Many who grew up in Chinese American communities will be familiar with the term “ABC,” or “American Born Chinese,” referring to the American-ized children of Chinese immigrants. I would know; I’m one myself. To grow up as an ABC is to exist in a strange, liminal ether between identities—never American enough, never Chinese enough, always striving to define oneself, sometimes trying to cast off one in a vain attempt to embody the other wholly.
It’s in this space that Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese (2006) was born, and from the panel discussion, it seems the upcoming Disney+ adaptation, coming in 2023, will not shy away from those themes. American Born Chinese is an action-comedy that follows Chinese American teen Jin Wang (Ben Wang) as he navigates high school and unwittingly finds himself entangled in a battle of Chinese mythological gods, including Sun Wukong / the Monkey King (Daniel Wu).
Speaking of the inspiration behind the graphic novel, Yang said, “I would do these stories with Asian American characters in them, but their cultural heritage never played an important part in the story. So that’s what [American Born Chinese] is. I wanted to center the Asian American experience. And from there to now, having it as a show on Disney Plus, is just absolutely mind-blowing.”
Asked what drew him to the project, executive producer Kelvin Yu (known for his work on Bob’s Burgers and Central Park) emphasized the importance of the source material. “American Born Chinese is a pretty seminal, important work of literature to comic book fans, to readers in general,” he said. “There comes a time when TV and film is ready to make the thing. And sometimes they try too early, and sometimes it doesn’t quite work out. This felt like audiences were ready, VFX was ready, stunt choreography is ready, and then we happened to meet a guy named [Destin Daniel Cretton] who’s pretty good with a camera,” he joked. “But the original story behind it… [is] a kid who’s trying to figure out his identity, and through service of that we were able to use incredible kung fu, some movie stars; But the heart of it, and the family story, is what makes it something worth spending all your time on.”
Executive producer Destin Daniel Cretton (known for directing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) was drawn to the project by the authenticity of the script. “I was so drawn to this character, I was so drawn to the world because it was written so beautifully, funny, but also with an authenticity that I knew we had to capture,” he said. “It’s hard to find out what is authentic and how to capture it, frankly, on film or TV, but to me the main way of doing that is by making sure that your teams, each head of every department finds that to be the core thing that they place their importance on… Every department head had a personal experience to what they were creating, so as you watch the show, whether you are familiar with the culture or not, if you look into those details, you’ll either be seeing things that speak truth to you because of your own experience or you’ll be learning things through all of those details that people have put in.”
Historically, there has been a dearth of Asian representation in American film and TV (and entertainment / culture in general)—a problem highlighted in recent years by campaigns such as #WhiteWashedOut in 2016. Following the successes of films like Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and the To All the Boys trilogy on Netflix, as well as continued efforts by Asian creators and activists, studios are (finally) making and releasing more Asian stories. Yet despite recent triumphs (such as 2021’s Shang-Chi and 2022’s Turning Red), it still feels like new territory, a decent meal after a lifetime of starvation.
Chinese American actor Daniel Wu, who plays Sun Wukong / the Monkey King, built his career in Hong Kong because of the dearth of opportunities in Hollywood. When he came across the American Born Chinese graphic novel because his nephew read it in school, he was amazed to find, for the first time, something that spoke to the Asian American experience.“When I was approached to play Monkey King in this series, I was like, I want to do this because I want to do this for [the next] generation, I want to do it for my daughter, I want them to be able to see our story on screen,” he said. “For me, growing up, I didn’t see that. I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, and there was nothing like that on screen for me, except for maybe Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles, and that wasn’t representing us. And so to be part of this really beautiful family, making this really beautiful story that’s for and by us, but also for and by Americans in general, I just really wanted to be a part of it.”
For Taiwanese American actor Ben Wang, who grew up as one of the few Asian kids in a small Minnesota town, playing the show’s main character—a teen struggling with his identity and culture—wasn’t much of a stretch. “I remember getting the first side for the audition and going ‘I never read anything like this before,’” he said. “I remember the first day we were shooting… [Gene Luen Yang] asking me, ‘As an actor, did you have to take a long time to prepare for this role?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ This is a lot of me… It’s the first time for me, doing this as an actor, that I was able to draw from myself, which is interesting, right, because I trained to be an actor and part of that is learning to embody truth that aren’t familiar to you… I’d done so much of that that for the first time I was looking at this thing that was like ‘oh, I can sort of put myself into this,’ and that’s kind of scary too because it’s the first time that’s ever happened, but I’m so grateful.”
While much of the discussion, moderated by ABC News anchor Juju Chang, focused on matters of Asian representation, the panelists also reminded the audience that American Born Chinese is an entertaining action-comedy, a show that explores intimate character and family themes against a backdrop of martial arts and magic.