Interior Chinatown was the first book I’ve read by Charles Yu. It won the National Book Award in 2020 and is written in screenplay format. Although this offers a different reading experience and refers to the typical Asian man profiles we are used to seeing in films, I was a little disappointed with the story, the shallow characters and the author’s language. I guess I set my expectations a little too high.
Interior Chinatown can be summed up as a social satire about how Asian Americans are treated and viewed by the majority of people. In fact, towards the end of the book, it is possible to read the decisions made by the United States about Asian immigrants year after year. I think it’s quite ingenious that Charles Yu used films and television shows to recount the experiences of Asian Americans through generic Asian man or Asian beautiful woman types.
When I read these generic Asian guys and their roles, dozens of scenes came to life before my eyes. I’ve been thinking a lot about all the generic Asian guys we come across, all in more or less the same roles and with almost the same lines. And reading Willis Wu’s efforts to get rid of this stereotype despite all racism and prejudices was a bit of a challenging experience for me.
The main character of Interior Chinatown, Willis Wu, is an actor who plays the generic Asian guy, but he wants to one day become his childhood dream “Kung-Fu Guy”. Because Kung-Fu Guy is the highest level he can reach in Hollywood as an Asian. He has a small role in the detective television series Black and White, set in an Asian restaurant called Golden Palace. His lines do not exceed a few words. Even though he’s Taiwanese, he plays a generic Asian in Chinatown. (Because all Asians are the same.)
On the one hand, we focus on the personal life of Willis Wu. His father, the legendary Kung-Fu master of his time, Sifu, is now old and clearly in need of help. Wu also finds himself in a romantic relationship, thinking that the woman in front of him is far superior to him.
Because Interior Chinatown is written in a screenplay format, the story can sometimes be confusing because Wu’s television show and personal life collide. Although this is probably what the author wanted to do, I must say that I was overwhelmed as a reader looking for character development and a coherent plot in novels.
I think that in such experimental books, the fact that the story and the characters are thrown into the background and the technique comes to the fore takes a lot from the reading experience. In the end, he left me neither a memorable character nor a decent story. But I’ll give it credit, though; it got me thinking about generic Asian man roles and how Asian Americans stuck with it.
I’m sure the readers who like experimental novels about immigration, foreignness and belonging will fancy Interior Chinatown very much. Enjoy!
From the infinitely inventive author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe comes a deeply personal novel,Interior Chinatown, about race, pop culture, immigration, assimilation, and escaping the roles we are forced to play.
Interior Chinatown: Willis Wu doesn’t perceive himself as a protagonist even in his own life: he’s merely Generic Asian Man. 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 highest aspiration he can imagine for a Chinatown denizen. Or is it?
After stumbling into the spotlight, Willis finds himself launched into a wider world than he’s ever known, discovering not only the secret history of Chinatown, but the buried legacy of his own family, and what that means for him, in today’s America.
Playful but heartfelt, a send-up of Hollywood tropes and Asian stereotypes—Interior Chinatown is Charles Yu’s most moving, daring, and masterful novel yet.
Charles Yu (born Charles Chowkai Yu; January 3, 1976) is an American writer. He is the author of the novels How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and Interior Chinatown (National Book Award winner) as well as the short-story collections Third Class Superhero and Sorry Please Thank You. In 2007 he was named a “5 under 35” honoree by the National Book Foundation. His second novel Interior Chinatown won the 2020 National Book Award for fiction.
In 2007, Yu was selected by the National Book Foundation as one of its “5 Under 35”, a program which highlights the work of the next generation of fiction writers by asking five previous National Book Award fiction Winners and Finalists to select one fiction writer under the age of 35 whose work they find particularly promising and exciting. Yu was selected for the honor by Richard Powers.
His fiction was cited for special mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology XXVIII, specifically “Problems for Self-Study” published in the Harvard Review. Yu also received the 2004 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award from the Mid-American Review for his story, “Third Class Superhero”. As for editing anthologies, Yu served as the Guest Editor for the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017 from The Best American Series and the publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
In 2020, Yu released his second novel, Interior Chinatown, which uses the screenplay format to tell the tale of Willis Wu, the “Generic Asian Man” who is stuck playing “Background Oriental Male” and occasionally “Delivery Guy” in the fictional police procedural Black and White but who longs to be “Kung Fu Guy” on screens worldwide. On January 27, 2020, Yu appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah to discuss the book, as well as the lack of on-screen representation for Asian Americans and the Asian American “model minority myth”.
Yu further appeared on NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon, January 25, 2020, and on the Los Angeles Review of Books Radio Hour with Medaya Ocher and Kate Wolf on February 3, 2020, to further discuss the novel. Interior Chinatown won the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction, after being announced as a finalist, and made the Long List of the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction. and was a Finalist or Shortlisted for the 2020 Prix Médicis étranger awards.
Yu graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, majoring and receiving a Bachelor in Arts in molecular and cellular biology and a minor in creative writing, where he “wrote poetry, not fiction” and also “took several poetry workshops with people like Thom Gunn and Ishmael Reed”. He obtained his Juris Doctor from Columbia Law School.
Yu worked as an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell and Bryan Cave as a corporate attorney, as the Director of Business Affairs at Digital Domain, and as an associate general counsel at Belkin International before becoming a full-time fiction and TV writer. He lives near Irvine, California with his wife, Michelle Jue, and their two children, Sophia and Dylan. His brother is the actor and TV writer (Bob’s Burgers), Kelvin Yu.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges: