American Born Chinese: The Journey from graphic novel to Disney+ show
All 10 episodes of “American Born Chinese” are now streaming on Disney+, and seeing that is something that Gene Luen Yang thought he’d never see.
“It’s still surreal that we get to do this and have this story be on Disney+. It was supposed to just be a graphic novel and I wrote it that way,” said Yang during the show’s virtual press conference. Yang continued saying that he was initially hesitant in letting the hit graphic novel he wrote back in 2006 be turned into anything more because of its subject matter, which has to do with confronting Asian racial stereotypes head-on.
“If one adapts it [American Born Chinese] poorly, one might undermine its central message of being comfortable in one’s skin and being respectful of others who don’t share that,” Yang said. It wasn’t until he met writer/producer Kelvin Yu (“Bob’s Burgers”) and heard what he wanted to do with adapting the material for today’s audiences that he felt relaxed enough to let the show be created. “He [Kelvin] understood it. He gets the message, but he’s also a creative genius and storyteller,” said Yang. “Everyone who is involved with this show gets it, so it was easy to let go of control and trust in this epic team,” he continued.
The team that was assembled to bring American Born Chinese to TV included powerhouse Asian talent both in front of and behind the camera. Destin Daniel Cretton (director of Marvel Studios’ “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”) is a director and executive producer on the show. Ke Huy Quan (“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”), Michelle Yeoh (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), and Daniel Wu are also starring in the show, to name a few big-name Asian talent who wanted to be a part of it in any way they could, said Yang.
As for how the graphic novel and the show relate, Yang says that both express the same core themes and are “in dialogue” with each other. Where things differ are how certain character names and story beats were changed to reflect a more universal audience, yet “still reflect the struggle and triumph of what Asian American life” has been like since the graphic novel’s publishing 17 years ago, says Yang.
The show is a coming-of-age story centered around Jin Wang, a rather shy and awkward teenager maneuvering through high school. Part of the genius of the show is showrunner Kelvin Yu making sure that everything about it would reflect any high schooler’s journey in America and use the backdrop of Asian culture as a vehicle to lead the narrative forward.
“I was also awkward on my own and with others in public school, so what you see is what you get,” said Ben Wang who plays Jin in the show. According to Wang, while the subject matter might be heavy for some (including Asian Americans), he hopes that anyone who watches has fun because “important topics will be absorbed if they have fun,” he said.
Echoing Wang was producer Melvin Mar who hopes for the same. “Importing people and stories from Asia is a way we can use our soft power to influence and shape the culture and view of Asians in America,” Mar said.
The show’s cast and creators had been using that ‘soft power’ by proudly touring the show since March 2023, with its official premiere at SXSW in Austin, TX. Since then, there have been special screenings in May for the Asian-American community in celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the U.S., including one that was held with President Joe Biden at The White House. In other words, Disney alongside the cast and creators of the show are very confident in it.
“And rightfully so,” said executive producer Melvin Mar. “It’s a story that deserves to be championed!”