Book Review: Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Interior Chinatown – Charles Yu

When it comes to a book like Interior Chinatown where the author is creating something so unique and different, I’m able to forgive a lot even when there are other weaknesses in the work. Charles Yu uses film tropes and a screenplay style on the page to tell the story of Willis Wu. Willis has lived his whole life in Chinatown, dreaming of one day being Kung Fu Guy. In Chinatown, this is the ultimate dream for young men who will otherwise be relegated to background characters. If they’re lucky, they’ll be given some throwaway lines in the scenes starring Black & White.

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?

Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown

As Willis career seems to be heading in the right direction and things look better for him than ever before, he begins to question whether Kung Fu Guy really is everything he wants. What if there is more? Can Asian Guy ever truly broke the mold of Chinatown and simply be seen as a regular guy?

Yu explores racism and the place of Asian-Americans in the United States, using the cliches of cop thrillers and courtroom dramas. There is even a children’s sing-along show at one point.

As the story progresses and Willis begins to push against the boundaries that culture and entertainment and Chinatown itself have placed around him, he is challenged by other characters and the question of privilege is further explored.

What are you looking for? Do you think you’re the only group to be invisible?

How about:

Older women

Older people in general

People that are overweight

People that don’t conform to conventional Western beauty standards

Black women

Women in general in the workplace

Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown

This part of the novel was particularly interesting as Willis’ character is challenged and challenges in return. A character who has lived within certain narrow confines his whole life is suddenly realizing there is a world beyond the interior of Chinatown, beyond the destiny those around him have dictated for him.

As a plotted novel, Interior Chinatown does falter quite a bit. With the screenplay style, Yu moves through Willis’ life (as well as certain other characters) very quickly and because we’re primarily seeing Willis play different cliche roles, it felt hard to get a sense of who he really was as an individual. The timeline and his relationships with other characters moved too quickly for me to really grow to care for Willis. Perhaps this was the point but it didn’t quite work for me.

The way Yu plays with format was also something that was both fun to read but confusing at times. The story moves in and out of movie scenes, jumping from film to reality from one line to the next. There’s no delineation or separation from rule life and what’s happening on a film set. Which is, of course, the point of what Yu is doing here. It’s very creative but there were several points where I had to stop and look back to orient myself.

Overall, it’s always fun to come across a book that plays with form this much and uses it to explore an important topic and I think what Yu is doing here is truly valuable. I have no trouble recommending this book, especially to any film buffs.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu”

  1. Despite its limitations, this does sound very interesting. Although I’m not a film buff, the use of tropes and genre film as a way of looking at this seems very creative!

    1. I’m not much of a film buff either but I think this works even for us casual movie viewers. The tropes and issues are so familiar that it isn’t hard to pick up on what he’s referring to.

  2. I know what you mean about overlooking certain flaws if other parts of a book work for you. This happens many times to me. I’ll point out something in my review that bothered me, but if it wasn’t too annoying, I can get over it if I enjoy the rest of the book. I don’t typically enjoy messy narratives like this one, but it sounds like the film-style is definitely a redeeming quality!

    1. I didn’t mind the messy narrative flow so much because it felt like a deliberate choice by the author. He wanted the reader to experience those awkward jumps between scenes to blur the lines between reading and watching. I didn’t love that awkwardness but I can see what he’s trying to do, as opposed to a book where it seems like the author has no control over what’s happening!

  3. I was going to ask you if this book would be a good choice in audio form, and then I got to the part about the author playing with formatting. So….I’m not sure. I wonder if I would have liked True Story by Petty more, for example, if I had seen all the movie scripts and essays. I do like how this character is looking at what an Asian person is doing in American cinema, especially when that Asian person is an American. I went on a date about a bazillion years ago with a man from Korea who asked me which Asian actors I thought were handsome. All I could come up with was Jackie Chan, and I was so embarrassed. Today, thanks to Netflix and smart phones, I see Asian actors in lots of movies, especially movies made IN ASIA! (omg, Korean horror, yaaaas)

    1. I really don’t think it would be a good choice for audio. Being able to see the layout on the page helps a lot in orienting the action. And if all the stage commands were spoken out loud I think it would take you out of the action. I could see something similar with True Story on audio.

      There has been huge growth in Asian actors cast in movies in recent years. I think a lot of people would have struggled with that question!

    2. Whew, that makes me feel better. It was 2003, so things were different in cinema for sure. Looking back actually makes me realize how far we’ve come. Did you see that campaign in which someone pasted John Cho’s face in loads of movie posters starring a white guy? People argue that having an Asian actor in such and such a role wouldn’t work, but John Cho looks at home in damn near every role.

    3. Yeah, that always seems like a dumb argument. Having an Asian actor in a prominent role only stands out because we’re not used to seeing that in films. It’s certainly not a reflection of the world as it actually is. I remember a few years back seeing a comedy bit from Aziz Ansari who was describing how his most recent roles were guys with names like Tom and Paul and how he was working to play characters, not just Asian characters.

    4. I know Ansari won’t do an “Indiana voice” (basically making fun of his parents) for the sake of humor, nor will he play a character from India and use that voice. It doesn’t sit right with him.

    5. I just read an interview with Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience, new Marvel movie) and he mentioned how he used to do those types of accents for roles because he felt like he had to. As he grew more established in his career he felt like he had more security to refuse. He’s also a big proponent of representation behind the camera being just as important as in front of because that’s who decides what stories are told and how.

    6. I do love him in Kim’s Convenience. Why, oh why, though is Shannon so awkward??? I just want her to get it together a tiny bit! If she were the boss in a similar job in the U.S., she’d be fired for so many H.R. issues.

    7. Oh, Shannon is so awkward! But Michael Scott would have been fired long ago too so I guess the awkwardness is part of the humour (even though it makes my skin crawl!)

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