Before Asian representation in American blockbuster entertainment like “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” Gene Luen Yang’s 2006 YA graphic novel American Born Chinese was one of the very few works of media that existed in a once barren media landscape. The book discussed the complexities of growing up Asian in America, covering self-acceptance, assimilation, racial identity, and breaking down racial stereotypes, all while riffing on Wu Cheng’en’s “Journey to the West.” The Disney+ television adaptation of “American Born Chinese” attempts the same feats as Yang’s novel but doesn’t quite have the same impact.
Developed by “Bob’s Burgers” writer/producer Kelvin Yu, the series centers on Jin Wang (Ben Wang), a second-gen Chinese American teenager in suburban California who wants to lead an ‘American’ life. At home, the marriage between his mom Christine (Yeo Yann Yann), and dad Simon (Chin Han), hangs by a thread. At his predominantly white high school, he disregards everything he considers embarrassing about himself: His love for manga and anime, his Chinese heritage, and his nerdy/cosplaying best friend Anuj (Mahi Alam) are all banished from his orbit. As he enters the tenth grade, Jin is desperate to assimilate into the school’s homogeneous system, play for the school soccer team, and befriend his obnoxious jock teammates. He also hopes to get his crush, Amelia (Sydney Taylor), to notice him.
Jin’s hopes shatter once he’s assigned to guide new Chinese exchange student Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu) through his school. Wei-Chen’s outspoken confidence and unawareness constantly conflict with Jin’s desire for unwanted attention. Every interaction with Wei-Chen results in them getting humiliated in public.
Jin starts to think of himself as a punchline for white amusement. The series thinly parallels this to former ’90s sitcom actor Freddy Wong (Ke Huy Quan), who once portrayed an outdated, white-written Asian stereotype from a fictionalized series called “Beyond Repair.” Despite the show being long from its airdate, it makes a resurgence through social media spaces.
After a run-in with a hunter, Wei-Chen reveals to Jin that he’s the son of the Sun Wukong/Monkey King (Daniel Wu). He traveled from heaven to Earth with the guidance of Guanyin, the Goddess of Compassion (Michelle Yeoh), as his guardian. Wei-Chen shares a prophecy that only Jin can help him find a sacred scroll to prevent Niu Mowang/Bull Demon (Leonard Wu) uprising in Heaven.
“American Born Chinese” departs from its source in countless ways, most notably merging its separate storylines and shifting its setting from the 1980s to the present day. “ABC” interweaves teen dramedy and martial arts fantasy, formulating an entertaining tale of self-acceptance and friendship. Through the eight-episode first season, Yu and his team of writers cleverly parallel the Chinese mythological figures within Wei-Chen’s heavenly conflict to Jin’s struggle with his Chinese identity in his day-to-day life.
The best and boldest updates from the source occur whenever the lens is shifted to Jin’s parents, Simon, and Christine. Unhappy with the banality of their lives, Simon has worked in the same position for decades, and Christine is an unfulfilled church-going housewife. Now that they’re middle-aged, their desires dwindle, and their respective rut affects their marriage. While they are often C-or-D plots, it adds dimension to the overall themes whenever the first-gen parents are featured and organically raises the stakes for the entire Wang family.
“American Born Chinese” also works well as a comedy–Jin can be as deadpan and defeated as Bob Belcher whenever the going gets weird. And Wang and Liu share incredible onscreen chemistry and charisma. They easily embody their respective characters’ opposing personalities and deliver a good balance of comedy and melodrama. The budding friendship between Jin and Wei-Chen is the series’ beating heart and, much like its source, well developed throughout the season.
Only Chinese acting excellence is present. Kids might not know why their parents are squealing in delight when they see the entirety of the “Everything Everywhere, All at Once” cast—MVP Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan in main roles, Stephanie Hsu and James Hong as guest star spots—pop up. A variety of other notable Chinese appear in recurring roles like Poppy Liu (“Dead Ringers”), Ronny Chieng (“The Daily Show”), Jimmy O. Yang (“Silicon Valley”), and Rosalie Chiang (“Turning Red”).
As entertaining as “ABC” is, the chilling bite of the source’s commentary about demolishing the barriers of racial stereotypes is present but sometimes feels Disney-fied. “American Born Chinese” effectively explores Jin’s insecurities and identity struggles amongst his overwhelmingly white surroundings in the first half of the season but pivots from deconstructing Asian stereotypes to present a hollow conversation about whether Asian actors can be the hero for once.
This is mostly due to Ke Huy Quan’s Freddy Wong, who, up until the season’s backend, isn’t as well connected to the plight of Jin’s arc. Quan is incredible, given that he’s essentially playing a mirror of his career, but his Freddy hardly fits into Jin’s main narrative as organically as the series’ other components. And while heroic representation matters, when your series arrives at a time when racial discrimination towards Asian people is still prevalent, a shallow case for on-screen heroism can come across as dated. It doesn’t help that the message itself loses some sight of its source’s significance during the season’s climax, diluting its theme to assimilate for broad entertainment.
Even with its flaws, “American Born Chinese” is a very entertaining contemporary update of groundbreaking source material for the family. Fans of the original might miss its edge, but it compensates in solid storytelling, great wuxia action, and star-making turns for Ben Wang and Jimmy Liu.
Whole season was screened for review. “American Born Chinese” is now on Disney+.