American Born Chinese's TV adaptation is looking to be a farce.

Why Disney’s Changes to ‘American Born Chinese’ Are Disappointing

Normally, I try not to judge a piece of media before it comes out. I try to give the benefit of the doubt that a trailer won’t reveal everything, and that there’s only so much you can glean before a full release. But sometimes, these things end up telling on themselves to obvious degrees. This seems to be the case with Disney+’s adaptation of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, American Born Chinese.

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When this adaptation was first announced, I was stoked. I grew up with this graphic novel and really adored it in my early teens. It put to words various things I was struggling with in my own life, while also weaving three interesting narratives together in a way that was compelling (and fun to look at, of course). Ultimately, American Born Chinese was about the difficulties of being a Chinese kid in a largely white society that is still pretty racist towards Asians in general.

But whatever Disney+ has cooked up for viewers is decidedly not sticking to the source material:

It starts off promisingly enough, yet quickly devolves into the sort of sanitized Disney fare I probably should have seen coming. Isolated teenage boy actually has a greater destiny than he could have possibly imagined—oh, and of course he knows martial arts out of nowhere, because, you know, he’s Chinese. Duh.

Maybe this seems inoffensive to you, but I could barely get through this trailer without feeling a familiar sense of exhaustion. Though Asian American cinema has been having a pretty grand moment as of late, I cannot shake the feeling that this particular adaptation has been warped beyond its original spirit in order to be more palatable for non-Asian viewers. And while yes, we love Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, it is utterly tiresome to see aspects of my heritage being played up in ways that are entirely familiar—regressively so.

American Born Chinese (2006)

**Spoilers for the graphic novel below.**

In the original graphic novel, we are given three stories: the Monkey King’s tale of hubris, White Boy Danny’s terrible experience with his Chinese cousin “Chin-Kee,” and acting as the heart and main thread of the book, Jin Wang’s experience moving from Chinatown, San Francisco, to a suburb where he is only one of three other Asian kids.

The trailer of the show makes it seem as though Jin has always had some grand tie to fate and destiny. No such thing happens in the book. Jin is miserable as he’s torn away from a life where he’s understood, and thrust into a situation where he’s accused of things like eating dogs. His new friend, Wei-Chen, is a constant source of embarrassment for him, because Wei-Chen is unapologetically Taiwanese (yes, Taiwanese—I cannot fathom why they felt the need to change his background, other than Disney trying to placate Chinese distributors), and Jin just wants to be as Americanized as possible.

Much of his story revolves around this attempt to become “all-American.” The most “magical” thing about him is the fact that he is actually Danny, Mr. White Boy Basketball Star, and Danny’s whole arc has been a mental projection on his part. Moreover, Chin-Kee is actually the Monkey King, who’s come down from the heavens to slap some sense into Jin—and enlist his help.

Yes, like in the show trailer, Wei-Chen is actually a magic, divine being. He’s the Monkey King’s son! But we don’t learn this until the very end of the book, where the Monkey King humbles Jin into being a better friend to Wei-Chen. And at this point, Wei-Chen has become a complete and utter tool, who internalized Jin’s rejection and started trying to become more Americanized himself. The book ends on the two boys drinking boba together and laughing.

At no point is Jin enlisted to fight in a conflict of mythic magnitudes. Wei-Chen could care less about his divine duties. He just wants to drink boba and pick up chicks. Disney, what are you smoking????

Disney Born Chinese…? (2023)

One of the executive producers for the TV adaptation is Destin Daniel Cretton, who directed Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Knowing this makes this whole project make more sense, because its vibe fits a project more like Shang-Chi. Shang-Chi was supposed to be bombastic and trope-y, notable and commendable for its elevated representation while still being an easy-to-watch superhero movie.

But if they wanted to keep riding the high that came from Shang-Chi, they couldn’t have picked a more divergent narrative than American Born Chinese. The graphic novel dealt with themes of home, identity, and belonging with strokes of humor and authenticity. It wasn’t meant for white audiences to be able to pick apart and get all googly-eyed at—it was meant to tell a story about being Asian American. They taught this book in schools, for chrissakes.

This trailer doesn’t give us any of that. This trailer gives us a story we’ve seen so many times before: a hidden clash of worlds, an underdog hero, and yes yes yes, a heavy supply of Asian aesthetics and designs to satisfy your streamable appetites (granted, the designers did a fantastic job, so this isn’t a criticism of them). I mean, for the love of god, I adore Michelle Yeoh, but her character isn’t supposed to be in this story at all. She plays Guanyin, a goddess of mercy, who is meant to be Jin’s mentor yet never shows up ONCE in the original book. The closest parallels to her character that actually appear in the source material are Tze-Yo-Tzuh, the progenitor god, and Wong Lai-Tsao, a traveling monk. And both characters aren’t mentors to Jin—they’re mentors to the Monkey King, who in turn is the closest thing to a “mentor” that Jin ever gets.

Bearing all of this in mind, I’m left to wonder one thing: why? Why take a genuine, heartfelt story that meant so much to so many people and turn it into something we’ve seen a million times before?

Model minority money, honey

I wrote many articles about Netflix’s new show Beef because, plainly, I loved it. I ate it up. Even speaking as someone who identifies more as a mixed person than strictly Asian American, I felt more at home watching Beef than while watching any piece of “Asian” media in the last decade or so. Beef succeeded in portraying Asian American realness, at times in ways that might seem uncomfortable or strange to those who wouldn’t understand. Not a lot of media has been bold enough to do this. I ran with my excitement for this show, so thrilled to see what new era of Asian American storytelling it might inspire.

And then, all the controversy surrounding David Choe completely steamrolled this show’s emergent energy. I will not speak more on the subject, because it has been immensely stressful to follow (not even the least because I had a fever that week), and other writers at The Mary Sue have already explained the controversy with great eloquence. What I will say is it frustrated me beyond belief that so many people were willing to write off the show in its entirety because of Choe’s involvement in it. Do I understand why they reacted this way? Of course I do, anyone would. I just hate that this all happened with this show in particular, since its themes are so groundbreaking.

Meanwhile, American Born Chinese is being turned into just another mythic-hero story, when it was originally more like Beef in its spirit of authenticity. I cannot help but feel wary that yet again, the easiest way to “better representation” is to just mash a good story into something that can be an easy summer watch, nothing more, nothing less.

Is this the fault of the actors? The writers? No, it’s more complicated than that. I think a gig is a gig. I think the pressures of the industry make it easy to commodify and process, and I think it’s easier to capitalize on “Asian-ness” in ways that are quick and easy because the whole “model minority” myth lays the groundwork for passive commodification. The myth lies to us and tells us we don’t need better, realer stories. We just need to deliver what the people like, and the people don’t like Asians who get mad and yell and have problems that both are and aren’t related to their Asian-ness. The people like martial arts, underdog teens, and cool CGI effects.

We could have had an earnest show about a young boy accepting his identity and reconnecting with his heritage, despite the pains of racist alienation. By proxy, we could have had a show that told other kids in similar positions that they are seen, and they are not alone. But I guess that just wouldn’t turn enough of a profit for Disney to care. Oh well.

(featured image: First Second Books/Disney+)

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Madeline Carpou
Madeline (she/her) is a staff writer with a focus on AANHPI and mixed-race representation. She enjoys covering a wide variety of topics, but her primary beats are music and gaming. Her journey into digital media began in college, primarily regarding audio: in 2018, she started producing her own music, which helped her secure a radio show and co-produce a local history podcast through 2019 and 2020. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz summa cum laude, her focus shifted to digital writing, where she's happy to say her History degree has certainly come in handy! When she's not working, she enjoys taking long walks, playing the guitar, and writing her own little stories (which may or may not ever see the light of day).

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