Why 'American Born Chinese' took 17 years to adapt, according to creator Gene Luen Yang


(Left) Michelle Yeoh in 'American Born Chinese', an adaptation of Gene Luen Yang's acllaimed graphic novel of the same name. — Photos: Disney+ Hotstar

It has been 17 years since American comics creator Gene Luen Yang released his acclaimed graphic novel American Born Chinese, and in that time, there had been interest in adapting it into either a movie or a television show.

However, Yang was always a little hesitant about doing so because he was afraid it would not be able to highlight the message of his book, which is to highlight the treatment and racial stereotypes of the American Chinese community.

Yang's acclaimed graphic novel first came out in 2006.Yang's acclaimed graphic novel first came out in 2006.With the recently released American Born Chinese TV series on Disney+ Hotstar, however, Yang finally found that sweet spot between a faithful adaptation and one that preserves his book’s message.

“When the book first came out, I did have some interest in adapting it, but I always felt hesitant because if it was adapted poorly, it would actually undermine the message of the book,” Yang said in a recent virtual interview to promote the series alongside co-producer Melvin Mar.

However, in the series’ showrunner Kelvin Yu, he found a kindred soul whom he could entrust his book to.

“I first met Melvin at a panel in Los Angeles, and he introduced me to Kelvin. We had a long conversation and at the end of it I felt that I could trust him with it,” Yang recalled.

Yang’s groundbreaking graphic novel chronicled the trials and tribulations of a regular American teenager whose life is forever changed when he befriends the son of a mythological god.

The legend of the Monkey King is one of the cornerstone tales of the original American Born Chinese graphic novel. — Photos: First Second BooksThe legend of the Monkey King is one of the cornerstone tales of the original American Born Chinese graphic novel. — Photos: First Second BooksIn the series, Ben Wang stars as the lead character Jin Wang, a high school student trying his best to fit in, but finds his efforts undermined when he is forced to chaperon a new transfer student from China, Wei-Chen (Jim Liu).

But little does he know that Wei-Chen is actually the son of the legendary Monkey King (Daniel Wu), and has come to Earth on an important mission that could help save Heaven from an uprising by the Bull Demon King (Leonard Wu).

The series also stars Michelle Yeoh as Guan Yin (the Goddess of Mercy), fellow Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann as Jin’s mother Christine, and Oscar winner Ke Huay Quan as Freddy Wong, a former actor who once played a racially stereotypical role in a once beloved sitcom.

Tackling racism head-on

Speaking of Ke’s character, Yang’s original graphic novel was ground breaking in that it also highlighted all the stereotypes that Asian Americans had to go through in real life.

“In the book, there is this cousin character (whose name brings to mind a racial slur that is commonly used in the US against the Chinese community) that is embodiment of stereotypes that haunt us as Asian Americans,” Yang says, adding that Yu was very careful about how he tackled that particular element of the story.

According to Yang, the analogue for that character in the show is Ke’s Freddy Wong.

Ke Huy Quan and Freddy Wong.Ke Huy Quan and Freddy Wong.

“In addition to being a writer, Kelvin is also an actor, and he drew upon his own experiences as an Asian American actor to fashion that character. And then Melvin found the perfect actor to play him,” said Yang.

If the show seems a little different from the book, it was entirely by design.

“I knew that there would have to be changes, but what I cared more about rather than the literal adaptation of the book, was that the heart of the book would be kept,” he said. “We made the decision to move the story from the 80s to the 2020s, and that necessitated changes because the situation around Asian Americans has changed.

“I also knew that because we were taking a 200-page graphic novel and moving it into an eight-episode television show would also necessitate changes. So it was more about trusting Calvin to preserve the heart (of the book), even if the surface changed.”

Yeoh and with American Born Chinese co-star Jim Liu in a scene from the series.Yeoh and with American Born Chinese co-star Jim Liu in a scene from the series.

According to Mar, they knew there would be changes that needed to be made, and Yu was the key person in breaking down the essence of what the book is and moving from graphic novel to television. Other crew members like lead director Destin Daniel Cretton (Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings) also contributed their own experiences into making the show what it is.

“When we added Destin, he brought his own experiences and thoughts, and later on with all the actors and the crew as well,” Mar said. “Everybody found something universal about (the story), even though it’s so specific to a Chinese American experience. Hats off to Gene and Kelvin – they built something that everyone could bring something to.”

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