Calling It Like It Is: Leland Cheuk’s No Good Very Bad Asian

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“All you can do is be aware that what a zombie sees isn’t real.”

So observes Sirius Lee, the narrator of No Good Very Bad Asian, a full-throttle, hilarious, bittersweet, and often poignant romp through the world of stand-up comedy and Asian American family dysfunction. With this particular chunk of wisdom, author Leland Cheuk’s protagonist takes aim at “the mindless way we look upon each other,” observing that “some call it racism. Or sexism. Or classism. I call it zombie-ism.”

Calling it like it is—no matter how taboo—and getting a laugh in the process becomes Sirius Lee’s craft, profession, and passion. Named Hor Luk Lee (yes, he says: “My Chinese name is pronounced ‘whore’”) by his argumentative parents, owners of a round-the-clock liquor store, he fully embraces his stage name, Sirius Lee, dreamed up by Johnny Razzmatazz, a reality TV celebrity and flawed father figure. Written in the form of a book-length letter to his daughter, No Good Very Bad Asian recounts Sirius Lee’s rollercoaster life as a comedian and actor.

Although some of the novel’s portrayals sometimes veer into cartoonish caricature, the narrative remains firmly grounded in unmasking artificial identity and shattering limiting expectations. Sirius’s unwillingness to be confined by convention echoes the basic structure of the joke, the foundation of stand-up comedy. As Johnny Razzmatazz explains:

Categorize everything into a premise, a set-up, and a punch. Pick one of each, put them together, and you have a joke… A premise is the topic, the way a comic sets expectations with an audience. A setup leads them a little further along those expectations. Then the goal of the punch is to surprise, subverting what the audience expects.

The expectations Sirius Lee is struggling to subvert, however, aren’t the audience’s. They’re the expectations of his family, of Johnny Razzmatazz—who recruits Lee at fifteen to perform as part of Razzmatazz’s comedy tour—and, ultimately, of the entertainment business as a whole.

No Good Very Bad Asian reveals hard truths about what it means to be marginalized, scrambling on the outside looking in, and how even “success” can arrive with a dark underbelly. In his efforts to push beyond the narrow confines of imposed familial and societal goals, Sirius reinvents himself as the No Good Very Bad Asian. What starts as an unexpected, impromptu harangue of a “tall, muscular, and good-looking Asian in the audience… the son my parents wished they had” ends up going viral. The result is a massive North American tour with sold-out crowds and an HBO special. As his long-suffering agent Sarah explains: “They said they wanted the ‘bad Asian guy’… Is there another one I don’t know about?”

Fame, nonetheless, arrives at a cost. “It was my zombie-eyed disease again,” Sirius confides in his letter to his daughter. “My head was poisoned with self-loathing and the poison spread and made me hate those who looked like me.” Unleashing his venom on Asians, as well as a metafictional Cheuk, who appears in a cameo scene as an aspiring comic, Sirius experiences stardom as backhanded notoriety laced with guilt.

Success proving to be only another confining expectation, Sirius finds himself struggling yet again to push beyond restricting boundaries, beyond the flat, two-dimensional way that the world perceives him: as either the “nice kid” or the No Good Very Bad Asian. In one of the novel’s most luminous passages, he describes a flash of insight after climbing the steps of the temple at Angkor Wat during his honeymoon:

I got tears in my eyes at the possibility of a common, human intuition existing, in everywhere and everything, guiding my life, like a constant wind, like a sturdy current. I just had to be clearheaded enough to see it, feel it, and follow it. There had been so much noise in my life. What I wanted versus what someone else wanted. My addict brain versus my non-addict brain. If I could close my eyes, sit in the quiet, and try to hear the voice of the good side of me for once, instead of letting my impulses dictate all, maybe I’d have a chance to live long, stay sober – become a grown-up…I could imagine myself not giving two shits about whether I was famous or funny or acting in stupid movies.

But the noise returns all too soon, and, true to the novel’s title, an all-too-flawed Sirius continues to stumble. He enters rehab, falls off the wagon, and toys with various comeback scenarios, bumbling towards a hoped-for freedom that proves, in the end, unexpected and real—attainable at a price both ordinarily human and too steep.

Sirius depicts his daughter Maryann with a sharp vividness. On a cross-country visit to Sirius’s parents, his father questions Maryann: “What do you think? Are you Chinese?”

Maryann’s reply: “I’m American!”

At one of Sirius’s late-night gigs at the Paradise Lounge, three-year-old Maryann cuts through an awkward audience silence by yelling “Meaty okra, Daddy”—mediocre.

As the crowd laughs, Sirius replies, “You’re killing, M!” He begins privately writing his unabashedly hopeful dreams for his daughter, who is already emerging as very much her own person: “But I hope that you’ll be someone who plunges headlong into life and love. I hope you’ll grow up to be a person of passion, a dreamer, a romantic.” These dreams are addressed to a future Maryann, and their sentimental emotion seems out of place, at first, for the cynical, black-humored Sirius. And yet the entire novel takes the form of a long letter that Sirius writes for his daughter, one that he, at first, instructs her not to read (with the exception of its first few pages) until she’s eighteen. He soon abandons these instructions, writing, “Oh who am I kidding? It’s not like I’ll be able to stop you anyhow.”

In describing Sirius’s storm-tossed career, Leland Cheuk’s writing moves with quick-footed energy, darkly playful without being facile. Whether poking fun at Chinese horoscopes, celebrity reality TV families, “raunchy, brain-dead, road-trip comedies,” or Chinese weddings with their guest lists of several hundreds, Cheuk delivers the punches. Along with quick ironic jabs, Sirius Lee’s musings also reveal insights into the floundering American Dream—or, as he observes: “It’s not that people can’t get their American Dream. It’s that most don’t dream at all.”

No Good Very Bad Asian is a letter to the future, to a reality that has begun taking shape in Maryann but has yet to be fully realized. In contrast with his mother’s obsession with forecasting through horoscopes, to predict and control the future for her child, Sirius addresses the future as an unknown, seeking to embrace the uncontrollable. “If we met up tomorrow, I wonder if you’d even recognize me,” he writes to his daughter on the book’s very first page. And yet he expresses unconditional pride in the unknown person she will eventually become. It is the ultimate punchline, subverting how he was raised to be.

Like its protagonist, No Good Very Bad Asian upends expectations, proving more complex than the rigid, confining literary categories that might seek to define it. Outrageous, satirical, tragic, comic, and hopeful, it’s a sharp-eyed saga about slaying illusions—whether imposed by external forces or self-perpetuated—as well as an ode to the demanding, fickle, and exhilarating vocation of making people laugh.

“Always punch up or sideways in comedy, I like to tell the amateur comics. Never punch down,” Sirius says as No Good Very Bad Asian draws to a close. “Natürlich, I haven’t followed my own rules.”

Lillian Howan spent her early childhood in Tahiti and later graduated from the University of California, Berkeley,School of Law. Her writings have been published in Asian American Literary Review, Café Irreal, Calyx, Jellyfish Review, New England Review, Vice-Versa, and the anthologies Ms. Aligned 2 and Under Western Eyes. She is the editor of Wakako Yamauchi’s collection, Rosebud and Other Stories (University of Hawai'i Press, 2011), and the author of The Charm Buyers (University of Hawai'i Press, 2017). More from this author →