Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Source of book: I own this.


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. It also happened to be on my reading list already, so when my wife nominated it - and the club voted for it - I was thrilled. 

 The book itself is nothing like I could have expected, because it is rather unique. That does not mean it was disappointing. Quite the contrary: it was an outstanding book, very thoughtful, compelling to read, and fascinating in form. Our club approved. 


Several things make this book unusual. First, it is written more or less in the form of a screenplay, with scenes and dialogue and the exact typeface that screenplays are printed in. Second, much (although not all) of the book is written in the second person, present tense. So it is as if the central character isn’t merely Willis Wu, Generic Asian Man, but the reader. This is definitely unusual in any book, but particularly for a recent book, as this style seems to have enjoyed a brief popularity in the past - definitely in the past. 


The third thing is that the book tells a story, but it is framed in an unusual way. The screenplay takes place all in this one building in a Chinatown in, well, it could be any major city in the United States. (I tend to think Los Angeles, or maybe New York, but it truly could be anywhere.) The building is an SRO - Single Room Occupancy - a form of housing that was dramatically reduced in the 1950s and 60s as part of a push to eliminate the kinds of affordable housing that immigrants and minorities (and single people) tended to use. You know, part of that push to get undesirable people out of the way. And yes, this has been a contributing factor to our current homelessness crisis. 


So, within this building is the ur-Chinese Restaurant, and the rented rooms above. The residents aren’t living their own lives entirely, though. The whole thing is part of a police procedural (hence the screenplay) called Black and White, with the black male and white female cops performing their standard roles within a standard TV genre. And, as Wu argues, within the black/white dichotomy of American life. 


This means that people who don’t fit into the categories of “black” or “white” are in their own category of “otherness” - they are never “real” Americans in that sense, and have limited roles that they are expected to play. Rather than be the main characters, they have bit parts, roles such as “Generic Asian Man.” The pinnacle of success is to be “Kung Fu Guy,” still not a main character, but the most prestigious part an Asian man can play. 


The book isn’t particularly long, and Yu doesn’t waste time on long descriptions. However, with a minimum of words, he makes his scenes and characters come absolutely to life. I mean, you really feel you are there. He has such a great feel for the underlying realities - and the stereotypes whether benign(ish) or ugly - that he can put the reader face to face with a place or person or situation. 


The struggle for Willis Wu, and for the other characters, is to transcend the assigned roles, to find a humanity and a belonging in society that is denied to them by the culture. 


Asian-Americans do occupy a strange place in (white) American culture. Chinese laborers built the most difficult half of our Transcontinental Railroad, and have been part of America longer than my own family. And yet, they are still seen as foreign. The recent uptick in hate crimes against Asian Americans because of a combination of Trump and Covid is just the most recent. While I think Yu’s story is primarily about my parents’ generation, my own generation has its weird prejudices. For example, it seems unthinkable for an Asian man to be the romantic lead - particularly if he is wooing a white woman. The reverse, of course, is “normal,” right? White Dude marries Asian woman - that’s the stereotypical interracial marriage of my generation. On the other hand, the roles have changed a bit. In the 1950s, Asians were largely relegated to menial work - just like other minorities under Jim Crow - even if highly educated. That changed over a generation - white Americans decided that Asians would be the “model minority.” Given the opportunity, Asian Americans embraced education and the “nerdy” professions they were now allowed (and expected) to fill. It’s a better role...but it’s still a role, not a main character. 


The thing is, while we whites now like to pretend to be shocked about anti-Asian sentiment, there is nothing more American than anti-Asian hate. Along with the Native American Genocide and Slavery, our history is built on the exploitation and oppression of Asians. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s look at our actual history. 


A couple years ago, I wrote a series of posts on immigration. Did you know what the first law the US passed restricting immigration was? That would be the Chinese Exclusion Act. But that wasn’t all, or even the first law directed at Asians. About three-quarters of the way through the book, Yu lists just a few of the racist laws. For example:


1859: Oregon’s constitution is revised: no “Chinaman” can own property in the state.


1879: California’s constitution is revised: ownership of land is limited to aliens of “the white race or of African descent.” 


Wait, what was that? Yes, in my home state of California, African Americans could own land...but Asians couldn’t. 


1886: Washington Territory bans property ownership by those “ineligible for citizenship” - meaning Asians. 


1890: The City of San Francisco prohibits Chinese people from living or working in the city….except in a specific area we now call “Chinatown.” A legally, literally defined ghetto. 


Oh, and this is how EVERY Chinatown in the United States came to be. It wasn’t a spontaneous community like you see now with various immigrant groups. Chinatowns were created by law - and Chinese Americans were forbidden to live or even work outside of them. 


(For more on the Chinese American experience in California, I highly recommend On Gold Mountain, by Lisa See. Ms. See tells the story of five generations of her family.) 


1892: Federal Law enacted requiring Chinese Americans to carry a permit with them at all times or be deported or imprisoned. Also forbade Chinese Americans from testifying in court. 


1920: Federal Law enacted that stated that if a white American woman married a man “ineligible for citizenship” - again Asians, as other ethnic groups could become citizens - she lost her US citizenship. 


1924: Federal Immigration law now completely prohibits all immigration from Asia. All. Of. It. 


Oh, and you think that was ancient history? Not so much. 


1943: The Chinese Exclusion Act is repealed, finally, but the replacement isn’t much better. At least now Chinese Americans can become citizens. But they are still prohibited from owning property or businesses. Oh, and how many Chinese can immigrate? Only 105 per year. 


My grandparents were living in 1943, by the way. 


1965: Our current immigration laws were enacted. While they are deeply flawed, and are still based on racism, they are less racist than what came before. The point, however, is that the exclusion of Asian immigrants simply for being Asian didn’t end until after my parents were born. Eleven years before I was, as a matter of fact. This is not ancient history. People affected by Asian exclusion are living today. 


One more that I think needs to be mentioned. The book, in a bizarre yet effective “courtroom” scene near the end of the book, cites People v. Hall, a case from 1854, where the California Supreme Court ruled that Asians could not testify in court, because they were of the same inferior racial stock as Native Americans (and similar to Negros.) The practical effect in that case (and others) is that a white man could kill an Asian American man, woman, or child, and if there were no white witnesses to the murder, he would walk free without consequence. 


Oh, I also have to mention one more, about Japanese Americans this time. During World War Two, hundreds of thousands of innocent American men, women, and children were imprisoned in concentration camps, simply because they were of Japanese descent. It didn’t matter that they were US citizens either. (Also, a number of Chinese Americans were also imprisoned, because, well, they looked the same as Japanese…) These political prisoners were able to only take with them what they could carry. They lost farms, businesses, houses, furniture, whole lives they had built. And white people saw no problem with this. It wasn’t until the 1980s - a period of time I remember personally - that they got an apology and a pittance in compensation. 


This. Is. Not. Ancient. History. This is the America of my parents and grandparents. 


Understanding that makes it obvious that hate crimes against Asian Americans aren’t some aberration, but are part and parcel of American whiteness - this is who we have been, and in many ways still are. 


Let me dive in to a few quotes that stood out. Yu quotes author Bonnie Tsui at the beginning. 


If a film needed an exotic backdrop...Chinatown could be made to represent itself or any other Chinatown in the world. Even today, it stands in for the ambiguous Asian anywhere. 


I also loved this analysis of the Police Procedural - and its uses as a metaphor for how white America views “exotic” others. 


There’s a pattern, a form, a certain shape to it all. The idea that any problem, no matter how messy and blood-spattered, from EXT. STREET to INT. OFFICE or INT. CRIME LAB or INT. CHINESE RESTAURANT, any blight or societal ill, any crime of hate or intolerance, can be wrapped into the template. The idea that there are clues, and the clues can be discovered and understood, at a reasonable pace, i.e., one major commercial break, with each act a new understanding of the problem. That they, our heroes, can get to the bottom of things, and in the end, it’s human nature (jealousy and treachery and, you know, murder). A strangely optimistic idea. A deeply ingrained hope that they, Black and White, will be able to face down that danger, get a handle on it. Downtown may be gritty and dark and full of evil but on some level an unspoken belief, a faith that we live in a manageable world with its own episodic rules and conventions.

Life takes place one hour at a time.

Clues present themselves in order, one at a time.

Two investigators, properly paired, can solve any mystery. 

And there’s just something about Asians - their faces, their skin color - it just automatically takes you out of this reality. 


In a flashback middle of the book, Yu also describes how Willis’ parents ended up in Chinatown, despite being reasonably well off for Asian immigrants. 


But despite her prayers, people do not want to sell Dorothy and Wu a house. And that’s okay, because they can’t afford one. But people also do not want to rent them an apartment. Which would also be understandable, as Dorothy and Wu have a meager income, except that their income isn’t the reason no one will rent to them. The reason no one will rent to them is the color of their skin, and although technically at this point in the story of America this reason for not renting to someone is illegal, the reality is, no one cares. The minor god of immigration has gotten Dorothy this far, but the real estate spirits have failed her. She and Wu rent in the only place they can go, which has the benefit of being a place they can afford. The Chinatown SRO. 


I think this makes it possible to date when the book is set. This post-civil-rights-act situation means probably mid-1960s, making Willis a late Boomer - and the experiences that Yu describes very much what I recognize as being that of my parents’ generation. Although, to be honest, unofficial racial descrimination in housing is very much still going on. Not as much against Asians, at least in California (hello, “model minority”), but absolutely against African Americans and Hispanics. 


As the book unfolds the story, it has a number of really gut-wrenching moments, for unexpected reasons. Here is one we talked about in our club at length. Many of us have children who are growing into adults and some leaving the nest. 


It’s a montage of first moments, all of the major and minor milestones: first step, first word, first time sleeping through the night. There are a few years in a family when, if everything goes right, the parents aren’t alone anymore, they’ve been raising their own companion, the kid who’s going to make them less alone in the world and for those years they are less alone. It’s a blur-dense, raucous, exhausting-feelings and thoughts all jumbled together into days and semesters, routines and first times, rolling along, rambling along, summer nights with all the windows open, lying on top of the covers, and darkening autumn mornings when no one wants to get out of bed, getting ready, getting better at things, wins and losses and days when it doesn’t go anyone’s way at all, and then, just as chaos begins to take some kind of shape, present itself not as a random series of emergencies and things you could have done better, the calendar, the months and years and year after year, stacked up in a messy pile starts to make sense, the sweetness of it all, right at that moment, the first times start turning into last times, as in, last first day of school, last time he crawls into bed with us, last time you’ll all sleep together like this, the three of you. There are a few years when you make almost all of your important memories. And then you spend the next few decades reliving them. 


Good god, I swear I am going to bawl. In a book of humor and thoughtful examination of prejudice, he sticks that in?? And it’s so good and so awful and so true. With my youngest age 10 going on 17, and my eldest graduating from high school, we have had too many “lasts” recently, with more to come. I hope I don’t stop making important memories, though. 


Later in the book, Willis manages to fall in love with and marry (and later divorce) a biracial woman, who has managed to go beyond being Generic Asian Woman. To become, well, Ethnically Ambiguous Woman Number One. 


“I’m not white.”

“White-ish. Close enough.”

“Yeah. That’s why I play Ethnically Ambiguous Woman Number One.”

“You may have a point. So what . . . are you?”

“What am I? Nice, Willis.”

“You know what I mean. Lee can be, you know, like Sara Lee, or General Lee. But it’s actually, like, Lee. As in, Lee?”

“Lee, as in my paternal grandfather was from Taichung. He moved to the States and lived with us after my grandmother died.”

“You’re a quarter Taiwanese?”

“If you want to quantify it that way.”

“Wow. Just-wow.”

“What did you think I was?”

“I don’t know. I thought maybe you were part Latina? Or maybe just came back from Hawaii and had a nice tan? Do you speak?”

E-hiau kong Tai-oan-oe.

“From your accent I can tell you speak better than I do.”

“Do you need a moment?”

“This is very confusing for me.”

“If you think it is confusing for you, imagine how I feel.”

“Seems like it’s worked out pretty well for you.”

“I’m sure it seems that way.”

“You’re like a magical creature. A chameleon.”

“Able to pass in any situation as may be required,” she says. “I get it all. Brazillian, Filipina, Mediterranean, Eurasian. Or just a really tan White girl with exotic-looking eyes. Everywhere I go, people think I am 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.”


 I should also mention the humorous aftermath of Willis getting “killed” in an episode of Black and White. With the character dead, he has to wait a few weeks before his face is forgotten, and he can become another Generic Asian Man








This is to confirm completion of the mandatory forty-five (45) day silent period following your most recent death event. You may now resume activities. Please note that by re-entering the system, you hereby acknowledge and agree to waive any and all status or other accumulated benefits you may have accrued pre-death. No continuity with any previous role will be recognized.



That’s one of a number of great in-jokes involving some combination of television action or video games. 


I also thought the scene where Willis and Karen break up was handled well. Karen gets her own show (literally and metaphorically), and Willis can have a bit part in it. And they can move out of Chinatown. But Karen notices that Willis finds it problematic. 


“I don’t get it. Isn’t this what you wanted? To move out of here?”

“Yeah. I mean, yeah.”

“But you wanted to be the one who did it. Is that it? You wanted to be the one who moved us out.”

“I’m really close to making it, Karen.”

“You’ve been close for a while.”

“You don’t believe in me.”

“I do believe in you. That’s why I don’t want to watch you do this anymore.” 


There’s a lot of reality there. I have seen it in plenty of divorce cases, where a husband has difficulty navigating a reality where his wife is the primary source of income. (That has actually been me the last year, thanks to the pandemic.) Our culture shames men for being supported by women, unfortunately. And Willis understands that. 


“It’s what’s best for our family. I have to stay for now. I’ve worked too hard to get it. If I get this, I can provide for you, for our kid.”

“We don’t need you to provide. I can provide. Didn’t you hear me say I have my own show? It can be our show together.”

“You just don’t get it. I don’t want to be on your show.”

“You resent me, For doing better-”


It’s a sad breakup, and it is impossible not to feel for Willis, who really does wish he could have his dreams. But deep down, he knows he can never be Kung Fu Guy. 


One final bit I wanted to quote comes from the courtroom scene. Willis is essentially “on trial” for his own disappearance from Chinatown. (It is implied he reconciles with Karen and moves to the suburbs. He is represented by Older Brother, the guy who could have been Kung Fu Guy, but ends up a lawyer instead. As part of his closing argument, he has this to say:


This is it. The root of it all. The real history of yellow people in America. Two hundred years of being perpetual foreigners. They zoned us, kept us roped off from everyone else. Trapped us inside. Cut us off from our families, our history. So we made it our own place. Chinatown. A place for self-preservation.

Give them what they feel is right, is safe. Make it fit their ideas of what is out there. Don’t threaten them. Chinatown and indeed being Chinese is and always has been, from the very beginning, a construction, a performance of features, gestures, culture, and exoticism. An invention, a reinvention, a stylization. Figuring out the show, finding our place in it, which was the background, as scenery, as nonspeaking players. Figuring out what you’re allowed to say. Above all, trying to never, ever offend. To watch the mainstream, find out what kind of fiction they are telling themselves, find a bit part in it. Be appealing and acceptable, be what they want to see. 


As I mentioned, our club loved this book, and had a great discussion about it. I am leaving out a lot, obviously. Definitely give this book a shot.




This is a chance to plug a few other Asian American authors that I have enjoyed recently:


America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo (Filipino-American)

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Vietnamese-American)

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (Chinese-American)

Exhalation by Ted Chiang (Tawainese-American)

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (Indian-American)


And, of course, one of my very favorite writers, Yiyun Li, whose use of language is breathtakingly gorgeous. I have read three of her books so far:


Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

The Vagrants

My Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life

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