AMERICAN BORN CHINESE's Creative Team on Identity and Universal TV Themes - Nerdist
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AMERICAN BORN CHINESE’s Creative Team on Identity and Universal TV Themes

It has been 17 years since the release of Gene Luen Yang’s award-winning graphic novel American Born Chinese, a story told in three parts of the Asian American experience. It encompasses where one fits in between their immigrant parents and the country they’re born into. Yang’s book is a teaching tool in high schools and universities, as well as serving as a staple in Asian American literature. Now, American Born Chinese is turning into a television series for Disney+ and Yang couldn’t be more excited. 

photo of two Asian american kids sitting at a lunch table in american born chinese
Disney+

Of course, the process of crafting a comic book-to-television adaptation is overwhelming. Yang did, after all, have to adapt a story told in three unrelated parts: Jin, the only Chinese American kid in his new school; the legend of the Monkey King, one of the oldest and greatest Chinese fables; and, Chin-Kee, a negative Chinese stereotype terrorizing his cousin Danny’s social life. “Pretty early on, you realize that the media are different,” Yang told Nerdist during the Television Critics Association press day. “The television show has to be an expansion of the comics.”

In the new Disney+ series American Born Chinese, Chinese American teenager Jin (Ben Wang) is one of the only Chinese kids in his predominantly white high school. As he tries to fit in with his classmates, he is tasked with showing the new kid Wei-Chen Sun (Jim Liu), who just moved from Taiwan, around the school. Wei-Chen is seen as a FOB a.k.a. “fresh off the boat,” which Jin nervously tries to avoid being seen with. But, despite Jin’s objections towards the friendship, Wei-Chen is persistent in his relationship with Jin. He sees something the audience (and Jin himself) doesn’t see. We come to find out that Wei-Chen is the son of the Monkey King (Daniel Wu), a Chinese folklore character. And the Monkey King is trying to protect his kingdom from evading forces. 

At its core, American Born Chinese still focuses on identity and cultural assimilation that Asians, as well as other people of color, may deal with living in a westernized country. But now, there’s a fantasy element that allows the story to have more action. It packs in really intricate fight scenes as well as more Chinese culture. 

The story is also updated to fit the current generation. The graphic novel was written from the perspective of Yang’s childhood in the ‘80s and 90s. Things are different now; however, the desire for identity and acceptance remains the same across generations. In fact, past discretions against Asian Americans still affect many people to this day. And because this is a new era, a few changes needed to happen.

Ke Huy Quan standing  in a classroom holding a book in american born chinese
Disney+

For example, the problematic Chin-Kee comic character is now Freddy Wong. He’s a stereotypical heavily-accented Asian klutz on the popular in-universe ‘90s show Beyond Repair, played by Ke Huy Quan. Similar to the character of Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, Wong stems from Yu’s experiences as an actor when people wanted him to put on an accent for a role. Yu wanted to show what it is like to be an Asian actor.

It seems fitting for Quan, who left Hollywood for 30 years due to the lack of Asian American roles, to portray Freddy. Sadly, roles like this reigned supreme during that time. Quan was hesitant at first to accept the role, due to the nature of the character. But Yu, Yang, and director and executive producer Destin Daniel Cretton convinced Quan of the importance of the character and how it will lead to more conversations on the topic. 

“I think we figured out something really satisfying,” says Yu. “And that works in a TV format. How do we let re-litigate the things that we liked better, a little problematic from our childhood or before, so it opened up a new way to converse about that.”

Yang and Yu also decided to remove the controversial Danny storyline from the series. In the comic book, Danny is a white character. But, we later find out in the book that he’s actually Jin hiding his identity in order to fit into white culture and society. His cousin “Chin-Kee” later comes along and causes Danny/Jin to learn how to accept himself. Yu wanted to still discuss the desire to fit in but not with Danny and his “white facing.” 

Michelle Yeoh sitting at a dining room table wearing a white shirt, tan overcoat, and black rimmed glasses
Disney+

“The idea that you want to run away from who you are, that runs throughout the entire series,” Yu explains. ““I think ultimately, we have a lot of self-identity conversations. There’s the mirror [and reflection] as a big theme in this series—to look at yourself, judging yourself, and tearing yourself down. But, the Danny story in particular, I think was not one of the ways that we ended up going in a fantasy direction. So we brought a bunch of other fantasy elements to the show.”

Still, many of the audiences’ biggest fears surrounding the series would be the relatability for this generation of Asian Americans. Now, they see themselves frequently in television, film, and even on social media platforms. Wang says despite the positive changes for Asians in media, the series will be relatable because as Asian Americans, we still deal with cultural ties to our Asian culture and being in America. 

“It’s relevant for all time—the sort of key struggles of identity about being Asian American and growing up in America,” Wang shares with us. “The issues that they’re tackling [with are being told] in a very smart way. All [of] these things are relevant now and continue to be relevant in going into the future. 

Wu adds that the series works on a multi-generational level because the past still affects us to this day. As a Chinese American who moved to Hong Kong to become an actor, Wu grew up with characters like Freddy Wong. So, he understands the impact of addressing these stereotypes. Additionally, the series will see the expansion of the Monkey King’s storyline mixed in with Jin’s through his new friend Wei-Chen.

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“In the book, the three storylines are very separate – they’re almost three different acts or chapters, but in our show, they’re able to integrate them all together,” Wu explains to us. “It works really brilliantly and I think it’s a way to even more emphasize the cultural elements in the show and what it is [like] to be Asian American.”

Yes, this show is about the Asian experience; however, Yang says the story’s message of belonging and self-doubt is a universal one. Throughout the years, he had encountered adults and families of all races and ethnicities who felt connected to the story. “I’ll have students who are from different immigrant families where the parents come from all over the world,” Yang explains. “ Their parents might come from Nigeria or Poland or the Philippines, and they [tell me] how the story spoke to them.  Even though the specifics are different. The fact that there are specifics makes it feel universal.  So I’m hoping that that holds true for the show as well.”

American Born Chinese will hit Disney+ in spring 2023.

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