Book Review: INTERIOR CHINATOWN and commentary on Othering in America

Charles Yu exposes a ton of insight into what it’s like to be a “Generic Asian Man” in America. In Interior Chinatown he tells the story of an actor, Willis Wu, trying to work his way up the ladder, advancing from Generic Asian Man #3, to #2, through several intermediary roles, until at last he gets the chance to play the dream role: Kung Fu Guy.

That is all Willis thinks he is capable of becoming, a trope of cinema and a caricature of himself.

Through this experience, and with some much needed help from his family, Willis comes to realize that Kung Fu Guy is still just another version of Generic Asian Man, just like Old Asian Man or Asian Seductress.

In a strange but emotionally stirring scene in which Willis is “on trial” for boxing himself in racially and socially, he (and the reader) learn some tragic tidbits about how the US has treated immigrants from East Asia, and especially China throughout its history.

This is yet another side of history that we don’t often find in American textbooks; policies like the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which took steps to effectively ban all immigration to the US from China. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first of its kind to ban immigration based on race or country of origin. There were also a series of Supreme Court rulings in the 1920s which sought to exclude Asians from naturalization in the US. (Read more here).

Ultimately, Willis realizes that he is playing into a system which exacerbates his own place as Asian Man; a role which continues to flummox American society at large, even after 200 years of immigration (particularly from China).

I found the structure of this story odd at first. It read like a TV script, with characters delivering lines to each other in such a way that it was difficult to tell at times when Willis was actually acting in a scene for one of his roles, versus when he was “playing” a role as Asian Man in his everyday life. This storytelling mechanism is intentional, of course, and does lend to the author’s crucial commentary, in the form of the protagonist’s monologues.

Overall enjoyed this, but more than anything, Yu makes me want to read more about the Chinese American experience, and the US’s abominable history, distant and not so distant, in this (and many other) regards.

Steve D

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