EXHIBIT A: LAWS OF THE UNITED STATES. Exhibit A is a series of 19th-century U.S. laws that explicitly discriminate against Asian people, notably the 1882 U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers. It was the first law that prevented the immigration of a whole ethnic or national group to the U.S. The U.S. Cable Act, passed in 1920, took away the citizenship of any American woman who marries “‘an alien ineligible for citizenship.’” The U.S. Immigrant Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed entry to the U.S. by ethnicity—and it completely prohibited Asian people from immigrating to the U.S.
The book includes facts about several laws the U.S. government passed that explicitly discriminated against Chinese immigrants. The inclusion of these laws gives some historical context for the novel’s overarching assertion that in America, there are limits to how fully Asian people can assimilate into American culture—not for lack of trying, but for America’s explicit refusal to accept them.
INT. COURTROOM. Willis, the defendant, looks up as his lawyer enters the courtroom: to his surprise, it’s Older Brother. Older Brother asks after Sifu and laments how he had so many roles but “never got a story.” Willis says that Older Brother was the one who was supposed to have a story, but Older Brother says he never wanted to be a Kung Fu hero.
In a shocking moment, the book reveals that Older Brother left Chinatown for a totally banal reason—he went to law school. That Older Brother had to leave Chinatown altogether to accomplish this once more underscores the book’s examination of how Asian people sometimes try to give up their Asian identities in the hopes that mainstream (white) American society will fully accept them.
The judge enters the courtroom. Willis notes Green and Turner seated behind him—they’re going to testify for the prosecution in “The Case of the Missing Asian.” Before the prosecution can call their first witness to the stand, Older Brother stands and “object[s]” to the whole trial, arguing that it’s “rigged against [his] client.” The prosecution, in turn, tries to “rest [their] case” without presenting any evidence or interviewing any witnesses—they’re that confident in their ability to win.
It's not totally clear what Willis is being tried for here—up until Older Brother’s very recent reappearance, it seemed that he was the “Missing Asian.” Now it seems that Willis has taken over that role. Readers should interpret “missing” figuratively rather than literally—the charge against Willis seems to refer to his misplaced, confused identity. Throughout the book, he has struggled with who he’s supposed to be—is he an Asian man, or can he just be an American man? Can he still be an Asian man if he doesn’t act the way Black and White believes Asian people should act? Now, charged in the case of his own missing sense of self, his identity crisis reaches its climax.
Eventually, though, the prosecution calls their first witness (Miles Turner) to the stand. In his interrogation, Turner calls Willis “a punk.” The judge reminds him to keep things professional, so Turner backpedals and calls Willis “a weenie” instead. The prosecution promises to “establish relevance” for the insult, and so the judge allows it. Turner continues with his testimony, noting that Willis has “internalized a sense of inferiority.” Willis, to Turner’s mind, believes he’s “the only one who’s trapped.” Willis turns red at the accusation. Turner finishes his testimony, and the prosecution calls Sarah Green to the stand.
The comically unprofessional atmosphere of Willis’s trial illustrates how supposedly impartial institutions (like the justice system) can be biased against immigrants and other minorities. Turner’s claim that Willis thinks he’s “the only one who’s trapped” expands on his earlier critique of Willis for failing to see how the system discriminates against other demographics, not just Asian people.
Sarah Green takes the stand. Older Brother observes that there’s way too much sexual tension in the courtroom (Green and the prosecution are both very attractive women), but the judge allows it; Older Brother turns to Willis and tells him they’re in trouble. The prosecution asks just one question of Green: “What are you doing for dinner tonight?” At this, Older Brother demands an immediate mistrial, but the judge refuses. Then he asks Green to sit on the judge’s chair with him. Older Brother can’t believe his ears.
The book uses the judge’s comically bad judgment (in a truly impartial court, the prosecution’s flirtation with a witness would absolutely be grounds for a mistrial) to illustrate how institutions of power can perpetuate and strengthen discrimination.
Green ignores the judge’s remark, instead turning to Willis to ask if he assumes Asian people are “the only group to be invisible.” She considers how invisible all kinds of women are and wonders if what Willis really wants is for the world to treat him like a White person—but like “a White man.” Older Brother counters that what Willis wants is to be treated like a “real American.” He notes that the first Chinese immigrants settled in America years before the mass of European immigrants arrived at the beginning of the 20th century. In light of this, why doesn’t Willis’s “face register as American?” It makes no sense.
While Green’s point is valid—women in America do experience mistreatment and erasure at the systemic level, as the judge’s treatment of Green in court presently demonstrates —her strategy of comparing whose discrimination is worse is ultimately self-defeating, as it fails to hold the people whom the system most benefits accountable. Note, for instance, how Green ignores the judge’s inappropriate attempt at flirtation (thereby failing to hold an authority figure responsible for his abuse of power). Willis’s point about Chinese immigrants settling in America before European immigrants implies that racism, not Asian immigrants’ inability to adequately assimilate into Western culture, underlies Western culture’s refusal to see Asian people as American.
The prosecution objects and asks, “Who cares?” Older Brother asks the judge why Willis is the one on trial—after all, this is “the Case of the Missing Asian,” and Older Brother, the formerly Missing Asian, is clearly present and accounted for. The judge and prosecution explain that Willis is on trial for his own disappearance, though it remains to be seen whether he’s “the suspect” or “the victim.” Then the prosecution rests, and the judge orders the defense to call their first witness.
Whether Willis is “the suspect” or “the victim” of his disappearance (his figurative loss of self)—depends on whether the jury believes that broader culture is responsible for Willis’s confusion about who he’s supposed to be, or whether Willis himself is to blame.
Older Brother calls Mr. Willis Wu to the stand. Then he asks Willis if he does have “an internalized sense of inferiority.” Before Willis can answer, Older Brother explains why Willis might feel that way: while he won’t ever be able to assimilate into White America, he also doesn’t feel comfortable “claiming solidarity with other historically and currently oppressed groups.” While the U.S. has historically and legally discriminated against Asian people, they are nothing compared to how the country has treated Black people. “Your oppression is second-class,” Older Brother concludes.
Older Brother is expanding on Turner’s earlier critique of Willis’s supposed “internalized sense of inferiority,” explaining its self-defeating nature: while there is ample evidence to suggest the U.S.’s historical discrimination against Asian people, it’s just as valid to contend that Asian people didn’t suffer the same kinds of atrocities as, say, enslaved Black people. But just because Willis’s “oppression is second-class” doesn’t mean he’s privileged. It’s a problem if a country pardons its discrimination against one minority demographic by citing its worse discrimination against a different minority demographic.
Willis asks with disbelief whose side Older Brother is on. Older Brother continues, explaining that Willis “can’t be viewed through either lens”—in short, he “will never fit into Black and White.” It’s a fallacy to view the Asian experience in America as “just a scaled-back or dialed-down version of the Black experience.” Then Older Brother cites the 1854 case of People v. Hall.
Older Brother suggests that overgeneralizing concepts of oppression and privilege (Black and White) leaves room for subtler—but still dehumanizing and harmful—forms of oppression to flourish. Portraying the Asian experience as a “dialed-down version of the Black experience” implies that in the U.S., anyone who isn’t white should expect to experience some form of discrimination. What’s more, this portrayal ignores the more extreme ways the country has discriminated against Asian people historically, as in the 1854 case of People v. Hall.
SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA (1854). People v. Hall. Judge Hugh C. Murray of California ruled that Act of April 16, 1850, “which forbade ‘Blacks and Indians’ from testifying in favor or against a white man,” could apply to Chinese people, too. Murray claimed that since Christopher Columbus stated that Black, “Indian,” and Chinese people were descended from the same Asiatic ancestors, then laws that applied to Black people and Indian people should also apply to Chinese people. Specifically, he stated that “Black and Indian” people should not be allowed to testify against a white man.
People v. Hall was an appealed murder case that freed Hall, a white man, who had been convicted and sentenced to death for the killing of Ling Sing, a Chinese miner, on the basis that the testimonies of three Chinese witnesses were invalid. Interior Chinatown references this case to show how recently and severely the U.S. restricted rights of Chinese immigrants.
Older Brother condemns Murray’s conclusion that the designation “Blacks and Indians” includes Chinese people too, which relies on the mere opinion of one man (Columbus) as ridiculous, especially given that at the time Christopher Columbus spoke these words, he was mistaken about where he’d landed (and therefore his designation of indigenous Americans as “Indian” was false in the first place). Older Brother thus suggests that the ruling has categorized Asian people as “inferior” to white people—“yet not in the same way Blacks were considered inferior.” In short, they’ve remained “perpetual foreigners” despite their long history in the U.S. Everyone in the courtroom is now listening intently to everything Older Brother says.
Older Brother’s argument has two implications. First, with his reference to the geographical error that informed the appeal in the People v. Hall case in the first place, Older Brother points out the flimsiness of laws the U.S. has historically used to discriminate against minorities in general, not just Asian people. Second, he points out that Murray’s ruling, in technically differentiating Black people from “Indian” (and Chinese) people, legally established Asian people as inferior to white people—yet not in the same way that Black people were inferior. This, Older Brother concludes, is the basis of Willis’s present predicament: there’s a longstanding legal precedent that deems him inferior—yet not inferior in a manner that conforms to the country’s “Black and White” understanding of racial discrimination.
Older Brother continues. He explains that Asian people created Chinatown to have their own space in a country where they felt so cut off from their history. It allows them to feel “safe.” He argues that “being Chinese is and always has been […] a construction, a performance of features, gestures, cultures, and exoticism.” It was about finding out how mainstream (white) America wanted them to fit into “the show” and then playing a role that the mainstream culture deemed “appealing and acceptable[.]”
Older Brother’s explanation of Chinatown as a constructed space where Asian people can feel “safe” in a country that simultaneously accepts and rejects them reinforces the book’s thematic focus on the role that performance plays in identity. It portrays the Asian experience as a perpetual balancing act of fitting into American culture—but only on American culture’s terms.
Older Brother argues that Willis is part of this system and is therefore both a “victim and suspect,” as the system has forced him to “kill countless Asian men.” He would repeatedly kill them and then become them once more, letting himself “become Generic, so that no one could even tell what was happening.” The only thing Willis is guilty of, Older Brother argues, is “of wanting to be part of something that never wanted him.” There’s silence at first, and then the courtroom bursts into applause. Willis turns around and sees Old Asian Woman in the courtroom, but he doesn’t see Sifu and wonders where he is. The judge calls the court to recess so the jury can deliberate their verdict.
Willis’s ability to repeatedly play characters that are “killed” off—and then reappear on the same show as a different character without being recognized as the older characters he’s played—is a consequence of his generic appearance, and this generic appearance is the consequence of the mainstream entertainment industry’s dismissal of and bias against Asian people. Technically, Willis’s generic attributes have (figuratively) allowed him to “kill countless Asian men” onscreen, but he’s only forced to do that because it’s the only way the system will allow him to get work—if he can’t have a major, recognizable role like, say, a white movie star could, he has to accept the bit parts the system throws his way. This is what Older Brother means when he claims that Willis is both “victim and suspect” of the crimes the court has accused him of.
As the jury exits the courtroom, Green and Turner approach Older Brother and compliment his performance, suggesting he come to work for the DA; Older Brother declines the offer. Green says good luck to Willis, and then she and Turner leave. Finally, it’s just Older Brother and Willis left inside the courtroom. He asks Willis if Willis can make sense of everything he just said, and Willis admits that he doesn’t really understand it. Older Brother laughs. But Willis acknowledges the meaningful gesture of Older Brother standing before the courtroom and arguing Willis’s case. Older Brother just hopes it was enough to sway the jury.
Green and Turner’s suggestion that Older Brother work for the DA is one of the book’s many instances of wry humor. Working for the DA would no doubt pay better than defending an ordinary citizen like Willis, but the higher paycheck would come at the cost of prosecuting people like Willis, who are victims of a much more powerful system, that would in turn strengthen and make Older Brother complicit in that same oppressive system. It’s basically the lawyer equivalent of Kung Fu Guy.
Not much time has passed before everyone returns to the courtroom. Older Brother isn’t sure whether this is a good sign or a bad sign. The forewoman reads the jury’s ruling: guilty. The courtroom goes crazy, and the judge orders everyone to settle down. Then he turns to Willis and asks if he has anything to say. Older Brother nods to Willis, and Willis, speaking as “Generic Asian Man,” addresses the judge, Turner and Green, and the jury.
This is a big moment for Willis’s character development: up until this point, he has acted out roles that others have assigned him. Now, for the first time, he has a chance to tell his own story.
Willis has never delivered a monologue before, but now he does, and the light is focused on him. Willis explains that he’s always wanted to be Kung Fu Guy and has practiced for years to achieve that dream. Then, when he finally got the chance to be him, he wondered why he wanted it in the first place—because “Kung Fu Guy is just another form of Generic Asian Man”—it’s not really that much better, only “about half a rung above jack shit.” Still, he admits that he’s guilty, too—guilty of playing all the roles he’s played and letting them define who he is. And he’s also guilty of stereotyping others: “Fetishizing Black people and their coolness. Romanticizing White women. Wishing I were a White man.”
The story Willis tried to create for Phoebe was practice for this critical moment. In Phoebe’s world, he struggled. But now that he’s heard Older Brother spell out the cause and symptoms of his predicament—a predicament thrust on him by an unjust system—perhaps he’ll be better equipped to stray from the conventions the world has forced on him, go off script, and speak on his own behalf. Here, he admits to willingly playing the roles the world handed him and letting them define his character. And he’s also failed to challenge the characteristics that society has assigned to other groups of people, like assuming that Turner is cool because he’s Black. In stereotyping others, even when dealing with comparatively more positive stereotypes (as when he fetishizes Turner, a Black man, for his apparent “coolness”), Willis participates in (and therefore strengthens) the unjust system he criticizes.
In fact, Willis muses, there are so many “varieties of the Asian American male.” Though they have so much in common (most are between five-six and five-eleven, and their moms cook the same kinds of foods), they are unique. But despite this, Willis argues, it’s so rare that any of them consciously think, “I’m an Asian man”—it’s only when someone reminds you of that fact, like when a friend calls you their “Asian friend,” that you have to think about it.
Willis is suggesting that context plays a big part in one’s sense of self. When Asian people are around other Asian people with whom they share a culture, that part of their identity becomes incidental. It’s only when their Asian identity becomes a marker of difference that it becomes noticeable—and a source of negativity. This point reaffirms the book’s claim that identity is tenuous and fragile rather than stable and innate.
Willis looks at the spectators and finds Karen’s eyes in the crowd. He appeals to her for approval, asking if perhaps she can go from being his ex-wife to his ex-ex-wife; she smiles and says she loves him, but then she reminds him to stay focused. Willis continues his monologue. He reaffirms that he’s guilty. But he maintains that the question shouldn’t be “where did the Asian guy disappear to?”—instead, it should be “why is the Asian guy always dead?” If someone handed audience members Willis’s photo, Willis predicts, they’d describe him as “an Asian dude”—never “an American.” How do people decide who’s an American and who isn’t? And why are Asian people “trapped as guest stars in a small ghetto on a very special episode,” cast in stories that don’t really know what to make of them? As Willis speaks, the audience makes grunts of approval.
When Willis suggests shifting the focus away from the “disappearing” Asian and toward the “dead” Asian, he’s referring to the ease with which Black and White kills off its Asian characters—an ease that derives from American culture’s tendency to see Asian people as generic and replaceable. Willis is suggesting that asking why an Asian guy chose to disappear redirects focus away from the cultural forces that contributed to his erasure.
Willis says he’s spent most of his life trapped in Interior Chinatown. Then he got out and became Kung Fu Dad. But that wasn’t a real improvement—it was “just another role.” And he can’t keep playing that role his whole life; Sifu did that, and he “mastered his craft,” yet nobody ever recognized that. They “never allowed him a name.” This gets Asian people angry, and the courtroom is suddenly abuzz. The judge demands order. Older Brother asks if it’s time for Plan B, and Willis agrees.
Willis here suggests that the role of Kung Fu Guy/Kung Fu Dad is limiting because it’s specifically written for an Asian man. In a way, it’s a variation on the “Chinaman” name that Willis’s father found to be so cruel in its simplicity—in the simple way it marked an Asian person’s otherness. Tension builds as Willis’s argument inspires a reaction in the crowd.
Music starts, and police burst through the doors of the courtroom. Old Brother and Willis assume their positions. The Generic Asian Men in the audience stand and jump into action as the SWAT team arrives. Willis brings out his masterful Kung Fu skills and gives it his all—and then a gun goes off.
All the Generic Asian Men in the audience have their moment to fight back against an unjust system that others and dehumanizes them—yet the irony is that they do so in a highly conventional way, reminiscent of fight scenes in martial arts movies. This further reinforces how the system traps Asian people.
INT. GOLDEN PALACE CHINESE RESTAURANT—NIGHT. Green and Turner look down on Kung Fu Guy’s body and observe that he is dead. A crime scene investigator takes samples. Turner thinks a “cultural thing” is probably to blame for the death. Willis discreetly opens his eyes and looks up at them. He tells them he just “can’t do this anymore.” Turner, “off-script,” smiles and says he knows. Green tells him maybe they can work together again someday.
Once more, the narrative intentionally blurs the line between what’s real and what’s scripted—at first, it seems that Willis has truly died, but when he opens his eyes, it seems to indicate that his death was yet another scripted scene in an episode of Black and White. When Willis tells Turner that he “can’t do this anymore,” he means that he's done acting out roles. Note that the narrative specifies that Turner replies to Willis “off-script,” which hasn’t happened before. Up until now, it’s often been ambiguous what’s real and what’s scripted, perhaps reflecting Willis’s own confused identity. The decisiveness of Turner’s response here suggests that Willis is getting a better sense of who he is or wants to be—he’s not letting his characters on the show influence his sense of self any longer.
The next thing Willis knows, Karen is leaning over him. She kisses him. Phoebe is there too. She asks if Willis is still Kung Fu Guy. Willis says no—now, she’s just her dad. Black and White is packing up, preparing to leave town. Old Asian Woman approaches Willis and recalls how he used to practice his Kung Fu skills nonstop when he was little; she wonders if maybe she pushed him too hard. Willis says he just wanted to make her and his dad proud. His mother says that just hanging out with him was enough.
Willis decisively decides to give up Kung Fu Guy and be just Phoebe’s dad. This is a major turning point in his character development, signifying his commitment to be himself, not the show’s idea of what an Asian man is supposed to be.
Willis knows his dad skills are in the B range right now, but he can practice, and hopefully he can “build a life […] made from bit pieces.” Willis looks around and considers all the Old Asians wandering around. They don’t have a “show” anymore—they’re “Just characters. Golden Palace dismantled.” EXT. CHINATOWN.
Until now, Willis has been trapped in “Interior Chinatown”—that is, he’s internalized the stereotypes that the broader culture has imposed on him, and he's lost his sense of self in the process. Now, Willis resolves to go off-script and build a life he’s written for himself.
EXHIBIT B. LAWS OF THE UNITED STATES, PART II. Exhibit B lists laws passed to counteract the persecution that previous laws inflicted on Asian people. 1943 saw the Chinese Exclusion Act repealed, resulting in Chinese people living in the U.S. gaining the right to become naturalized citizens—the same right already available to white immigrants. However, they were still prohibited from owning property. In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed, abolishing the quota-based immigration policy that had been in place since 1921.
The U.S. passes laws to grant new rights to Asian immigrants to counteract older laws that took rights away from them. Yet the book’s passing mention that the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act stopped short of granting the right to own property to Chinese people reminds readers that, while any move toward equality is good, the country’s history of discrimination against Asian immigrants is vast, and it’ll take a lot more to reach true equality and to account for the damage that centuries of racism and discrimination wreaked on Asian immigrants and then inherited their descendants.