Interior Chinatown


Charles Yu

Teachers and parents! Our Teacher Edition on Interior Chinatown makes teaching easy.

Interior Chinatown takes the form of a screenplay to follow the story of Willis Wu, an Asian American actor of Taiwanese descent. He laments the one-dimensional, stereotypical roles he’s stuck playing on Black and White, a police procedural show. The narrative intersperses scripted scenes with Willis’s inner musings about identity, performance, and his experience as an Asian man living in a predominantly white society.

Willis has longed to play the role of Kung Fu Guy—the closest an Asian actor can get to being a movie star—his whole life. But instead, he’s stuck playing bit parts like Background Oriental Male and Dead Asian Man. He lives in the SRO apartments above the Golden Palace restaurant in Chinatown, just barely scraping by. His parents, Taiwanese immigrants, have rooms in the SRO too. Willis’s dad used to play the coveted role of Sifu, the Mysterious Kung Fu Master, but he’s in his eighties now and is mostly cast as Old Asian Man. Willis’s mom, Dorothy, was cast in roles like Asiatic Seductress and Girl with the Almond Eyes when she was younger, but now she’s just Old Asian Woman. Willis admired Older Brother growing up—Older Brother earned top marks in school, had top-notch kung fu skills, and played Kung Fu Guy for a short time. But the role didn’t appeal to Older Brother, so he quit and then left Chinatown altogether, disappearing under mysterious circumstances.

Black and White, the show that Willis acts in, stars Black detective Miles Turner and white detective Karen Green. They head the Impossible Crimes Unit, which takes on the departments most difficult cases. The show picks up in Chinatown, where Turner and Green are investigating the mysterious disappearance of Older Brother. Willis watches as they shoot a scene in which Old Asian Man is nearly killed.

Afterward, Willis returns to his room in the SRO apartments above the Golden Palace, meditating on the building’s many residents, including his parents. He remembers being a child growing up in the building, dreaming of one day becoming Kung Fu Guy, and his mother urging him to “Be more.”

Willis continues to act in Black and White, and he earns a steady paycheck. He plays a range of one-dimensional parts, eventually working his way up to the role of Special Guest Star. As Special Guest Star, Willis shoots a scene in which he helps Turner and Green investigate Older Brother’s disappearance. Special Guest Star tells the detectives that money might be involved in the disappearance, and so he leads them to the Chinatown Gambling Den.

In the Gambling Den scene, Willis meets Karen Lee, an actress portraying an undercover detective. There’s real chemistry between them. But before anything can happen, Willis realizes that his side is covered in blood—meaning his character has died, and his tenure as Special Guest Star has come to a close.

After a character on a show dies, the actor can’t work for 45 days—the minimum amount of time required for viewers to forget that character existed. Some people think dying is a good thing, since playing the same part for too long can sometimes make a person forget who they really. Growing up, Willis loved when his mother “died,” since it meant she’d have more time to spend at home with Willis.

At this point, the narrative shifts its focus from Black and White to the backstories of Willis’s parents, Ming-Chen Wu and Dorothy. Ming-Chen Wu grows up in Taiwan under militia rule and watches Chinese Nationalist soldiers shoot and kill his father. He comes to the U.S. to make a better life for himself and support his family, but his experience in the U.S. is characterized not by success and upward mobility but by racism, discrimination, and economic hardship. After graduating, he can only get a job playing the role of dishwasher at a restaurant in Chinatown. Dorothy, meanwhile, comes to the U.S. with dreams of becoming a movie star, but she’s instead cast in the role of Pretty Asian Hostess up front at the restaurant while Ming-Chen Wu plays Young Asian Man in back.

Ming-Chen Wu and Dorothy meet, fall in love, marry, and dream of one day leaving their SRO apartment. They have Willis and try their best to be a typical American family, dressing the part, shedding their accents, and ordering Willis to speak English at home and at work. Ming-Chen Wu works hard and gets the coveted role of Sifu, Kung Fu Master. But he loses himself in his work and distances himself from his family.

Back in the present, Willis is still waiting for his 45-day death to end so he can return to work. He’s outside smoking a cigarette, staring up at a billboard advertising Black and White when he runs into Karen Lee. They talk and get to know a bit about each other, and the narrative shifts into a “romantic montage” of scenes from their developing relationship.

The romantic montage comes to a close when Willis’s death period ends. Willis returns to work and continues to see Karen. Karen’s career flourishes, as there are more roles available to her as an attractive woman. Willis, meanwhile, restarts the process of working his way through bit parts. Eventually the director tells Willis he’ll be Kung Fu Guy any day now. Willis returns home to Karen, with whom he’s now living, to tell her the news. But Karen has even bigger news to share with Willis: they’re going to have a baby. Willis’s concern about his career and ability to provide for his family momentarily overshadows his happiness about the pregnancy.

Eventually Karen gives birth to her and Willis’s daughter, Phoebe. Willis continues to work hard, but he still hasn’t become Kung Fu Guy. One day Karen shares more big news with Willis: she’s been given her own show, which means the family can finally move out of the SRO. Karen tells Willis there’s a role for him on the show, too. But Willis, believing he’ll be Kung Fu Guy any day now, pleads with Karen to let him stay behind, at least until he gets the part. Karen is skeptical but agrees to Willis’s proposal.

After a year, Willis finally becomes Kung Fu Guy, but by this point his and Karen’s marriage is over, and Willis feels disillusioned with success. Realizing he’s made a huge mistake, he steals Green and Turner’s police car and flees Chinatown.

Willis arrives in Phoebe Land, where Phoebe is starring in a children’s show about a young Chinese girl, Mei Mei. Here, Willis plays the role of Kung Fu Dad. In Phoebe Land, an idealized, imaginary world of Phoebe’s making, Phoebe moves easily between Asian and American cultures. Phoebe is overjoyed to see Willis and forgives him for not being there all the time. She tells him he “tried,” and that this is good enough for her. With Karen’s permission, Willis stays in Phoebe Land and gets to know his daughter. As Willis watches Phoebe, he admires her ability to be her authentic self instead of playing a part. Eventually, the police arrive to arrest Willis for stealing Turner and Green’s police car.

Willis returns to Chinatown to appear in court. Older Brother finally reappears, revealing to Willis that he quit acting years back to attend law school. Turner testifies against Willis, arguing that Willis has an “internalized sense of inferiority.” Older Brother retorts that this is because it’s impossible for Asian people to fully assimilate into American culture due to the long history of discrimination against Asian immigrants in the U.S.

Ultimately, the jury finds Willis guilty of his “own disappearance.” After the jury delivers its verdict, Willis gives an emotional monologue about performance and identity. He finally realizes that he’s “guilty” of becoming the generic stereotypes that the world has forced on him and of letting those stereotypes define him. In turn, he admits, he’s also guilty of projecting harmful stereotypes onto others. He realizes that Kung Fu Guy is itself just a variation on Generic Asian Man.

As Willis delivers his monologue, tension in the courtroom builds, and Older Brother and Willis decide to resort to “Plan B,” using their kung fu skills to kick their way out of the courtroom. All the other Asian audience members join in, and the courtroom erupts in chaos. Eventually a gun goes off, and Willis dies.

The action picks up inside Golden Palace. Turner and Green stand over Willis’s body and lament Kung Fu Guy’s death. Willis opens his eyes and tells them he can’t do it anymore. They tell him they hope they can all work together again someday. The next thing Willis knows, Karen is leaning over him. Phoebe is there too. When she asks Willis if she’s still Kung Fu Guy, he says no. Instead, he resolves to stop playing characters and dedicate himself to his family.

The novel closes with an epilogue in which Willis watches his father and Phoebe laughing together in the kitchen. Willis laments how he and his father have played roles all their lives, and he hopes that Phoebe can teach him to “move freely between worlds.”