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.
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.
Precis: Willis Wu presents his life and struggles in a screen-play format, where Chinatown is the setting and we get to see
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.
"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.
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?
The protagonist of this unusual novel, Willis Wu, doesn't see himself as the hero of his own story: he's just another Generic Asian Man. He is occasionally cast as a Background Oriental Making a Weird Face or even as a Disgraced Son, but he is usually reduced to a prop. Every day, he leaves his cramped room in a Chinatown SRO and walks inside the Golden Palace restaurant, where the procedural cop show Black and White is under continual production. He has a small part here, too, but he aspires to be Kung Fu Guy, the most prestigious role available to anyone who looks like him. Why is that the case?
Willis finds himself thrust into a larger world than he's ever known after falling into the spotlight, learning not only the secret history of Chinatown, but also the history of the United States. In relaying this history the author uses a distinctive television screenplay structure. It isn't simply an amusing eccentricity; it also serves to emphasize how strongly Hollywood's rules affect everything in Willis's life, both on and off set. Every person is typecast into a specific position based on their appearance, and in order to be a star, Willis must never stop performing. He tames every aspect of himself to ensure that he's only ever presenting what's expected of Generic Asian Man on the outside. Only when he gets there does he find it's still the same—except now he has the added responsibility of preserving Chinatown's orientalist myth and the people who live there, further confirming their status as outsiders.
This novel is a satire and a commentary on the way we view others and ourselves. What is your identity and what one would you prefer to show to others? Or, perhaps you are comfortable in your own skin, whatever that may be.
From the book:
“To be yellow in America. A special guest star, forever the guest.”
“…Try to project: Responsible, Harmless. An unthreatening amount of color sprinkled in. That’s the dream, a dream of blending in. A dream of going from Generic Asian Man to just plain Generic Man. To settle down. To stay here…”
These two quotes are the vibe of the book, summarizing the frustrations of being Asian in the US (and frankly, many parts of the world), especially a generation or two ago.
It hasn’t been easy to find the words to review this book. At times, its analogies hit too close to home – the typical wishing more, better, or even different for oneself and the children. At other times, the sharp stereotyping comes across as insulting instead of illustrating. Or, analogies within the B&W becomes convoluted, removing the feelings of realism, and the story would momentarily fall into the Yu-lost-me abyss (sorry, bad pun). I put the book down many times, as I processed what my life could have been like if moments in time had gone differently (not that I ever had any aspirations to be a Kung Fu Guy). I know that the characters’ conflicted emotions, the SRO housing situation, and the desire to get-out of Chinatown are very real. The B&W screenplay portions provide an opportunity to address the relationship of Chinese/Chinatown with respect to the Blacks and to the Whites. Other than the colors of a police car, the characters are literally a Black male cop and a White female cop – a hierarchy amongst the ethnicities and amongst the sexes.
I don’t recommend this book for everyone. I feel that I can better understand what Yu is saying because of my own background. I understood the messages, I appreciated the light-handed approach in discussing many heavy subjects, but the trade-off is that it lacks gravitas. If the two quotes above trigger emotions and/or understanding, then enjoy!
“Old Asian Man looks at you, a look of disappointment flickering across his features with each accented word. You playing this part, talking like a foreigner. The son who was born here, raised here, a stranger to his own dad for what. For this. So he could be part of this, part of the American show, black and white, no part for yellow. The son who got As in every subject, including English, now making a living as Generic Asian Man.”
“…At the moment he’s not Fong. He is Chinatown Mini Boss. Medium fish in a small pond. The guy before the guy. Intermediate obstacle. An act two villain who gets you into act three. It’s a good gig, even if Fong is starting to get typecast. Something about how gentle he is, they love to play off of that, love how his mild features, his slender build and slightly pasty complexion, make him the opposite of Turner, the opposite of masculine, make this Asian phenotype slightly and inherently creepy to the Western eye.”
He dreams of a recurring role with perhaps a few lines – and the
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.
Also delightful was this novel. Set on a Hollywood
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
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.
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.
Willis Wu is a Taiwanese-American who lives in a San Francisco Chinatown SRO (single room occupancy) above the Golden Palace
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.