‘American Born Chinese’ Preview: a true Asian American tale
Disney, being the notably large conglomerate that they are, almost always makes headlines whenever an Asian or Asian American story is adapted via their productions. It may also be because, after years of Mulan being their only solely Asian story, we’ve seen a relative influx of new IPs and adaptations, from Turning Red, to Ms. Marvel, to Shang-Chi and more. Showrunner Kelvin Yu’s American Born Chinese is the latest series to join this prestigious roster, and after previewing the first two episodes at SXSW 2023, the show does not disappoint.
Due to American Born Chinese being an adaptation of the 200X graphic novel of the same name by Gene Luen Yang, some original fans may be hesitant to see if or how much quality was lost when transferring it to the silver screen. It may assuage some fears, then, to know that Yang was not only present at the premiere, but also called it “surreal” to see the live adaptation — reiterating that for both the original graphic novel and for the show, he wanted to make sure he could put his “own cultural heritage at the center.”
American Born Chinese follows an Asian American high schooler, Jin Wang (Ben Wang), whose teachers pair him with Taiwanese exchange student Wei-Chen (Jim Liu). Wei-Chen, eager to fit in and find Asian friends just like him, is met with resistance by Jin, who just wants to fit in and not have his high school status and reputation tarnished by someone who, in his eyes, isn’t “cool” (re: American) enough. Meanwhile, Jin’s parents go through their own financial, relationship, and status struggles at home and at work, and the whole time, there’s also a mystical storyline involving Monkey Kings and lost scrolls that, without spoiling anything, all tie in to the same central storyline.
Though the first two episodes don’t get too much into it, another side plot reveals a resurgence of an old sitcom within the show called Beyond Repair, in which Ke Huy Quan plays a token ethnic character who stars as the butt of the joke, in classic Fez (from That 70’s Show) fashion. That joke resurgence becomes a sort of meme at the high school, further fueling Jin’s anxieties about not wanting to be the runt of the high school litter, while also elucidating and cementing the systemic Asian American injustices that are woven throughout the series and in real life.
Fans and newcomers may also be excited to see that both Destin Daniel Cretton (Shang-Chi) and Lucy Liu have signed on as directors for the series, with Cretton also serving as an executive producer. Not only that, but Everything Everywhere All At Once alumni Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, James Hong, and Stephanie Hsu make appearances as recurring characters alongside familiar Asian American stars like Rosalie Chiang (Turning Red), Ronny Chieng, and Jimmy O. Yang. And we haven’t even mentioned the stellar performances put on by main character and newcomer Ben Wang, along with the myriad of native Asian actors and performers who lend even more authenticity to the production. Needless to say, with a star-studded cast and crew like this, you can expect the series to be in good hands.
Overall though, what stuck out the most from this preview was just how right it got everything, including the complexities of tying together classic high school tropes of wanting to fit in with all-too-common Asian American sentiments of wanting to stay true to your heritage at the same time… even if the two tend to rival each other (and in this show, they may literally rival in more ways than one). Moreover, the visual production and stylizations combine elements of East Asian and American visual storytelling, making it even more of a unique sight to behold. It’s an interwoven story that’s a family drama, a coming of age drama, and a mythical deity drama, all wrapped into one marvelous yet relatable story that left me wanting more.
If you’re a fan of the original graphic novel, or want to jump into this journey blind, then you can expect nothing but a good time either way. Make sure to catch all 8 episodes of American Born Chinese when they drop at once on Disney+ May 24th.
Episodes 1 and 2 of American Born Chinese were reviewed in-person by Jacob Ugalde as part of its world premiere at SXSW 2023. No further episodes were taken into account when writing this review.
American Born Chinese season one will be released on Disney+ on May 24th.
Jacob Ugalde is a writer, musician, and pasta enthusiast based in Los Angeles, California. A jack-of-all-trades kind of type, Jacob works in many different fields, from computer programming, to visual design, to film production, to music making, to whatever else he can get his hands on. His favorite musicians are Phoebe Bridgers, Carly Rae Jepsen, Vulfpeck, Luna Li, and Louie Zong, and his favorite video game is The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. He thanks you for reading this all the way to the end!