Label Me This: Interior Chinatown tackles stereotypes, racial typecasting, & what it means to be American
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Pantheon Books, January 2020 | $25.95 | 4 stars
Review by Kelsey May
Compelling, bold, and cleverly written, Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown reads as a novelized television show script. The plot? Willis Wu’s life as an actor being offered parts as “Generic Asian Man” in the same old Golden Palace restaurant. His dream of becoming Hollywood’s go-to “Kung Fu Guy.” His life in the Chinatown SRO. His complicated relationships with his parents and neighbors and the dreams his parents had before they found out what America really had in store for folks who looked like them:
“[His mother had] once dreamed of being more. When she first started out, as Young Asian Woman. She imagined a life for herself, full of romance, glamour. One of the few American stories that had made its way to the silver screen of Taipei in the ‘50s, an afternoon at the cinema with her father and nine sisters and brothers, sharing one Coke. Being the eighth of ten, she might get one good sip before it got taken back by siblings further up the chain, but that one sip was enough to savor, sitting up on her heels to get a better view, holding her father’s hand, and watching the perfect faces, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, their luminous whiteness shimmering in the cool, darkened theater.”
Then he falls in love with Karen, another actress on set, and things start to change. They both have dreams of stardom, but hers are more attainable. Her ambiguous ethnicity makes her more castable, and she rises through the ranks quicker than Willis. When she gets pregnant, Willis must make some tough decisions: what kind of life does he want to give his child? Is a room in the Chinatown SRO gonna cut it? What’s more important: his dream career as Kung Fu Guy or his family?
Interior Chinatown is action-packed, dialogue-heavy, and above all, honest about how Asian Americans are treated as other and how, all too often, Asian Americans (in showbiz and elsewhere) internalize this otherness and toe the line between reinforcing the stereotype or rejecting the outdated, racially-problematic “one-size-fits-all” identities. Interior Chinatown stands out for its unique genre-bending style and stuck with me long after reading for its cultural relevance, set of characters, and satisfying, powerful ending. (Yu literally puts racism and the American Dream on trial. Brilliant!) Four stars and a wholehearted recommendation to voracious and curious readers and progressive thinkers everywhere.
Interior Chinatown (Pantheon Books) is available for $26 in hardcover from your local independent bookstore or from your local library for free.
Thank you to the publishers at Pantheon for the review copy!
P.S. My grandma made that coaster in the photo. <3