In Interior Chinatown, Chinatown symbolizes Asian characters’ struggle to maintain their Asian identity as they assimilate into Western culture. In particular, it represents how Asian culture in the U.S. is oversimplified and manipulated to fit the tastes of mainstream American culture. Protagonist Willis Wu describes Chinatown as an ironic place filled with Asian immigrants like his Taiwanese parents, who traveled from their old countries to try to make better lives for themselves in America—only to end up in a “pretend version of the old country” in Chinatown. Though Willis’s parents once dreamed of taking full advantage of the opportunity they believed America had to offer, they ended up having to compromise their dreams to conform to the more modest, unthreatening success that Western culture would allow them. This meant setting aside their individuality and authentic cultural ties to perform one-dimensional, unnuanced stereotypes of how Western culture thought Asian people should act. In many ways, Chinatown is the geographic equivalent of the stereotypical roles that Willis and the other Asian characters are assigned to play—Chinatown, as the book sees it, is a fake, oversimplified vision of Asian-ness engineered to emphasize its residents’ otherness and un-Americanness, entrapping them in a physical space where they cannot forget that though they may be in America, they will never be of America.
Chinatown Quotes in Interior Chinatown
Kung Fu Guy is not like the other slots in the hierarchy—there isn’t always someone occupying the position, as in whoever the top guy is at any given time, that’s the default guy who gets trotted out whenever there’s kung fu to be done. Only a very special Asian can be worthy of the title. It takes years of dedication and sacrifice, and after all that only a few have even a slim chance of making it. Despite the odds, you all grew up training for this and only this. All the scrawny yellow boys up and down the block dreaming the same dream.
Even for our hero, there were limits to the dream of assimilation, to how far any of you could make your way into the world of Black and White.
You’re here, supposedly, in a new land full of opportunity, but somehow have gotten trapped in a pretend version of the old country.
GREEN (turns to you) You speak English well.
GENERIC ASIAN MAN Thank you.
TURNER Really well. It’s almost like you don’t have an accent.
Shit. Right. You forgot to do the accent.
“I’m working with them now. This could be good.”
“Happy for you,” he says. He looks skeptical. Worried.
Are you doing the right thing? Something about this feels wrong.
But this is Black and White. They let you have a part. You can’t stop now.
You look at your dad. He shifts his eyes away, and you know in that moment that he is disappointed. But he won’t ever say it. You’ll never talk about it again. He’s gone, slipped back into Old Asian Man. He’s not going to make the choice for you. It’s your role to play.
You survey the room: drawings, hair ties, notes to herself. Seemingly every species of stuffed animal or creature, real or imagined, lined up like a royal court along the walls on the floors. Her friends, her audience. Her off-screen voices. She seems both more resourceful and yet more childlike at the same time—how she’s invented a world, stylized, so that its roles and scenery, its characters and rules, its truths and dangers, all fit within one room. How small it is, and overstuffed, and ready for expansion. How bright it is, how messy. This whole place, the objects in it, all from her.
The words coming out of your mouth, you can feel it happening, how you’re softening, changing into a different person. You were a bit player in the world of Black and White, but here and now, in her world, you’re more. Not the star of the show, something better. The star’s dad. Somehow you were lucky enough to end up in her story.
PHOEBE Can you tell me a story?
KUNG FU DAD I don’t know how. No one’s ever asked me to.
KAREN You wanted them to find you.
KUNG FU DAD I wanted them to find us.
“Hey,” Turner says. Off-script.
“I can’t do this anymore,” you say.
Turner smiles. “Yeah, man. I know.”