“Interior Chinatown” by Charles Yu

Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu (Pantheon, January 2020) Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu (Pantheon, January 2020)

Earlier this year, a fire broke out in the Chinatown archive of New York’s Museum of Chinese in America, spurring a tremendous outpouring of sympathy and support from those fearing that a crucial chapter in the nation’s history was lost forever. A few days later, newspaper reports from that normally bustling neighborhood indicated that, due largely to worries over the coronavirus, tourists and locals alike were staying away in droves. Much of MoCA’s archive turned out to be salvageable, and diners and shoppers began trickling back downtown, but that juxtaposition of headlines still shows the ambivalence much of mainstream America feels about its Chinese population. 

If the title of his new novel is any indication, Charles Yu feels those contradictions in the depths of his soul. Having first come to wide attention with his 2010 novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Yu has spent the past five years in television as a writer, editor and producer, most notably for HBO’s Westworld. Those two realms come together in Interior Chinatown, a bravura metaphysical rumination written in the form of a television screenplay.

On the surface, Yu’s title refers to a location setting, in this case a generic Chinese restaurant in a generic Chinatown in a fictional police series entitled White and Black. The protagonist Willis Wu, a veteran of bit parts ranging from Disgraced Son to Striving Immigrant, finds himself at a murder scene in a family restaurant playing yet another variation of Generic Asian Man. Driving the point home, the investigative team—a ridiculously masculine Black Dude Cop and an smolderingly attractive White Lady Cop—tells him in no uncertain terms that there’s no room in the story for Asian Man, generic or otherwise.

Beneath the surface of Generic Screenplay, Yu’s characters occasionally break free of their surroundings in quasi-Pirandello fashion. Back stories come through elaborate character descriptions, and much like Nabokov’s footnotes in Pale Fire, the descriptions are the novel.


Although Wu’s dream of becoming Kung Fu Guy remains elusive, Yu throws his stereotypes in all directions. Labels and pigeonholes abound, crossing both cultures and generations. Wu wonders why his career never advances beyond Special Guest Star—let alone eluding mainstream success—until he finally realizes that his limitations largely come from within. Interior Chinatown, indeed.

Yu freely weaves satire with social commentary, speculative fiction with identity politics. Without leaving its fantasy world, the story often turns bracingly real. Though much of his protagonist’s insecurities are narrowly focused—not just Asian, but specifically Asian American—his accumulation of concerns becomes surprisingly and relatably inclusive.

Much of this comes from the fact that, while not above setting up a few cringe-worthy puns (Black Dude Cop: “You think this seems to be a case of…” / White Lady Cop: “The Wong guy”), Yu also freely constructs discursive rambles that deftly conflate a simple image with, well, a finely rendered backstory. A wholly fresh understanding of Wu’s father (aka Old Asian Man) emerges through an expansive musing on karaoke and an older generation’s embarrassing attraction to John Denver songs:


Maybe it’s the dream of the open highway. The romantic myth of the West. A reminder that these funny little Orientals have actually been Americans longer than you have. Know something about this country that you haven’t figured out. If you don’t believe it, go down to your local karaoke on open mic night. Wait until the third hour, when the drunk frat boys and gastropub waitresses with headshots are all done with Backstreet Boys and Alicia Keys and locate the slightly older Asian businessman waiting patiently in line for his turn, his face warmly rouged on Crown or Japanese lager, and when he steps up and starts singing “Country Roads,” try not to laugh, or wink knowingly, or clap a little too hard, because by the time he gets to “West Virginia, mountain mama,” you’re going to be singing along, and by the time he’s done, you might understand why a 77-year-old guy from a tiny island in the Taiwan strait, who’s been in a foreign country for two-thirds of his life, can nail a song note-perfect about wanting to go home.

Ken Smith is an award-winning critic and journalist. He covers music and cultural developments on five continents for a wide range of media.