The High-Risk Feat of Bringing ‘American Born Chinese’ to TV

The High-Risk Feat of Bringing ‘American Born Chinese’ to TV

Almost everyone who reads “American Born Chinese,” Gene Luen Yang’s groundbreaking graphic novel, is a little afraid of Chin-Kee.

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The book is a classic of young-adult literature, threading together stories of Asian American boyhood with a revered Ming dynasty novel. Chin-Kee’s role in it is a small one, but he is the bomb at the book’s heart. He’s a kind of Urkel character, embarrassing comic relief that isn’t so funny for the people who have to live with him — a cruel marionette pieced together from ugly stereotypes. He makes the old schoolyard “me Chinese” rhymes, begins sentences with “Confucius say … .” He sings “She Bangs,” in a library, in the style of the “American Idol” contestant William Hung. At one point, he eats a packed lunch with a cat peeking out of the container. A laugh track runs in a ribbon under each scene, a brutal little receipt: “HA HA HA HA HA.”

So when news arrived, in 2021, that “American Born Chinese” would be adapted as a live-action Disney+ streaming series, the first reaction from some readers was, more or less, oh, no.

Yang gets it. For a long time he, too, was afraid of Chin-Kee. The character is a presence he grew up with; he refers to it as a “haunting,” a symbol of things he wanted to escape. Back when he was a superhero-besotted child, drawing panels about Transformers who turned into fruit, Yang always avoided buying comics starring Shang-Chi, Marvel’s clichéd kung fu character; he worried about the way people might see him if he brought them to the register. Making some of his fears legible in Chin-Kee “almost felt like an exorcism,” Yang told me. “Just putting it down on paper made it feel smaller and more manageable.”

When “American Born Chinese” was published, in 2006, it won Printz and Eisner Awards and was the first graphic novel ever to be a finalist for a National Book Award. It’s where Yang came into his own as an artist — a teller of large-scale, gloriously cinematic tales that also feel touchingly person-size, neatly interweaving story lines at the intersections of cultures and faiths, East and West, present and past. In some ways, “American Born Chinese” has always seemed perfect for the screen; it’s full of visual sequences as grand and colorful as they are intimate, with narrative stakes sometimes as big as salvation, and sometimes as small as science class. And so the story’s arrival on Disney+ this month can seem like a predestined coronation. Its celebrated cast includes Ke Huy Quan and Michelle Yeoh, fresh from the success of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” now in a series with similar imaginative exuberance and a major studio budget.

But that skips past the many years when none of this was a given. Part of the difficulty was Hollywood itself, which wasn’t yet ready to center Asian American stories. The other obstacle, though, was Chin-Kee. Yang was terrified about what might happen if this character he made, this caricature, wound up onscreen. “I was always freaked out that if it was ever adapted, clips of that character would show up on YouTube, you know?” he says. “Completely decontextualized.”

It wasn’t until he talked with the producers Kelvin Yu and Melvin Mar that Yang felt someone might safely introduce Chin-Kee to the wider world. “Part of the reason the book has teeth is because he wasn’t playing it safe,” Yu told me in April. At one point, before the pandemic, there was progress on a significantly edgier “Atlanta”-like version of the show for FX. (Yu described some details to me on a video call, to a Disney publicist’s alarm.) The trick, of course, was what it had always been: translating the story to the screen without defanging it — and without offering the wrong kind of pleasure in its sharpness.

Yang grew up in a family of storytellers, and the way he tells his own stories brings together two very different traditions: the way his mother told them, and the way his father did. It was Yang’s mother who told her sons about the Monkey King, the hero of the 16th-century Chinese novel “Journey to the West.” In some ways, that book is an unlikely candidate for a story beloved by generations of children; it’s a bureaucratic satire, bristling with surreal plotlines and more than a hundred Buddhist and Daoist gods. But the story at its heart is one Yang has returned to all his life. “The journey the Monkey King takes,” he told me by phone in April, “is from arrogance to humility, or self-centeredness to enlightenment.”

“And then my dad mostly just made stories up off the top of his head,” Yang said. He invented a character called Ah-Tong, a little boy in a Taiwanese village whose father makes him do “all these really gross chores,” like picking up cow dung with chopsticks. The loving strand of gross-out humor running through Yang’s work — one of his first graphic novels involves a spaceship flying up a kid’s nose — owes something to Ah-Tong. That Yang is now a 49-year-old father of four and a respected “voice of indie comics” amuses his longtime friend, the writer and artist Derek Kirk Kim: “Gene’s really into body humor,” he says eagerly, then pauses. “I have a story but I don’t think it’s publishable.”

Yang’s maternal grandfather worked for the Nationalist government in China; the family fled to Hong Kong and then Taiwan when the Communists came to power. Yang’s father is from Taiwan, but the couple didn’t meet until they came to San Jose for graduate school in the late 1960s. Yang was raised in a Chinese Catholic community in the Bay Area, where the revolution felt both very distant and absurdly fresh. Some of the priests in his community “had spent decades in re-education camps,” he recalls. “They all had these very intense stories.” The holidays they celebrated were a cultural mishmash. “For Christmas, there’d be a Chinese guy dressed as Santa,” he says. They celebrated All Souls’ Day as if it were Qingming Festival, “with incense and bowing,” he says, “the way we Chinese have been honoring ancestors for centuries.” There are many threads of Chinese American experience; this was a highly specific and sometimes vexed one. Years later, when Yang read about the Boxer Rebellion — a folk uprising that tried to wipe out foreign influence in China at the turn of the 20th century, killing many Chinese Christians in the bargain — “that tension between Western faith and Eastern culture just felt very resonant to me,” he says. “It felt like something I had lived before.”

Like the family in “American Born Chinese,” the Yangs made regular trips to a traditional Chinese medicine practice, driving an hour to San Francisco to seek treatment for his asthma. The practitioners “were not polite, but they were kind, the way old Chinese people are,” he says. “She would examine my tongue, and then she would write all these Chinese characters on a piece of paper, like a prescription.” An herbalist would wrap up the ingredients, which Yang’s mother would boil down into a dark soup full of intriguing lumps. These trips stopped when Yang was in junior high, after a visit from a Taiwanese priest. “He prayed over me,” Yang remembers, “and I had a vision in my head.” It was Jesus — maybe. “It wasn’t a clear vision,” he says. “It was sort of like how you see through tears.” For years after that, his asthma didn’t bother him anymore when running cross-country.

Yang’s life has been punctuated by moments of spiritual recognition. The most important may have been the five-day silent retreat he attended, after college, with other young Chinese Catholics. At that point, Yang had a degree in computer science from Berkeley but no clear sense of purpose. It was during the retreat that he decided both to become a high school teacher and to pursue comics. For 17 years, he taught computer science at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland; all through his 20s and 30s, he also met weekly with a group of Bay Area cartoonists. They called themselves the Art Night Crew. They’d gather at someone’s home to eat and draw, looking over one another’s work. “I never went to art school,” Yang says. “I felt like that was my art school.”

Derek Kirk Kim was part of that crew, along with the artists Jason Shiga, Lark Pien, Thien Pham and Jesse Hamm. “Even now I think those are some of the best times that I remember,” Kim says. “We were all beginning; we all had the fire in our stomach to change the medium.” They dreamed of staking out the territory between bright, sanitized commercial comics and dark underground work. But Kim also points out that, before Yang and Shiga, he’d never even met another Asian American cartoonist. “One of the reasons we purposely made all our characters Asian American is we never saw that growing up,” he says. “It seemed impossible to do that in films, but we thought, at least we could do it in comics — in comics, nobody would stop you.”

Yang was working on “American Born Chinese” and would share pages for feedback. Kim pushed the work on his publisher, First Second Books, calling it “the book I’ve been waiting for all my life.” “He pretty much threatened me,” First Second’s founder, Mark Siegel, told me. He read the draft on a plane, in a trance.

“American Born Chinese” tells three stories at once, with such unshowy confidence that they seem to have always belonged together. The hero of its coming-of-age story is Jin Wang, a quiet, isolated boy in a mostly white community. The second story line is a significantly simplified (and somewhat Catholicized) retelling of “Journey to the West,” in which the Monkey King grapples with his pride and his resentment over being, in the end, a monkey. And the third is, essentially, a sitcom, featuring the grotesque Chin-Kee. None of these elements are contradictory, though to say more would be to ruin the satisfaction of the moment when the story lines resolve.

From there, things happened quickly. One moment Yang and his friends were cramming into a hotel room at San Diego Comic Con to sell stapled-together zines. “Then flash forward 18 months,” Siegel says, “and we’re in our tuxes in Times Square with David Remnick introducing the National Book Award nominees.” Yang would follow with works like the two-volume “Boxers & Saints,” from 2013, which vividly inhabits the entangled lives of two Chinese children, one destined to lead Boxer insurgents and the other to unglamorous Christian martyrdom. A few years later, Yang would become one of the few graphic novelists to win a MacArthur Fellowship.

In a supplement to a new edition of “American Born Chinese,” Yang observes that Asian Americans “sometimes feel like we are guests in America,” treated as foreign no matter how long they’ve lived in this country. “We try to be good guests and not make a fuss,” he says, “because America feels like somebody else’s home.” When I asked Yang when he first had that sense of being a guest in his own country, he answered quietly: “I don’t ever remember not feeling like that.” It wasn’t until attending Berkeley, surrounded by students who looked like him, that Yang began to feel he had always belonged. The young people who tell him how much they related to “American Born Chinese,” he said, are “almost always immigrants’ kids. They’re often not Asian American, but their parents came from somewhere else, and they grew up here.”

“He’s informed a generation with that book,” Kim told me. “Out of all of us, I think Gene had the most impact on the world. He’s like our Beyoncé.”

In “Dragon Hoops,” from 2020, in part a memoir about his last year as a teacher, Yang writes that the characters in a comic should function “like the characters of an alphabet. Each must be visually distinct, with easily identifiable markers.” You see this most clearly in Yang’s noses: He makes curlicues, dashes, wedges, round pokable blobs. (He claims glumly that this is “just me making up for my own inadequacies as a cartoonist.”) He used to start his books on napkins, which made his first doodles feel low-stakes, and his style — clean, clear and inviting — retains that napkin-level approachability. “As I got older,” he says, “I realized that the intimacy of your illustrator voice is actually more important than things like perspective, or even, like, anatomical proportions.” Part of that intimacy comes from the way Yang uses visual metaphors to show emotion: Jin’s cloudlike hair crackling with lightning, or a word from his crush blanketing him in bed.

Television speaks a very different language, but the Disney+ rendering of “American Born Chinese” is a surprisingly effective translation. It opens with a VFX-heavy chase scene between the Monkey King and his son, Wei-Chen, whose shaggy prosthetic hair gives him a striking resemblance to Teen Wolf. But the show soon relaxes into something much closer to the book’s deep, funny charisma, honoring the surreality of Yang’s world with little touches like an Old Navy-esque store that also sells, for some reason, milk. In the book, the three story lines have equal weight, but the show recalibrates. Wei-Chen, played by Jimmy Liu with endearing confidence, becomes the hero of the second story, rather than his father. And Jin’s parents, barely present before, are brought to life in an arc about his tart, practical mother and her sad, demure husband, who believes perhaps too much in the American dream. “Don’t you remember who you used to be?” she pleads with him. “We came here with nothing, no connections. Where did that brave man go?”

The showrunner Kelvin Yu, who has young children and recently lost his own mother, told me that he sees this new story as a love letter to his parents. It’s a change Yang embraces. Comics, he says, are “such a personal medium; it’s a lot of work, but it’s manageable for a single person to do it.” A television series, though, should show the thumbprints of everyone who works on it: “It’s no longer me,” he says. “It’s us.” He told me he found peace with one of the show’s biggest changes during an on-set conversation with Michelle Yeoh, a practicing Buddhist, who plays the deity Guanyin: As they talked, it settled on him that as important as his own faith was to the book, the show would also need to honor the Buddha-focused mythology of the original “Journey to the West.”

It is the fourth story line that offers Yu’s solution to the problem of Chin-Kee. It’s seen, at first, only in viral snatches on students’ phones: clips of a fictional 1990s sitcom called “Beyond Repair.” Ke Huy Quan plays the show’s “problematic” comic-relief character, the hapless Freddy Wong. (“What could go Wong?” is his catchphrase.) Yu has made Freddy Wong his own exorcism — an embodiment, in part, of Freddy Gong, the stereotypical bit part, in an early Ryan Murphy show, that was his first Hollywood role. “The only way to defeat your fear is to wear its armaments,” he says, citing one of his favorite books on acting. “That’s how you steal its power.”

But Freddy isn’t Chin-Kee. He’s softer, less monstrous. Eventually we see the actor who plays him, conflicted, enjoying Hollywood success only through a Faustian bargain. As the Chinese herbalist’s wife tells Jin in the book, “It’s easy to become anything you wish, so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.”

This isn’t a bargain Yang has ever had to make. Winning the MacArthur is often a way for artists to step off the commercial hamster wheel, but for Yang, it dovetailed with years of work for Marvel and DC Comics. He has written story lines for Batman and Superman and a new superhero, the Monkey Prince; he even wrote for the Shang-Chi comics he was once so wary of. For the moment, he’s stepped away from Big Comic commitments to work on projects like “Lunar New Year Love Story,” a romantic comedy of a graphic novel, with LeUyen Pham. The thing is, he does genuinely love superheroes. He sees them everywhere he looks: in Bishop O’Dowd’s varsity basketball players, in the outrageous doomed faith of the Boxers, in the Monkey King learning to serve others. They are less a single obsession than a totalizing worldview.

Partly it’s his own sense of living a dual identity. At one point, he told me about his effort, and his failure, to reconcile contradictory elements of his faith by writing “Boxers & Saints.” “Sometimes the tension is OK, and you don’t have to resolve it,” he said. “You build a life from things that don’t fit together neatly.” He compared it to a married couple’s fighting comfortably about the same things, over and over, for years. “I think the same thing can happen inside of a person,” he said.

Jamie Fisher is a writer whose work focuses on culture and literary criticism. She is writing a biography of the musician and songwriter Elliott Smith.

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