Willis Wu introduces himself with his casting sheet. He has played: Generic Asian Man, Disgraced Son, Silent Henchman, and a few other obscure, low-paying roles that have generally confined him to the background of Black and White, a police procedural TV show.
Willis longs to play Kung Fu Guy, which is the most prestigious and exciting role available to Asian actors on Black and White. But unfortunately for Willis, his kung fu is only okay, and he’s not very confident.
Willis’ dad, Ming-Chen Wu, was once a Kung Fu guy. He was recast from this role after aging out. He went on to play Sifu, the Mysterious Kung Fu master, for a time. Lately, he plays Guy in a Soiled T-shirt or Inscrutable Old Man. Ming-Chen lives alone in his shabby apartment on the second floor of the SRO. He has slipped into poverty and seeming senility.
Sifu, or Ming-Chen, taught Willis all the kung fu he knows, but Sifu’s true protégé was always Willis’s older brother: Older Brother. Older Brother was, ostensibly, the pinnacle of Asian success. He has a good haircut, top-shelf kung fu skills, and scored a 1570 on the SAT. Over the course of a montage dubbed “Older Brother Awesomeness Montage,” Willis elaborates on Older Brother’s meteoric rise to cultural relevancy, culminating in his casting as Kung Fu Guy.
Strangely, Older Brother only played Kung Fu Guy for a little while. He left Black and White under mysterious circumstances. The general understanding was that it simply “didn’t work out.” Willis remarks that Older Brother was never really comfortable with “his preordained place in the hierarchy.” His kung fu was “too pure,” and Black and White was always going to warp his kung fu into a flashy spectacle. So, Older Brother left Chinatown behind and went… somewhere else. Willis doesn’t remember where.
But Older Brother’s early departure was for the best, according to Willis, who says: “Better to be a legend than a star.”
In this first chapter, we get a lot of introductory information about Willis, his dad (Ming-Chen Wu), and his older brother (Older Brother). These men represent, in this early presentation, different points on the trajectory towards becoming (or unbecoming) Kung Fu Guy.
For Sifu (Ming-Chen), these glory days are long past. He has slipped into poverty and irrelevance and is entirely dependent on the doting and begrudging care of his son, Willis. Older Brother’s star has also faded, although in an importantly different way. Older Brother has left acting behind, and has gone off to imaginably greener pastures, although Willis can’t remember quite where…
In this first chapter or “Act,” we also receive a description of the SRO (Single Residence Occupancy) above The Golden Palace. The SRO is a cluttered, dilapidated apartment building in which the fully Asian staff of the Golden Palace resides. Because of the single-resident nature of these apartments, Willis, his father, and his mother live separately despite their mutual poverty. In this way, each of these people has their own lives, mirroring their own private histories. Like Willis, each of his parents has portrayed different roles at the Golden Palace, and most of them are inglorious.
These roles change depending on the perceived charisma, appearance, and skillset of the actor, a process which we will see in clearer detail later on. For now, it would suffice to understand that Willis Wu is toiling in the obscure background and biding his time, awaiting his chance to shine.