Gene Luen Yang’s 2006 graphic novel American Born Chinese, based on his adolescent years in the ’90s, explored the challenges of being Asian in America. This adaptation from showrunner Kelvin Yu retains the heart of the source material, effortlessly blending Chinese folk tales and mysticism into a single fascinating odyssey. At its core is Jin (Ben Wang), an awkward teen living in middle America; after interacting with Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), son of the legendary Monkey King (Daniel Wu), Jin is pulled into a supernatural conflict.
Destin Daniel Cretton is a key player in the success of Shang Chi, directing and executive producing the fantasy superhero series. Taking inspiration from the 16th century Chinese novel Journey To The West, with modernisation for a worldwide audience, Yu and Cretton managed to bring out both Jin’s battle with identity and some impressive fight scenes that wouldn’t feel amiss in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Wushu theatrics and ‘wire fu’ acrobatics bring each action sequence to life, most notably an epic face off between Wei-Chen and Bull Demon (Leonard Wu).
Microaggressions are treated matter-of-factly rather than as a lesson in Asian-American life.
In spite of this, the series’ non-celestial characters prove its heart, showing an authentic portrayal of an immigrant family that is marginalized in a world that sees them as ‘other’. Instead of feeling like a lesson in Asian-American life, the show simply treats the microaggressions matter-of-factly. Jin’s name is often misidentified as Jim by the school principal, who assigns him the task of showing Wei-Chen around because they have “so much in common” because they are both Chinese.
Also, Jin’s immigrant parents, Simon (Chin Han) and Christine (Yeo Yann Yann), provide genuine and relatable storylines. In an effort to avoid causing trouble, Simon cannot ask his boss for a raise, while Christine aims to start a small business to contribute to the family.
Ke Huy Quan’s Oscar win comes with the added relevance of Freddy, a character in the movie that was once a star of a dated ’90s sitcom, marred by thinly veiled Asian stereotypes (yes, you guessed it – “What could go Wong?”). This parallels Quan’s own experience in Hollywood and how Freddy constantly feels patronised for his role, struggles to break away from being typecast as nerds, neighbours and ninjas. While an astute observation by the director, this narrative point is unfortunately soon overshadowed by the main story.
American Born Chinese is essentially about Jin’s journey toward self-acceptance and how his surroundings play a part in it, so that makes sense. Jin’s parents encourage him to be himself, and Jamie tells Asian kids that they don’t have to be the punchline, that’s the theme that runs through these episodes. Jin’s message is that anyone can be a hero, even though he has no magical powers.
American Born Chinese is an entertaining ride with a refreshing take on cultural identity that never feels didactic.