On being Asian American in Hollywood

INTERIOR CHINATOWN

By Charles Yu (New York: Pantheon Books, 2020, 288 pp., $16, paperback)

During Act I of Charles Yu’s comical and award-winning novel, “Interior Chinatown,” I had a flashback to the mid-1980s when my late father, Nisei writer/actor Hiroshi Kashiwagi, landed a role as a Chinese coolie in a murder mystery play.

As Yu introduces his fictional hero, Willis Wu, Asian actor, he begins by listing his skills: “Kung Fu (Moderate Proficiency); Fluent in Accented English; Able to do Face of Great Shame on command.” Then he lists his Hollywood roles: “Disgraced Son, Silent Henchman, Caught Between Two Worlds, Guy Who Runs in and Gets Kicked in the Face, Generic Asian Man.”

So true, I thought, and remembered my dad in his black, coolie get-up, the black coolie hat and the flat, black slippers. Set in an old house in San Francisco, my dad’s role was to bow and greet theater-goers at the front door.

And then, he quit.

“The people were treating me like ‘the help,’” my dad said, indignantly. And, like so many Asian American actors before and after him, he was forced to either endure the humiliation and degradation, or walk away.

And so it goes, 35 years later, Yu has had enough as well, and puts the entire entertainment industry in check with his biting satire of Hollywood and every Asian stereotype in the book. It’s uproariously funny, and terribly sad. Funny because it’s spot-on true. Sad because not much has changed from my dad’s role in 1985 and the roles Willis is playing in 2020. Go back further, to the days of Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan, and the situation becomes even sadder.

Utilizing his background as a novelist, screenwriter and lawyer, Yu’s book reads more like a Hollywood script as Willis pursues his ultimate dream of becoming “Kung Fu Guy.” But then, it turns into a novel as Yu reveals the immigrant backstories of his characters, outside of their Hollywood stereotypes.

In the end, “Interior Chinatown” is about being Asian in America, and how we, as Asian Americans, are seen and unseen. It’s about Hollywood seeing us as forever foreign, never American. And it’s about what’s real and what’s not, and living life true to who we are, and not some bogus view of what others have imposed upon us.

In Act VI, Yu takes us to court where Willis is on trial in the “Case of the Missing Asian Man.” After the jury finds him guilty, Willis asks, “The question is: Who gets to be an American? What does an American look like? … After two centuries here, why are we still not Americans? Why do we keep falling out of the story?”

For his “wonderfully inventive” storytelling, “Interior Chinatown” was awarded the 2020 National Book Award for fiction on Nov. 18, and author Yu joins literary giants such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor as recipients of this prestigious prize.

It’s a well-deserved award for Yu, and a long overdue appreciation for the plight of Asian American actors, both past and present.

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