Willis, in his screenplay, introduces the two leads of Black and White. White Lady Cop (Sarah Green) is “the most accomplished young detective in the history of the department.” Black Dude Cop (Miles Turner) is “a third-generation cop who left Wall Street to honor his father’s legacy.” They’re in charge of the “Impossible Crimes Unit,” which takes on the department’s most difficult cases.
Black and White is the show that Willis and all the other Asian people working at Golden Palace act in. In the surreal world of the novel, the show seems to perpetually be in production. Because of this, scenes and themes that play out in the show become less fictional and more a reflection of society (that is, the real world) itself. Using this logic, then, the show’s title—Black and White—suggests that the environment Willis and the other characters inhabit lacks nuance and relies on a rough, overgeneralized view of the world.
INT. GOLDEN PALACE CHINESE RESTAURANT—NIGHT. White Lady Cop (Sarah Green) and Black Dude Cop (Miles Turner) enter the restaurant, where Dead Asian Guy is dead, a sheet partially covering his body. Another female officer approaches Black Dude Cop and White Lady Cop and tells them that Dead Asian Guy’s family lives nearby. Also, there’s a brother, though he seems to be missing. Black and White look at each other. White, deadpan, says they might be dealing with “The Wong Guy.” Black tries to keep a straight face but laughs anyway. White breaks too, then she apologizes and asks to do the scene again.
Remember that the book is written as a screenplay, so the titles of characters in this guide denote their parts in the script. In referring to characters by their race, job title (or in the case of Dead Asian Guy, simply whether they’re dead or alive), the screenplay portrays the world of Black and White as a place devoid of nuance—a place where people are seen less as individuals and more as demographical statistics. Finally, White’s play on words about the dead man possibly being “The Wong Guy” uses a stereotypically Asian last name as the butt of a joke, thus portraying the world of Black and White as one where casual racism thrives.
BLACK AND WHITE. The opening credits of Black and White feature White Lady Cop (Sarah Green) and Black Dude Cop (Miles Turner) driving around in the police car, though they’re detectives, so this doesn’t really make sense. The show doesn’t deviate from its “form.” No matter how complex the “societal ill” or “crime of hate or intolerance” the detectives are faced with, they can always solve it by the episode’s end. Clues are always there, and they’re always found and figured out. And the show’s heroes always figure out what caused the crime—and it’s always “human nature.” It creates the illusion that the world and all its problems are “manageable” and adhere to “episodic rules and conventions.”
The fact that White Lady Cop and Black Dude Cop drive around in a police car even though they’re detectives portrays the show as nonsensical and unrealistic. In light of this, readers should interpret the show’s portrayal of crime and other “social ill[s]” as a consequence of “human nature” and something that’s “manageable” if only society sticks to its “rules and conventions” as similarly nonsensical and unrealistic—or, at least, oversimplified. The show is suggesting that society has the capacity to solve all its fundamental issues—not that society itself may be responsible for creating and perpetuating those issues.
But Asians complicate things, Willis notes. They’re “a little too real” and so disrupt the simple straightforwardness of Black and White. And that’s why you won’t find them on the show—not because of any “conspiracy” to leave them out. But Willis takes a bit part on the show anyway. Because maybe he can be the person “who actually breaks through.”
When Willis suggests that Asian people disrupt Black and White’s straightforwardness, he’s suggesting that as neither Black nor white, Asian people resist the show’s overgeneralized and unnuanced view of society and social issues. By this logic, then, the book is gesturing toward the idea that Asian people complicate mainstream America’s view of privilege vs. oppression, with white people embodying the epitome of racial privilege and Black people the epitome of racial discrimination. Asian people are minorities in the United States, the book indicates, but society doesn’t believe that they experience discrimination equal to the discrimination that Black people experience.
INT. GOLDEN PALACE CHINESE RESTAURANT—TAKE TWO. The screenplay introduces White Lady Cop in greater detail. Sarah Green, 31, is pretty, tough, and an excellent detective. She’s a laid-back “gal,” the kind who probably orders draft beer and likes sports, but mostly she’s pretty.
In giving White Lady Cop a name, Sarah Green, it gives her the privilege of personhood. Even so, her character suggests the gender biases of the world in which she exists: though she’s a skilled and accomplished detective, ultimately her physical attractiveness is what stands out most about her character.
The screenplay next introduces Black Dude Cop. Miles Turner, 33, is tall, handsome, and extremely muscular. He went to Yale and then worked on Wall Street. But then his father, a veteran of the NYPD, was killed on the job, and so Turner quit his job and became a police officer. He’s been on the force for nearly 11 years, but he’s starting to feel stuck. He’s an impressive officer, the youngest to become a detective, and he’s recently been recruited by the FBI. He hasn’t told Green that he’s thinking of leaving the force, though, as they’re a team—and “maybe something more?”
While on the one hand Black and White purports to be a diverse and progressive show, featuring a woman and a person of color as its leads, it inadvertently reveals the limits of its progressivism by portraying Turner as a man of superhuman accomplishment, implicitly suggesting that in the world of Black and White, Black people have to work harder to deserve basic dignity.
Turner thinks he hears something. Turner and Green draw their weapons. Willis, meanwhile, stands off to the side and watches the scene go down. Turner and Green are about to shoot—but, just then, Sifu (as Old Asian Man) emerges from the shadows. Turner and Green lower their weapons. Turner, assuming Old Asian Man doesn’t speak English, asks in a too-loud voice if Old Asian Man understands them. Old Asian Man, speaking without an accent, tells them he speaks English. Old Asian Man turns toward Willis and smiles, and then the director yells cut.
Turner reveals his own bias when he assumes that Old Asian Man doesn’t speak English—then Old Asian Man, with his clear, unaccented English proves the illegitimacy of that bias. Readers may interpret the director’s instruction to cut as his disapproval of Old Asian Man challenging a stereotype, which the director perhaps thinks could make viewers uncomfortable. According to this view, it doesn’t work for Old Asian Man to speak in unaccented English because it’s not in the show’s script and therefore destabilizes the show’s view of Asian people’s status within mainstream American culture.
INT. CHINATOWN SRO. Willis lives in a room on the eighth floor of the Chinatown SRO Apartments. At the center of the complex is an interior courtyard, which is where the community clothes-drying space is. The courtyard is also home to the building’s “inter-window messaging system,” which is how people communicate with their neighbors. The SRO is above Golden Palace and has 15 rooms per floor and a small bathroom on each floor. It’s impossible to escape the smells emanating from the kitchen—because of the smells, Willis even dreams of the Golden Palace.
SRO stands for single room occupancy—it’s a residential building, usually for lower-income people, where tenants live in private rooms and share communal facilities like a washroom with other tenants. Knowing that Willis and the other characters live here gives readers a greater sense of their economic disadvantage. The lives these immigrant characters and their children experience are quite different from the mythic American Dream, where America is the land of opportunity and any immigrant with a can-do attitude can move their way up in the world.
INT. CHINATOWN SRO—STAIRWELL—NIGHT. Willis walks upstairs to his room. Every floor is “its own ecosystem,” with its own rules. Willis’s parents live on the second floor. Willis knows it would make his mom (Old Asian Woman) happy if he stopped by, not that she’d show it. She’d probably just grouse about how he needs to be a better son. The Cheuks live on the third floor. They have a daughter who, though smart, works downstairs. Their son was born a boy and so got to move to the city. He sends money and food home.
This section gives more insight into Willis’s relationship with his parents. For Willis and his parents, the pressure to perform a role—in this case, the roles of parent and child—create tension and distance in their relationship. Willis knows he’s expected to stop by and see his parents, and yet knowing that his mother will respond with her own performance (the nagging mother who loves her son but won’t dare express it on the outside) makes him not want to visit them.
The Emperor lives on floor seven, but no kid is brave enough to knock on his door. Apparently, he used to be in ads for Emperor’s Delight, a “frozen Oriental Cuisine TV dinners” brand. The company paid him to offer plastic trays of food and then bow to white families in middle America. The Emperor would spend all his paychecks on alcohol until he was drunk enough to laugh at the situation.
Like every other Asian character in the book, the Emperor has had to act out a dehumanizing, ignorant Asian stereotype in order to pay the bills. In the world of the novel, Asian people either conform to ignorant western ideas about how Asian people are supposed look and act, or they cease to exist altogether. An Asian person is either the Emperor or Generic Asian Man—there’s nothing in between.
Willis runs into his mom (Old Asian Woman) on the eighth floor. She immediately scolds him for not stopping by. Willis turns red but says nothing, instead handing her a plastic bag full of bah-chang. She takes the bag from Willis, smiles, and tells him to see his dad (Old Asian Man) sometime—he's not doing well. Willis at first complains that his father won’t talk to him, but then he caves and agrees to come down later.
Willis’s mother scolds him until he hands her the bag of bah-chang (a traditional Chinese rice dish), playing the part of dutiful son. Once more, the book reinforces how performance dominates characters’ lives and interactions with themselves and with others. This scene thus isn't quite an interaction between Willis and his mother specifically—instead, it’s a generic interaction in which Willis tries to act how his mother’s culture believes a good son is supposed to act.
FLASHBACK: YOUR MOTHER. In Willis’s earliest memories of his mom (Old Asian Woman), he’s five years old, and she’s “Young Beautiful Oriental Woman.” She wears floral blouses and bellbottoms as she packs his lunch. Willis can remember sharing hundreds of dinners with his mom while his dad (Old Asian Man) was still at work. When Willis finishes his own portion, his mother gives him some of hers. She tells him stories of when she first came to America and all the dreams she had for her future. After dinner, she does dishes in the communal sink, then she goes downstairs to work at Golden Palace. Willis can remember watching her put on her “work costume,” and then how quiet the room was once she left and her “emotional energy” was gone.
Willis’s mother has been playing parts all her life. Metaphorically, the many roles she has played reinforce the book’s overarching idea that mainstream American society deprives Asian people of individuality. Each of these roles are designed to “other” Willis’s mother—to highlight how exotic and un-American she is. None of them attempt to identify anything about her as a person with unique experiences and perspectives. This scene also shows how years of society dehumanizing Willis’s mother has exhausted and dispirited her—she dreamed of a bigger, brighter future when she was a young woman, but life made her put that dream to rest.
FLASHBACK. Willis’s mother (Old Asian Woman) is reading a textbook called How to Make $1,000,000 in Real Estate. The book claims that no capital or experience are needed, just hard work and a little knowledge. Willis likes the Friday nights when his mom doesn’t have to work. She lets him watch the Kung Fu show on TV. It features a white actor dressed up to look Asian, but Willis doesn’t care—he just watches for the martial arts. He imagines he’s a Kung Fu Guy in training: Kung Fu Kid. He announces to his mother that he’s going to be Bruce Lee when he grows up, but his mother is preoccupied with her textbook and doesn’t respond.
The textbook’s lofty claim that anyone can make money if they just work hard enough gestures toward the bootstraps-mentality that is at the heart of the American Dream. At this point in her life, Willis’s mother still believes that such a dream is possible and plausible to achieve. But for someone who must first fight for mainstream society to take her seriously—to see past her accent or her cultural differences, perhaps—there are extra hurdles to overcome, and so the path to success might not be quite as straightforward.
Willis does some moves to try to get her attention, but his foot hits the tray her teapot is sitting on. The teapot flies through the air, and scalding-hot water splashes his mother’s arm; scars will form on it, and Willis will look at them years later and remember what he did. He apologizes to her later that night. She looks at him with caring eyes and tells him not to be Kung Fu Guy when he grows up—“Be more.”
The physical pain that Willis’s kung fu moves cause his mother—and the emotional pain that they cause Willis—suggests that there may be more costs than benefits to becoming Kung Fu Guy. When Willis’s mother urges him to “be more,” she’s urging him not to internalize America’s perception of him as lesser—as different from any other American due to his race and ethnic background. He should strive to be the person he wants to be—and he shouldn’t let America’s ideas about what he can and can’t be limit his hopes for his future.
INT. CHINATOWN SRO—EIGHTH FLOOR. Willis is awakened by the sound of “Generic Asian Men” talking loudly and obnoxiously. He pokes his head out of the door, and the men pull him outside to join them. Tension builds as the men argue about what “they” want these days; one man thinks they want “flashy kicks,” but another thinks they want Taekwondo. Finally, the men agree it’s really “cool Asian shit” that they want, though nobody really knows what this means. Willis says that even if one of the Generic Asian Men becomes Kung Fu Guy, it won’t really make a difference—things will just go back to the way they were before.
Willis seems conflicted about his desire to be Kung Fu Guy. While it’s clear he still longs for the fame and success that being Kung Fu Guy would bring him, he acknowledges its limitations: even if Generic Asian Men like himself and the other male residents of the SRO one day become Kung Fu Guy, it won’t change the fact that society ultimately sees them as lesser. They might have a little more money and be successful for Asian people fighting the various disadvantages of living as minorities in the United States, but the core issue lies in the fact that their world limits the success and acceptance within mainstream American culture that they can achieve—all because of their racial and cultural backgrounds.
INT. CHINATOWN SRO—EIGHTH FLOOR—YOUR ROOM—NIGHT. The shower pan in floor eight’s bathroom is cracked. It’s been that way since Willis was a kid. People keep repairing it with caulk when it really needs to be replaced; “water hates poor people,” Willis observes. Every time an old person forgets to turn off the faucet, it floods the pan and seeps down to the floors below.
The shower pan becomes a metaphor for the broader predicament that many of the people living in the SRO experience due to their poverty and immigrant status, showing how nearly impossible it is to achieve upward mobility and success when one must abandon long-term goals (replacing the pan) to simply make ends meet in the short term (cheaply repairing the pan instead of replacing it). As the perpetually flooding SRO apartments show, when a person is experiencing poverty, the simple goal of staying afloat can be a losing battle.
INT. CHINATOWN SRO—NIGHT. Old Fong (room 903) fell asleep in the shower, which means “it’ll be raining inside [Willis’s] bedroom” soon. INT. CHINATOWN SRO—LITTLE LATER. It’s now raining inside Willis’s room.
Willis sees his room’s flooding as inevitable and uncontrollable as the weather, suggesting the degree to which his poverty influences his view of the world and controls his life.
INT. CHINATOWN SRO—HALLWAY—LATER. It turns out that Old Fong actually died in the shower. He’d been waiting for a phone call from his son, Young Fong, when he stepped into the shower. When the phone rang, Old Fong ran to get it, then he slipped and hit his head. Apparently, Fatty Choy found him. For once, Fatty Choy doesn’t have anything gossipy to say—instead, he cries for hours.
Old Fong’s death is especially tragic because of its circumstances—when he died, he’d been eagerly anticipating a call from his son. This development adds to the book’s focus on parent-child relationships—and parent-child relationships in immigrant communities specifically.
INT. CHINATOWN SRO—LATE NIGHT. Young Fong arrives to get Old Fong’s things. Wang Tai Tai tries to comfort him, telling him he was a good son and shouldn’t feel bad. Young Fong didn’t feel bad before, but now he does. Willis bums a cigarette off Skinny Lee. As he smokes, he thinks about how Old Fong died waiting for his son’s phone call, wondering if the one person he’d thought would always take care of him actually cared about him at all. Willis watches Young Fong pack up his father’s few possessions. He handles everything carefully, “just as Old Fong had taught him to do.”
Given the book’s focus on how performance and roleplaying factor into a person’s identity, readers may interpret Wang Tai Tai’s remark to Young Fong as a passive aggressive reminder to stick to the script: Young Fong’s lack of sadness deviates from the cultural expectation that he should grieve his father and feel ashamed of the ingratitude he showed him while he was alive, and he needs to play the part on the outside—even if he doesn’t genuinely feel that way on the inside. When Young Fong packs up his father’s possessions with care, “just as Old Fong had taught him to do,” he’s honoring his memory, either genuinely or to perform the role of grateful son that his Chinatown community expects him to perform.
INT. GOLDEN PALACE—AFTER CLOSING. It’s karaoke night. After the drunk patrons finish singing, it’s the staff’s turn. Old Asian Man takes the mic and sings a John Denver song, dedicating the performance to his friend Old Fong. Old men from Taiwan love John Denver, Willis explains, perhaps because of the “myth of the West,” or “the dream of the open highway.” By the time Old Asian Man is finished singing “Country Roads,” Willis suggests to the reader, addressing them directly, perhaps it’ll make sense why an old man from Taiwan who’s been an immigrant for most of his life will nail a song “about wanting to go home.”
Though the world of the novel exoticizes old Asian men like Willis’s father, casting them in roles that emphasize their otherness and portray them as decidedly unassimilated into mainstream American culture, in fact Old Asian Man and other men like him relate to one of the most quintessentially American cultural relics—the country song—because it surfaces nostalgic feelings for a home they can’t return to. This karaoke scene thus emphasizes how overgeneralizing, one-dimensional stereotypes are often incorrect.
BLACK AND WHITE PRODUCTION NOTES. The production notes list “taped eyelids” under the MAKEUP category and “Oriental flourishes and touches” under the SET DESIGN category.
This brief section, which lists the products that Black and White’s makeup department uses, gestures toward the inaccuracies of the entertainment industry’s portrayal of Asian design and architecture (“Oriental flourishes and torches”) and either some form of whitewashing (“taped eyelids”), which is where non-Asian actors are cast in Asian roles, or perhaps manipulating an Asian actor’s eyelids to appear more conventionally Caucasian.
INT. GOLDEN PALACE CHINESE RESTAURANT—NIGHT. Dead Asian Guy is dead, and Green and Turner are investigating. Green reminds Turner that they need “to be sensitive here.” Just then, Old Asian Man approaches them. Turner tells Green she should speak first—a lot of older Asian people are pretty racist. Green gives him a look but approaches the man and shows him her badge. She asks him if he knew the dead man. Old Asian Man doesn’t answer at first. His unreadable face reflects “the repressive conditioning of his Confucian worldview,” and Green doesn’t know what to do. Turner tries to get him to talk, albeit more aggressively. Both ask if he understands or needs a translator. Still, Old Asian Man doesn’t talk.
The purpose of Green’s character in Black and White seems to be to give the show a (false) air of cultural sensitivity—yes, the show stereotypes Asian people, but it does so in a “sensitive” and respectful manner. She also counteracts Turner’s character, who is more overtly racist. At the same time, though, Green’s inability to read “the repressive conditioning of [Old Asian Man’s] Confucian worldview”—and the exoticized tone of that description itself—shows that her sensitivity is mere performance; in fact, she’s no more able or willing to level with Old Asian Man as a person (as opposed to a stereotype) than her overtly racist partner is.
Finally, Turner, trying to intimidate Old Asian Man, suggests that they take him down to the station. He gets his handcuffs out and draws his gun. Green pleads with him to put the gun away and asks Old Asian Man, one last time, to identify himself. Now Willis, listed in the script as “Generic Asian Man,” emerges and speaks to the detectives. “I’m no one,” says Willis. But he does think maybe he can help them. Turner and Green step aside and contemplate whether they can trust the man. Green says they probably have no choice and that “Chinatown is a different world.” Turner reminds Green that he minored in East Asian Studies at Yale, but Green is annoyed—it’s not the first time she’s heard this, and it doesn’t do them any good.
Turner’s comment about minoring in East Asian Studies at Yale is another example of meaningless posturing. He’s essentially implying that he can’t be racist because he took a few classes in East Asian studies, when in fact his behavior—his aggression and his unwillingness to relate to Old Asian Man as a real person—suggests the very opposite. When Willis, in character as Generic Asian Man, offers to help Turner and Green (who here represent “the system”), he symbolically agrees to participate in a system of racial discrimination that actively discriminates against him and people who look like him.
Green turns back to Generic Asian Man (Willis) and compliments his good English. He thanks her. Turner notes that Willis doesn’t even have an accent. (In an aside, Willis berates himself for forgetting to put on an accent.) The next time he speaks, he assumes a phony accent and, speaking in broken English, asks if they want him “to be policeman[.]” Then, thinking this might be his big break, he offers to help them. “Oriental music” sounds as the scene cuts to black.
Interior Chinatown frequently blurs the line between the world of the screenplay (the world of Black and White, in which Willis embodies Asian characters) and the real world (in which Willis is an actor playing these roles). This passage is an acute example of this—it’s unclear whether Green (in character) is complimenting Generic Asian Man’s English in a condescending way (to convey her surprise that an Asian man like him can speak English) or whether the actress portraying Green is passive aggressively “complimenting” Willis the actor’s English to point out to him that he forgot to speak in the Asian accent the script called for.