When Background Becomes Foreground: Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown

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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.

The story’s pensive, wry protagonist, Willis Wu, is an aspiring actor with a pitiable IMDb page: He’s only ever played the Disgraced Son, the Delivery Guy, the Striving Immigrant. Through most of the novel, he is referred to as Generic Asian Man. The alpha and the omega of his existence, however, is to one day secure the elusive role of Kung Fu Guy—a goal that can be taken both at face value and as a metaphor for peak cultural and economic assimilation. In the meantime, he cycles through a blur of meaningless—and worse, perhaps, nameless—roles in a Special Victims Unit-esque cable cop show. His characters are walking assemblages of clichés who speak broken English, connote untrustworthiness, and frequently get killed off.

Willis embodies the ambient anxiety 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. This approach extends to place, as well. The Golden Palace restaurant—around which much of the novel’s first half takes place—was “formerly Jade Palace, formerly Palace of Good Fortune,” he writes. Though the titular Chinatown is that of Oakland, California—I’m guessing based on the streets mentioned—we could be in arguably any Chinatown in the country. The neighborhood speaks the standard language of Chinoiserie: the same upturned eaves, the same uncles playing Go, the same tanks of spiritless fish bobbing in the entrances of the same restaurants.

Because screenwriting typically urges an emphasis on the external—that which a camera, and by proxy, an audience can physically observe—it stands to reason that Yu’s choice to write the novel as a screenplay is a pointed one. After all, the American screen has historically made little room for Taiwanese immigrants who dumpster dive for day-old pork buns. The novel is formatted completely as if it were a screenplay, courier font, scene headings, and all. Each of its seven acts largely takes place within the confines of a television episode or movie scene—like a cop show or a children’s musical or a courtroom drama—which allows for Willis to provide meta-commentary on both his life and the industry he’s striving in. In some scenes, Willis’s narration is threaded within the action lines of the script. What else is he supposed to do while the cameras are rolling? The action isn’t there for him to perform, after all. In others, Willis literally speaks from the margins: his words are structured in a sidebar on the right-most edge of the page, traditionally where screenwriters place scene transitions (think: FADE OUT). Thankfully, the format never comes across as gimmicky. Despite its limits, Yu finds a way to write tenderly and expansively about Willis and his Sisyphean struggle to get cast as Kung Fu Guy.

Interior Chinatown is concerned with two parallel constraints: the practical issue of economic precariousness and the psychic toll of loneliness. The Wu family is struggling to break free of both, a mundane journey that Yu endows with a disorienting and affective quality.

The story orbits around the residents of a single-room occupancy (SRO) apartment stacked on top of the aforementioned Golden Palace restaurant. In addition to Willis, there’s his father, an elderly man who depends on Willis for medication and care, and with whom Willis has a delicate relationship. There’s his mother, who is separated from his father, and who is self-sufficient but lacks the bandwidth to provide for anyone else. Then there’s a textured supporting cast of other residents, who span multiple generations and life stories.

Chinatown comes to vivid life in Yu’s hands. His language is as straightforward as a picture, warm with knowing humor. He writes:

Open a window in the SRO on a summer night and you can hear at least five dialects being spoken, the voices bouncing up and down the central interior courtyard, the courtyard in reality just a vertical column of interior-facing windows, also serving as the community clothes drying space, crisscrossing lines of kung fu pants for all the Generic Asian Men and for the Nameless Asian Women, cheap knockoff qipaos, slit high up the thigh.

There’s a gentle brush of sarcasm in Yu’s portrayal of Chinatown’s ambient sights and noises, possibly a backhanded skewering of how its residents are typically depicted, nameless and generic, both noisy and easily blocked out.

Other scenes are more threadbare, and take place in silence. Willis routinely visits his father, “checking for dampness on his mattress pad, changing it if necessary, picking up laundry, sweeping from his nightstand the accumulation of balled-up napkins enclosing clots of dried phlegm and blood.” Yu effectively captures how mentally grinding the family’s economic circumstances are. At one point, Willis laments: “To be fair, it wasn’t as if anyone in Chinatown was in a great monetary position to be helping Sifu,” referring to his father. “Old Asian Woman did what she could, but as work slowed down, she had enough of a challenge trying to take care of herself,” referring to his mother. Willis is grappling with expectations of filial piety central to East Asian culture, contending with how much he owes his father—and how much capitulating to that debt takes away from what he can carve out of the world for himself: “And you just starting out, contributing what you could manage, a bag of food or medicine, once in a while a piece of fish or meat. That’s what you tell yourself anyway. The truth being that if each of you had done a little, together it might have been enough.”

Tightly intertwined with poverty is sickness, a theme that Yu threads through the novel in ways that are so visceral and upsetting that I had to pause my reading at points. In one scene an elderly resident of the apartment slips in the shower and hits his head on a sink corner. The bathroom is communal, but Old Fong dies alone, “head getting soft like a fruit,” Yu writes unsparingly. There’s a sense of claustrophobia in the novel’s setting that reminded of Annie Ling’s photography series, 81 Bowery, a quiet and devastating collection that captures the lives of the poorest residents in Manhattan’s Chinatown, who live in eight foot by eight foot cubicles. It’s a life without room to sprawl, so restricted you could catalog everything you own. This is the interior of Chinatown, the novel seems to say, what’s only visible when background becomes foreground.

In addition to economic margins, Yu is interested in traversing life on the social periphery. At one point, the author cycles back in time to when Willis’s parents first immigrated to the US, young, dazzled, their horizons still miraged with possibility. Years ago, we learn, Willis’s father was a graduate student in Mississippi. His prospects were bright then, even if daily life was tinged with alienation. “One semester he wins an award for being the best teaching assistant,” Yu writes. “Half of the class calls him Chinaman, but mostly they mean it affectionately.”

Sometimes, cultural adaptation can be comical: Willis’s father learns to enjoy hamburgers by asking “for no mayonnaise or ketchup and eats the meat separately from the bun, lettuce, and tomato.” Other times, it’s violent. One day he comes home to the news that his Taiwanese roommate Allen has been assaulted: “According to a witness, as the first man hit Allen in the temple, knocking him to the ground, they shouted, ‘This is for Pearl Harbor.’” There’s nothing “foreigners” do better than serve as scapegoats.

Meanwhile, in the present, Willis is slowly coming to terms with the false promise of his dreams. What is Kung Fu Guy but an extension of the performances that he’s played all his life, that his parents played before him, performances that are effectively capitulations to a racist imagination? A fictional, Black character on the show in which Willis plays an extra breaks the fourth wall at one point to tell Willis: “Look where we are. Look what you made yourself into. Working your way up the system doesn’t mean you beat the system. It strengthens it. It’s what the system depends on.”

In the midst of the crushing forces of poverty and alienation that Willis and his family face, there are also brief yet exhilarating moments of euphoria and freedom. When Willis falls in love with a co-star in an elliptical scene that toggles between comic self-doubt and infatuation, Yu writes:

You’re walking EXT. BOARDWALK-NIGHT, under the moonlight and she says, hey, how did we get here? You say moonlit strolls along the water are supposed to be romantic and she says this isn’t a place, it’s an idea, a generic romantic setting and you say well they don’t call me Generic Asian Man for nothing and you laugh at yourself and this time it’s easier and she laughs, too.

The book’s most joyous scene, however, doesn’t take place under stage lights. Rather, it unfolds in the Golden Palace restaurant after hours, during the kind of moment that comes late into the night when time stretches out like taffy—fluid and free. The chairs are stacked and the staff are off duty, singing karaoke together:

Wait until the third hour, when the drunk frat boys and gastropub waitresses with headshots are all done with Backstreet Boys and Alicia Keys and locate the slightly older Asian businessman standing patiently in line for his turn, his face warmly rouged on Crown or Japanese lager, and when he steps up and starts slaying “Country Roads,” try not to laugh, or wink knowingly or clap a little too hard, because by the time he gets to “West Virginia, mountain mama,” you’re going to be singing along, and 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’m sad to say that the haunting, gorgeous affect of the novel’s first two-thirds transitions into a noticeably limper final act. It’s here that Willis leaves Chinatown for the suburbs, where his wife and daughter have been living, having escaped Chinatown. Their reunion is a scene that plays out through a song-and-dance routine in a faux children’s show. As the protagonist dotes on his child, he veers into cliché: “The truth is, she’s a weirdo. Just like you were. Are. A glorious, perfectly weird weirdo. Like all kids before they forget how to be exactly how weird they really are. Into whatever they’re into, pure.”

In the novel’s final act, Willis finds himself stuck in a Sorkin-esque courtroom scene, where his faults are laid bare and dissected. It’s lurching and didactic, and does little to further what Willis has already grappled with: that “the role of a lifetime is one you can never bring yourself to quit… You are trapped. Doing well is the trap.”

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. It’s hard to imagine what exactly that looks like, especially while trying to endure the constant winds of dehumanization; it’s hard to imagine an alternative reality when you’re trying to simply survive in this one. Fortunately, in Interior Chinatown, 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.

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter, a newsroom covering the food system. She previously contributed arts and culture writing to Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper, The Stranger. More from this author →