...go down to your local karaoke bar on a busy night. Wait until the third hour, when the drunk frat boys and the gastropub waitresses with headshots are all done with Backstreet Boys and Alicia Keys and locate the slightly older Asian businessman standing patiently in line for his turn, his face warmly rouged on Crown or Japanese lager, and when he steps up and starts slaying "Country Roads," try not to laugh, or wink knowingly or clap a little too hard, because by the time he gets to "West Virginia, mountain mama," you're going to be singing along, and by the time he's done, you might understand why a seventy-seven-year-old guy from a tiny island in the Taiwan Straight who's been in a foreign country for two-thirds of his life can nail a song, note perfect, about wanting to go home.
Willis is describing his dad's performance of "Country Roads" by John Denver on a karaoke stage. This episode resonates with the novel's ending, in which a similar event plays out.
A Taiwanese man singing John Denver is a pretty perfect capsule of the novel's central focus: the complex process of Americanization for Asian people.
You said it, I didn't. Don't you see? This is how it works. We're fighting with each other. I don't want to be doing this any more than you do. And Green gets to be the bigger person. Why do you care what she thinks anyway? You heard what you are to her: Asian Guy.
Turner and Wu's tension is established early here, with Turner's experience as a Black man in America coming up against Wu's desire to escape a similarly marginal, but meaningfully different stereotype.
First, you have to work your way up. Starting from the bottom, it goes:
5. Background Oriental Male
4. Dead Asian Man
3. Generic Asian Man Number Three/Delivery Guy
2. Generic Asian Man Number Two/Waiter
1. Generic Asian Man Number One
This is the hierarchy through which Willis moves, especially at the beginning of the novel, before he has achieved his dream of becoming Kung Fu Guy. These roles, each of which are basically the same non-role, are what an Asian actor living in the SRO above the Golden Palace can expect to embody.
YOUNG ASIAN MAN
What happened? What have they done? They've trapped us.
YOUNG ASIAN WOMAN
Or maybe we did it to ourselves.
YOUNG ASIAN MAN
Were we always this? Wasn't there more?
YOUNG ASIAN WOMAN
There was. There can be more.
This caps a scene in which Ming-Chen and Dorothy, Willis' parents, recognize their confinement to Chinatown. They have watched their lives become generic and simplified in accordance with the expectations of Chinatown. Dorothy's suggestion, "There can be more." is in line with her philosophy throughout the novel: that Willis and other Asian people can be something greater than Kung Fu Guy. The solution, for Dorothy, is family.
The next word, and whatever you say after that, will determine a great many things about it, will either open up the story, like a key in a lock in a door to a palace with however many rooms, too many to count, and hallways and stairways and false walls and secret passages, or the next word could be a wall itself, two walls, closing in, it could be limits on where the story could go.
This is Willis' anxiety about telling a story to his daughter, Phoebe. He worries that, by saying the wrong thing, giving her the wrong narrative, he could limit her life in the same way that his own life was limited by believing in the fictional hierarchy of the Golden Palace. He could, in other words, give her aspirations similar to those that drove him to become Kung Fu Guy. Like his mother, Dorothy, Willis wants more than that for his child.
When...an outsider happens upon a performance that was not meant for him...the performers will find themselves temporarily torn between two possible realities.
This is an attributed epigram placed before Act 5. The original writer is Erving Goffman, an oft-cited Candian sociologist. This particular quote is about the dramaturgical presentation of the self, a component of Goffman's 1956 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
This quote, per its placement in the novel, resonates with Willis's feeling of being caught between several realities: that of Chinatown, America at large, his perception of Taiwan, and his personal view of his own identity. He has seen himself as generic, as an action hero, as a son, and as a family man. He has performed versions of himself that do not resemble the way he feels about himself, and others that feel more connected with his inner life.
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.
The epigram that opens the novel is attributed to Bonny Tsui, a contemporary author who wrote a 2009 book called American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods.
This construct of a generic Chinatown is central to the novel. The scene heading "INT. Chinatown" refers to a generic mishmash of Asian stereotypes appropriated for the purpose of creating a backdrop for scenes on a TV show. The Golden Palace, a restaurant above which Willis lives, is often converted into such a Chinatown.
When all others have failed, you call:
BLACK AND WHITE
This is their story.
The show Black and White stars a Black man and a White woman. There is no room, within the construct of this show, for a real Asian character. All of the Asian roles in Black and White, a metonym for America, are genericized, stereotypical bit parts.
SPECIAL GUEST STAR (WILLIS)
I'm choosing this?
No. But you're going along with it. Look where we are. Look what you made yourself into. Working your way up the system doesn't mean you beat the system. It strengthens it. It's what the system depends on.
SPECIAL GUEST STAR
You're part of the system. Your face is on the poster. Your name is on the title.
I am? It says Miles Turner? No, it doesn't. It says: BLACK.
I'm not a person. I'm a category. Giving me the lead doesn't make me any more of a person. If anything, less. It locks me in. Do you know where I started? Do you know what it took? You can't come in here, five minutes ago, talking about how hard you have it. If you don't like it here, go back to China.
This exchange shows the fraught nature of navigating Asian oppression at the seeming expense of attention to other forms of racial oppression. Turner thinks Willis has internalized self-pitying inferiority, and Willis thinks of Turner as a bully who doesn't care about him. They're both right, at least at this point in the story. Later, during the novel's climax, Turner and Wu come to a more nuanced understanding of each other's difficulties and gain a mutual respect.
This is how we met. And fell in love.
In this place? This is no place for a romance. This is a place for the police to find dead bodies. This is a place where day and night are interchangeable, where we don't know who we are allowed to be, from one day to the next. How do we have a love story in a place like this?
It's true. We don't choose our circumstances. We will have to fall in love when we can. Stolen moments. Between jobs, between scenes. Not a love story. But our story.
This exchange encapsulates the way in which living in Chinatown makes it impossible to have a "mainstream" American existence. The standard love story, as later evidenced by Willis and Karen's moonlit boardwalk scene, would have a more conventionally romantic setting. But Ming-Chen and Dorothy, because of their poverty and status as first-generation immigrants, are forced to have their lives' most important moments encroached upon by an ugliness and tedium they haven't chosen for themselves. They get married in a kitchen, and their wedding celebration happens in a spare moment during dinner service.
Interior Chinatown Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Interior Chinatown is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.