Dinner with a Book: Interior Chinatown

Dinner with a Book: Interior Chinatown

Friday nights are not what they used to be. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Cross your heart and tell me honestly –  are you sure you want your pre-lockdown Friday nights back? 

I guess that depends on how you spent them. All night bar-hopping can be fun, yes, but how much do you miss waking up to that slap of remorse on Saturday morning?

Going to movies is certainly missed – but thanks to Netflix at least there are options. What I am longing for most, though, what I’ve truly got an appetite for, is dinner somewhere nice. Flickering candles, starched napkins, the background buzz of fellow diners. I miss the leisurely perusing of a menu, now replaced with the wearied scanning of instructions on yet another supermarket deal.

Guess what – those dinner places miss us too; and more than that – they need our support as they struggle to stay afloat. The once guilty ritual of a takeaway has become a good deed! Tap in to those karma points and order something local. 

What ‘Dinner with a Book’ will do is provide you with a delicious theme and good company. ‘Company’? I hear you ask. 

But no, we won’t accompany you ourselves, and we won’t suggest you break the rules with illicit meet-ups. For what is better company than a good book? 

Let’s start this Lunar year with a new routine: stop by your library, get the book, then pick up that takeaway. Come home, set up the solo dinnertable of your dreams, and live your Fridays anew.

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Charles Yu  – Interior Chinatown

We’ll start with a takeaway classic – Chinese – and a future classic – Interior Chinatown.

This book is about trying to fit in a place where fitting should be natural – your own home. Burying deep his individuality and accepting the few roles that American society would tolerate for an Asian Man, Willis Wu – an actor in a cop show called Black and White (with racially corresponding leads) spends his life in Interior Chinatown, playing by the rules and dreaming of the spotlight as ‘Kung Fu Guy’, the only pinnacle of a career in Hollywood he can imagine.

He lives just above The Golden Palace – either a working Chinese restaurant or a movie prop – something which remains ambiguous throughout the book, as well as the question whether what’s happening is real, or being filmed for TV series.

All the actors playing background Asian People live in that SRO above The Golden Palace, in tiny rooms with shared showers, the constant smell of cooking wafting through the corridors. Most of them were born here and are US citizens, yet they have to maim their perfect English with a fake Asian accent when they go out.

The author Charles Yu raises questions that would be bitter if not for the comical way he approaches them, giving the book a spicy taste instead. Spicy humour, salty-as-dark-soy-sauce remarks, recognisable western stereotypes, that’s what this story is made of. 

So I thought about the Generic Western Person and what she might order to celebrate the Year of the Ox, and went for a roast duck and steamed rice from Three Uncles at 15A Parkfield Industrial estate Culvert Place, Battersea. The dish was perfect; universal, as expected.

It came with a Fortune Cookie – another perfect cliché to complement a book about clichés.

My cookie said ‘Big journeys begin with a single step’, probably inspired by a famous saying ascribed to Lao Tzu, but made digestible to a foreigner; followed by a line of lucky numbers. A single step? I guess quite a few have been already taken down the road of Asian American literature and cultural exploration in recent years, just think of Ocean Vuong, Salman Rushdie, David Chang, Viet Thanh Nguyen. 

There’s still a long way to go, though. Where might this journey lead? Hopefully, to acceptance, to understanding, to the embrace of diversity and inclusion. To a place where a Generic Asian Man no longer exists, and one can be himself first and foremost; an individual. To a time when Chinatown is not a self-sustaining ethnic enclave, with borders harder than oceans to cross.

Charles Yu builds a court case where everyone is judged guilty and complicit, especially the victims. His book is cinematic, hilarious, heartbreaking, sweet and sour and crisp and – even though incredibly satisfying – will leave you longing for more.

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‘Dinner with a Book’ is a new Londnr feature created & written by book blogger, Yelena from Foliovore.

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