In many ways, Disney’s new series, American Born Chinese, is the culmination of the rise in Asian American content that has been swelling since Crazy Rich Asians and Fresh Off the Boat. It puts together some of the most talented Asian Americans, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes, and builds off of a rich source text from one of the premiere Asian American writers. It’s hard to beat that combination.
I had the opportunity to speak with several members of the cast and creative team behind the highly anticipated new series. What was clear from every conversation was the passion and excitement that they all shared for each other and this project.
I spoke with American Born Chinese creator and series producer Gene Luen Yang, and producer Melvin Mar. Surprisingly, Mar shared with me that it took him ten years to convince Yang to allow them to adapt his graphic novel. When I asked Yang why he was so reluctant, he shared that he was worried that parts of the story that are intentionally insulting would be shared online without proper context, and undermine the message of the book. Fortunately, Yang said that he appreciated the way series showrunner Kelvin Yu approached the sensitive parts of the story and made it into a plot point.
American Born Chinese is inspired by the legendary Chinese novel, Journey to the West, which tells the story of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. For the series, the Monkey King is played by Daniel Wu, an accomplished actor who has mastered the tricky balance of succeeding in both the United States and Asian film markets.
I spoke with Wu about playing the iconic character, and he said that “this is the perfect melding of everything that I’ve done in my career,” referencing his life experience growing up in the United States and later traveling to China for work. “[B]eing able to show my language and show my culture on American television is a really cool moment,” Wu said.
Wu, who regularly speaks on the importance of representation and has been vocal about fighting anti-Asian violence, talked about how special it was to travel to the White House to screen American Born Chinese, saying that they’re laying the foundation for the future. He also referenced watching co-star Michelle Yeoh’s stirring Oscar speech with his daughter, and saw how excited she was to see Yeoh speak about winning for girls that look like her.
“I didn’t have that growing up. I didn’t have that at all…and I think it’s just awesome that this new generation can look to screens on our shores and find our own heroes domestically,” Wu said. “I think it’s really, really important, a show like this, to put out there, to show that we all experience the same kind of things in different degrees, and that we’re not alone.”
While Daniel Wu is the Monkey King, American Born Chinese is more about the next generation, including Jin Wang, played by Ben Wang, and Amelia, played by Sydney Taylor. Like many teen coming-of-age stories, much of the emotional core of American Born Chinese centers around Jin and Amelia’s budding relationship and their feelings for each other. Wang and Taylor have great on screen chemistry and I was happy to find that the two clearly get along just as well off-camera.
“We did a lot of bonding before we started filming. At the cast dinner when first met in person, we essentially talked the whole time….I will say that that really helped the relationship within the show, that we didn’t feel the need to force any of that,” Taylor said about working with Wang.
Wang talked about handling the responsibility of being a lead on a series that lists Academy Award winners Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan among the cast. “It’s also kind of terrifying that they’re in it. At a certain level it feels like a Trojan Horse situation. And Michelle and Ke, they’re the horse. They’re the big horse,” Wang said. “They go into your living room…and the belly opens up and out comes me. And I’m like, ‘Boy I hope you like what this is!'”
Of course, you can’t tell a story about teens without parental figures, and that’s where Yann Yann Yeo and Chin Han come in. Playing the roles of Jin Wang’s parents, Yeo and Han adopted similar roles off-screen as well.
“The kids are always at my place. Every weekend they are at my place, eating what I’m cooking. Whatever I cooked, they just eat it,” Yao said laughing. “We have really become a family in a way…after 11 months [since] we finished the project, we’re still a family.”
Han spoke about the creative process of working with Yeo, with whom he shares most of his scenes in the series. “It’s great that we both come from the theater, so we share a similar process of rehearsals and exploration and going through the scripts…discussions and arguments over meals and over coffee, and fights and laughter and agreements. We would do this right to the end, just before the director goes action,” Han said.
Mimicking the decades long married couple that they play on screen, Yeo would chime in to complete Han’s sentences as he spoke. Their affection for each other and this project was shared by everyone I spoke with. This is a special project for them to be a part of and everyone’s enthusiasm during our conversations was palpable. Of course, the fact that the President of the United States, Joe Biden, invited the cast and crew of American Born Chinese to the White House and screened the series at a special Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month event proved that this show is more than just special to those involved.
“That was very extra. There’s no way you could think that, right? Or imagine that or even dream that…just to watch that with the President was a once in a lifetime experience,” Gene Luen Yang said about the experience.
“When we first started this project, it was this really interesting graphic novel that was written in 2006 and we all did it kind of, actually, as a labor of love,” Han said. “It’s such an unusual project, and it’s hard to see how we can put this show together, and then here we are today with all the incredible talents that we have, from writers, to producers and directors, and co-stars. And so the White House was just the icing on the cake and the chef’s kiss to this entire experience.”
Watch American Born Chinese streaming exclusively on Disney+!
Based on Gene Luen Yang’s groundbreaking graphic novel that chronicles the trials and tribulations of a regular American teenager whose life is forever changed when he befriends the son of a mythological god. This is the story of a young man’s battle for his own identity, told through family, comedy, and action-packed Kung-Fu.
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.