wish it didn’t have to be like this, but you know how it is. You’re an Asian Man. Your story was great, while it lasted, but now it’s done. I hope our paths cross again. Maybe somewhere else.

There are a few years when you make almost all of your important memories. And then you spend the next few decades reliving them.

The words coming out of your mouth, you can feel it happening, how you’re softening, changing into a different person. You were a bit player in the world of Black and White, but here and now, in her world, you’re more. Not the star of the show, something better. The star’s dad. Somehow you were lucky enough to end up in her story.

That despite all of that, you somehow feel that your oppression, because it does not include the original American sin—of slavery—that it will never add up to something equivalent.

He is guilty, Your Honor, and ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Guilty of wanting to be part of something that never wanted him.

We’re trapped as guest stars in a small ghetto on a very special episode. Minor characters locked into a story that doesn’t quite know what to do with us. After two centuries here, why are we still not Americans? Why do we keep falling out of the story?
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LibraryThing member c.archer
Wow! This was a unique and effective style in writing. I really enjoyed the story and the underlying lesson.
LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
Let's start with the satire. Yu is a master. There's so much humor in this little gem, but I will be the first to admit it won't appeal to all readers. If you prefer a straight forward plot, this is not it. It seems like a televisions show, then the lines cross, and it's a bit like a reality show
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that's been scripted (LOL, like that happens!). This novel explores Asian Americans' quest to be seen more than an "Asian." It perfectly shows the reader how racist Americans can be and how difficult it is to be Asian even if you're a 3rd generation American. Quirky and sharp, this book is excellent.
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LibraryThing member Perednia
Fantastical, audacious, and deeply moving story of Asian-Americans and belonging.
LibraryThing member albertgoldfain
Inventive in form and execution. A multifaceted assimilation story that manages to stay concise.
LibraryThing member LukeGoldstein
Built like a screenplay, Yu dances over the line between fiction and reality, then dances back again. At times funny, until you feel the sting of truth. Then it’s a mirror of the soul of America, reflecting how this nation has treated non-Whites for hundreds of years, since it’s very inception.
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The book hits every possible emotional note.
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LibraryThing member sparemethecensor
I liked it. It's certainly experimental and takes an extra minute to get used to, but the conceit is both clever and effective without taking away from the story. There are occasionally fleeting moments where the author chooses to Say Something Important instead of doing good writing, but not so
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much that it isn't an enjoyable read at the same time. Willis Wu has something to show us about race and Hollywood. This is one of 2020's notable novels for me for sure.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
5723. Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu (read 4 Dec 2020) (National Book Award fiction prize for 2020) This is the 69th National book Award Fiction prize winner I have read. In recent years I have learned not to expect myself to enjoy such winners, but as I read this one I found it not too bad and
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thought it might even get as much as three and a half stars. But in the final pages it had a trial which was so ridiculous and bizarre as to really irritate me and in my mind could well have reduced its rank to one star. But the earlier part of the story, Chinese-Americans striving to achieve,was of interest so despite the closing pages the book was tolerable and if its ending had not been so stupid and nutty it was not bad reading.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
Charles Yu's reaction to winning the National Book Award was so heart-felt and charming that I started reading his award-winning novel immediately. More zoom awards ceremonies from people's living rooms, please. The entire event was delightful.

Also delightful was this novel. Set on a Hollywood
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soundstage, it manages to be funny and tragic, uplifting and a stark look at the many ways that racism plays out in the United States, with an emphasis on the lives of Asian immigrants and their children. It's fast-paced and feels simultaneously weighty and effervescent. It's a short novel that makes every single word count, using a variety of ways to tell a compelling story. I hope this novel is widely read and I'm eager to read Charles Yu's other books.
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LibraryThing member villemezbrown
This meta, metaphorical, and satirical gimmick of a book bored me with its heavy-handed points about the Chinese American experience, valid as they are. A mash-up of a novel and a screenplay, it reads quickly enough, but still feels like the ultimate overlong Saturday Night Live sketch. I never
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connected with the surface humor or underlying drama, leaving me only with a "I see what he's doing there" feeling as it built toward its big and deliberately cheesy courtroom finale.
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LibraryThing member bookczuk
Pandemic read. Worth the hype and praise. I found it fascinating, though I think an audio read might be the way to go.
LibraryThing member booklove2
An essential, necessary book on Asian invisibility in America told in a very unique, fresh way. The characters seemingly work as background actors while also working in a restaurant. The narrative is many things at once, filled with Hollywood tropes because Charles Yu also does wonderful things for
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the screen. To make a "screenplay" work as a novel is a wonder. It works great here, but I don't want to start reading other "screenplay novels." Is this the first of its kind, addressing this topic, Asian racism, especially to win a major award? But I admire this book, what it's saying. I like the meta structure of it. Just like the end of the book, I think this is at the frontline of what can happen in the future of Asian literature, the conversation that needs to be addressed more.
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LibraryThing member muddyboy
A really well written and awarded novel that deserves it's plaudits. The author's theme is that Asian Americans are an invisible minority in our country. Even though they suffer many slights by the white population they are never respected like those on other racial and ethnic groups. The book
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follows the TV career of the stages that an Asian man might aspire to (dead body in a bar, Asian man 1, 2 and 3, and ultimately Kung Fu man) the top of Hollywood aspirations for a male Asian actor. A very thought provoking novel.
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LibraryThing member kayanelson
2021 TOB—This book also won the National Book Award. This is a very thought provoking book about racism against Asians in the United States. The structure of the book is also unique in that it is written like a screenplay. I was “wowed” by this book but it struggled to keep me interested.
LibraryThing member eas7788
I liked the concept and what he was able to do with it. The ideas about self and created self are really interesting. The women in the book were limited, though, and reliance on the child to help him get sorted out seemed too pat. But again, the archetypes and dramatic structure were well done.
LibraryThing member sturlington
The fact that this was mostly written in screenplay format but did not get on my nerves is a testament to the writing. This is the story of Willis Wu, Generic Asian Man, a mostly background player in a buddy-cop TV show with many scenes set in Chinatown who aspires to work up to the ultimate role
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of Kung Fu Guy. At first, I tried to parse this as a story that was happening both on and off set, but then I figured that was not the intention and instead viewed it as all part of the "show" that represents an exaggerated view of reality, and that worked better for me. It does get a little preachy and ridiculous toward the end, but isn't that emblematic of the Hollywood ending? (Think of the ending to The Player, which does the same sort of thing.) Sharp-witted and clever, but I think for me the back stories of Wu's parents were the most affecting parts of the novel for me.
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LibraryThing member niaomiya
I'd been wanting to read this book, ever since I heard about it in 2020. And now it is so timely, with all the anti-Asian hate sentiments permeating throughout the U.S.

Willis Wu is a Taiwanese-American who lives in a San Francisco Chinatown SRO (single room occupancy) above the Golden Palace
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restaurant. Every day he goes downstairs to participate in the filming of a procedural cop show called "Black and White." What makes this book so original and unique is that it is written half in prose and half like a script. The procedural cop show is in perpetual production, and it moves surreally back and forth from show production to real life, providing the background that shows just how ludicrous are our concepts of race, racial stereotypes, and racial injustice. At times laugh-out-loud funny in its biting skewering of these concepts, "Interior Chinatown" is that stand-out novel that provides commentary on social issues while entertaining us at the same time. By describing the roles that Willis can choose from in his acting career -- Generic Asian Man, Striving Immigrant, Delivery Guy, Kung Fu Guy, etc. -- author Charles Yu shows us the irony that these are roles into which Asian-Americans get pigeon-holed in real life.

Here and there in the book Yu throws in a list of anti-Asian legislation that was enacted throughout the history of the U.S. The facts are incredibly sobering. The citing of history serves as a brake pedal for the book, to make the reader remember that, although the book you're reading is entertaining and makes fun of racial stereotypes, the reality is that it's been this way for a very long time and permeates our culture.

As an American-born Taiwanese myself, this book resonated with me SO much. The descriptions of growing up in the U.S. with immigrant parents from Taiwan were spot-on, and I actually understood the Taiwanese phrases thrown in here and there. I didn't give the book 5 stars because I didn't totally love it, but I did like it very much.
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LibraryThing member quondame
This isn't any Joy Luck Club or Crazy Rich Asians, and there are no picturesque scenes, just a statement of claustrophobic local and dialog within garnished with scraps of attitudinal description. The characters aren't my middle class coworkers from 20 years in computers but the actors and extras
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working as waiters striving to win better roles and in the flow the difference between roll and identity is mostly erased and is the dream of the better role a dream worth sacrificing other dreams.
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LibraryThing member tibobi
The Short of It:

The use of satire in this novel is very effective in highlighting Asian American stereotypes and the immigrant experience. Funny, honest but also a little sad.

The Rest of It:

Interior Chinatown won the National Book Award so it’s been getting plenty of attention and I will say that
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it’s much deserved. You need to know going in that it’s satire and told completely in script format. Hence the title, Interior Chinatown, which is how many scripts begin. Interior, exterior, you get the gist.

Willis Wu has one dream. He wants to be “Kung Fu Guy”. If you’ve ever watched a TV show or movie where Asian American actors are included, you know this guy. He’s the guy that shows up, cleans house with his martial arts skills and has a lot of close-ups. He’s also the guy who ends up with the pretty woman. But Willis Wu is always:

Asian Guy Making a Strange Face
Asian Delivery Driver
Generic Asian Man #1, #2, #3
Dead Asian Guy

These roles are played by Willis both in real life and in a TV show called Black and White. His desire to be “Kung Fu Guy” eclipses all things, including his family. He constantly struggles to have enough to eat and yet he’s a good guy and cares for his elderly neighbors in the run down building he lives in by offering a bit of meat to them now and then.

He shows up to work. Does what he is told but through his observant eyes he continually yearns to be “that” person, the person he is not. Plus, his own mother and father lived similar lives. At first the pretty or handsome Asian and then later Old Asian Woman or Man.

There is a very blurred line in this novel between what is happening or what we think is happening. Is it real life or a TV show? Or both? I grew up with a father who cared little about me or his family but cared a lot about Bruce Lee. This infatuation with Lee is also found in this novel. He was bigger than life. He was the one Asian to be. His fame crossed many continents and he married an American school teacher but look at the tragedy that was his life. As you know, his son Brandon also died tragically and on set to boot.

Have you seen the movie Once Upon a Time In Hollywood? There is an actor who portrays Lee at the height of his career. The scene received much criticism for perpetuating Asian stereotypes. Even after Lee’s success in Hollywood, the stereotypes continued. Few movies cast Asian American actors without including a stereotype to go with it.

Interior Chinatown, with its script format and humorous tone will keep you reading and you will chuckle here and there. Yu has a sense of humor but if you sit with it for awhile, you will also note the longing the main character feels and how difficult is is for an immigrant family to make a home for themselves in this country. The story is well-written and balanced. I highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member brangwinn
Although it took me a few chapters to understand the shift between second person narration and third person as well as understanding why most of the book was in the form of a movie script, once I understood, it was a very personal way to explore pop culture, racial stereotypes and trying to break
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free of the role each of us is supposed to play. In this story a young Chinese man strive to do more than work in a Chinese restaurant and play minor roles in TV shows and movies. This was a book that made me think. Its also a book worthy of a second reading to understand the multiple layers of the story being told.
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
I am rendered nearly speechless by how good this is. It is endlessly creative, an anti-racist suckerpunch, a love letter to those who have come before, and a wagged finger to anyone who thinks racism is less limiting (though it is admittedly less deadly) when you are one of the "good" minorities.
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Last year I wrote a pretty negative review of a book called Such a Fun Age. that book attempted to bring to the page some low-key racism and a GR friend, a woman of color, got pretty angry about my pan, saying it was the only time she had seen microaggressions well represented in fiction and clearly I missed "the point." I respect her opinion and said so, but I did not back down from my own opinion. In my opinion that book was straight up poorly written. I am glad she felt seen by that book, but the important issues raised in that book deserved a much better writer. Also, notwithstanding the comment of that GR friend, other books have better addressed the impact of microaggressions, but few (none?) have done so as well as this book.

All of this makes the book sound pretty heavy, and it is, but this book is also hilarious. I laughed spontaneously and from the gut many times. Much of that humor has a real bitterness, but the story is so filled with sweetness it never feels like a rueful gripefest. The characters, though confined by labels like "generic Asian man" and "dead Asian man number 2" are incredibly sensitively and fully drawn, even the characters who don't get a speaking role. Another thing that does not bring down the whole is the wildly experimental, often metaphysical, structure. Sometimes when I read modern fiction the story gets lost in unique telling, but not so here. This is a story with a giant heart, there is so much love for family and friends, for the buildings created by some white guy based on his idea of what China looks like, for the neighborhood, and even for television industry (even as it reduces everything and everyone around Wu to generic types.)

The whole of this book is just so damn good, I don't know what to say about it. This is about as viscerally excited as I can ever get by reading. I sort of pity the author that follows.
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LibraryThing member msf59
“You’re here, supposedly, in a new land full of opportunity, but somehow have gotten trapped in a pretend version of the old country.”

“This is it. The root of it all. The real history of yellow people in America. Two hundred years of being perpetual foreigners.”

While growing up in
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L.A.'s Chinatown, Willis Wu has dreamed about being Kung Fu Guy. His wishes begin to come true when he is offered a role on a TV police show, although he quickly realizes he is still playing Generic Asian Man, the same role he plays in every day life. This inventive, whip-smart novel caught me by surprise. It is presented as a screenplay and appears deceptively simple but it slowly reveals the difficulties and prevalent racism that continue to plague Asian Americans, as they try to build a life in America. This will make a perfect companion piece with Minor Feelings, an excellent essay collection I recently read.
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LibraryThing member streamsong
Our protagonist is a bit player in a TV series about a black and a white cop solving crimes for the Impossible Crimes Unit. Many of the crimes happen in Chinatown – drugs, family honor, prostitution – all that Chinese stuff.

He dreams of a recurring role with perhaps a few lines – and the
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ultimate – becoming KUNG FU GUY. He grew up watching a Kung Fu show with a white actor with his eyes taped playing an Oriental man.

The producers don’t care what ethnicity you are, or what style of fighting you do as long as it’s flashy.

Our Generic Asian Man’s father was once an actor and accomplished fighter. His mother played many roles as Beautiful Asian Woman. Now they both have occasional roles as elderly dishwashers.

How can a generic Asian man become the star?

This was written as a teleplay (TV script). I thought it was very clever. At times it was quite funny, but it is also a sad commentary on the casual racism when Americans and American TV don’t distinguish between nationalities, ethnicities or subtleties of being Asian.
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Language

Original language

English

Barcode

9083
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