Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

There’s a beautiful tradition in Iceland of gifting books on Christmas Eve then spending the evening inside reading. It’s the reason for Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood,” where the majority of book purchases in Iceland occur between September and December in anticipation of the Christmas Eve exchange. For the past few years my wife and I have adapted this tradition to New Year’s Eve (or Day, depending on work), giving two books each. This year my wife gave me How To Stop Time by Matt Haig and Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu.

Interior Chinatown is a completely original, unique way to look into the life of Chinese immigrants and their children in America. My first thought was to choose the card of a Chinese-born player. But, unless you’re a member of the People’s Republic of China and believe that Taiwan-born players are nationally Chinese, there have only been two Major Leaguers born in China, neither of whom have cards I own. The more recent is Austin Brice who became the first Hong Kong-born player in big league history when he debuted for the Marlins in 2016. Although born in China while his father was on a construction job, Brice wouldn’t be there long and was raised in North Carolina. Through 2020, Brice has a 5.04 ERA over 127 Major League Appearances.

Ruth and Harry Kingman during their years in Washington D.C. as civil rights activists

The second China-born player, Harry Kingman, is far more interesting. Kingman, who had just four plate appearances with the Yankees in 1914, was born in Tianjin where his parents were missionaries. Although he was raised primarily in southern California, he would return to China and Japan many times as a missionary himself, also teaching and coaching baseball. He and his wife Ruth were married in Shanghai. When not in Asia, his post-baseball home in the United States was in Berkeley, California. He helped found the Berkeley Student Cooperative, and worked at Stiles Hall, originally the Berkeley, YMCA, whose focus on anti-discrimination included “low-rent housing to all university students, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin, and thus influence the community to eliminate prejudice and discrimination in housing.” During WWII, he and Ruth helped dozens of Japanese-American students relocate to avoid internment camps. He coached the Cal junior-varsity baseball team until his retirement, upon which he and Ruth moved to Washington D.C. to become civil rights activists. But, alas, no baseball card.

I decided to go with a 2016 Topps Kolten Wong, primarily because Wong’s paternal great-grandparents were Chinese. But, I think it works on another level as well. Much of Interior Chinatown deals with relationships and family dynamics: how you view yourself in relation to your parents and siblings; how you view your parents when you’re young as opposed to when you’ve grown up; how the roles can switch over time between parents and children. Willis Wu, the protagonist in Interior Chinatown, wants to be “Kung Fu Guy,” and learns from his father, who during one stage of his ever-shifting roles is Sifu, Kung Fu teacher. Similarly, Kolten grew up learning from his father, Kolen “Kaha” Wong, who spent two years in the minor leagues and became a highly-regarded coach in Hawaii.

Kolten Wong was a star player at Kamehameha High School and at University of Hawaii at Manoa and one of a current wave of Hawaiian players and coaches in Major League Baseball. In fact, somebody should write a book about the history of baseball in Hawaii and the line of influence from Sid Fernandez to Benny Agbayani, from Shane Victorino and Kurt Suzuki to Kolten Wong and Giants bench coach Kai Correa. Those last two share more than just their home state, both being known for their defensive prowess. Correa was a slick fielding infielder at the University of Puget Sound who became known as a defensive teaching guru, parlaying coaching jobs at UPS and the University of Northern Colorado into a job with Cleveland, then becoming the youngest bench coach in the Major Leagues at age 31.* Kolten Wong is also known for his defense, having won the last two National League gold gloves at second base.

*Correa, like Sid Fernandez and Benny Agbayani, wears number 50 on his uniform to represent his home state.

It wasn’t until after I finished the book that I realized I could’ve used the author’s last name to justify choosing a Yu Darvish card for my bookmark. But even Kolten’s distant Chinese lineage seemed more appropriate than the shared name of a Japanese-born half Persian, half Japanese player.

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