LOS ANGELES – Plenty is riding on “American Born Chinese,” says Executive Producer Kelvin Yu. If the Disney+ series succeeds, it could be a game-changer for Asian-American actors, writers, directors and producers. If it doesn’t, it could be business as usual.
Like the Oscar-winning “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the series shows a world many haven’t known. Blending classic Asian characters with the story of a high school boy just trying to fit in, it’s risky – particularly for Ke Huy Quan, who plays an Asian man who’s the butt of racist jokes.
When producers approached him about playing the role, the recent Oscar winner was hesitant: “I said, ‘You’ve got to promise me one thing: If when this show comes out and people hate my character and nobody wants to hire me again, you have to promise to give me a job.’”
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The show is stuffed with other blue-chip names. In addition to Quan’s Oscar-winning co-star, Michelle Yeoh, the company includes “Shang-Chi” director Destin Daniel Cretton, international star Daniel Wu and Emmy-winner Yu.
For even more security, there’s the graphic novel upon which it was based. Gene Luen Yang’s work has been taught in high schools and colleges and is featured in libraries across the country. “When it was brought to me, it’s kind of like a no-brainer in terms of the opportunity,” says Yu. “The question is: How do you do that? The two main challenges were updating it to 2023 and Ke’s character – how do we put that on TV in a palatable way that’s not just trying to start fires everywhere?”
Once Yu and company tackled the obstacles, “the planets just lined up. We made it a point to hire Chinese American or Asian American talent and creatives and designers. Everybody had a story to tell. Everybody had skin in the game,” Yu says.
For Gene Luen Yang, the novel’s author, the series was something he didn’t even dream about. “I did ‘American Born Chinese’ as a Xeroxed comic,” he says. “I’d finish a chapter, take it to my local Kinko’s, staple it by hand and sell like 16 copies. To go from there to here is really crazy.”
Key to solving structural problems was a larger issue: “Being an Asian American is like being caught between worlds,” Yang says. “In the book, it’s like being caught between three different worlds.”
Classic characters from Asian literature mingle with high school students in an American town. Yeoh’s character, the Goddess of Mercy “is a god in our world,” she says. “There are a lot of things written about her and understanding where she comes from. But we wanted to make her relatable.” So, in that American setting, she’s an aunt who wears sweats and a baseball cap.
“We were always very respectful of the Goddess of Mercy because she’s very, very iconic in our world,” Yeoh says. “But it was really fun.”
During fight sequences, for example, the Goddess of Mercy wouldn’t throw punches, Yeoh says. So when she had a big fight with another character, “we did it in such a way that it was always deflective. It was almost like a dance, which infuriated him even more.”
A long road
Like Quan, Yeoh wanted to be sure “American Born Chinese” would be done the right way. She was part of “Joy Luck Club” more than 20 years ago and knew a lot was riding on its success. She also was part of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” other potentially tide-turning ventures for Asian actors. “God forbid, what if ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ wasn’t as successful as it was? Thanks to (director) John Chu’s brilliance (we got) more opportunities.”
Now, on the heels of “Everything Everywhere,” “American Born Chinese” has a chance to crack the door wide open.
A relatable story
Ben Wang, who plays the high schooler who encounters new worlds in the series, says he felt an immediate kinship when he read the graphic novel. “I grew up in Minnesota in a small town,” he says. “But a lot of it rang true for me. At its core, ‘American Born Chinese’ is a story about an American adolescent experience. You have to deal with this clashing of cultures….and it’s so brilliantly tied to the metaphor of the gods and the mythological characters.”
Yu says it’s an American story “with a very specific experience. ‘The Godfather’ is about an Italian family, but it’s also an American story. It doesn’t matter what race you are or where you grew up. Identity formation is painful.”