Review: Interior Chinatown

“You’re here, supposedly, in a new land full of opportunity, but somehow have gotten trapped in a pretend version of the old country.”

Charles Yu

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
266 pages
Published by Vintage, 2020
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: I plan to revisit this one. 
Reviewed by: Indiana 

Synopsis from publisher:

Willis Wu doesn’t perceive himself as the protagonist in his own life: he’s merely Generic Asian Man. Sometimes he gets to be Background Oriental Making a Weird Face or even Disgraced Son, but always he is relegated to a prop. Yet every day, he leaves his tiny room in a Chinatown SRO and enters the Golden Palace restaurant, where Black and White, a procedural cop show, is in perpetual production. He’s a bit player here, too, but he dreams of being Kung Fu Guy—the most respected role that anyone who looks like him can attain. Or is it?

After stumbling into the spotlight, Willis finds himself launched into a wider world than he’s ever known, discovering not only the secret history of Chinatown, but the buried legacy of his own family. Infinitely inventive and deeply personal, exploring the themes of pop culture, assimilation, and immigration—Interior Chinatown is Charles Yu’s most moving, daring, and masterful novel yet.

Review:

This book was a beautiful and strange punch to the gut. On the surface, Yu explores the glaring racism against Asian actors in Hollywood, with Willis spending much of his acting career just trying to be “Kung Fu Guy.” However, he goes well beyond the bounds of Hollywood and delves into how the laws in the United States have allowed and encouraged racism against Asian citizens through the years, and how many see Asian Americans as not fully American.

On top of all of this searing societal commentary, Yu depicts certain heart-rending moments in family life with such glaring clarity it’s impossible not to pause. 

In one instance, Yu writes about a family with a young kid: “There are a few years when you make almost all of your important memories. And then you spend the next few decades reliving them.” 

In another, told through script-style writing, Willis realizes that his dad is getting older in a passing conversation with his mom: 

“How’s he doing?”

“Not great. Could use your help.” 

“He won’t talk to me. Not like he used to.”

“Not that kind of help. He wants to move the bed over to the wall.”

“He doesn’t need me for that. The bed’s not even -” But then you see the way she is looking at you and you realize: she wouldn’t be asking if he could do it.”

“Okay,” you say. “I’ll come down later.” 

“Interior Chinatown” is an impressively crafted, deftly told story filled with blistering and often overlooked observations about Asian American life. 

Has anyone else read this one? What did you think of the script-style writing?

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