ENTERTAINMENT

How the ‘American Born Chinese’ TV series translates the classic graphic novel to screen

Author Gene Luen Yang, show creator Kelvin Yu, and star Ben Wang talk about working with Michelle Yeoh and bringing the Asian-American experience to screen.

Christian Holub

American Born Chinese is a certified classic graphic novel. A beautifully told story about growing up as the child of immigrants and learning how to fit in America, it is often taught in schools and held up as an example of the artistic heights that comics can reach. Now it’s becoming a TV show — and no one is more surprised about that than author Gene Luen Yang

“I’m stunned that people are still reading it,” Yang tells EW. “I was actually just in Boston a month ago talking about this book, and in a lot of ways I feel very fortunate for the support that I get from teachers, librarians, and comic book fans. I did not expect this when I first did that book. With the show specifically, I think one of the challenging parts, but it’s also one of the most meaningful parts of the show, is thinking through how the conversation about Asian America has changed from the publication of the book until now?”

American Born Chinese

Michelle Yeoh and Jim Liu in the ‘American Born Chinese’ TV series.

| Credit: Disney

Kelvin Yu, the creator of the American Born Chinese series, has a succinct description of what makes Yang’s work (which also includes graphic novels like Dragon Hoops and Superman Smashes the Klan) so rich and long-lasting. 

“I think Gene’s tone, if you read any of his graphic novels, has this great combination of heart, humor and I guess I’ll call it medicine,” Yu says. “It’s like there’s something nutritious about what he’s saying, and yet it goes down so well and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. That just checks every box for me as a TV writer.” 

American Born Chinese stars Ben Wang as Jin Wang, the child of Chinese immigrants who is growing up as an American. Wang didn’t read the graphic novel until he was auditioning for the series — but when he did, he cried with recognition. 

AMERICAN BORN CHINESE

Jin Wang (Ben Wang) and his parents on ‘American Born Chinese.’

| Credit: Disney/Carlos Lopez-Calleja

“I basically had to do no extra research because almost every single thing that I read was something that I’ve lived one to one,” Wang says. “In a way that’s very exciting and in a way that’s also very scary because there’s something vulnerable about showing that much. I understood that what this job called for is a very honest and open, truthful version of myself and things that come from me. That can be scary as an actor because you don’t do it very often.”

As the show’s team worked on the adaptation, they realized that while some things have changed since Yang’s childhood (mostly the kinds of pop culture that kids are enamored with), feelings of alienation and isolation are still relevant to many immigrant children. 

Jin deals with those feelings by escaping into fantasy realms populated by characters from Chinese mythology like Sun Wukong the Monkey King (played by Daniel Wu) and Guanyin, the goddess of mercy (played by Michelle Yeoh). Guanyin didn’t appear in the original American Born Chinese (though she does factor in another Yang graphic novel, Boxers & Saints), but her character was added to the TV show as Yu and his team expanded the story to stretch across multiple episodes. 

American Born Chinese

Daniel Wu stars as Sun Wukong the Monkey King in ‘American Born Chinese.’

| Credit: Disney

“On a visceral level, I’m a superhero fan,” says Yang, who has written superheroes for both DC and Marvel. “At the heart of the superhero genre is this blending of the fantastic and the mundane. I think that really reflects the Asian-American experience in particular, and the immigrant child’s experience in general. Many of us feel like we live in between two different worlds. For me, when I was a kid I spoke one language at home and another one at school. I have one name at home and another one at school. I lived under two different sets of cultural expectations.” 

Yang continues, “In the show, the way that’s expressed is with mythology. There really are two worlds in the show — at least two. The show is about how they intersect and how that intersection sometimes brings about conflict, the same way that on a more mundane level for immigrant kids, the intersection of our world sometimes brings about conflict.”

It’s a great time to be a fan of Yeoh. She seems well on her way to her first Oscar nomination, thanks to the world-conquering A24 hit Everything Everywhere All At Once. As it happens, Yeoh isn’t even the only Everything Everywhere star in American Born Chinese. Both Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu also appear in the series. 

“She’s actually magic,” Wang says of Yeoh. “I’ve got this joke prepped that’s like, ‘Michelle Yeoh is the goddess of compassion and she plays one in the show too.’ Hey! But seriously, she was so kind and generous with her spirit and also she’s just a very fun, goofy person. It’s just a great energy to have on set. I probably was way too nervous around her all the time, I couldn’t shake that off. But that was also kind of a gift for me as an actor, because she’s playing this god whose stories you’ve heard in folk tales growing up her as an actual person is basically a perfect one-to-one. I was like, ‘I’ll just use this nervousness.'”

American Born Chinese is set to premiere on Disney+ in 2023.  

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