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Last Updated on May 25, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1310

Willis Wu is an Asian American actor who is constrained by the limited range of roles available to him. On the police procedural Black and White , he has played a number of different background roles and bit parts such as Delivery Guy, Silent Henchman, and Generic Asian Man. He...

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Willis Wu is an Asian American actor who is constrained by the limited range of roles available to him. On the police procedural Black and White, he has played a number of different background roles and bit parts such as Delivery Guy, Silent Henchman, and Generic Asian Man. He dreams of someday getting to play Kung Fu Guy.

Willis trained in kung fu under his father, Ming-Chen Wu, who is also an actor. His father's most prominent role was Sifu, a wise martial arts master. However, as his father has aged, the roles available to him have diminished, and he now generally plays Old Asian Man. Willis does what he can to take care of his father, but both Ming-Chen Wu’s body and mind have begun to fail him.

Willis laments that the best person to help care for his father would have been Older Brother, a legendary figure in Chinatown who was proficient in martial arts and temporarily played Kung Fu Guy. However, he disappeared under mysterious circumstances and has been absent ever since.

The current plot of Black and White is set in Chinatown. The stars of the show—a “White Lady Cop” named Sarah Green and a “Black Dude Cop” named Miles Turner—are both stereotypical and inaccurate representations of law enforcement, with stunningly good looks and carefully curated backstories. They have come to Chinatown to investigate the death of Dead Asian Man. During their investigation, Willis steps into the role of Generic Asian Man and agrees to help the detectives infiltrate the tight-knit community of Chinatown.

Over the next few episodes, Willis’s character is elevated to the status of “special guest star.” However, despite speaking perfect, unaccented English himself, Willis is forced to put on an exaggerated accent and speak in broken English, and he is constantly talked down to by Turner and Green.

The investigation eventually takes Willis, Turner, and Green to an illegal gambling den, where they confront a mob boss. Older Brother is believed to be a suspect in the murder, but before they can get any information about him, the mob boss escapes and the gambling den erupts into violence. Willis saves Turner during the fight, gaining him some respect from the detectives. A beautiful woman working in the gambling den is then revealed to be an undercover detective named Karen Lee. Karen improvises some dialogue and works it into the plot that Willis’s character likely knows more about the mob boss’s operation, offering him a chance at an extended part. However, his joy at this prospect is cut short when it is revealed he was shot during the fight, and his character is killed off.

Willis explains that an actor must go on a forty-five day hiatus after their character dies, as this is how long it typically takes for audiences to forget a face. He recalls that, as a child, he used to love when his mother would get killed off, as this meant she got to spend more time with him. Willis’s mother, Dorothy, immigrated to the United States from Taipei with dreams of becoming a film actress.

Ming-Chen Wu was born in Taiwan in the 1940s, and his father was murdered by government soldiers during the 2/28 incident of 1947—a military operation in which thousands of civilians were killed by the ruling Nationalist Party of Taiwan, the Kuomintang. Ming-Chen Wu later immigrated to the United States as a graduate student, but he faced racial discrimination while searching for a job and ended up accepting restaurant work. He then met Dorothy, who was working as a hostess at the same restaurant.

Dorothy and Ming-Chen Wu got married and settled into Chinatown when it became clear nowhere else would rent to them. Though happy for a time, especially after Willis was born, their relationship eventually declined, with Ming-Chen Wu becoming reclusive and turning to alcohol in response to the demeaning roles he was forced to play.

Forty-five days after Willis’s character dies, Karen comes to visit him. She reveals that she is also of Taiwanese descent, although she is considered “ethnically ambiguous” by casting directors. Willis and Karen begin dating, and he is drawn to her intelligence and self-assuredness. Feeling better about the trajectory of his own life gives Willis confidence, and he begins performing better at work. One day, the director of Black and White tells him that he is getting close to being cast as Kung Fu Guy. An ecstatic Willis tells Karen, who then reveals that she is pregnant. Willis and Karen get married, and both commit to working hard in order to move their daughter, Phoebe, out of the apartment building they currently live in and into a proper house.

Eventually, Karen is offered the starring role in a new show. She excitedly tells Willis that he will also have a supporting part to play and that this new opportunity will allow them to take Phoebe out of Chinatown. However, Willis is still fixated on becoming Kung Fu Guy, and the director of Black and White has promised him he will get the role any day now. A frustrated Karen separates from Willis, and they focus on their respective careers.

Once Willis is cast as Kung Fu Guy, he is quickly overcome by the realization that it is not worth what he has sacrificed for it. He leaves the set, steals a car, and reunites with his family. He arrives to discover that Phoebe is now the star of a show called Xie Xie Mei Mei, which tells the optimistic and inclusive story of Mei Mei, a Chinese immigrant who is learning how to integrate into American society. Willis is overcome by the realization that his daughter has achieved the goal of assimilation that he and his parents could not, and he becomes a stay-at-home “Kung Fu Dad.” However, his past catches up to him, and the police arrive to arrest Willis for his disappearance from Chinatown.

Willis is put on trial, with Older Brother acting as his lawyer. Older Brother is revealed to have left Chinatown in order to attend Law School. Turner and Green testify against Willis, accusing him of having an internalized sense of inferiority toward both white and Black people. Older Brother then mounts an impassioned defense, arguing that Asian Americans have their own history of racialized oppression that is related to but also distinct from the racism faced by Black people. Furthermore, Asian people, despite having been present in the United States for more than two centuries, are regarded as “perpetual foreigners,” denied the right to be perceived as fully “American.”

The jury convenes, but upon returning, they find Willis guilty. Willis then delivers a speech in which he admits his own guilt in confining himself to the role of Generic Asian Man. He strove to become Kung Fu Guy as a means of distinguishing himself, but he ultimately realized that Kung Fu Guy was just another generic stereotype. He wonders what he has to do in order to stop playing a role and be recognized as himself.

The tension in the courtroom devolves into violence, and Older Brother and Willis attempt to fight their way out. However, Willis is shot. The scene then shifts to Green and Turner standing over Willis’s body as he plays the role of Dead Asian Man. Willis says that he can’t do this anymore, and Green and Turner wish him the best. Willis then reunites with his family, telling Phoebe that he is no longer playing a role and will instead just be her dad.

The novel ends with Willis watching his father and daughter laugh together. He laments that Ming-Chen Wu still seems trapped within the Golden Palace, but he hopes that maybe someday Phoebe will help both Willis and Ming-Chen Wu leave Chinatown behind for good.

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