“Interior Chinatown” is a creatively conceived story of the difficulty of being Asian in America. The story is told by Willis Wu, the adult son of Chinese immigrants.
Willis is an actor, usually playing minor roles and longing to be “Kung Fu Guy.” “Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy. You are not Kung Fu Guy.” Willis’s parents were also actors, playing minor parts throughout their lives and otherwise working at the Golden Palace. Willis’s parents live separately and are borderline destitute in old age. Willis’s older brother, Older Brother, is extremely talented and foregoes the opportunity to become an actor and instead becomes a lawyer (which, let’s face it, is really just a different type of performance).
Willis’s father was highly educated, but because he was Chinese was unable to find work in his field or to live safely outside of Chinatown. Willis’s mother was shifted from sister to sister in America and worked as a nurse’s aide. They met working in the Golden Palace restaurant. As result of discrimination against Asian Americans, Willis and his parents live in the Chinatown SRO Apartments. “Open a window in the SRO on a summer night and you can hear at least five dialects being spoken…” The SRO consists of seven floors of single room apartments with one shared bathroom on each floor, and the Golden Palace on the ground level.
At the start of the novel Willis has a role in a detective drama with two police officers labeled Black and White (for their races). Black is the extremely handsome Miles Turner and White is the attractive Sarah Green. Everything is described in terms of racial identity. “Dead Asian Guy”, “Old Asian Man”, “Black Dude Cop”—you get the idea.
Willis meets the beautiful Karen Lee, who is playing a detective in one of the detective shows. They fall in love, marry and have a child. Karen is offered her own program which will enable the family to move out of the SRO and into the suburbs. There is also a place for Willis in the program. At this point though, Willis is finding independent acting success and decides to stay in Chinatown, hoping to finally become Kung Fu Guy. The family splits up.
Willis’s acting roles bleed into his real life so that it is hard to tell where the acting ends and where his real life begins. And of course this is because Willis has a hard time identifying himself as anything other than Asian Man, simply believing that this is how the world sees him. Willis also worries that he has no right to complain about the discrimination he feels when there are so many other groups of Americans who also experience discrimination based on how they look and the color of their skin. As a result, he simply disappears into a role and feels otherwise invisible.
The book ends with a history of discrimination against the Chinese in America and Willis on trial for the way he perceives himself and the world. Older Brother is Willis’s attorney. In closing argument, Older Brother sums it up this way: “Chinatown and indeed being Chinese is and always has been, from the very beginning, a construction, a performance of features, gestures, culture and exoticism. 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.”
At the end, Willis understands the importance of his ex-wife and daughter and the need to live as himself and not within a role. The novel is a unique perspective on the Chinese experience in America, even daring in spots, but it is not at all subtle (and in light of current events that seems completely appropriate). Interior Chinatown won the 2020 National Book Award for fiction and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.
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