Interior Chinatown examines the relationship between family and ambition. As an actor, Willis is mostly cast in bit parts and is lucky if he gets a speaking role. In his 20s at the novel’s present, Willis feels that he hasn’t lived up to his full potential and is running out of time to redeem himself in his parents’ eyes. Sifu is now poor and increasingly senile, and though Willis dutifully visits him to bring him food, medicine, and other essentials, Sifu can no longer quite remember who Willis is—for the most part, he regards him not as his son but as “an overbearing but helpful stranger.” When Willis and his wife Karen have a child, Phoebe, Willis continues to preoccupy himself with becoming the person he thinks will make his family proud. In his new role as a father, his efforts shift away from making his parents proud and toward providing for his wife and child, just as Sifu tried to do when Willis was young. In the early days of being Karen’s husband and Phoebe’s father, Willis remains preoccupied with ambition. But Willis’s single-minded quest to become Kung Fu Guy ultimately drives a wedge between himself and his new family, just as it did for Sifu before him. Eventually, Karen and Phoebe move out of the Chinatown SRO, leaving Willis behind to chase his dreams. They eventually divorce, and Willis becomes disconnected from his family.
Though Willis eventually achieves his dream of becoming Kung Fu Guy, he’s left feeling disillusioned and regretful, realizing that gaining the supposed role of a lifetime has cost him his family. When he later abandons his acting job to reunite with Karen and Phoebe, Willis is surprised to see how much pride and joy it brings him to watch happy, well-adjusted Phoebe navigate the world on her own terms. Unlike Willis, Phoebe doesn’t want to make anyone proud or fill any particular role—she just wants to be Phoebe. The more time Willis spends with Phoebe, the more he realizes that his life has given him a new role, one that’s far more important and rewarding than Kung Fu Guy: Phoebe’s Dad. Interior Chinatown thus examines how ambition can strain a person’s relationship with their family and distract them from what family is really about: simply being there to provide support and comfort while jointly experiencing life’s ups and downs.
Family and Ambition ThemeTracker
Family and Ambition 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.
You’re here, supposedly, in a new land full of opportunity, but somehow have gotten trapped in a pretend version of the old country.
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?
Young Fong packs his father’s things. A simple action, done carefully, turns into something more. He drags an old steamer trunk into the room to collect the belongings, carefully tucking each item into place. Smoothing out the threadbare clothes, as if his father might need them again. Treating the broken, the inexpensive, the humblest of possessions with dignity, just as Old Fong had taught him to do.
“I’m working with them now. This could be good.”
“Happy for you,” he says. He looks skeptical. Worried.
No. But you’re going along with it. Look where we are. Look what you made yourself into. Working your way up the system doesn’t mean you beat the system. It strengthens it. It’s what the system depends on.
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.
Who knows how they calculate these things but someone did and figured out the optimal amount of time. Optimal for them, of course, not for you. Not for anyone who needs to make a living as a Delivery Guy, or a Busboy, or an Inscrutable Background Oriental. Not optimal at all. It feels like an eternity and no matter how much you might need the cash, whatever your sob story, sick baby, hungry kid, Mom needs her medicine, casting won’t even touch you for the mandatory cooling-off period. Doesn’t matter to them. When you’re dead, you are nobody.
When she was dead, she got to be your mother.
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.
“Oh, boo hoo, I’m a poor helpless Asian Man. It’s so terrible being me.”
“I have to talk with an accent because no one can process what the hell to do with me. I’ve got the consciousness of a contemporary American. And the face of a Chinese farmer of five thousand years ago. Asian Man. It’s a fact. Look it up. No one likes us.”
“Not with that attitude they won’t. And by the way, I think I might like you. Maybe. A little.”
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.”
Maybe, if you’re lucky, she’ll teach you. If she can move freely between worlds, why can’t you?