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Summer Arts Preview

In ‘American Born Chinese,’ a shy high school teen meets supernatural forces

Ben Wang in "American Born Chinese," premiering on Disney+ May 24.Carlos Lopez-Calleja/Disney

In 2000, Gene Luen Yang started writing a graphic novel drawing heavily on his experiences growing up Asian American in a primarily white school. He drew each individual chapter by hand and made copies of them at his local Kinko’s.

“We go from there to this situation where people are still reading it, and it’s just mind-blowing to me,” said Yang. The story became “American Born Chinese,” an award-winning staple on high school and college reading lists and an important part of the Asian American canon.

On May 24, an eight-episode TV adaptation is coming to Disney+. Combining the styles of American slice-of-life sitcoms and Hong Kong kung fu movies, it follows three interconnected story lines: one set in an American high school; one about the Monkey King (Sun Wukong), an iconic figure in the classic Chinese novel “Journey to the West”; and another featuring an Asian nerd character on a ‘90s sitcom.

The series stars Ben Wang in his first lead role. His character, Jin Wang, is one of the few Chinese Americans at his school. A little shy and very awkward, he tries to reinvent himself by joining the soccer team. His plans are complicated when a Chinese international student, Wei-Chen Sun, moves to town, and Jin is assigned to show him around.


“I’ve lived through all the situations in the show that Jin goes through,” said Wang, who grew up in Northfield, Minn. “I read these scripts, and I was like, ‘Were you spying on me while I was growing up? Because all of this just literally happened to me literally like this.’”

Showrunner Kelvin Yu compared the show’s remixing of “Journey to the West” to remaking superhero movies –– it’s not about giving people the same exact thing they grew up with, it’s about what you add and change for the modern context. The Monkey King’s journey, he said, is illustrative of a tension many Asian Americans experience growing up.


“Part of the warring worlds that we talk about internally are this desire to go out and succeed and achieve combined with a programming –– and even a healthy conditioning –– to keep your head down and not make waves and to respect your elders and all of that,” Yu said. “Those two things sometimes don’t match up, especially in an American world, where going out and succeeding often means pounding your chest and proclaiming your arrival.”

The Monkey King straddles both worlds. He’s a canonical Eastern character whose journey (literally to the West) goes from “Icarus level hubris, to sort of a humbling or enlightening.”

“We’re all so steeped in mythos now,” said Yu. “So there’s something really nice about owning our own superhero in the Monkey King. And I’ve taken him on as my Captain America.”

“American Born Chinese” also reunites some of the cast of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (though they shot the series before the film came out): Oscar winners Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, and James Hong. Yeoh plays Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. And Quan plays Freddy Wong, an embodiment of East Asian stereotypes prevalent in American television (a la Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles”). His character’s name is an homage to showrunner Kelvin Yu’s first acting role as Freddy Gong on “Popular.”

Fans of the graphic novel will notice changes from the source text. The series is set in the modern day, not the ‘80s and ‘90s. Jin’s parents have fleshed out backstories, and a cousin character from the book has been completely replaced by Freddy Wong.


“We didn’t want it to be a screen replica of the book,” said Yang, its author. “So early on, we talked about boiling the book down to its essence, and then letting that essence expand in the shape of an eight-episode television series.”

That essence, according to Yu, is about identity: “Who are you and where do you find that power that you can wake up every morning?”

“In [the] press, I talk about ‘Journey to the West’ quite a bit and Michelle Yeoh quite a bit,” said Yu. “[But] the main characters of this show are Jin’s family. And the rest of it is sort of like the fancy bacon wrapping that we’ve surrounded it with to bring viewers in.”

“We’re trying to illustrate about one family in America in 2023, trying to figure out how to be American and Asian at the same time, and how to get through the day and go through the year.”


Starring: Ben Wang, Jim Liu, Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Yeo Yann Yann, Chin Han, Sydney Taylor, Daniel Wu. On: Disney+, premieres May 24