American Born Chinese on Disney+, created by Kelvin Yu, follows a 10th grader named Jin Wang (Ben Wang) who wants what most teenagers want — to fit in. But he struggles, especially when he is asked by the principal to be a guide for Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), an awkward new student from Taiwan. Jin’s world becomes even more complicated when he becomes entangled in a heavenly war among Chinese celestial figures. As an Asian American mom raising a child whose teenage years will be here before I know it, I’m immensely grateful for content like this. Telling our stories in the mainstream is one way to Stop Asian Hate, to ensure future AAPI generations are not marginalized as we have been historically, to ensure our kids continue to feel seen.
This series, based on the pivotal 2006 graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, encapsulates much of the modern Chinese American experience — intimate portrayals of the immigrant parent/child relationship, racism and microaggressions, repressed anger, and all — while weaving in Chinese mythology and traditions. As a child immigrant, I was raised on the story of the Monkey King from the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West and its many screen adaptations, before Disney classics like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin entered into my psyche. In this series, Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh stars as Guanyin, the goddess of Mercy. Every time I see her character on screen, I can picture the Guanyin statue in my grandparents’ home, with offerings of fruit and incense. It is absolutely surreal to watch these quintessentially Chinese figures from my upbringing brought to life in American Born Chinese from Disney — the iconic maker of American pop culture — by highly-talented Asian American creators.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be a Disney animator,” says author and former high school teacher Gene Luen Yang, who never dreamed his work would be adapted by Disney nearly 20 years after its initial publication. “That was my goal. I used to have at least one Mickey Mouse on my body at all times: T-shirt, watch, or belt buckle.”
Many of the show’s creators — both behind and in front of the screen — are parents who approached the project with their own children in mind. “It's important for the next generation to see us on screen,” says actor and #StopAsianHate activist Daniel Wu (Sun WuKong/The Monkey King) who has a daughter. “If I didn't have a kid, I don't think I would have thought that way. But it's really important for her to see herself on screen, to feel like she fits in.”
Melvin Mar, who executive produced the show with director Destin Daniel Cretton (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) and others, agrees. “I realized after Fresh Off the Boat that my daughter, who is 9, has never not seen Asian Americans represented on television.”
Mar remembers initially thinking he did his part because he served as executive producer for the groundbreaking ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, which was the first of its kind featuring a predominantly Asian American cast since All-American Girl in 1994, but he soon realized it wasn’t enough. “I had to keep trying to increase it and push it.” He says watching his daughter take in all eight episodes of American Born Chinese — and its more sophisticated dialogue on what our community is going through while AAPI hate was at its height — was very meaningful.
“The scene where Jin kicks his schoolmate, you know, that frustration, that anger,” adds Mar, who believes people of all ages, including his daughter, really responded to this representation. “I still get a little choked up about it because it was so, so hard at that time, and then to have it sort of released in that way is cathartic.”
At the height of the Covid hate crimes, Wu says he studied extensively to try to understand why Asian Americans were perpetually viewed as foreigners and never as part of the American fabric. “When all that stuff was happening, we're being told to go back to where we came from… all that,” Wu tells me. “I realized the three things that mainstream Americans value the most is politics, sports, and entertainment.”
He recognized that Asian Americans are grossly underrepresented in those areas. “When there is a show like this, come and watch it and stream it. When there is an Asian American athlete, go out there and buy tickets, get [their] jersey. When there is an Asian American politician, to go out there and vote for [them].”
Yeo Yann Yann, an award-winning Malaysian actress who plays Jin’s mother Christine, was attracted to the series for a different reason. The focus on the mother-son relationship of first-generation immigrant parents versus a second-generation child really appealed to her. “He's basically growing up in different circumstances as [his] mom and they were trying so hard to understand each other,” explains Yeo. “It's really about human relationships. It's really about family relationships, regardless of your race, regardless of your age… We are really focusing on love.”
Ben Wang, who plays the central character Jin, is grateful to his real-life mom for being supportive from a young age. Though his first artistic endeavors — like playing the piano — were by force, he says with a chuckle that it helped him find his way into theater and acting. “There's a big difference between doing it just for yourself and pursuing it as a career,” says Wang, whose mother had initial reservations about his decision. “That's a big jump… To her great credit, she saw that I was really serious about it and she saw that I was willing to work at it and not give up and I was willing to figure it out, to put in the work.”
The charismatic young actor, who also played a scene-stealing supporting role in Chang Can Dunk, loved the complicated character arc for Jin. He says the show’s writers were focused on telling an honest and truthful story first. “In 2020 and beyond, all of a sudden we became part of a national conversation,” Wang says of the AAPI community. “And it almost became expected of us to speak out. Anybody who had a platform was expected to.”
He says Yu (the show’s creator) wanted to portray what it was like at that time, because not everybody wants to or feels comfortable, or feels like they are the right person to protest against racism at any given moment. “Especially for a teenager, for someone who's 15 years old and dealing with all of these insecurities, you know,” adds Wang. “Jin makes the choice that he thinks is best and that makes his life more complicated. And that's a brilliant move because as a writer, you don't want things to get easy, you want things to get more complicated because there are six more episodes to go. And so, when I read that scene for the first time, I was like, ‘Oh, this is interesting television.’”
American Born Chinese does not shy away from capturing many more authentic moments like this from the Asian American experience, ones not typically depicted on screen. And because we are finally seeing Asian Americans as Oscar winners, political leaders in the highest offices, and nationally recognized athletes, I hope this kind of powerful representation not only challenges ignorance and hate but also inspires more AAPI kids (and adults alike) to pursue their dreams of all kinds.
American Born Chinese is streaming on Disney+ now.