Willis Wu, the protagonist of Interior Chinatown, sees his whole life as a television show in which he has been relegated to minor parts due to his Asianness rendering him a perpetual Other. He describes himself as a “Generic Asian Man” hoping to work his way all the way up to “Kung Fu Guy,” the highest role he can conceive an Asian man attaining in Hollywood. He and his parents, “Old Asian Man” and “Old Asian Woman,” work together in the Golden Palace restaurant, where every day a police procedural called “Black and White” is filmed. In the show, a Black male detective and a White female detective try to solve the murder of a Generic Dead Asian Guy despite not understanding the culture of Chinatown and caring about it even less.
Willis manages to progress all the way to Special Guest Star by faking a Chinese accent and assisting the detectives with their case. He dares to dream that he might be building up to a lead role of his own, but of course he’s killed off before the end of the show, just another plot point on the way to a resolution.
Of course, the show, the restaurant, and Willis’s acting career are really just fictions within a fiction. The cop show just a framework for Willis to work out his feelings about “mainstream” America traditionally being divided among those two races, with Asian guys like him an afterthought. Later, in an utterly farcical court proceeding, Wu, presumably speaking for the author as well, outlines his dilemma regarding his ethnicity – whether he has as much right to complain about oppression as African-Americans and whether his desire to fit into mainstream America is really just a desire to be White.
Interior Chinatown is not a traditional novel. Truthfully, not much happens in a traditional sense and the whole thing has an air of unreality to it that threatens to devolve into meaninglessness. If you try to think of it as a story you’ll likely walk away from it unsatisfied. What it is really is an examination of a particular consciousness, replete with anxiety and self-doubt but also determination and resolve. For this reader it was like walking around in someone else’s shoes for a while, and in that light it was a trip I really enjoyed.