Interior Chinatown


Charles Yu

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Interior Chinatown Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Charles Yu's Interior Chinatown. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Charles Yu

Charles Chowkai Yu was born in 1976 in Los Angeles to Taiwanese immigrant parents. He attended the University of California, Berkeley, earning a BS in Molecular and Cell Biology and minoring in creative writing. In addition to Interior Chinatown, which won the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction, Yu has written a novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), and two collections of short stories. He served as a story editor for 10 episodes of the HBO series Westworld and co-wrote an episode for the show, and in 2017 he was nominated for two Writers Guild of America awards for his work on the show. Yu’s essays, book reviews, and other writing have appeared in The Atlantic and Slate, among other notable online and print publications. Yu was named a “5 under 35” honoree by the National Book Foundation by Richard Powers in 2007. He currently lives near Irvine, California with his wife and their two children.
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Historical Context of Interior Chinatown

Interior Chinatown examines Hollywood’s history of casting Asian actors as racist, stereotypical characters to make a broader point about the link between systemic racism, media representation, and identity.  Hollywood’s portrayal of Asian Americans has been controversial, its history fraught with offensive stereotypes, “yellowface” roles (white actors made up to represent East Asian characters), and whitewashing (white actors cast in non-white roles). Japanese silent film actor Sessue Hayakawa is widely considered the first Asian film star. He was popular in Hollywood in the 1910s and 1920s and was frequently cast as a leading man in romantic dramas of the era. However, Hayakawa left Hollywood in 1922, possibly in response to growing anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S. Though he later returned to Hollywood and acted in a number of successful films, throughout his career Hayakawa was frequently typecast as a villain or forbidden lover and barred from playing heroic roles, which the industry typically reserved for white actors. In the early 20th century, it was common for white actors to caricature Asian characters in “yellowface.” One noted example of this is Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Japanese landlord I.Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Well into the 21st century, white actors continue to be cast in non-white roles—in Aloha (2015), for instance, Emma Stone portrays the character Allison Ng, a character of Native Hawaiian and Chinese descent. Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh made history at the 95th Academy Awards in 2023 when she became the first Asian actress to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022). Though the portrayal of Asian American characters in Western media has vastly improved over the past century, underrepresentation of Asian Americans in Hollywood persists.

Other Books Related to Interior Chinatown

In addition to Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu has written How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, a science fiction novel that, like Interior Chinatown, examines themes of identity and the construction of the self. The book follows time-travel technician Charles Yu in his quest to find his father. Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker deals with similar themes of immigration and assimilation. The novel follows the story of Henry Park, young Korean American man, as he struggles to assimilate into American culture. Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning is a book of essays about Hong’s experience growing up in the U.S. as a Korean American woman. Hong draws from her personal experience to examine how the systemic racism that marginalized communities face in a predominantly white society can lead to feelings of shame, depression, and paranoia.
Key Facts about Interior Chinatown
  • Full Title: Interior Chinatown
  • When Published: 2020
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Novel, Satire
  • Setting: Chinatown in Los Angeles, California
  • Climax: In the courtroom scene, Willis delivers an emotional monologue about identity, performance, and assimilation. As he gives his speech, Willis comes to terms with the ways he has internalized racist stereotypes about Asian people, allowing those stereotypes to define how he sees himself—and how he sees others. 
  • Antagonist: Asian stereotypes; systemic racism
  • Point of View: Most of Interior Chinatown is structured as a screenplay. The novel’s scripted sections are interspersed with the internal musings of Willis Wu, told from his second-person perspective.

Extra Credit for Interior Chinatown

From Screenplay to Screen. In 2020, Hulu announced its plans to adapt Interior Chinatown into a TV series.

Fact and Fiction. Charles Yu’s parents immigrated from Taiwan to the United States, much like protagonist Willis Wu’s parents. Yu has stated that his parents’ experiences inspired many parts of Interior Chinatown that deal with Old Asian Man and Old Asian Woman.