Interior Chinatown tells the story of Willis Wu, an American actor and the son of Taiwanese immigrants. Most of the novel follows a screenplay structure, interspersing scripted scenes of TV in which Willis acts with Willis’s internal musings. The narrative frequently blurs the line between scripted scenes and reality. INT. GOLDEN PALACE. Willis Wu has longed to be “Kung Fu Guy” his whole life, but he’s currently just “Background Oriental Male.” On a casting sheet, he lists his skills, which include “Kung Fu (Moderate Proficiency)” and “Fluent in Accented English.” He also lists his credits, including “Disgraced Son,” “Delivery Guy,” and “Caught Between Two Worlds.” Willis’s mother has played the roles of “Pretty Oriental Flower,” “Asiatic Seductress,” and “Girl with the Almond Eyes.” Willis’s father has played the roles of “Wizened Chinaman,” “Egg Roll Cook,” and “Sifu, the Mysterious Kung Fu Master.”
The novel uses the metaphor of acting to suggest that a person’s identity is something they perform rather than something they innately are. From the start, readers get a sense of the book’s experimental structure and the surreal elements of the world its characters inhabit—here, Asian people literally become the stereotypes that mainstream American culture applies to them, acting out the stereotypes as though playing a part in a movie.
INT. GOLDEN PALACE—MORNING. Willis explains that in the “world of Black and White” everyone who “looks like [him]” gets their start playing “Generic Asian Man.” Women are “Pretty Asian Woman.” Everyone Willis knows works at Golden Palace, which used to be called Jade Palace. The restaurant is dimly lit and decorated with fancy woodwork that might just be an “imitation” of the real thing. There’s a new drink on the menu, the “lychee margarita-tini.” Willis hasn’t had it—it costs $14. Patrons occasionally leave a little leftover in their glass, and some of the kitchen staff sneak a sip. This is dangerous though, since “the director” is always watching.
Like the Asian actors who imitate the stereotypes that white society applies to them, Golden Palace imitates white society’s vision of Asian culture, even if that vision (i.e., the restaurant’s fancy woodwork) is inauthentic. This scene also gives readers more insight into the novel’s world. On the one hand, it’s realistic—the novel’s setting is Chinatown, a place that really exists. But there are also surreal elements, as the novel seems to suggest that its characters are all taking part in a perpetually ongoing movie—they’re playing parts like “Generic Asian Man” even as they work at the Golden Palace, which seems to be both a real restaurant and a stage on which they perpetually play out these roles.
ROLES. Willis explains that you have to work your way up to better roles. At the bottom is “Background Oriental Male,” and from there “Dead Asian Man” and “Generic Asian Man Number Three/Delivery Guy.” Some people can even become “Generic Asian Man Number One,” though this is rare. But if you’re really lucky, you get to become “Kung Fu Guy,” which is the closest to a movie star any Asian man can get. He’s “the default guy who gets trotted out whenever there’s kung fu to be done.”
Though a path to success exists for Asian actors like Willis—they can work their way up from bit parts like “Background Oriental Male” to more substantial roles—that success is relative. When Willis claims that Kung Fu Guy is the closest an Asian actor can get to becoming a movie star, he’s implying that Asian actors can’t become movie stars—a level of fame reserved, presumably, for white actors.
INT. GOLDEN PALACE. Willis is still “Generic Asian Man Number Three/Deliver Guy.” His kung fu isn’t that great. Sifu has told him that his “drunken monkey” was almost good enough that Sifu might not be embarrassed to be seen with him in public one day. Willis longs to make Sifu proud, but it’s hard to tell what Sifu is thinking.
Willis struggles with his self-esteem and confidence because his kung fu isn’t that great. And in his world, kung fu skills—the skills that might lead to him scoring the coveted role of Kung Fu Guy—are the only way he can work his way up and achieve success and personal satisfaction, in his career and in his life in general.
OLD ASIAN MAN. Sifu isn’t really Sifu anymore—now, he’s “Old Asian Man.” The first time Willis noticed this was when he arrived a little early for their weekly lesson, and Sifu had a hard time recognizing Willis. Sifu recovered after a few moments and invited Willis inside, but Willis spent the rest of the day thinking about the confused look that Sifu gave him.
Sifu’s identity changes based on the roles he’s cast in. Though once he was “Sifu, the Mysterious Kung Fu Master”—an identity that conveyed his success and set him apart from Asian actors stuck acting out generic roles—now in his old age he’s forced to give up his glory and become generic once more, the role of “Old Asian Man” more a designation of his ethnic background and age than an identity.
Willis’s friend Fatty Choy tells everyone that Sifu is on food stamps and regularly looks through the trash for things to take. He saves disposable chopsticks and packets of soy sauce. He bought his old Formica kitchen table from a salvage bin at a restaurant supply warehouse. Its surface is worn down from thousands of meals Willis and Sifu have eaten together.
That Sifu has fallen into poverty in his old age suggests that the glory that being Kung Fu Guy brings is temporary and limited in its ability to provide meaning, personal fulfillment, and security.
When Sifu was young, he could break a cinder block with just one finger. Young Willis always braced himself for Sifu’s failure and resultant mangled hand, but it never happened. Afterward, Willis would feel proud of Sifu—and ashamed of himself for ever doubting him. Now, Willis sees that his father is no longer the man he used to be. “He’d played his role for so long he'd lost himself in it.” Instead of leaping from roofs, he falls asleep after meals. Long after reaching adulthood, Willis continued to come to Sifu for lessons, though it’s clear that the lessons are just “a flimsy pretense.” The real reason that Willis visits is to deliver the groceries, medications, and other things his father needs.
This section sheds light on Willis’s relationship with his father. It’s clear from the way Willis describes Sifu in his youth that he is proud of his father and all his skills. It’s also clear that Willis’s desire to be Kung Fu Guy goes beyond a desire for fame and success—he wants to live up to his father’s image and make him proud. And yet, the fact that Willis continues to visit Sifu under the guise of taking lessons from him—even though both of them know the lessons are just a “pretense” for Willis to look after his ailing father—shows how Sifu’s past as Kung Fu Guy has hurt their relationship. Playing Kung Fu Guy for so long has effectively made Sifu become Kung Fu Guy to himself and to Willis. And this is why they must pretend that Willis is coming to Sifu for help with his kung fu skills rather than to take care of his ailing father.
Now, Sifu apologizes about needing Willis’s help—he’d never apologize when he was a younger man, and certainly not in English. Now Sifu looks at Willis with a blank stare, apparently seeing Willis more as a “helpful stranger” than his own son and “most loyal student.” Now, their relationship is mostly just Willis being concerned with acting the right way, saying the right things, and not asking any questions; it's important for Willis to stay in character during these visits. If Willis misses a week of visits, Sifu will “sit in the dark” that week. He probably won’t die—but maybe he will. Still, even on the worst days, Sifu only forgets Willis for a couple minutes.
That Sifu sees Willis as a “helpful stranger” suggests that he could be suffering from dementia in his old age. But symbolically, it suggests the degree to which acting and performing have colored both men’s sense of self and their relationship to each other. Each thinks of the other in terms of the tasks he performs rather than the person he is. Willis looks after his father, and so he’s a “helpful stranger.” If Willis deviates from the script—if he doesn’t say the right thing or asks too many questions—it throws everything off.
Lately, Sifu has assumed new roles: “Old Asian Cook” and “Old Asian Guy Smoking.” It’s hard to see him in this “new phase of life.” But part of his old self remains, and everyone sees him as “all of his former incarnations.” Because of this, nobody has really noticed him age, even Willis’s mother, who is now “Old Asian Woman.” She and Willis’s father are still married, but they live separate lives. Though they once had a great romance, they “lost the plot” at some point, and their life became “an immigrant family story,” and then they were just two people trying to make it through life.
The new roles that Sifu has taken on—Old Asian Cook and Old Asian Guy Smoking—reinforce the idea that a person’s identity (and in the novel, this pertains to Asian people specifically) is determined by what they do or how the world sees them, not by who they are on the inside. Willis’s description of his separated parents as having “lost the plot” continues the theme of real life as performance. In the world of the novel, characters are stereotypes before they are people, and they follow scripts rather than speaking or behaving authentically.
Willis’s parents have also become poor. Now Sifu knows exactly what time restaurants in Chinatown toss out their old pork buns. He shops for food in bargain bins at the ninety-nine-cent store. Of course, nobody in Chinatown has much money to help Sifu, and Old Asian Woman has struggled to get by herself. Or this is what everyone says to make themselves feel better. Maybe if everyone would’ve helped—even a little bit—things could’ve turned out better.
Willis emphasizes the lack of support his parents have received from their wider community, suggesting a sense of entrapment.
OLDER BROTHER. Older Brother got the most out of Sifu’s teachings and so should’ve been in the best position to help. He’s not Willis’s real brother—he’s “Everyone’s Older Brother.” He’s talented, smart, and popular: the “Guardian of Chinatown.” At one point, he and Sifu briefly starred together in a story about “father-and-son martial arts experts.” Older Brother never had to work his way up from “Generic Asian Man.” He was born to be “Kung Fu Guy” and eventually became him. He makes Kung Fu Guy money, too.
Willis’s effusive praise of Older Brother reinforces his belief that being Kung Fu Guy is a positive thing that meaningfully improves one’s life. Even this early in the novel, it’s clear that Willis can’t really conceive of a life or value system beyond the confines of Chinatown—his priorities and hopes for the future are bound up in the stereotypical characters who inhabit that place.
Older Brother is like Bruce Lee, but not exactly For one, Bruce Lee is too “real” to be a myth. He made a whole new fighting system, Jeet Kune Do, and showed that not all Asian Men had to be Generic. But Bruce Lee “proved too much.” Normal people can’t achieve that. Older Brother is the opposite of Bruce Lee—he’s a “myth.” Willis idolized Bruce Lee, but it was Older Brother he actually wanted to be when he grew up.
Bruce Lee was a Hong Kong and American martial artist and pop culture icon who starred in a number of action films in the 1970s and is credited with changing the American entertainment industry’s portrayal of Asian people in films and challenging harmful stereotypes. When Willis claims that Lee “proved too much,” he’s suggesting that Lee is the exception to the rule—he might have proved mainstream white society wrong, but that just gave mainstream America a new flawed and unreal framework by which to judge Asian people. Ordinary Asian people are no more like Bruce Lee than they are like the exoticized Asian stereotypes Lee’s success challenged.
BEGIN OLDER BROTHER AWESOMENESS MONTAGE: Older Brother’s hair is always perfect. He’s also the rare Asian guy that has slightly wavy hair. His Kung Fu is top-notch, and he knows Judo and Muay Thai too. If he gets drunk enough—though he never really gets that drunk—he’ll show off his knife tricks. He’s also “five eleven and three-quarters,” which is the best height for an Asian man. He's tall enough to be noticed, even by White women, but not so tall that people would think he’s a “Mongolian freak” like Yao Ming. He’ll never lose a bar fight or a basketball game. Despite never being in a gang, the tough guys still respect him and give him his space. He’s also a National Merit Scholar and got a 1570 on the SAT.
Willis suggests that Older Brother’s success is predicated on mainstream (white) culture’s acceptance of him: he’s tall enough for white women to find him attractive, but he doesn’t so exceed the mainstream’s expectations for the height of an Asian person that they consider him a “freak” like Yao Ming (a famously tall basketball player). Also, note that Older Brother’s success relies on his perfection—suggesting that mainstream American (white) society might not accept him if he were just average. In this way, Willis’s assessment suggests that there are clear limits to an average Asian male’s ability to assimilate into mainstream American culture.
Everyone has a story about Older Brother. One person recalls seeing him doing chin-ups on the cross bar of a traffic signal—with one hand. It’s unclear which stories are true and which are made up. But he’s just “mythical” like that—“the ideal mix of assimilated and authentic.”
With the ridiculous suggestion that Older Brother does chin-ups as he waits to cross the street, Willis’s praise of Older Brother almost becomes comical. In this way, the book critically suggests that Asian people are expected to overperform and achieve extraordinary feats for mainstream (white) American society simply to accept them. This passage also gestures toward one of the conflicts that will plague Willis over the course of the novel: how to strike an appropriate balance between “assimilated and authentic.” When Willis suggests that Older Brother’s success at striking this balance is “mythical,” he’s getting at how difficult and perhaps impossible it is to truly inhabit both worlds.
For a while, everything was happening like it was supposed to for Older Brother. But then one day, it all stopped: he wasn’t Kung Fu Guy anymore. It was because “there were limits to the dream of assimilation,” and he’d hit the “ceiling.” But, Willis offers, perhaps this is a good thing. Because Older Brother was never really comfortable with his special standing—he didn’t relate to “Kung Fu Guy.” And his Kung Fu was too good to be made “flashy” by Hollywood. So, it’s good he never got famous: “Better to be a legend than a star.” END OLDER BROTHER AWESOMENESS MONTAGE.
When Willis suggests that there are “limits to the dream of assimilation” and that Older Brother accomplished as much as he possibly could and hit the “ceiling,” he’s indicating that mainstream America will always see Older Brother’s connection to Asian culture as detracting from his Americanness.