Thursday, May 13, 2021

Family Book Swap: Interior Chinatown

Title: Interior Chinatown
Author: Charles Yu

via Amazon

Yu's novel about the life of "Generic Asian Man" Willis Wu is written in screenplay format.  Willis is an actor - or is he a character? - on a cop show called Black and White.  The leads are a Black man and a White woman.  Willis and all of the other Asians are background characters.  Of course, it's all an elaborate metaphor for the ways race plays out in American society, especially for those of East Asian descent.  While the weaving in and out of "reality" can be a little confusing, that's sort of the point.  Even Chinatown itself is simultaneously the reality and the metaphor for the compartmentalization of Asian culture in the United States.

Along the way, Willis navigates the complications of his relationships with his aging parents, falls in love, becomes a parent, gets divorced and reconciles with his ex-wife.  All the while, he works out his place within Chinatown and beyond it, against Asian-American expectations and those of the broader society.  Beautifully and convincingly, Yu makes some important points:
  • Not all Asians are Chinese.
  • Not all Chinese are of the same culture either.  He references the numerous dialects flying around Chinatown several times.  Willis's own family is Taiwanese.
  • Asians have been in the United States since 1815, that's earlier than any of my own paternal-side northern European ancestors arrived.
  • There has been a long history of laws restricting the property, immigration and citizenship rights of Asians in the United States, the last of which were not repealed until 1965.
  • Asians are not the only ones who feel unseen in White male dominated society.  
  • The societal relationship between Asian Americans and Black Americans is complicated.  Asians know their history of oppression pales in comparison to those of Black people and as a result are often reluctant to complain.  The "Model Minority" status of Asians only complicates that.  But the cop show metaphor demonstrates that Black Americans, at least Black men, exceed Asian Americans in terms of cultural visibility.
The final analysis: Asians are the permanent guests in American culture.  Even though their presence predates that of many European immigrant groups, they can only ever hope to exist within the defined parameters of White expectations.  Yu, through Willis, pleads no innocence for himself.  He admits to fetishizing the coolness of Black culture and romanticizing White women.  However, he has little choice but to live within the box in which society has confined him.  In Chinatown, be it reality or metaphor.

Interior Chinatown is excellent and it reads quickly.  I'd say this is the first book I've read in a while which I can see recommending to anyone I can, starting with my daughter.  With the targeting of Asians in the age of COVID and the recent, horrific murders in Atlanta, understanding the plight of Asians within American society has never been more important.


  1. Amazing review and came at a time in our life that has shown our not so good side.

  2. Such a brilliant book. If you haven’t, read his earlier How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Yu is officially a must-read for me.

    1. I was definitely impressed. I'll keep an eye out for his other books.

  3. Sounds good. Asian Americans are going through so much now.


    1. Yup. And the book offers a powerful reminder: they've been going through plenty for 200 years.

    2. I knew about the internment camps during WWII, but when I watched documentaries about Asian Americans, I was shocked to learn about everything they've been subjected to in the U.S., especially the Chinese immigrants.

    3. Several years ago now, there was a documentary TV series about the history of narcotics in the US and that history is nearly always tied to racism against one group or another. For heroin, it was the Chinese - really interesting and deeply upsetting.

  4. I really need to order that book off Amazon. My wife and I adopted our daughter from China back in 2003 and we've had to deal with the expectations of how others in a largely redneck/suburban environment view her.

    Frankly, its been tough and I'm constantly on the lookout for some ignorant A-hole who would show any hatred to my little girl.

    Its happened, not a lot but enough for me to worry about my daughter whenever she goes out.

    1. While most of the story takes place in Southern Cal, there are a few trips through the deep south: Mississippi and Alabama. It definitely wasn't easy.

      I am sorry for any and all stupidity your daughter has had to endure.