In all the turmoil of 2020 (and I’m sure there’s plenty more to come) I keep remembering a poll by YouGov back in June during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. It showed that here in the UK 63% of non-white people have had a racial slur said to them directly. But it’s 75% for people of Chinese heritage – the highest – of which nearly 50% had experienced this many times. Chinese heritage people are also the least likely to answer ‘can’t remember’ or ‘prefer not to say’. British Chinese are the most likely to receive abuse, to receive it regularly; they remember it, and they want to talk about it.
I don’t remember any discussion of this clear outlier in the media or on social media. From discussion with friends of Chinese heritage it rings true. After all, it was only a few years ago that a major political figure here defended the use of the word ‘chinky’ as it was colloquial. It’s affectionate, they said: it refers to Chinese food or the establishment selling it. Harmless, no?
Tangentially, I remember being shocked hearing a friend talking with her (Hong Kong-born) mother about ‘chinkies’. Turned out she meant Ching Kee cookie rolls.
And Chinese stereotypes in film and TV persist, even in a post-The Farewell and Crazy Rich Asians world. Mulan was a chariot crash (‘they made Mulan too westernized yet still succumbed to Orientalist stereotypes‘) and we are nervously awaiting how Marvel deals with Shang-Chi’s Fu Manchu connection, although frankly I’ll forgive Tony Leung anything.
On TV, this year I finally caught up with Peaky Blinders – a few years old, yes, but manages to open with a Mystical Sultry Chinatown fortune-telling dry cleaners-slash-brothel. For a drama that is mostly so tightly written and creatively produced that tedious Chinatown stereotype almost made me give up on the whole thing. Perry Mason, new this year, also had an obligatory and totally gratuitous trip to a Chinese brothel. Honestly, I can’t for the life of me remember the purpose of that part of the narrative. ITV seemed to be having its cake and eating it with The Singapore Grip, which while in its defence is based on a great anti-colonial novel, foregrounded the one ‘unknowable Orient’ female character, with a mysterious espionage past, lounging around in a qipao eating white mice, while the main white characters were living the colonial high life in the face of advancing Japanese planes. Thank god, at least, for the Marvelous Mrs Maisel, with a much fresher and more rounded approach to Mei (played by Stephanie Hsu) and the 60s New York Chinese community.
But I digress. I thought of this poll and all these TV shows again because at one point in Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, which feels about as zeitgeisty a book as you could get this year without a pandemic raging through it, there is a discussion of the word ‘Chinaman’. Ming-Chen Wu, the protagonist Willis Wu’s father, arrived in Mississippi in the 60s, where ‘half of the class calls him Chinaman, but mostly they mean it affectionately’. Yu doesn’t dwell on this long.
Chinaman, the one that seems, in a way, the most harmless, being that in a sense it is literally just a descriptor. China. Man. And yet in that simplicity, in the breadth of its use, it encapsulates so much. This is what you are. Always will be, to me, to us. Not one of us. This other thing.
Soon after, Ming-Chen’s friend Allen Chen is beaten unconscious for being a ‘Jap’. Ming-Chen realises that he will now, always, be simply Asian Man.
The backstory of Willis’s parents is the anchor of the book, structurally (it’s exactly halfway through), thematically and tonally. It’s a serious and moving section that brings together many of the themes of the book, but that earnestness is atypical – for the most part, Interior Chinatown is absolutely hilarious. Genuinely laugh out loud. It is fantastically fresh, and I can’t think of a book I’ve read this year that so masterfully balanced the comic with the sincere. It is a deeply thoughtful book about race in modern America, about being Chinese American, ‘part of the American show, black and white, no part for yellow’, present in the US since 1815 but conflicted by centuries of actual legal oppression combined with the feeling that this oppression is ‘second-class’ as ‘Asians haven’t been persecuted as much as Black people’. It even has an epic Hollywood courtroom speech finale which could be repackaged as a polemical opinion column and which, incredibly, Yu manages to make feel entirely in keeping with the book. It’s brilliant and I loved it.
The trick is partly in the form – much of the book is written as a film script as Willis Wu processes his life as scripted fantasies. The book is short – read-in-one-sitting short – and this style doesn’t wear thin. Charles Yu is himself a scriptwriter as well as an author, and this allows him to explore the stereotyping of Asians both on screen (‘why is the Asian guy always dead?’) and the parallels in real life. It’s ingenious. Yu is exploring patterns, forms and shapes – of representation, or stereotypes, of expectations – and he does so breaking out between narratives and stylistic forms. To manage the tones so deftly, moving between thoughtful, moving, and just hilarious, is an impressive achievement.
Plotwise, there’s not much to it. Willis Wu is a regular guy working in a Chinese restaurant, living in a single room occupancy, who wants to be a success in life – or in the internal logic of Interior Chinatown, Willis Wu wants to be Kung Fu Guy, but is currently Background Oriental Male. His father, once Sifu, is now just Old Asian Man. Willis’s older brother, on the other hand, never had to be Generic Asian Man – he was a prodigy, he made it, as we see from the ‘Older Brother Awesomeness Montage’. Elsewhere we see Lowlife Oriental, Sultry Asian Woman, Mini Boss. Much of the ‘scripted’ section is written as is a crime drama featuring a ‘white lady cop’ and a ‘black dude cop’, allowing a humorous probing of racial and entertainment stereotypes. Willis marries and then divorces Karen, who is ethnically ambiguous (a ‘magical creature’…’able to pass in any situation as may be required’), and while he hardly sees his daughter he still aspires to be Kung Fu Dad. The title, Interior Chinatown, works as a description of Willis’s personal fantasy world, as a description of the self-reflexive and self-preservative character of the Chinatown he describes, and as a script marking (Interior: Chinatown).
The script form also gives rise to many of the funniest passages – character asides, scene markings, the layout of the print on the page. Production notes like ‘Set Design: Curved eaves; massive roofs; pay attention to cornices! Oriental flourishes and touches; details are everything’. The ‘Singing Children (O.S.)’ accompanying the poignant scene between Willis and his daughter, played like a Sesame Street-style children’s show (‘This is the part where we learn songs and rhymes with positive messages about tolerance and inclusion!’) Stripped of the ‘he said’ the comic dialogue is more immediate (‘You speak English well.’ – ‘Thank you.’ – ‘Really well. It’s almost like you don’t have an accent.’ – Shit. Right. You forgot to do the accent).
But Yu is also strong with more delicate language: Wu’s father now viewing him with a ‘blank if slightly wary amiability, as one might endure an overbearing but helpful stranger’; his mother who dresses in her costume to go to work at night in the Golden Palace, ‘her emotional energy draining from the room, her protective field slowly dissipating’; and getting to know his daughter ‘like finding old letters, of things you knew thirty years ago and haven’t thought of since. How to feel, how to be yourself. Not how to perform or act. How to be.’
And ultimately disappointment runs through Willis’s life – he thought he wanted to be a success, to be Kung Fu Guy, but he can’t remember why, and when it comes down to it, ‘Kung Fu Guy is just another form of Generic Asian Man’. This feels as damning and as succinct as assessment of the American dream as I can remember reading. After all, Bruce Lee, the ‘one guy who made it’, was an anomaly, ‘a living breathing video game boss-level, a human cheat code, an idealised avatar of Asian-ness and awesomeness permanently set on Expert difficulty.’
Interior Chinatown was released early in 2020 in the US and has been fantastically well-received, quite justifiably, and is shortlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction. It is out here in the UK this week through Europa, though the US edition has been widely available.