Gene Luen Yang remembers feeling pumped in 2007 when Hollywood came calling about his trailblazing graphic novel “American Born Chinese.” But that excitement turned into exasperation when it became clear the interested party completely missed the point of the book.
“It came out that the reason why they were interested is because the Beijing Olympics were coming up in 2008. And they wanted some property that had the word China or Chinese in it,” Yang said in a recent interview. “Every now and then there would be an inquiry. But I really think the world needed to change in order for there to be an appetite for a story about an Asian American protagonist.”
Change has finally come. After 17 years, the cartoonist is seeing his American dream play out.
“American Born Chinese” debuts on Disney+ on Wednesday with a mostly Asian cast that now includes two new Oscar winners — Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan. The show, which also boasts Asian American showrunners, centers on high school soccer player Jin Wang (Ben Wang) growing up amid pressure to reconcile his American and Chinese sides. Mixing elements of teen drama, fantasy and fight sequences, the show, like the book, jumps between Jin’s storyline and one involving the Monkey King, an iconic character in Chinese folklore. The story threads eventually intertwine.
“It feels like a very surreal moment to have this book that I did as Xerox copies that I would put together at my local Kinko’s eventually become a show on Disney+,” Yang said.
The first two episodes have been screened around the country from San Francisco to New York City to the White House, partly to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The predominantly Asian American audiences have praised the show’s heartfelt and at times humorous portrayal of an Asian American family
“‘American Born Chinese,’ you can’t do it in one long movie,” said Yeoh, who’s proud of how the series turned out. “There’s so many different aspects of it that need to be shown, it needs that space and time on screen.”
Yeoh, who made history as the first Asian to win her Oscar category for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” plays Guanyin, the goddess of mercy. She was invited to the project by her “Shang-Chi and the Legends of the Ten Rings” director, Destin Daniel Cretton, an executive producer.
In the show, Yeoh gets to don a sweeping gown and headdress as well as sweats and a baseball cap. Being a revered Chinese folklore figure, many people already have an image of Guanyin. The Malaysia-born Yeoh didn’t dwell on the pressure of playing someone larger than life.
“What I do think about is how we have to be very respectful of this goddess of mercy because she represents so many things to so many followers all around the world,” Yeoh said. “We gave her the gravitas the she deserved and the respect to show you what we love about her.”
Yeoh and Quan had already wrapped up “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” when they started filming “American Born Chinese.” Castmates Stephanie Hsu and James Hong also guest-star in an episode. The best picture winner premiered in the middle of production and then “we watched the whole world change,” executive producer Kelvin Yu said.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Wang is the star after doing mostly one-episode guest spots. He still isn’t quite used to seeing himself on posters. Having grown up seeing little on-screen Asian representation, it’s a novel concept that he could be an example for a teenage Asian American boy today.
“It’s very surreal and strange,” Wang said. “I still can’t believe that it’s me. I just feel like it’s someone who looks like me, which is double weird. It’s like seeing your doppelgänger.”
The television adaptation comes in the wake of other teen shows with an Asian American lens. Disney+ also has “Ms. Marvel” featuring a Muslim American female superhero. Jenny Han’s two book series, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” have been hits for Netflix and Amazon Prime, respectively. The fourth and final season of “Never Have I Ever,” about an Indian American high schooler, drops in June.
“We’re standing on the shoulders of those kinds of things, going back to ‘Joy Luck Club’ … all the way up to ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ and shows like ‘Never Have I Ever,’” Yu said. “We’ll take all that momentum. We’ll take all that sort of education for an audience to get used to faces like ours and we’ll embrace it and move forward.”
The graphic novel was landmark literature for Asian American millennials. Reviews lauded it as a fresh take on adolescence, bi-cultural identity and racism. It won several accolades and was a National Book Awards finalist.
For many young Chinese American readers, it was the first time they had seen themselves and the Monkey King — a legend they likely heard about from their parents — in that genre. The character first appeared in the epic 16th century Chinese novel, “Journey to the West.” The tome has been adapted several times including a memorable 1980s TV series created by China Central Television (CCTV). The super-powered simian is well-known across Asia like Batman or Spider-Man, according to Yu.
Daniel Wu, who grew up in California but began his acting career in Hong Kong, plays the Monkey King. This project brings him full circle from when he dealt with his own “American-born Chinese” issues.
“Even though I was warmly accepted by the audiences there, I always felt like slightly being an outsider because I was American,” Wu said. “Because we knew we were trying to tell Gene’s story of what it’s like to be of both sides, there was this kind of special energy that was on set. We knew that we were trying to tell authentically what our story was.”