Chinatown Noir and Shedding Light on American History – An Interview with PORNSAK PICHETSHOTE
Creators Pornsak Pichetshote and Alex Tefenkgi bring us The Good Asian, a tale of a tough, self-loathing detective investigating a mystery in 1936 Chinatown. But this isn’t a Jake Gittes story, it’s a story set within the real American history around the lead character, Edison Hark, a Chinese American. Comic Book Yeti contributor David Vieira talks to Pornsak Pichetshote about gumshoes, racism, and history.
COMIC BOOK YETI (CBY): First I have to say, I did not know The Good Asian was longer than four issues. I got to the end of the trade and swore out loud for not getting an ending. I was invested and now I have to wait! So I have to ask, with readers tending to drop off with subsequent issues, why risk a monthly format where you can lose momentum? Why not release it as one complete volume?
PORNSAK PICHETSHOTE (PP): There’s a couple reasons behind that. First, I think when all is said and done (and I routinely make mistakes in my math, so forgive me), THE GOOD ASIAN will clock in at least 240 pages of story, and that’s not including all of the book’s ancillary material. There’s not many publishers who are willing to give that kind of a commitment to a full-color graphic novel to people who aren’t iron-clad superstars with guaranteed sales. To my knowledge, only First Second are producing graphic novels to that criteria, and oftentimes they’re with a limited palette or from a single cartoonist doing all the work so there are less mouths to feed. So given the state of the industry, serializing it felt like our best option to tell the story we wanted to tell the way we wanted to tell it.
That’s the hoity-toity market insider answer. The more geeky reason is I just love serialized comics. I’m that guy who has way more long boxes than graphic novels on my shelves. I’m the person that when I can find the original issues of a trade, I bag them, put them in a comic box and sell the trade to a used bookstore. I just love the format.
CBY: Selling the trades for floppies! That’s a reversal of today’s more consumer practice
of downsizing. I recently have started binding my old collections. I love the old newsprint.
What are your collection favorites?
PP: Honestly, I have too many. The most valuable comic I own is probably Amazing Spider-Man #300, the first appearance of Venom. But I love shopping dollar bins to get classic runs. I have a ton of them, far too many to name. It was nice getting stuff like Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s run of New Teen Titans or Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung’s Young Justice or Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Moon Knight before the speculator boom jacked them all up in price. If I like an author, I try to get their entire oeuvre, so I’m sure I have 80-90% of everything Alan Moore or Grant Morrison’s ever written.
CBY: The Good Asian is a great piece of Noir mystery writing and historical
education. Where did the spark come from? The story or the research?
PP: I call The Good Asian Chinatown noir – a 1936 detective story featuring the first generation of Americans to grow up beneath an immigration ban of their own people – the Chinese. The Chinese Exclusion Act was something I discovered late in life, and something I couldn’t believe I didn’t know anything about. That, coupled with my interest in the movies about Asian crime-solvers of the 1930s – Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, and Mr. Wong – led me to want to combine those two things, and tell a story about an Asian detective that acknowledged America’s anti-Asian history. That ambition would lead me to more research to actually execute the book.
CBY: I know there were several activists of that time. Did your research uncover any
“real” Asian police officers or detectives of that time? Did you discover any interesting
stories of anyone in any profession of that era? Perhaps a foundation for further
PP: My biggest discovery – as well as the biggest influence of the book – is Detective Chang Apana. He was America’s first Asian police officer towards the beginning of the 20th century and like Hark, he lived in Hawaii, the only state at the time that would allow Asian police officers. He was also the inspiration for Charlie Chan. I’ve written about Chang in depth in the back matter to issue #5, and much of his life ended up influencing Hark’s backstory.
I believe the first Asian police officer in America was Herbert Lee in 1957, so I’m sure there’s an interesting story there that maybe I’ll use someday. The actress Anna-May Wong is someone I’m also really intrigued by, but her life didn’t overlap with the area I wanted our story to traverse, but there might also be something there for future stories.
CBY: This is a book all about questions and balance. Edison Hark is a Chinese cop with white privilege policing Asians. He also wants to solve the crime and find the girl, whether the people involved are white, Asian or otherwise. This dichotomy of which side of "good Asian" he is on is tearing him up. Was that the idea for the character or did it develop as you began writing?
PP: That was always my idea for the character. I liked the idea of incorporating the push and pull that comes from being caught between two cultures – East and West – that I see in so many Asian-Americans (and really, immigrant-Americans,) and that I certainly relate to as an Asian-American. I liked how Hark externalized and heightened that drama the way all my favorite genre fiction does. Even the title The Good Asian comes from the desire to simultaneously talk about the model minority myth and the experience of straddling two worlds while trying to define your identity.
CBY: There is a lot of history in The Good Asian to unpack and examine. I would say it still resonates today for Asians and so many new immigrants of all varieties. As a first-generation immigrant myself, I see the conflict of balancing a family’s identity with my own new one. Do you think similar readers will relate to The Good Asian more than others?
PP: I hope so. I hope there’s enough here for everyone to relate to. I hope fans of noir will enjoy a different spin on the genre they love. I hope immigrants and the descendants of immigrants feel like it’s speaking to experiences they’ve never seen in genre fiction before. Because I think the experience of figuring out who you are amidst all these larger forces seeking to define you is ultimately universal.
CBY: Besides being a look into American history, this is also a mystery book. Are you and Alex big fans of mystery? Where did you draw inspiration from? What research went into the look of the book?
PP: I started off a mystery fan and became an even bigger one working on this book. A ton of books inspired the noir aspect of The Good Asian - from The Maltese Falcon to Dashiell Hammett’s Continenal Op stories and novels – “Dead Yellow Letters” being a definite stand-out there; Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels – my favorite being Farewell, My Lovely; Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer books, Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlins novels, and of course, the original Charlie Chan books – The House without a Key and The Chinese Parrot. Like I mentioned earlier, The Good Asian probably wouldn’t exist in its current form if I hadn’t been so intrigued by all the Asian crime-solver movies of the 1930s, from Charlie Chan to Mr. Moto to Mr. Wong, Detective.
CBY: People know of the movie Chinatown and the story’s famous ending line. Did you think about playing with that and having Edison work on a case outside of Chinatown and on something in an iconic San Francisco location?
PP: I’m definitely considering something like that if we’re so lucky to do more Edison Hark stories, but that was a little hard for this series. For one, by design, the ten issues of The Good Asian follow one case, but also, one of the hard things about having the characters leave Chinatown for too long is that, based on my research, it was hard for the Chinese at the time to leave without attracting attention. They were often the subject to attacks if found outside Chinatown. All that said, in issue #8, Lucy does leave Chinatown to follow a lead from the case, but even then she stays very much bundled up in the hopes that as few people notice she’s Chinese as possible.
CBY: One thing I really noticed were the slurs, insults, phrases and terms used in the book. It helped set up the time and location historically. It is so strange, and sad, that we can make that identification with the use of negative language. Do you think many of the younger readers that didn’t grow up or watch films and books set in that time will be surprised or confused?
PP: That’s a really good question, and I’d be curious to talk to young people to get their perspectives. I know we definitely have readers who had to Google certain slurs only to be surprised they were slurs. With the proliferation of media, I tend to think younger readers are more aware of our complicated history than we like to give them credit for, but if this is their first exposure to it, I’m honored to think we might be the gateway for them learning more about that history.
CBY: Without revealing the end, will we see more of Edison or tales from Chinatown or is this one and done?
PP: It will all ultimately depend on sales, but I’d love to do more stories involving Edison Hark, and I definitely have ideas for them percolating.
CBY: Thank you so much, Pornsak.
You can follow Pornsak Pichetshote on Twitter: @real_pornsak and IG @real_psak.
You can follow Alex Tefenkgi on both at @tefenkgi.