In Interior Chinatown, Willis’s experiences highlight the difficulty of breaking out of oppressive systems. Willis longs to rise above his present circumstances and achieve wealth and success: he wants his career to take off so he can stop playing the dull, unimportant role of Generic Asian Man, and he wants to make enough money to move out of his decrepit room above the Golden Palace Chinese Restaurant. But the problem is, the only way to attain even the possibility of success is to work toward bigger and more impressive acting roles—and the only acting roles that Hollywood gives people like him are Asian stereotypes that force him to live and reaffirm, day after day, the one-dimensional, insulting existence that he longs to leave behind.
When Willis deviates from the script one day during filming to call out a line he finds insulting and dehumanizing, Turner, one of the show’s stars, claims that Willis has no right to complain. Willis, by this point, has risen through the ranks to fill the role of Special Guest Star—a real feat for an Asian Actor. “Look what you made yourself into,” Turner advises Willis. “Working your way up the system doesn’t mean you beat the system. It strengthens it. It’s what the system depends on.” Willis, Turner suggests, has brought his dehumanization upon himself. By playing a series of dehumanizing (albeit gradually more substantial and lucrative) roles on Black and White, Willis has legitimized the very racial stereotypes he wishes to break free from. Of course, Turner’s logic isn’t airtight—namely, it ignores the reality that “the system” is the only world that exists. As a result, the only way that Willis can improve his circumstances and alleviate the worst of the racism and mistreatment he experiences as an Asian American is by legitimizing the very stereotypes that sustain and exacerbate that mistreatment. Willis’s professional predicament sheds light on the impossible situation in which systemic oppression places Asian American people and marginalized people in general: in order to attain a better standard of living, they must operate within—and therefore strengthen—the very system they long to transcend.
The System ThemeTracker
The System Quotes in Interior Chinatown
In the world of Black and White, everyone starts out as Generic Asian Man.
Black and White always look good. A lot of it has to do with the light. They’re the heroes. They get hero lighting, designed to hit their faces just right. Designed to hit White’s face just right, anyway.
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?
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.
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.
But the one that Wu can never quite get over was the original epithet: Chinaman, the one that seems, in a way, the most harmless, being that in a sense it is literally just a descriptor. China. Man. And yet in that simplicity, in the breadth of its use, it encapsulates so much. This is what you are. Always will be, to me, to us. Not one of us. This other thing.
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.
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?