Interior Chinatown

Interior Chinatown Summary and Analysis of Act 2: INT. GOLDEN PALACE


Act 2 opens with the introduction of Miles Turner and Sarah Green, titular stars of the police procedural TV show Black and White. Miles Turner is an attractive, male, black cop with bouncing pecs and impressively articulate jaw muscles. Sarah Green is an attractive, female, white cop with a tightly drawn ponytail and perfect bone structure.

Like the all-Asian staff of the Golden Palace, Turner and Green are playing the roles society has offered them. The main difference is that Turner and Green are center-stage mainstays. They’re not generic, background characters. They’re main characters.

Turner and Green are at the Golden Palace to shoot a scene in Chinatown, which is to say a scene that uses the Golden Palace and its surrounding alleyways as a backdrop. During this scene, Turner nearly shoots Old Asian Man, who is pushing a load of bottles in a shopping cart. Turner shouts out at Old Asian Man, and there’s a tense standoff. Willis wants to intervene, but he doesn’t have any lines, so he can’t say anything. But Old Asian Man breaks character, saying: “Yeah, man. I speak English,” ruining the “scene” and ending it prematurely.

Willis goes home to the SRO (single resident occupancy), a large apartment building with 105 apartments, seven bathrooms, and a crisscross of laundry lines connecting the windows. Willis’s mom is waiting for him at his apartment; she gives him a bag full of bah chang, a Taiwanese rice dumpling. She implores Willis to bring his dad some food, and to change his sheets.

Willis remembers a time his mom saved him from injury when he was little. Willis was practicing kung fu moves in the SRO while watching a Bruce Lee movie, and accidentally kicked a pot full of boiling oolong tea. The teapot flipped through the air, and Willis’ mom caught it; the hot pot left burn scars across her forearms. She endured this pain quietly, and when Willis tried to apologize, his mom asked him to promise that he would never try to become Kung Fu Guy. She told him that, instead, he should “Be more.”

An elderly man named Old Fong falls asleep in the shower on the ninth floor and drowns to death, clogging the drain and causing Willis’ room on the eighth floor to flood. Old Fong died trying to read a text message from his son, Young Fong. Fatty Choy, Willis’s friend, found Old Fong injured and dying in the bathroom.

Black and White (i.e., Turner and Green) arrive the next day to investigate the death of Dead Asian Man. During this investigation, residents of the SRO play roles and offer clues that have little or nothing to do with reality. The duo's investigation leads them to interview Old Asian Man. Turner finds himself unable to make any headway despite holding an East Asian Studies Major from Yale. Willis, recognizing an opportunity to step into the limelight, offers to help interview Old Asian Man, and thusly enters the script of Black and White in the form of Generic Asian Man.


We see Turner and Green the way Willis does, which is to say we see their cultivated made-for-TV personas.

We also receive a thorough description of the SRO’s layout in this chapter. Readers aiming to familiarize (or re-familiarize) themselves with this novel’s principal setting would do well to re-read the sections called INT. CHINATOWN SRO and INT. CHINATOWN SRO-STAIRWELL-NIGHT. By way of summary: The SRO is a nine-floor building. The first floor is The Golden Palace, a restaurant in which all of the SRO’s occupants work. The next floor up is an office mezzanine. The following seven floors are all residential. Willis’s parents live in two different apartments on the second. Willis lives on the eighth floor, which is actually the seventh, as the fourth floor does not exist because of tetraphobia, a common superstition in several East Asian nations attributable to a resemblance between the word “four” and the word “death.”

Willis remarks that living in the SRO feels like living inside the restaurant, and so he never truly leaves the Golden Palace; or, per the script heading of Black and White, he never leaves INT. Chinatown.

This chapter also sheds more light on the limitations and pitfalls of becoming Kung Fu Guy, which is the novel’s very qualified version of achieving stardom. During a late night of festive energy in the SRO, Willis expresses his pessimism regarding Asian stardom to his floormates; he says, “Maybe they make one of us Kung Fu Guy. Maybe a few good scenes. Maybe a poster, in the back, real small. And then what?” The response is silence: dead air. It’s a downer, and everyone in the SRO knows it. The path to fame for Generic Asian Man number 1 or 100 is always an upward trudge and steep downward slope into irrelevance. Willis knows this because his dad faded and his brother disappeared, but he still dreams of achieving those same highs.

Willis’ entry into the script of Black and White happens on the back of a very real, tragic death; that of Old Fong. The juxtaposition of a TV police procedural, with its constantly winding intrigue, and the matter-of-fact mundanity of Fong’s death shines a light on the thinness and hollowness of Black and White. This hollowness is enhanced by Willis’s designation as Generic Asian Man, as we, the reader, are already somewhat familiar with the ways in which Willis’s life is unique, emotionally complex, and certainly non-generic.