In Disney’s ‘American Born Chinese,’ Asian-American Storytelling Has a Conversation With Itself
In this current moment of late-stage Disneyism, many have bemoaned the studio’s endless remake cycle. This month, as families flock (or trudge) to theaters for the CGI-bootup of The Little Mermaid, another modern adaptation of an ancient tale hits Disney+ in the form of American Born Chinese—a series that brings Sun Wukong, the legendary Monkey King from Asian folklore, to the streaming era.
There’s a cynical view to take of this premise, which Netflix has also lifted for an separate animated series coming later this summer. Is Hollywood simply branching out into international IP as it continues its quest to swallow down any recognizable content, along with its own tail? But either way, that effort doesn’t diminish the industry’s tangible embrace of overlooked narratives, or the role Hollywood can now play in helping to pass these stories on to new generations, especially within diasporic audiences. Some of my earliest childhood memories involve sitting on the couch with my mom and watching the 1998 cartoon series Journey to the West: Legends of the Monkey King. Later, once I was old enough to handle the scary witch scenes, I watched the classic 1986 live action Journey to the West series via DVD sets my dad brought home from China.
I loved keeping up with Sun Wukong’s high-jinks, but watching each episode took forever because my mom had to pause the TV every few scenes to translate all the Mandarin. Honestly, I can’t remember if we finished the combined 93 episodes before I gave up and just started watching Disney Channel by myself. For many ABCs (that’s American-born Chinese, of course), this kind of cultural split was a hallmark of growing up. Disney’s American Born Chinese, of course, is much more accessible by design. With only eight episodes to work with, a sanded-down version of such an epic character should be expected—but I found myself pleasantly surprised by the rather layered sociopolitical ambitions undergirding all the fun fight scenes and updated costumes.
It’s useful to know that American Born Chinese is technically an adaptation of an adaptation: Gene Luen Yang’s 2006 graphic novel, in which the story of a third-grader named Jin Wang is juxtaposed against both Sun Wukong’s legendary escapades and a tertiary character named Chin-Kee, who’s basically a walking, talking racist stereotype. These intertwining plots intelligently represent the opposing forces living inside the headspace of a typical second-generation Asian-American kid.
In the Disney series—mild spoilers ahead—these storylines are expanded to the point where American Born Chinese often feels in danger of tipping over its own weight. Here, Jin is a high school sophomore obsessed with fitting in at his majority-white school until a “FOB” (“fresh off the boat”) kid from Taiwan named Wei-Chen transfers in. Microaggressions and Asian-identity tropes ensue, from recognizable classics (teachers bungling names, cringey lunchbox contents) to more updated forms (cloying comparisons to BTS, an inescapable meme about an Urkel-esque sitcom character named Freddy Wong). And while it’s all pretty expected fare for pop Asian-American identity politics, the show never gets preachy. On American Born Chinese, no one ever says the words “race” or “racism” out loud. Instead, euphemisms abound, as when Jin’s mother knowingly reminds him, “We are not water-ski people.”
A show like American Born Chinese is automatically charged with the mighty task of “doing representation” correctly, striking a balance between depicting the specificity of Jin’s Taiwanese-American upbringing while also oxygenating the more universal experiences of a bigger, more nebulous Asian-American bloc. Happily, the show’s cast of characters supplies refreshing foils to Jin’s existential ambivalence. Jimmy Liu is a perfect, annoyingly confident Wei-Chen, while Rosalie Chiang plays a hilariously righteous Culture Club president/social justice warrior, cat-eye glasses and all. Mahi Alam is an utterly serious cosplay lover named Anuj. Jin’s parents (Chin Han and Yann Yann Yeo), too, are fully fleshed out with Bon Jovi obsessions and herbal powder MLM schemes of their own. Jin might feel all alone with his identity crisis, but we the audience know he never actually is.
What’s fascinating, too, is how American Born Chinese uses the Freddy Wong subplot (replacing the Chin-Kee one from the novel) to tackle the complicated history of on-screen representation itself. In Episode 5, we meet Jamie, the man who once played the much-memed Freddy on that fictional sitcom. He’s since quit Hollywood and now teaches at a community college. When Jamie’s old agent comes calling with news of a reunion special, the now-middle-aged actor—played by Ke Huy Quan—must confront the “iconic” legacy of his minstrel-like character. That this role is inhabited by Quan, on the heels of the Everything Everywhere All At Once star’s own redemptive comeback, makes for some eerily self-aware television.