Review: Interior Chinatown

Willis Wu doesn’t perceive himself as a protagonist even in his own life: he’s merely Generic Asian Man. Every day, he leaves his tiny room in a Chinatown SRO and enters the Golden Palace restaurant, where Black and White, a procedural cop show, is in perpetual production. He’s a bit player here too. . . but he dreams of being Kung Fu Guy—the highest aspiration he can imagine for a Chinatown denizen. Or is it?

After stumbling into the spotlight, Willis finds himself launched into a wider world than he’s ever known, discovering not only the secret history of Chinatown, but the buried legacy of his own family, and what that means for him, in today’s America.

Playful but heartfelt, a send-up of Hollywood tropes and Asian stereotypes—Interior Chinatown is Charles Yu’s most moving, daring, and masterful novel yet.

  • Title:  Interior Chinatown
  • Author: Charles Yu 
  • Publisher: Pantheon Books
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Targeted Age Range: Adult
  • Trigger Warnings: death, discrimination towards the mentally ill, anti-Asian racism, police brutality, anti-Black racism, description of historical genocide, slurs, sexual harassment, sexism, misogyny
  • Rating:  ★★★★★

I’ve been meaning to read Interior Chinatown for what feels like forever; I can name countless conversations where a friend and I have talked about buddy reading it, although never actually starting — which was why I was so excited when Literasian Book Club picked it for our very first read! I definitely made up for lost time though, at the speed of how fast I read Interior Chinatown

Literasian Book Club is a book club that I started with two close friends of mine; Bella from rainstormreads and Anshu, who is @seashinings on instagram! Literasian Book Club is a discord-based book club dedicated to promoting & celebrating Asian literature and authors! If you’d like to join, simply click on this, or visit our instagram & twitter @literasianbooks!  

From the first page of Interior Chinatown, I knew this book would hit home. I think it’s safe to say that I’ve never read something quite like Interior Chinatown. Chinatown in particular is a very special place for me; I grew up spending every Saturday and every holiday there, hanging out in the Chinatown SRO that my grandmother rented. My family has ties to pretty much everyone in Seattle’s Chinatown, and I ended up driving to Chinatown for errands, and then reading parts of Interior Chinatown in my car. Parts of Interior Chinatown take place inside Golden Palace —  a stand in for every Chinese restaurant in America on television, and a place that no doubt reminds me of my own family. After emigrating from Hong Kong, my aunt spent the next forty years working at a restaurant named just that: Golden Palace. Most of my family worked in the service industry — and still do. 

Interior Chinatown is many things. It’s literary fiction. It’s an exploration of race, pop culture, immigration, assimilation, the model minority myth, and stereotypes, wrapped up as a teleplay, packaged neatly as a novel. But it’s also so much more. Interior Chinatown takes place mostly at the Golden Palace restaurant, where protagonist Willis Wu plays a small role in the cop shop Black and White. Interior Chinatown is divided into six acts: Generic Asian Man, Int. Golden palace, Ethnic Recurring, Striving Immigrant, Kung Fu Dad, The Case of the Missing Asian, and Ext. Chinatown. 

Act I: Generic Asian Man opens with Willis’ resume, as well as roles his parents played — striving immigrant, generic Asian man, restaurant hostess, Asiatic Seductress, Sifu, Egg Roll Cook, Old Asian Man, twin dragon, to name a few. But what Willis really wants is to move his way up the ranks of the Asian roles available to him, and to be in the coveted Kung Fu Guy, and ultimately, just a Generic Man. Throughout Interior Chinatown, Willis wonders why his career is always limited to the guest star — although it’s clear to the reader that Willis is simply trapped in stereotypical casting. 

For all its commentary of Hollywood, of casting, of the roles we play, what truly made Interior Chinatown shine for me was actually the family dynamics, and the community that the SRO complex brings. Willis’ dreams are woven into Interior Chinatown, but even more so, we see the dashed hopes and dreams of his immigrant parents, and Willis’ complex relationship with them. We get to see how this plays out when he becomes a parent, and how Willis’ own hopes and dreams affect his relationship with his daughter, Phoebe. 

“Who gets to be an American? What does an American look like? We’re trapped as guest stars in a small ghetto on a very special episode. Minor characters locked into a story that doesn’t quite know what to do with us. After two centuries here, why are we still not Americans? Why do we keep falling out of the story?” 

Interior Chinatown feels a bit like a rollercoaster — in the way that everything is building up to the final act. Without giving too much away, Willis’ monologue is one that I know I’ll be thinking of for a while. 

One of my favorite musical tropes is the “show within a show”, so it’s no surprise that I was so intrigued by the fictional show in Interior Chinatown. Personally, I would love to see Interior Chinatown adapted for the big screen; whether that is a television show/mini-series, or a movie. It’s incredibly clever, sarcastic, and filled with visual cues that I think would translate wonderfully on screen. 

Links for Interior Chinatown: Goodreads | TheStoryGraph | Bookshop | Indie Bound

CHARLES YU is the author of four books, including his latest, Interior Chinatown, which is a Finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and the Le Prix Médicis étranger, and longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. He has received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, been nominated for two Writers Guild of America awards for his work on the HBO series Westworld, and has also written for shows on FX, AMC, Facebook Watch, and Adult Swim. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a number of publications including The New YorkerThe New York Times MagazineThe AtlanticWiredTime and Ploughshares.

Photo credit: Tina Chiou

Links for Charles Yu: Website | Twitter

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4 thoughts on “Review: Interior Chinatown

  1. “After two centuries here, why are we still not Americans? Why do we keep falling out of the story?” Wow. Interior Chinatown is definitely going onto the TBR. If that quote is any indication of the quality of this book, this is a predicted 5-star for me. Beautiful review Cossette! 💕

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