In Interior Chinatown, the coveted role of Kung Fu Guy symbolizes the limits of assimilation into Western culture for Asian people. Willis indicates that Kung Fu Guy is the highest achievement that any Asian actor can achieve, and every Asian man in Chinatown wants to embody this role. Being Kung Fu Guy, everyone believes, sets a person apart from the other Asian men stuck playing generic roles like Generic Asian Man Number One or Delivery Guy. From the start, Willis makes clear how enamored he is of the role, especially since his father, Ming-Chen Wu, once held the esteemed title, playing Sifu, the Mysterious Kung Fu Master in his youth. But as Willis advances in his career, eventually earning the coveted title himself, it becomes clear that Kung Fu Guy is hardly as lifechanging as Willis once thought. Like his father before him, Willis trains nonstop and sacrifices a lot to get the role—including his marriage to Karen and, at least for a time, his relationship with their daughter, Phoebe. What’s more, he eventually realizes that Kung Fu Guy is no less generic or one-dimensional than any of the other roles Asian men are cast in—it’s simply a way to appease Asian actors with what appears to be acceptance and prestige but is really just another—albeit flashier—title that others them, defining them by their Asian background first and their identity and accomplishments second.
Kung Fu Guy 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.
He’d played his role for so long he’d lost himself in it, before some separation that happened gradually over decades and then you waking one day to feel it, some distance that had crept in overnight. Some formal space you could no longer cross.
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.
Maybe they make one of us Kung Fu Guy. Maybe a few good scenes. Maybe a poster, in the back, real small. And then what?
“I’m working with them now. This could be good.”
“Happy for you,” he says. He looks skeptical. Worried.
Your mother weeps, and dies. Weeps and dies. Weeps and doesn’t die. Just weeps. Because now, your father is no longer a person, no longer a human. Just some mystical Eastern force, some Wizened Chinaman. Her husband is gone, Wu is gone, even Young Asian Man is gone. They took him away from her. He is lost now, in his work, in who they made him. Distant. Cold, perfectionist. Inscrutable. No descriptors, anymore, no age or build, just a role, a name, a shell where he used to be. His features taken away and replaced by archetypes, even his face hollowing out.
This is how he became Sifu. This is how she lost her husband. How you lost your dad.
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.
But at the same time, I’m guilty, too. Guilty of playing this role. Letting it define me. Internalizing the role so completely that I’ve lost track of where reality starts and the performance begins. And letting that define how I see other people. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. Fetishizing Black people and their coolness. Romanticizing White women. Wishing I were a White man. Putting myself into this category.
“Hey,” Turner says. Off-script.
“I can’t do this anymore,” you say.
Turner smiles. “Yeah, man. I know.”
Maybe, if you’re lucky, she’ll teach you. If she can move freely between worlds, why can’t you?