Excerpt: ‘Interior Chinatown’

Read the opening of Charles Yu’s formally innovative novel Interior Chinatown, the June California Book Club selection.

charles yu, interior chinatown
Dustin Snipes


Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy.

  • You are not Kung Fu Guy.
  • You are currently Background Oriental Male, but you’ve been practicing.
  • Maybe tomorrow will be the day.

    Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy.
    You are not Kung Fu Guy. You are currently Oriental Guy Making a Weird Face, but you’ve been practicing.
    Maybe tomorrow will be the day.

    Take what you
    can get.

    Try to build
    a life.

    A life
    at the
    made from
    bit parts.



    • Kung Fu (Moderate Proficiency)
    • Fluent in Accented English
    • Able to do Face of Great Shame on command


      • Disgraced Son
      • Delivery Guy
      • Silent Henchman
      • Caught Between Two Worlds
      • Guy Who Runs in and Gets Kicked in the Face
      • Striving Immigrant
      • Generic Asian Man

        Your mother has played, in no particular order:

        • Pretty Oriental Flower
        • Asiatic Seductress
        • Young Dragon Lady
        • Slightly Less Young Dragon Lady
        • Restaurant Hostess
        • Girl with the Almond Eyes
        • Beautiful Maiden Number One
        • Dead Beautiful Maiden Number One
        • Old Asian Woman

          Your father has been, at various times:

          • Twin Dragon
          • Wizened Chinaman
          • Guy in a Soiled T-shirt
          • Inscrutable Grocery Owner (in a Soiled T-shirt)
          • Egg Roll Cook
          • Young Asian Man
          • Sifu, the Mysterious Kung Fu Master
          • Old Asian Man


            In the world of Black and White, everyone starts out as Generic Asian Man. Everyone who looks like you, anyway. Unless you’re a woman, in which case you start out as Pretty Asian Woman.

            You all work at Golden Palace, formerly Jade Palace, formerly Palace of Good Fortune. There’s an aquarium in the front and cloudy tanks of rock crabs and two-pound lobsters crawling over each other in the back. Laminated menus offer the lunch special, which comes with a bowl of fluffy white rice and choice of soup, egg drop or hot and sour. A neon Tsingtao sign blinks and buzzes behind the bar in the dimly lit space, a dropped-ceiling room with lacquered ornate woodwork (or some imitation thereof), everything simmering in a warm, seedy red glow thrown off by the dollar-store paper lanterns festooned above, many of them darkened by dead moths, the paper yellowing, ripped, curling in on itself.

            The bar is fully stocked with top-shelf spirits up top, middle-shelf liquor at eye level, and down at the bottom, a happy hour shelf of booze that you will regret for sure. The new thing everyone is excited about is called the lychee margarita-tini, which seems like a lot of flavors. Not that you’ve had one. They’re fourteen bucks. Sometimes patrons leave a sip at the bottom of the glass and if you’re quick, while you go through the swinging door that separates the front of the house from the back, you can have a taste—you’ve seen some of the other Generic Asian Men do it. It’s a risk, though. The director’s always got an eye out, ready to fire someone for the smallest infraction.

            You wear the uniform: white shirt, black pants. Black slipperlike shoes that have no traction whatsoever. Your haircut is not good, to say the least.

            Black and White always look good. A lot of it has to do with the light. They’re the heroes. They get hero lighting, designed to hit their faces just right. Designed to hit White’s face just right, anyway.

            Someday you want the light to hit your face like that. To look like the hero. Or for a moment to actually be the hero.


            First, you have to work your way up. Starting from the bottom, it goes:

            5. Background Oriental Male
            4. Dead Asian Man
            3. Generic Asian Man Number Three/Delivery Guy
            2. Generic Asian Man Number Two/Waiter
            1. Generic Asian Man Number One

            and then if you make it that far (hardly anyone does) you get stuck at Number One for a while and hope and pray for the light to find you and that when it does you’ll have something to say and when you say that something it will come out just right and have everyone in Black and White turning their heads saying wow who is that, that is not just some Generic Asian Man, that is a star, maybe not a real, regular star, let’s not get crazy, we’re talking about Chinatown here, but perhaps a Very Special Guest Star, which for your people is the ceiling, is the terminal, ultimate, exalted position for any Asian working in this world, the thing every Oriental Male dreams of when he’s in the Background, trying to blend in.

            Kung Fu Guy.

            Kung Fu Guy is not like the other slots in the hierarchy—there isn’t always someone occupying the position, as in whoever the top guy is at any given time, that’s the default guy who gets trotted out whenever there’s kung fu to be done. Only a very special Asian can be worthy of the title. It takes years of dedication and sacrifice, and after all that only a few have even a slim chance of making it. Despite the odds, you all grew up training for this and only this. All the scrawny yellow boys up and down the block dreaming the same dream.

            Excerpted from Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu. Published by Pantheon Books. © 2020 Charles Yu. All rights reserved.



            Vintage Bookshop.org

            Charles Yu is the author of four books, including Interior Chinatown, which won the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction.
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