From left, Jim Liu as Wei-Chen and Michelle Yeoh as Guanyin in “American Born Chinese.”

Disney’s ‘American Born Chinese’ brings Chinese mythology to life

Michelle Yeoh as a goddess? Yes please!

From left, Jim Liu as Wei-Chen and Michelle Yeoh as Guanyin in “American Born Chinese.”

Carlos Lopez-Calleja/Disney

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Words by Samantha Pak

Disney recently released the first images from its upcoming action-comedy series, American Born Chinese and we cannot wait for the show to hit the small screen.

From left, Ben Wang as Jin Wang and Jim Liu as Wei-Chen in “American Born Chinese.”

Disney

Based on Gene Luen Yang’s 2006 hit graphic novel of the same name, the show follows Chinese American teen Jin Wang, who’s having a hard enough time trying to balance his high school social life with his home life. But when a new international student arrives on campus, Jin’s world becomes even more complicated, as he suddenly finds himself entangled in a battle among mythological Chinese gods and goddesses.

American Born Chinese is set to premiere on Disney+ this spring and stars Ben Wang (Sex Appeal, Good Egg) as Jin. Along his journey, the teen meets mythological figures including Sun Wukong the Monkey King (Daniel Wu) and Princess Iron Fan (Poppy Liu).

Daniel Wu as Sun Wukong the Monkey King in “American Born Chinese.”

Carlos Lopez-Calleja/Disney

The show is also serving as an Everything Everywhere All at Once reunion of sorts with Golden Globe winners and now Oscar nominees Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, and their onscreen daughter and fellow Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu all involved in the project. Yeoh, GOAT that she is, will fittingly play a deity—Guanyin, the goddess of mercy. Hsu will also be part of the show’s pantheon as the demoness-turned-goddess, Shiji Niangniang.

Ke Huy Quan as Freddy Wong in “American Born Chinese.”

Disney

Meanwhile, Quan will play Freddy Wong, a reimagining of another character from the original source material: Chin-Kee. During a panel at New York Comic Con in October 2022, Yang said the character, who’s named after a racial slur and featured in a third of the book, is an amalgamation of all the stereotypes “that have haunted (him) and (his) community throughout (his) entire life.” But some readers missed the point of the character and some even approached Yang about Chin-Kee merchandise (yikes!). With this in mind, Yang worried there’d be clips of the character on YouTube, completely decontextualized. So instead, Freddy is an actor who used to play a problematic character—complete with an over-the-top accent and all the worst Asian stereotypes you could imagine—in a ‘90s sitcom.

In another panel at the D23 Expo in September 2022, Quan noted that his character in American Born Chinese “does not shy away from those uncomfortable moments,” which admittedly made him nervous. So much so, he joked that he made the show’s creative team promise to give him a job if no one hired him after the show.

American Born Chinese was published just one year after The Lightning Thief, the first in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Both books combined modern life with mythology and folklore (ancient Greek in Riordan’s case), and in the more than decade and a half since, this theme has become a popular subgenre for young readers. From the Korean nine-tailed foxes that feed on the souls of men, to the many deities in ancient Hindu mythology, to the spirits inhabiting everything around us according to Hmong oral tradition, these stories have introduced readers of all backgrounds to different Asian cultures.

From left, Ke Huy Quan, producer Kelvin Yu, director Destin Daniel Cretton and “American Born Chinese” author and illustrator Gene Luen Yang during a panel.

Disney

So to see a seminal work like American Born Chinese hit the screen gives us hope that we’ll be seeing more of these AA+PI stories come to life.

Published on January 24, 2023

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Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.