American Born Chinese: An ‘Avengers’ of Asian talent and mythological heroes

Directed by film-maker Destin Daniel Cretton and actress Lucy Liu, it follows shy Chinese-American teenager Jin Wang, who is trying to fit in at school when he meets a foreign student named Wei Chen.

Alison de Souza

Alison de Souza

The Straits Times


The cast of American Born Chinese at its premiere at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on May 7. PHOTO: AFP

May 18, 2023

LOS ANGELES – Fresh from their history-making double triumphs at the Academy Awards in March, newly minted Oscar winners and Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) co-stars Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan are back together again – this time on the small screen.

They lead the cast of the action-comedy series American Born Chinese, which premieres on Disney+ on May 24 and features an “Avengers” of Asian talent and mythology.

Directed by Asian-American film-maker Destin Daniel Cretton (Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, 2021) and Chinese-American actress Lucy Liu (Charlie’s Angels, 2000 and 2003), it follows shy Chinese-American teenager Jin Wang (Ben Wang), who is trying to fit in at school when he meets a foreign student named Wei Chen (Jim Liu).

Wei Chen turns out to be the son of Sun Wukong, the mythical Monkey King from Chinese mythology, played by Hong Kong action star Daniel Wu.

And the boy embarks on a quest to save his world, his earthly guardian a baseball cap-wearing “auntie” who happens to be the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin (Yeoh).

Jin also goes on a journey of his own to figure out his identity, as do his immigrant parents Simon and Christine, played by Singaporean actor Chin Han and Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann.

The cast and creators of the show – based on Chinese-American cartoonist Gene Luen Yang’s award-winning 2006 graphic novel of the same name – spoke to The Straits Times and other media in Los Angeles earlier this year.

They noted that in Asia, figures such as the Goddess of Mercy and Monkey King are already as iconic and popular as Superman or Spider-Man, so the goal was to put a fresh spin on them while also honouring their cultural roots.

Says Malaysian star Yeoh, 60, who became the first Asian to win the Best Actress Oscar for science-fiction action-comedy film Everything Everywhere All At Once: “The Goddess of Mercy is very well known in our world, but we wanted to make her also relatable in some ways.

“So when she’s on earth, I’m sort of the auntie. And I love the way we changed her look from this goddess into someone wearing sweats and a baseball cap.

“But we were always very respectful because she’s very iconic in our world. We had to be careful of how we did that without taking too much liberty and damaging her persona.”

For creator and showrunner Kelvin Yu, Yeoh was the perfect choice to play Guanyin, a key figure in Buddhism who is venerated across Asia.

“American audiences may not know this, but it’s sort of like casting the Queen of England. You need somebody that has that kind of weight,” says the 43-year-old Chinese-American writer-actor, who appeared in the comedy series Master Of None (2015 to 2021).

“And I don’t know that there’s anybody (other than) Michelle Yeoh who can enter a room and you’re like, ‘I totally believe that’s a goddess.’”

Yu put Yeoh and Wu’s extensive martial arts movie background to use for American Born Chinese’s fight scenes, and he argues that Wukong, in particular, could go toe to toe with the biggest Marvel or DC superheroes.

Jim Liu and Michelle Yeoh in action-comedy series American Born Chinese. PHOTO: DISNEY+

Daniel Wu plays the mythical Monkey King from Chinese mythology in American Born Chinese. PHOTO: DISNEY+

“The Monkey King, if you don’t know, is like if Batman, Spider-Man and Superman had a baby,” Yu declares.

And all over Asia, “they make Monkey King movies, Monkey King TV shows and lunch boxes. It’s Monkey King all day, every day”.

But while they embraced the cultural specificity of the story, Yu and Cretton also did not want to overexplain certain elements.

Says Cretton, 44: “Whether you know that culture or not, I feel like those specifics are really enticing and lovely, and makes the show that you are watching feel more authentic and real. But whenever you start getting into explaining something for an audience who doesn’t know it, it just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel like it flows.

“We want to treat our audiences like they are smart, because when we do our test screenings, we realise that they actually are. They don’t want to be talked down to.”

Michelle Yeoh plays the Goddess of Mercy while Jim Liu is Wei Chen, son of Monkey King Sun Wukong, in American Born Chinese. PHOTO: DISNEY+

Wu and Yeoh say they felt a special camaraderie working on American Born Chinese, which brought together talent from many backgrounds and countries.

Yeoh rose to fame in the 1990s after starring in a series of Hong Kong action films in which she performed her own stunts, such as Yes, Madam (1985), Magnificent Warriors (1987), Police Story 3: Supercop (1992), The Heroic Trio (1993) and Holy Weapon (1993).

Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh with the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Everything Everywhere All At Once during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on April 18. PHOTO: AFP

After moving to the United States, she gained international recognition for her impressive moves in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), Lee Ang’s martial arts classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and, most recently, the Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings.

Meanwhile, Wu, 48, is the California-born Chinese-American star of Hong Kong action films such as Gen-X Cops (1999) and New Police Story (2004), as well as the American martial arts drama Into The Badlands (2015 to 2019).

He and Yeoh, he says, have both “worked in Asian and Western productions, but we’ve never worked in one that felt like a family”.

He had always felt like an outsider working in Hong Kong and China because he was born in the US, while in Western productions, he was often the only Asian on set.

Daniel Wu has starred in films such as Gen-X Cops (1999), New Police Story (2004) and Into The Badlands (2015 to 2019). PHOTO: AFP

“But when I came to do American Born Chinese, I thought, ‘Oh, this is my family. This is my tribe.’

“You felt a belonging, and I never felt that before in my 20something years of working in the business.”

The series also switches gears to examine Asian-American identity and Hollywood’s problematic depiction of the community in the past.

Jin and his schoolmates watch viral clips from a 1990s sitcom featuring a buffoonish character named Freddy Wong (Quan), who embodies a stereotype many people would find offensive today.

Ke Huy Quan plays a buffoonish character named Freddy Wong in American Born Chinese. PHOTO: DISNEY+

Playing him brought up uncomfortable memories of Quan’s own bumpy trajectory through Hollywood, says the Vietnamese-American star, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Yeoh’s character’s meek and goofy time-jumping husband in Everything Everywhere All At Once.

Freddy Wong was inspired in part by early acting jobs Yu took in Hollywood, when he was asked to do a heavy Chinese accent or typecast as a nerd.

Quan, 51, had similar experiences, and this was why playing such a clownish alter ego in American Born Chinese “scared the heck out of me”, and felt like it was “putting a mirror up” to himself.

“But I realised it was important to show the audience today what it was like to be an Asian actor back in the late 1980s and the early 1990s,” says the performer, who as a child found overnight fame in adventure films Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984) and The Goonies (1985).

Ke Huy Quan won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Yeoh’s character’s meek and goofy time-jumping husband in Everything Everywhere All At Once. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Quan thinks it may trigger some viewers, though. “Some people are going to be very angry with it, some are going to think it’s funny. When I was on set playing this character, I went through that range of emotions. But it’s a conversation that needs to be had,” he says.

American Born Chinese premieres on Disney+ on May 24.

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