Book Review: “Interior Chinatown” by Charles Yu

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

I read How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2011) when it came out.  It was OK, but frankly, I don’t remember it very well.

Interior Chinatown is a totally different animal.  Formatted like a screenplay, Yu reifies the social roles he sees in America as literal roles in a movie.  The movie may be in our heads, or in everybody’s heads (thus, the “Interior” in the title.), but the effects of living out fictions about ourselves and others are very real.

In particular, Yu wants to critique the American experience and ideas about Americans with Chinese and other Asian heritage.  As with anything to do with race in America, it’s an ugly mess, and has been for a long time.

As a real life screenwriter, Yu frames a lot of the ideas in terms of how Asians appear in popular film and TV.  “Asian Man”.  “Pretty Asian Woman”.  “Dead Asian Guy”.  And the pinnacle, “Kung Fu Guy”.  No matter who you are, where you were born in America, how smart you are, how good your grades; you are cast in one of these parts, and that’s it.  And you must speak in a stupid Hollywood accent, or else it’s “weird”.

And all these characters only live, can only live, is the weird, twisted scene that is set CHINATOWN, INTERIOR, GOLDEN DRAGON, etc.  This place is only a few blocks long, but there is no exit.

The point—and he does seem to have one—is to strive for “something more”. He addresses this to himself, as he strives to graduate from the pointless distinction of “Kung Fu Guy” role, to the vastly more meaningful role of “dad”. But, of course, we all should strive for something more, more and better to each other (and ourselves).

For history buffs, Yu includes a bit of splainin’ about the weirdness that is “Chinatown”, as well as the preposterously outrageous anti-Chinese laws our great country actually enforced until recently.  Racism mostly makes no logical sense except as pure exploitation, but the laws about “Chinese” people are doozies, even for America.

He also shows us the sick, twisted theme park that is “Chinatown” in America.  I’ve never been especially fond of “Chinatown”, and now I see that there was really good reason.

For an anti-racism tract, this is remarkably readable.  I don’t think you even have to accept all of Yu’s diagnosis to get his point.  And you certainly don’t have to care about popular culture as deeply as Yu does to get his point.

  1. Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown, New York, Pantheon Books, 2020.


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