Charles Yu in Conversation

Posted on March 15, 2022 by Cheryl Cheng | Comments (17)

Founders’ Day is observed annually at The Huntington in honor of Henry and Arabella Huntington’s roles in envisioning and establishing the institution.

Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence (right) welcomed acclaimed writer Charles Yu (left) and Huntington Trustee Simon K.C. Li to the Founders’ Day event at Rothenberg Hall on March. Photo by Sarah M. Golonka.
Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence (right) welcomed acclaimed writer Charles Yu (left) and Huntington Trustee Simon K.C. Li to the Founders’ Day event at Rothenberg Hall on March 2. Photo by Sarah M. Golonka.

This year’s Founders’ Day program reflected intersecting areas of strength at The Huntington. Since the institution’s founding, literature has been a pillar of the humanities collections, with recent literary guests including Susan Orlean, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Marilynne Robinson. The Huntington’s collections also include extensive materials related to the history of Los Angeles’ Chinatown and Chinese immigration in Southern California. Most recently, The Huntington collaborated with the Library Foundation of LA and LA Public Library on “Archive Alive: Stories and Voices from L.A. Chinatown,” an online and off-site exhibition.

For The Huntington’s 2022 Founders’ Day celebration, acclaimed writer Charles Yu joined Huntington Trustee Simon K.C. Li in conversation before a live audience. Yu won the National Book Award for his most recent book, Interior Chinatown, which he’s now adapting into a series for Hulu. He and Li discussed Yu’s experiences writing in multiple genres, the role of fiction in constructing identity, and the current dialogue about identity and race in America.

Open to experimenting with format—his short story “Problems for Self Study” was written using algebraic equations—Yu wrote Interior Chinatown as a screenplay.

The book follows the life of Willis Wu, an actor who strives to rise above playing bit parts, such as Generic Asian Man on a cop television series. His dream is to be cast as Kung Fu Guy, which, as he sees it, is the ultimate role for an Asian male actor.

The screenplay format helped illustrate how Asian actors are often trapped in a narrative, since they have been historically restricted to stereotypical roles, such as people working in a restaurant or performing martial arts.

Yu and Li discussed Yu’s writing process for Interior Chinatown, which won the 2020 National Book Award for fiction. Photo by Sarah M. Golonka.

Yu and Li discussed Yu’s writing process for Interior Chinatown, which won the 2020 National Book Award for fiction. Photo by Sarah M. Golonka.

Yu had been working in television for a few years—most prominently on the HBO series Westworld—when the idea hit him for the structure of the book. “What I really needed was a way for the reader to be able to jump with me back and forth in and out of the script. I needed to tell the story on two levels and give a very clear visual and conceptual marker of here’s where the official story is. And here’s Willis at the margin being invisible and then suddenly visible. The format really broke something open for me.”

In the book, Yu writes, “Chinatown and indeed being Chinese is and always has been, from the very beginning, a construction, a performance of features, gestures, culture, and exoticism. An invention, a reinvention, a stylization. Figuring out the show, finding our place in it, which was the background, as scenery, as nonspeaking players. Figuring out what you’re allowed to say. Above all, trying to never, ever offend. To watch the mainstream, find out what kind of fiction they are telling themselves, find a bit part in it. Be appealing and acceptable, be what they want to see.”

Li pointed out that Willis represents Asians’ invisibility in mainstream media. “It’s pretty self-evident that over the years, decades, Asian Americans have not been well represented by Hollywood. Somebody asked me recently, ‘Why does that matter? What does it do to help you to have representation in common culture?’”

Yu responded that he grew up watching TV—favorite shows included Three’s Company, Growing Pains, and Diff’rent Strokes—and the shows he watched lacked Asian American representation.

Yu and Li share a laugh at the Founders’ Day event at Rothenberg Hall on March 2. Photo by Sarah M. Golonka.
Yu and Li share a laugh at the Founders’ Day event at Rothenberg Hall on March 2. Photo by Sarah M. Golonka.

“I saw a distorted picture of America that had a very specific kind of filter, which was, there are no Asians in America,” Yu said. “In this window into that version of the United States, that version of America, which in a lot of cases is aspirational, there are groups excised from . . . the story.”

To demonstrate the effects of this exclusion, Yu asked, “When I say ‘American,’ is the first face that pops into your head a face like this?” He pointed to himself, and then said: “I think that’s why it matters.”

Yu’s definition of success, as a viewer, is to see people of all different shapes, sizes, and colors on TV. He noted that he can already see some progress when his children watch TV and don’t stop what they’re doing to say, “Oh, look, an Asian on TV.”

He added, “For me, the goal is that it’s not remarkable anymore.”

During the event, Yu and Li discussed why it’s important to have Asian American representation in Hollywood. Photo by Sarah M. Golonka.
During the event, Yu and Li discussed why it’s important to have Asian American representation in Hollywood. Photo by Sarah M. Golonka.

Cheryl Cheng is the senior editor in the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Huntington. 

Comments

Adding Interior Chinatown to my reading list before it hits Hulu!

These conversations are so important to have, and they need to be had loudly & frequently. We need to stop thinking Americans are a homogeneous group who all look, or aspire to look, the same. What makes us great is that we’re different.

Looking forward to reading Interior Chinatown!

Excellent conversation. Nicely written piece.

Valuable reminders of why and how representation in popular media/entertainment matters. Interesting recap!

Great article! Enjoyed learning more about and hearing from the brilliant Charles Yu.

What a thoughtful discourse. So glad to have so many enriching events return to The Huntington!

Yu’s quote, “In this window into that version of the United States, that version of America, which in a lot of cases is aspirational, there are groups excised from . . . the story.” really resonates with me. I also didn’t know he worked on Westworld!

Interesting article!

I wonder who’s going to play the lead in Interior Chinatown.

Great article. I need to add Interior Chinatown to the top of my reading list!

This was a great piece that made me feel like I was there. Thanks for hosting such great programming. This motivates me to go to one of the next ones. Thanks for this!

I’m sorry I missed this! But thank you for helping me find some new material to dig into. How he talks about the distortion of America on screen—I feel that and hope it changes for the next generation. Can’t wait to dig into his work—and to find out who else you’ll be featuring next!

Loved Interior Chinatown! This was a great conversation.

Thank you to The Huntington for programming such important and timely conversations. Charles and his brother Kelvin are creative role models in literature and entertainment, especially for the API community. Great to see the success of INTERIOR CHINATOWN and can’t wait for the series.

The book and Hulu series sound fascinating. Can definitely tell this guy worked on Westworld!

Such a great conversation here ... def. agree that Asian American representation has increased in Hollywood and media but we still have more work to do ... loved hearing about the programing Charles Yu grew up watching cause it was very similar to my own upbringing and shaped how we felt seen ... representation matters ...

Great article. I think it's interesting how he uses the screenplay format to show how Asian characters often become marginalized. Literally. Thank you!

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