DEATH, PART I—II. The worst part about dying, Willis explains, is that you need to take 45 days off before you can start working again. Willis is out getting coffee and donuts when he runs into Attractive Officer; she says hello, greeting him as Very Special Guest Star. He’s surprised to see her here, thinking she’d have a bigger part on Black and White. “Asian Men aren’t the only people,” she replies, gesturing at the Asian men and Black women sitting around the shop. She suggests they start their own show someday and call it Black and Yellow. They raise their coffees to toast to the dream they know will never happen.
In this passage, Attractive Officer implies that Willis’s own experience with discrimination somewhat seems to blind him to the discrimination that other demographics face—recall that Turner said something to a similar effect when Willis complained about Green calling him “Asian guy.”
DEATH, PART III. Willis explains why 45 days is the minimum amount of time you have to take off work—it’s “just long enough for everyone to forget you existed.” Even if viewers think all Asian people look alike, they’d still know if you get murdered one day and show up as a busboy in a scene later in the week. Of course, 45 days is only the ideal amount of time for “them.” They don’t care that you have bills to pay or a family to take care of—“you are nobody” to them once you’re dead.
Willis takes issue with the fact that whoever decided 45 days is how long it takes “for everyone to forget [an Asian character] existed” clearly didn’t consider the actual actors who must work to make ends meet. This oversight reinforces the notion of a system that’s biased against certain demographics.
Some people think it’s good to die—otherwise, you play the same role for too long and can’t remember who you really are. Willis’s mom used to die all the time, and these are his happiest childhood memories; his mom’s hair would be down, and they’d go back to the SRO together, and Willis would have her all to himself. It was only when she was dead that “she got to be your mother.”
Being “dead” (i.e., not acting out a role) allows Willis’s mother to disassociate from the stereotypes her acting roles force her to embody and, as a result, she gets to reconnect with her authentic self and interact with Willis without pretense. Unfortunately, though, Willis frames these times as an exception, not the norm.
INT. AMERICAN MOVIES—1950s AND ’60s. Back when she was Young Asian Woman, Willis’s mother used to dream she’d have a better life. Once, an American movie made it to the theaters in Taiwan. Willis’s mother sat with her father and her nine siblings, all of them sharing the same bottle of Coke and watching the “luminous whiteness” of Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, and Natalie Wood on the screen.
The detail of Willis’s mother and her nine siblings all sharing one bottle of Coke suggests the poverty in which she grew up and longed to escape in coming to America. But as her life in the novel’s present day indicates, the “luminous white” she saw on the screen at the movies that day was quite literal, reserved mostly for white Americans and withheld from many people like her.
INT. THE MOVIE VERSION OF HER LIFE—NIGHT. Willis’s mother (as Pretty Asian Hostess) is wearing a red cheongsam. Nat King Cole plays on the jukebox. She descends the stairs. Old Asian Man looks up as she approaches him but he’s young now, wearing a suit, and playing the role of Dashing Asian Man. He approaches Pretty Asian Hostess and says he’s been looking for her. But suddenly he can’t say anything more—there are no lines for him to read, nothing that lets him know how he’s supposed to think or feel. As she waits for him to speak, she thinks of the beautiful life they might have, one where they have names that aren’t Asian Woman and Asian Man. The scene transforms, and now the two characters are in the Golden Palace Chinese Restaurant.
In the movie version of Willis’s mother’s life—the one she imagined she’d one day have as she gazed up at the actors cast in “luminous white” on the theater screen—she and Willis’s father are young and beautiful, and their future is full of possibility. But such a life is beyond their reach, as indicated by Willis’s father’s inability to say anything—he can’t speak because there are no lines for him to say: the script (and the larger society it represents) has prescribed them no happy future or upward mobility, and so the movie version of Willis’s mom’s life is little more than an idealized vision of the dreams she had for her future—dreams that hard reality crushed.
INT. GOLDEN PALACE CHINESE RESTAURANT—NIGHT. Willis’s mother still looks beautiful in her cheongsam, but now she’s standing at the hosting station instead of descending a staircase. Old Asian Man is still young and dressed in a suit, but he's not wearing a tie anymore—he’s now playing the role of Asian Man/Waiter, and his clothes are soaked through with sweat from all the hard manual labor he’s done that day. He asks Pretty Asian Hostess if she has a name. When she says no, he suggests they make up names, just for themselves—maybe names they’ve heard in movies. Pretty Asian chooses Dorothy; Asian Man/Waiter chooses Ming-Chen Wu.
This scene represents the reality that set in before Willis’s mother’s dream could take hold: in this version, she’s not a beautiful woman who descends a staircase as admiring men look on. Instead, she and Willis’s father are exhausted from working hard for little pay at the Golden Palace. And the script doesn’t even grant them the dignity of a name—they have to do that themselves.
Dorothy and Ming-Chen Wu share a cigarette and pots of tea. They talk about their pasts—both come from poor families in the old country. They decide to make the best of the bit parts their new home gives them “just to get in.”
Despite the hardships they’ve endured to get to the U.S., and the struggles they’ve experienced since they arrived, Dorothy and Wu decide to make the best of the limited opportunities their new home affords to immigrants like themselves. They think that it’ll be enough “just to get in” and that eventually they can rise through the ranks and have the happy life they want—though the novel’s present shows that things didn’t happen quite this way.
INT. DOROTHY’S BACKSTORY—HOSPital—DAY. It’s 1969, and Dorothy is working as a nurse’s assistant in Alabama for meager wages. She gives sponge baths to older patients who call her “China doll,” come on to her, and then get angry when she turns them down. Home isn’t much better: ever since she first arrived in America, she’s lived with her older sister, Angela, who is jealous of her good looks and the way Angela’s husband looks at her. Then one day Angela packs Dorothy’s bags and buys her a one-way ticket to Akron.
Dorothy’s patients accept her only if she complies with their wish that she act submissively—once she turns down their advances and tries to reclaim personal agency, they turn on her.
INT. GREYHOUND BUS—AMERICAN BACKROADS—DAY. Dorothy rides the bus through the countryside, which is every bit as magnificent as she imagined it would be. It helps distract her from the crowded, smelly bus. The worst part about Angela kicking her out is that she kept Dorothy’s favorite book, a copy of Hamilton’s Mythology—the book that she read to learn English. She loves reading myths about all the gods. She likes the minor gods best—it’s easier to learn all she can about them, and when she becomes an expert one day, she’ll write her own entry. Maybe one about the “god of immigrants.”
Dorothy’s fascination with myths suggests her understanding of America and the future she might have there. Though she still hopes that her circumstances will improve someday, as of now (and as her life at the novel’s present confirms), her reality is far less happy and prosperous than she imagined it’d be.
INT. DOROTHY’S FUTURE. Years pass, and Dorothy finds her old book of gods and reads it to young Willis in their one-room apartment. He struggles to sound out the words and becomes overjoyed when at last he can decipher their meaning.
In reading the mythology book to Willis, Dorothy symbolically passes down her American Dream to her son, giving him the perhaps mythic hope for a better future that she once possessed—and perhaps still does, even if it’ll be her son who finally achieves it rather than herself.
Years later, Dorothy receives a phone call from her brother-in-law in Alabama: Angela needs her help. Dorothy travels there and finds Angela sitting on the couch, watching TV, and wearing a diaper that hasn’t been changed for over a day. She brings Angela home with her and cares for her until she dies just over one year later.
Despite the conflict that characterized their earlier relationship, Dorothy cares for Angela in her final days, reinforcing the book’s emphasis on the importance of family.
INT. GOLDEN PALACE CHINESE RESTAURANT. Ming-Chen Wu sits and stares as Dorothy finishes her story. He snaps out of the state he’s in and begins his own story. EXT. MING-CHEN WU’S BACKSTORY. Ming Cheng’s story is very different from Dorothy’s. His is more a “Historical Period Piece,” and he plays the role of “Child Victim of Oppression.”
The book’s screenplay structure continues to emphasize how heavily narrative convention and storytelling shape the way characters make sense of their lives and their identities.
BEGIN HISTORICAL NEWSREEL MONTAGE. A News Reader voiceover describes what will later be known as the 2/28 Incident, a period of violence and antigovernment protests that began in February 1947 and lasted several weeks in Taiwan, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Taiwanese civilians. The New York Times describes all the “indiscriminate killing and looting” and the bodies that lined the streets of poorer parts of town. By the end of March, the governor of Taiwan, Chen Yi, regains control with the help of troops sent from mainland China, and he orders organizers of the uprising to be imprisoned or killed; more than 3,000 are executed.
The 2/28 Incident was an anti-government uprising that China’s nationalist government (Kuomintang) violently suppressed. Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule until Japan’s surrender at the end of WWII, at which point Japan handed control of Taiwan to China. Native Taiwanese people rebelled against China’s corrupt rule, which included the seizure of private property and the blocking of Taiwanese residents from political participation. Tensions reached a boiling point when nationalist soldiers struck a Taiwanese widow, apparently for selling contraband cigarettes. Angry bystanders rebelled, and soldiers shot at them in demonstration. The uprising spread until the National Revolutionary Army used violent force to suppress protesters.
Later, in 1949, Mao drives Chiang Kai-shek (the Kuomintang leader of the Republic of China, or ROC) and the Nationalists out of China. He and his loyalists settle in Taiwan and impose martial law. It’s finally lifted in 1987—the longest period of martial law in history. During this period, called “White Terror,” the regime beats, kills, or disappears thousands of Taiwanese people. Ming-Chen Wu is seven when the 2/28 Incident takes place, and he sees family members shot in front of him and his home destroyed.
Chiang Kai-shek was a Chinese politician and the Kuomintang leader of the Republic of China (ROC) from 1928 until 1985. After Mao and the Chinese Communist Party defeated Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil war, Chiang led the ROC government in Taiwan under martial law until his death in 1985.
Ming-Chen Wu remembers seeing his father run back into the family’s burning home, promising to return by the time Wu has counted to 100. But Young Wu counts to 100 and still his father doesn’t return, and Wu starts to cry. Just when Young Wu is about to give up hope, his father emerges from the burning house carrying a box. Young Wu will later learn that it contains the deed to the family plot of land, and he will understand that his father risked his own life for “the chance at a better life.” But he doesn’t know this then. Suddenly, two Nationalist soldiers approach Young Wu’s father and shoot him. Then they take the box and the deed and leave Young Wu and his remaining family behind.
Realizing the sacrifice that Wu’s own father made for “the chance at a better life”—a chance that never came to fruition—contextualizes the choices that Wu would make as an adult. While he immigrates to the U.S. to make a better life for himself and his family, he also does so to honor his father, who was unable to do so himself.
INT. GOLDEN PALACE CHINESE RESTAURANT. Ming-Chen Wu finishes his story, and Dorothy comforts him. He explains that he came here because he was the oldest son and felt he “had to do something.”
Wu here notes how fulfilling his obligations as his parents’ eldest son factored into his decision to come to the U.S., reaffirming the novel’s examination of how performing roles affects one’s sense of self and relationships with family.
INT. MING-CHEN WU’S BACKSTORY—JOURNEY TO AMERICA. Ming-Chen Wu is a student in Central Taiwan, daydreaming of America as he looks at a world map hung on the classroom wall. In his dreams, he arrives in the morning, and smiling strangers wave as his ship arrives at the port.
Wu’s sense of America is idealistic and dreamlike—it’s more akin to a scene out of a movie than something that would actually happen in real life. Thus far, Wu and Dorothy’s lived experience in the U.S. has consistently failed to live up to their expectations; in light of this, readers can predict that there will be no smiling strangers to greet Wu when he first arrives in America.
INT. MING-CHEN WU’S BACKSTORY—THE UNITED STATES. In reality, Ming-Chen Wu and other immigrants arrive in the middle of the night. It’s cold, and nobody greets him. From there, he gets on a bus and travels for days, eventually arriving in Mississippi.
As readers may have expected, Wu’s first impression of America is impersonal and cold—a far cry from the joyous homecoming he created in his dreams.
INT. MING-CHEN WU’S BACKSTORY—MISSISSIPPI—1965—DAY. Ming-Chen Wu lives in a house with five other graduate students, all of whom are from other countries: Nakamoto is from Japan, Kim and Park are from Korea, Singh is a Punjabi Sikh man, and Allen Chen is from Taiwan. Wu is a teaching assistant, and the university pays him a teaching stipend. It’s not much, but he feels rich for the first time in his life. Most of what he doesn’t spend on rent and food he sends home to his family.
At first, Wu’s time in graduate school seems to suggest that his experience in America is improving—he’s making money that makes him feel rich and allows him to help his family back home, even if he wouldn’t be rich by average American standards.
Ming-Chen Wu’s class calls him “Chinaman,” but most of them don’t seem to have any ill will toward him. People use all kinds of slurs to describe Wu’s housemates. “Chinaman” seems the least offensive to Young Wu—after all, it’s “literally a descriptor”—but it also reduces him to something generic. In general, the university faculty treat him with respect, though very few are outwardly friendly. People in town are either polite or hateful.
Wu’s willingness to accept being called “Chinaman” by his well-meaning (if ignorant) peers marks the beginning of what will be a lifetime of acting out dehumanizing roles for the sake of white comfort. He seems to accept the derogatory name of “Chinaman” as a tax he must pay for acceptance into mainstream white society.
When Ming-Chen Wu comes home one day, his housemates tell him that Allen is in the hospital—someone beat him up and told him, “This is for Pearl Harbor.” Nakamoto says the people should’ve beat him up, not Allen. But that’s the problem: to people in town, they’re all the same. The incident should’ve brought the housemates together, but instead they find it pointless to commiserate over the names people call them—regardless, they know they’ll only ever be “Asian Man.”
The violent attack of Allen shatters the illusion that the locals generally accept Wu and his fellow immigrant graduate students. Wu and his immigrant housemates could look past the belittling slurs from their white neighbors, but the attack on Allen makes it impossible to ignore the injustice, dehumanization, and violence that they all face simply by existing in this place that views them as outsiders.
After graduation, Ming-Chen Wu falls out of contact with everyone but Allen. They write letters, and Wu takes pleasure in hearing about Allen’s academic success. He gets his doctorate from MIT, is granted a patent, raises a family, and becomes quite wealthy. But decades later, he continues to suffer headaches from the beating, and nobody ever catches the men who beat him up. When he’s 58, he overdoses on sleeping pills and dies in his sleep.
Allen’s death by suicide further complicates the already problematic myth of the model minority, which points to the success of many Asian immigrants to discredit those who make claims of systemic racism and inequality. On the outside, Allen’s life is a success—but his death by suicide reveals the lasting physical and emotional effects of the racism and violence he endured to get there.
A couple years after Allen’s death, his daughter Christine graduates with honors from Stanford. She gives a speech in which she thanks her mother and her father. A couple weeks later, someone in a car yells at her to “go back where she came from” and throws a half-full beer bottle at her head. She goes to the emergency room and gets stitches. But like her father before her, she has headaches for the rest of her life.
Christine’s tragic fate mirrors her father’s and acts as a reversal of romanticized stories of immigration, in which immigrant parents endure hardship but eventually are able to give their children a better life than they themselves had. While Allen’s upward mobility gives Christine the privilege of an excellent education, she still experiences the same racist attacks her father experienced before her.
Ming-Chen Wu graduates with a nearly perfect grade point average and goes to UCLA to receive his doctorate. But his mother falls ill before he can finish, and so he drops out to care for her. Meanwhile, he can’t find work in his field despite his high grades. Later, a recruiter tells him this is because of his accent. When Wu claims he doesn’t have an accent, the recruiter tells him that his not having an Asian accent is actually the problem. So Wu learns to speak in an Asian accent and uses it to get a job as Young Asian Man, washing dishes at the Fortune Palace restaurant in Chinatown.
Wu is in a double bind: he can’t get work in his field because he’s Asian but also because he’s not Asian enough. This latter point is a reversal of what audiences would likely expect has caused potential employers to reject Wu. The fact that Wu’s lack of an Asian accent has made people not want to hire him shows how the book uses surreal elements to examine the impossible situation in which mainstream (white) U.S. culture puts Asian people. Even when Asian people try to assimilate into white culture (i.e., shedding their Asian accents and speaking in “perfect” English), white culture rejects them, the book suggests, because their performance of assimilation does not match mainstream culture’s idea about how Asian people are supposed to look, sound, and act.
EXT. DOROTHY’S BACKSTORY. Dorothy moves to Chinatown from Ohio. She brings her meager belongings and “a memory of her mother dying in her bed at home, surrounded by her 10 children, wondering aloud why, why.” She also brings incense and a shrine to her “minor god of immigration and prosperity in real estate transactions.” When she prays to this god, she closes her eyes and imagines the home and family she hopes to have someday. Despite her prayers, nobody will sell Dorothy and Ming-Chen Wu a house because of their skin color. Of course, they wouldn’t have the money to buy one anyway. Instead, they rent a room in Chinatown, which they can afford on their double income as Young Asian Man and Pretty Asian Hostess. They don’t have much, but they can eat meat once a week and are better off than others who live in the building.
Like Wu, Dorothy comes to Chinatown in the wake of much suffering, grief, and disappointment. Though she continues to dream of a better life—of wealth and the house it could buy—her reality only continues to fail to live up to the life she imagined she’d have. Wu and Dorothy’s limited opportunities to buy a house or provide for themselves forces them to move to Chinatown and accept the demeaning, generic roles of “Young Asian Man” and “Pretty Asian Hostess.” Dorothy and Wu’s origin story thus illustrates how oppressed people often have no choice but to work within—and thereby strengthen—the very systems that limited their access to opportunity in the first place.
Ming-Chen Wu works in back while Dorothy works up front. Men grope her and “imagine a world where they could keep her” as “their little China doll.” Wu watches this but doesn’t say anything—it’s Pretty Asian Hostess’s income that pays their bills, after all. She’s “almost a star” at Golden Palace and “dies” often, sometimes because of opium, other times as a “revenge killing.” Sometimes she cries before she dies, and afterward they return to their room upstairs, clean up, and eat dinner together.
An unjust system—that is, systemic racism—also affects Wu’s relationship with his wife, forcing him to watch passively as men ogle and belittle Dorothy. Though the situation is humiliating for them both, they have no choice if they want to pay their bills. The nods to Dorothy “dying” (in the roles she performs) by “revenge killing” or from an opium overdose reference stereotypical, exoticized tropes commonly found in western movies about Asia.
On their days off, Dorothy and Ming-Chen Wu wander around Chinatown but don’t venture beyond its confines. Dorothy dresses in bell bottoms and floral prints and almost passes as an American woman. People rarely call her “chink.” But sometimes people can’t understand her accent. It’s harder for Young Wu to blend in—his long, slim build doesn’t quite fit into his clothes. They split a Coke, just like Dorothy would do with all her siblings back home. Young Wu turns to Dorothy one day, an intense look on his face, and tells her they’re going to get out someday. That’s when they she falls in love with him.
Once more, the novel reinforces how its Asian characters’ success often has little to do with their ambition, credentials, or how hard they work—instead, it’s tied to their ability to act out the part of assimilated immigrant and adopt mainstream American culture. This is the core point that the book is trying to make—and why it employs the surreal setting of a perpetually in-production TV series to make it.
Ming-Chen Wu and Dorothy debate the origins of their romance. Dorothy argues that Chinatown isn’t a place for love—it’s where police find dead bodies. Wu agrees but says they have to make do with what they have. They marry in the restaurant. That night, two rock crabs and a lobster are sent back to the kitchen, and they eat them with noodles. Someone gets bottles of Tsingtao, and everyone shares them. For a moment, they forget where they are. But then the boss returns to the kitchen and tells them to get back to work, and they have to “put their Asian costumes back on.”
Dorothy’s and Wu’s opposite ideas about what Chinatown is and isn’t represent two ways of dealing with an unjust system (which Chinatown represents in this section). Dorothy thinks that Chinatown is a place where police find dead bodies, meaning that while working within an unjust system might help pay the bills, the harm and injustice it causes ultimately outweighs the benefit of a meager paycheck. She wants to escape and make the good life she wants for herself—not the just-OK life that mainstream society has decided they’re meant to have. Wu, on the other hand, has a more realistic and cynical approach to everything; he thinks that they have to stay in Chinatown and work with the imperfect, unjust hand they’ve been dealt—he doesn’t see escape as an option.
GENERIC ASIAN KID. Baby Willis is born: “A little tiny Kung Fu Boy,” and suddenly his parents’ fragmented backgrounds—all the bit parts they’ve had to accept—seem to make sense. Ming-Chen Wu and Dorothy feel “less alone in the world,” their days are full of happy memories, and their lives “take some kind of shape[.]”
The birth of Willis reignites Wu and Dorothy’s dream of a better future. It changes their perspective on the hardships they’ve endured thus far, causing their life story thus far to “take some kind of shape,” with all their hardships recast as sacrifices they made for the future of their child.
GENERIC ASIAN FAMILY. Willis, Ming-Chen Wu, and Dorothy try their hardest to be a typical American family. They dress the part and get rid of their accents. They tell Willis to speak English at home and work constantly. Wu practices his Kung Fu skills and gets the part of Sifu, the kung fu master. They celebrate with meat and a bottle of coke, and the family plans to move from the SRO. But then Wu realizes that even with this new job and the larger paycheck, he’s still the person he was all along: “Fu Manchu. Yellow Man.” In a flash, Dorothy’s husband is gone, replaced by the person “they made him.” He’s distant and focuses only on work. He’s “just a role,” having been “replaced by archetypes.”
Willis and his family assimilate, acting the way that mainstream American culture expects them to act and hoping that their efforts are rewarded. But the undertaking takes more from the family than it gives them. Though Wu’s hard work leads him to become Kung Fu Guy, the role invites yet more racism and discrimination—not the upward mobility and esteem Wu thought it would bring him. And in working toward his ill-advised goal, Wu internalizes the stereotype of Kung Fu Guy, becoming “just a role” and being “replaced by archetypes” that mainstream culture has projected on him. In short, the role doesn’t allow him to escape a life of discrimination and hardship—it just traps him there.
Sifu comes and goes at odd hours. He comes home late and wakes up Willis and Dorothy to rant about his plans to make a better life for his son. And then even this stops. Sifu starts “drinking, breaking props.” He’s cast in “epics” and becomes a lesser Bruce Lee. In short, Willis’s “dad is no longer [his] dad.”
Sifu’s work consumes his life, and he no longer has time for the very family he works so hard to support. Nor can he enjoy his success himself, as the role he thought would bring him stability and personal fulfillment has in fact robbed him of his stability and his sense of self.
Willis hears his parents arguing late at night. Ming-Chen Wu says, “They’ve trapped us.” But Dorothy wonders if she and Wu have actually “trapped” themselves. She still thinks they can make a better life. As young Willis listens, he dreams that one day he’ll “get out.”
The novel gives credence to Wu’s and Dorothy’s viewpoints—it’s perhaps true that they’ve “trapped” themselves by acting out the racist stereotypes (Kung Fu Guy, Generic Asian Man, Pretty Asian Hostess) that mainstream society has projected onto them—but what choice did they have, really? To not accept the few work offers that came their way would likely have made their situation worse.
EXT. THE ALLEY BEHIND THE RESTAURANT—PRESENT DAY. Willis stands outside smoking a cigarette, though it just makes him remember that he hates smoking. He looks up at a billboard for Black and White, Miles Turner and Sarah Green’s large faces staring down at him, “the light hit[ting] their faces just right.” Their features seem too perfect to be real. Seeing them reminds Willis that he’s Asian.
The detail of “the light hit[ting Turner’s and Green’s] faces just right” symbolizes their acceptance within the world of the novel—a “black and white” world of overgeneralizations, stereotypes, and unnuanced views about race, justice, and equality, and one without a place for Asian people and the difficult-to-categorize forms of discrimination that they face.
Just then, the door opens: it’s Karen Lee. She asks Willis how “death” is treating him. At first, Willis isn’t even sure she’s talking to him—women “with options” often don’t bother with Generic Asian Men. She asks where he’s from, and he says Chinatown. Willis guesses that she went to a liberal arts college and knows how to ride a horse and use chopsticks. She also probably studied abroad and got good grades. Karen laughs—he’s mostly right. Still, she admits, she worries that things won’t work out for her. Willis assures her that they will: “Pretty Girl is never not going to be in demand.” Karen reminds him that she’s “not White,” but he says she practically is.
Karen’s interest puzzles Willis because he’s gotten used to women “with options” ignoring Generic Asian Men, a narrower example of society’s view of Asian men as lesser. This scene also complicates Willis’s views on systemic racism, as he suggests that Karen’s gender and physical attractiveness afford her privileges that Willis doesn’t have. And his comment that she’s practically white—even if Karen, by her own account, is not—also gestures toward the subject of mixed-race or white-passing people and how the racism they experience differs from that which minorities who can’t pass as white suffer.
Willis asks about Karen’s background, and she tells him. When he observes that she’s a quarter Taiwanese, she takes issue with him “quantify[ing] it that way.” He tells her he thought maybe she was Latina or from Hawaii or something. He calls her a “chameleon,” noting her ability to blend into any situation. Karen agrees, wryly noting that she’s “objectified by men of all races.” She thinks it would “be easier to be one thing.” Willis disagrees, explaining how he has to fake an accent because otherwise nobody knows what to make of him. He’s just an Asian Man—“No one likes us,” he says. Karen says that she likes him, and Willis can’t believe it: Generic Asian Man never gets a love story.
Willis and Karen have different opinions about Karen’s mixed-race identity and what it means for her in terms of privilege. Whereas Willis thinks her racially ambiguous appearance is a benefit, suggesting that it allows her to pass as a number of races and therefore feel accepted by different groups of people, Karen thinks it’s actually a negative, only granting her the capacity to be “objectified by men of all races.” This scene hints at how Willis tends to disregard or underestimate the ways in which others experience discrimination as well—for instance the ways that Karen’s gender subjects her to mistreatment and objectification. The book will examine this idea in greater depth later on.
LOVE STORY. Willis plays the role of Delivery Guy, and Karen is a tourist. BEGIN ROMANTIC MONTAGE. Willis is still coming to grips with the fact that Karen likes and wants to date him. She suggests they start by getting coffee together. They do so, and Willis asks her what he thinks are standard questions. Karen says it sounds like he’s interviewing someone for a job, then she laughs. It feels good to Willis to make her laugh. The script describes a montage of date scenes: Willis and Karen sharing a bowl of tsuabing shaved ice in Chinatown, each learning about the other’s life, eventually kissing.
The book employs the structure of a screenplay, laden with tropes from romantic movies and TV, to convey Willis and Karen’s love story. In this way, the book reaffirms its central idea that performance—that is, acting out roles—is a major part of how one comes to understand their sense of self and how they interact with others. Also note how the romantic montage takes place within the confines of Chinatown, suggesting that (like Wu and Dorothy before them) a feeling of entrapment may eventually introduce conflict into the relationship.
Karen wants to meet Old Asian Woman. Willis is nervous and explains to Karen that his mother can be difficult, but Karen insists. Eventually they do meet, and Old Asian Woman says little but smiles at Karen. They speak in Taiwanese, and Karen says something that makes Willis’s mom laugh. Willis is totally confused: things are supposed to “fall apart,” but now the exact opposite is happening. Then Willis “stop[s] being dead,” and the romantic montage comes to a close.
Once more, the book shows how internalizing stereotypes and projecting them onto others can negatively affect oneself and one’s relationships. Here, Willis’s stereotypical assumption that Old Asian Woman is difficult and would give Karen a hard time almost prevents a meaningful and good relationship from developing between his partner and his mother. But when Willis distances himself from his stereotypical assumptions, he finds that things work out rather than “fall apart” as he feared they would.
BLACK AND WHITE. POST-DEATH NOTICE OF REINSTATEMENT. Willis receives word from “central casting” that his mandatory 45-day period of silence is over, and now he can “re-enter the system.” But before he does that, the notice states, he must give up “all status or other accumulated benefits” he earned pre-death, and he can’t continue any of his previous roles.
Willis isn’t coming back from the dead—it’s just that enough time has elapsed that people will forget who his character was on the show (the character who died onscreen), so there’s no longer a risk of continuity error. The detail that he now must start from scratch (giving up “all status or other accumulated benefits” he earned pre-death) seems to comment on the unjust system that Willis must work within. Being “Generic Asian Man” has its benefits—it means he can reappear on a show, cast in a new part, even after his part is written off the show. But he must start from scratch each time, and so he’s unable to accumulate wealth in the way that, say, a more prominent (white) movie star would be able to do.
Willis shares this good news with Karen; now that he can work again, they can plan in earnest for their future. Willis rejoins the workforce and once more climbs the ladder of success, starting at Generic Asian Man Number Three and climbing through the ranks, eventually becoming a guest star once more. Karen’s career flourishes—there are just more roles available to her. Eventually, they start seeing less and less of each other.
Willis, like his father before him, embraces the opportunities the system gives him for career advancement, as limited (and limiting) as those opportunities may be. He throws himself into his minor role as Generic Asian Man Number Three and resolves to rise the ranks. That Karen’s career flourishes gives some credence to Willis’s thought that her gender and racial ambiguity are in fact privileges, though it’s arguable that the objectification she must subject herself to does outweigh whatever clout she receives.
One day, the director speaks with Willis and tells him he’ll be Kung Fu Guy any day now. Willis comes home to share the news with Karen, but she’s got news of her own: they’re going to have a baby. Willis is happy but concerned: he’s doing well as Special Guest Star these days, but he’s not making enough money to support a family. Karen accuses him of “ruining the moment.” Willis feels awful, realizing that she’s right. Not long after, he scrounges together some money to buy Karen a ring, and then he proposes to her. She says yes.
Willis and Karen’s story increasingly mirrors Ming-Chen Wu and Dorothy’s: Willis is getting so wrapped up in his quest to become Kung Fu Guy that he distances himself from his partner and the life they’re trying to build together. He lets his ambition distract him from what’s truly important—and given the degree to which the system (in this case, the entertainment industry) is biased against him, it’s unlikely that whatever limited success he’ll see will be worth the personal sacrifices he’s made to get it.
Time passes, and eventually Willis and Karen become parents to a daughter they name Phoebe. Now it’s Karen and Willis and Phoebe, all living together in the SRO. Willis knows they can’t stay there—it’s no place to raise a child—and resolves to get out. He works hard and takes a role on “the cop show” playing “Ethnic Recurring.” The pay is good, and he saves up. He knows he’s on the verge of something great, but of course, he’s been here before.
Willis’s story continues to resemble his parents’ story. In this way, the book shows how racial discrimination at the systemic level inhibits upward mobility. Willis’s parents wanted their son to have a better life than they did, yet due to the limited opportunities for career advancement that the system (the entertainment industry) affords Willis, it’s unlikely he’ll see greater success than his father had before him. At this rate, he’s bound to remain stuck in Chinatown, just like his parents before him. The role he gets on “the cop show,” “Ethnic Recurring,” is an ironic nod to this.
One day, Karen gives Willis more big news: she’s been given her own show. It’s about a young mother, and there’s a part for Willis on the show, too. This means they can move out of the SRO and start a new life, finally. Willis smiles an uneasy smile; he tells Karen it’s great news but that he’s finally close to making it big himself.
Karen’s show has given Willis what he’s longed for most: the chance to escape Chinatown. Yet his ambition to make it big himself—to become Kung Fu Guy—compels him to turn down this chance to leave and start a new life elsewhere. In this way, the book suggests that internalizing racial stereotypes can skew one’s sense of self and cause one to act against one’s self-interest.
Karen is skeptical. She believes in Willis, but she just doesn’t think “they” are ever going to give him the Kung Fu Guy role: so far, it’s just empty promise after empty promise. She tells Willis she doesn’t want him “to be trapped” like his father. This offends Willis. He tells Karen he wants to provide for his family. Karen says she can provide for them. Willis tells her it’s more than this. He wants to be Kung Fu Guy: it’s “the dream.” Karen thinks Willis should want more out of life, but Willis disagrees. He suggests they keep a long-distance relationship while he stays in Chinatown and Karen moves to the suburbs to do her show, but Karen says that’s not an option when there’s a kid involved. Still, they compromise: Karen will leave, but she’ll give Willis a couple months to stay behind to try to make his dream come true.
Karen, in expressing her skepticism about Willis getting the Kung Fu Guy role, conveys the same message to Willis that Dorothy conveyed to Wu all those years ago: he’s trapping himself if he continues to give so much of his life to a system biased against him—and if he continues to give credence to the stereotypical view that he, as the patriarch of his family, must provide for them. Karen has a job that could do just that, and if he abandoned his internalized ideas about how the world is supposed to be and the role he’s supposed to embody, perhaps he could have the happy, better life outside Chinatown he’s always wanted. Put differently, it’s not just the system that’s keeping Willis back—it’s his inability to break from the social norms and stereotypes that system puts forth.
But months pass, and then a year has passed. Just when Willis is starting to think that Karen was right after all, he gets a call from the director with the news he’s been waiting for: he’s Kung Fu Guy. But it doesn’t feel as good as he thought it would—not with no Karen here to share his news with. He realizes that Karen was right after all: he is trapped. He’s “still in a show that doesn’t have a role for [him].”
Karen and Willis are still living apart, and since a year has passed since they made their compromise (Karen told Willis she’d give him a couple months to become Kung Fu Guy), readers may assume that their marriage has ended. In this way, Willis’s success has cost him his personal happiness, and his commitment to one role has caused him to neglect the more important roles he should have cared about: his roles as Phoebe’s dad and Karen’s husband.
INT. GOLDEN PALACE CHINESE RESTAURANT. Willis is standing beside a table piled high with food, but he can’t eat any of it. He realizes what a mistake he’s made: as always, he’s “playing a part that was handed to [him], written for Asian Man.” He sneaks out through the back door.
It takes losing his family, but Willis finally understands the limitations of the role of Kung Fu Guy. Though it’s the highest role an Asian actor can achieve, that achievement is something that an unjust, discriminatory institution has “handed to [him],” and so he is internalizing his own unjust treatment in accepting it. When he leaves the Golden Palace, he’s symbolically choosing to no longer participate in the unjust system the Golden Palace (and Chinatown as a whole) represents in the novel.
EXT. ALLEY. Willis looks up at the billboard for Black and White. He knows he has to get out. He sees Green and Turner’s car parked nearby. He goes to it, breaks in, hotwires it, and then drives off. Sirens blast behind him, but he drives fast and loses them.
When Willis steals Turner and Green’s car, he’s symbolically reclaiming the agency his participation in Black and White (and the unjust systems and institutions it represents) has cost him.