TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The showrunner for Disney Plus’ upcoming action-comedy series “American Born Chinese,” Kelvin Yu (游朝敏), shared about the processes of writing, adapting and producing the show as well as his own experience growing up in the U.S. as a child of immigrants.
While the plot of the “American Born Chinese” series is influenced by the fantastical traditional Chinese tale of “Journey to the West,” the story hinges on the friendship that develops between two boys as they go through tough times in their lives. Ben Wang portrays the protagonist, Jin, while Jim Liu (劉敬) portrays his new friend Wei-chen.
In an exclusive interview, Yu told Taiwan News that not only were Wang and Liu “perfect for the roles,” the pair immediately became best friends upon meeting each other. They were so familiar with each other that Yu said on set, he sometimes had to tap them on the shoulder to remind them, “Hey, your characters don’t know each other that well yet.”
Ben Wang portrays the protagonist of "American Born Chinese" Jin, who finds a new friend in new student Wei-chen, portrayed by Jim Liu. (Disney Plus screenshot)
The show also features some of the Asia’s top talents including Michelle Yeoh (楊紫瓊), Daniel Wu (吳彥祖), and Yeo Yann Yann (楊雁雁). Additionally, Lucy Liu (劉玉玲) directed an episode in the series. Yu described her as a “tremendous” director with such charisma that “when she was on set, everyone was standing an inch taller.”
Yu said he was familiar with Gene Luen Yang’s (楊謹倫) “American Born Chinese” graphic novel prior to adapting it. He said he was impressed with the depth and details of the story, adding, “The story captures really personal, adolescent experiences, and just does so with humor, a sense of history and tradition … Every time you read it, you find more details.”
As a child of Taiwanese immigrants himself, Yu said the graphic novel “hit home,” externalizing the feeling of “being stuck between two worlds” while growing up. He said the children of immigrants, no matter from which ethnicity, experience “dissonance” while growing up because their childhood takes place in contexts that are completely different from their parents’.
“Other people can talk to their parents about shared school experiences, but I couldn’t because my parents went to school in Taiwan,” Yu said. “It leaves you to try to form yourself, and gives you a lot of anxiety about your own identity.”
As a kid, Yu said he tried to fill in the blanks and “manufacture” his identity by engaging in American culture — something Jin also tries to do in “American Born Chinese.” He said, “It’s about trying to make sense of your life in a way … I mean, all 15-year-olds are trying to make sense of their lives, but there is an added difficulty with that cultural gap.”
Lucy Liu directs an episode of" American Born Chinese." (Disney Plus screenshot)
Yu had been working on “Bob’s Burgers,” an animated sitcom for which he currently serves as executive producer, when he was offered the opportunity to adapt the “American Born Chinese” graphic novel into a show.
However, his first attempt to sell the show was not successful, and he didn’t get a green light until years later, when director Destin Daniel Cretton approached him about wanting to direct the project. Cretton’s Marvel film “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” had just released.
Thus, Yu revived the project and began rewriting the screenplay for Disney Plus. He said once the production got going, it went very smoothly. “The team came together very quickly … I feel like I was blessed by the heavens to work with such an inspired team.”
The stunt team for "American Born Chinese" also worked on "Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and "Captain Marvel." (Disney Plus screenshot)
Yu said adapting the graphic novel took some work, as it was originally published in 2006 with a story set in the mid-1990s. Elements such as social media and cell phones had to be added while fashion and music styles — even kids’ attitudes — had to be updated.
“Kids nowadays have a more global outlook. They’re also more savvy and sassy,” he said.
More importantly, several aspects of the story’s structure had to be changed for the adaptation. For example, Yu had to create Jin’s family because the graphic novel did not touch upon this aspect of his life.
Michelle Yeoh portrays Guanyin. (Disney Plus screenshot)
Yang’s graphic novel also included the character “Chin-Kee,” whom Yu described as a “blatantly racist character” and a “conglomeration of Asian stereotypes.” Yu turned him into a device in his adaptation, featuring him as a character from a ‘90s show within the show.
“He becomes this problematic character that was popular back in the day,” Yu said. “And now he’s making a comeback.”
One other major change Yu had to make involved a “big reveal” at the end of the graphic novel involving the Monkey King, which did not work with the show’s structure. As American audiences would not be familiar with the Monkey King, he had to introduce the character and his backstory and infuse the show with a little “cultural education.”
This was not a huge issue, though, according to Yu, who used Marvel movies as an example. “I didn’t know who Thor was, or who his brother was,” he said, adding that what he had to do was just like how Disney repackaged the Nordic mythology.
The prospect of seeing more Asian stories being told on screen is something Yu looks forward to. He said there is still “a whole library of characters coming out of Asia that Disney hasn’t worked with quite yet.”
Kelvin Yu on the set of American Born Chinese. (Disney Plus screenshot)