Willis Wu's billing on Black and White changes to fill in several stereotypical Asian roles. He plays, among other roles, Background Oriental Male, Dead Asian Man, Oriental Guy Making a Strange Face, and Delivery Guy. Each of these roles are stock characters with little to no complexity. In other words, these characters are, at maximum, two-dimensional. The generic nature of each role is evident in the racist non-specificity of the word "Oriental," as well as the implied mass availability and interchangeability of 'Generic Asian Man Number Three. Later, when Wu becomes the aspirational Kung Fu Guy, considered by many in the Golden Palace to be the apex of Asian celebrity, Wu realizes that he has been made to dream within the confines of stereotype.
This novel's dramatization of stereotypes is exceedingly powerful with regard to Wu's parents. His mother and father, who he loves dearly, are assigned roles having everything to do with their ages and perceived fit into the "bigger picture" of a TV show. For example, Wu's mother, one of the most important people in his life, is made to be "Pretty Oriental Flower," conforming to a thin, crude understanding of who she is. It's heartbreaking.
The stereotype isn't only a crutch for bad storytelling, it's a limiting factor in how we see other people. By drawing sharp, dramatic attention to the gulf between these facile labels and real life, Yu tells a story about recognizing human dignity that would otherwise be obscured by stereotypes.
Age and Generational Differences/Similarities
Wu cares for his father, the sick and elderly "Sifu," who was once "Young Dragon." Early in the novel, Wu expresses pain and resentment over their one-sided relationship. He begrudges the amount of care his father needs and feels both guilt and disappointment when he thinks back to his father’s stern, disciplinary style of parenthood. He also considers his father's resistance to help prideful and somewhat selfish.
Later, Wu's empathy for his father grows. He recognizes the similarities between his father's fleeting kung-fu celebrity and his own. To reinforce this, we are given, in full narrative detail, the story of his parents' early days at the Golden Palace. We see these less-recent hopes and dreams play out similarly to the novel's "present events," effectively bridging this generational gap with a commonality of experience. In other words, Wu realizes that the generational difference is a less profound divider than he originally thought. He finds that he and his parents have struggled with the same institutional problems of disregard, callousness, cruelty. This empathy demonstrates itself meaningfully in the novel’s beautiful epilogue, in which Wu sees Sifu and Phoebe, his daughter, playing together in the kitchen. All three generations share a moment off-stage.
Age is also presented in Interior Chinatown with all its physical realities attached. Health fails over time, and we see the ways in which residents of The Golden Palace provide for their elderly neighbors, as well as the ways in which they flinch from the gruesomeness of disease. There is a constant tension between real injury and illness and the dramatized TV version of illness and injury. Like many of Interior Chinatown’s motifs, the same language is used for the TV version and real version.
The Golden Palace is a generic Asian place, with a name similar to “Pretty Oriental Flower,” “Young Dragon,” and “Kung Fu Guy.” It is a universal version of an Asian setting, neither Chinese nor Taiwanese. It is Chinatown inasmuch as any small enclave in a city may be. It is also home to a single-resident-occupancy building (SRO), a restaurant, and the setting of several generic “Chinatown” locales, like decorative restaurants or crime dens. Black and White shoots at The Golden Palace whenever the show needs a scene at an exoticized Asian place.
Like many of Interior Chinatown’s absurdist elements, The Golden Palace is charged with the double-duty of hosting real emotional lives and exaggerated made-for-TV behavior. The novel, perhaps because of this dual nature, must move between different tones. Charles Yu steadies these tonal shifts by holding firm to likely realities. For example: after The Golden Palace is made to accommodate the destructive chaos of an action scene, we read about the ways in which Palace residents join together to sweep up, tend to the injured, and count their dead.
The center of American life, in Interior Chinatown, is occupied by black and white people. This is evidenced by the stars of "Black and White," as well as Willis's internalized feelings of inferiority towards them.
Reincarnation following death is another of the novel's major themes. The theme first enters the story when the reader learns that when Wu's character is killed off from Black and White, he must take 45 days off before he can appear on the show again; in that time, the audience will have forgotten the previous character existed. After the interval, Wu is resurrected and brought back on-screen, usually in a new role. This type of death provides respite from the demand to perform. Wu remembers his mother’s deaths fondly, as she was able to spend more time with him. The theme builds as Wu leaves old characters behind as he is reincarnated in more prestigious roles, climbing the hierarchy of available stereotypes to play. The theme is mirrored in his off-screen life as Wu reincarnates himself as Kung Fu Dad. However, the exhaustive cycle of death and rebirth takes its toll on Wu. By the time he is shot and killed in the courtroom, he breaks character to tell the detectives he "can't do this anymore." The superficial world of roles then dissolves, and Wu is finally reinvented as himself, no longer a variation on Generic Asian Man.
Interior Chinatown literalizes the concept of performing roles that conform to pre-existing notions about race. The residents of the Golden Palace perform a range of Asian roles created by the Western gaze, from crime bosses to martial artists. These roles have nothing to do with the off-screen lives of the actors.
Even the stars of Black and White are forced to perform within the confines of their predetermined sexual and racial wheelhouse.
As Wu grows, he comes to feel an increasing sense of dissonance between himself and the roles he has to perform. This culminates in a trial, during which Wu has to defend his desire to be treated well, to be seen outside the confines of his racially prefigured role in American society.
Notably, during this section, Miles Turner and Sarah Green accuse Wu of narcissism and internalized guilt. They suggest that his demand for individuality is a disrespectful attempt to leapfrog over the struggles of black people and women in America. This conflict illustrates how a superficial, competitive society puts people at odds with each other by default.
Interior Chinatown is written so that its dialogue, narration, and actions resemble the pieces of a teleplay (the TV version of a screenplay, which is a term reserved for movies). Even Willis Wu's internal thoughts take the form of script actions.
This device is often used to add storytelling flexibility that would be difficult in a more conventional novel. For example, character names change very rapidly in accordance with Wu's changing perceptions.
The novel also has sequences called montages, such as the "Historical Newsreel Montage" in Act 4: Struggling Immigrant, during which we learn about the war crimes of Chiang Kai-shek, who imposed martial law on Taiwan for thirty years. This montage is a historical briefing, and it is also a key to understanding Sifu, or Ming-Chen Wu's past.
Importance of Family
The importance of family is another dominant theme in Interior Chinatown. From the outset, Yu emphasizes how closely Wu's life resembles those of his family, as his mother, father, and older brother have all been actors forced to adapt to generic Asian roles. The pressure of performing these roles creates tension among the family members, leading Wu's father to become estranged and Wu's brother to disappear mysteriously. Wu eventually meets Karen and they start their own family. However, Wu's selfish desire to become Kung Fu Guy leads their marriage to fall apart. He finally gets the role, but the achievement is hollow because he has sacrificed his wife and daughter in the process. At the end of the novel, Wu gives up on trying to conform to the generic roles available to him and focuses on his family. With this turn away from acting toward a pure enjoyment of family, Yu underscores the importance of the genuine bonds of family to the superficial rewards of Wu's life as an actor.
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.