We expected to be impressed by Charles Yu’s satire, Interior Chinatown, because it won the 2020 National Book Award for fiction. It did not disappoint. The story is about Willis Wu, who is an actor trying to make it big in Hollywood. For an Asian-American male, that means he is trying to graduate from being typecast as Generic Asian Man to being typecast as Kung Fu Guy. He has all the necessary skills to succeed, including a fluency in Accented English and the ability to do the “Face of Great Shame” on command.
As the story opens, Willis is getting small parts on the TV cop drama Black and White. These parts are variations of Background Oriental Guy. Though the setting is a generically-exotic and safely-eroticized Chinatown, the lead male detective is Black and the lead female detective is White. They are in the exquisitely-named Impossible Crimes Unit. The storylines are also black and white. Even the car they drive is black and white, which is technically wrong (since they are detectives) but ultimately correct given the book’s satirical intent.
So how do Asian-American actors succeed in a black and white Hollywood? Or for that matter, in a Black and White America, how can Asian-Americans find acceptance? They don’t and they can’t. “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 . . .”. Willis’ mother hopes that he will be more than Kung Fu Guy. But Willis is confused. How could any Asian man in America be more than Kung Fu Guy?
Interior Chinatown is a seriously humorous and humorously serious novel. The Asian-American experience will never fit into a black and white story. “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?” In a Black and White America, who will tell the story of the Asian experience? And if all the stories must be Black and White, how can the complete story of America be told?
Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans.