Ben Wang: Disney’s ‘American Born Chinese’ perfect metaphor for Asian American experience


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Sydney Taylor and Ben Wang's "American Born Chinese" premieres Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Disney+

Sydney Taylor and Ben Wang’s “American Born Chinese” premieres Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Disney+

NEW YORK, May 24 (UPI) — Ben Wang says his new Disney+ action-dramedy, American Born Chinese, accurately captures the pressures many Asian American youths experience in real life.

“It really did feel like you had to experience all of the triumphs and hardships and awkwardness of the regular American teenager experience and then, on top of that, it just feels like there is this extra stuff that you have to deal with,” Wang told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.

“I think that’s so wonderfully made into metaphor by this idea of the fantastical coming into his life,” he said. “In the same way that, for me, I was like, ‘I just want to do my school play, but my mom wants me to go to an erhu concert.'”

Based on the graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, the series premieres on Wednesday and follows Jin Wang (Wang), a teenager trying to fit in at his high school against the wishes of his more traditional parents (Yeo Yann Yann and Chin Han).

He then meets Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), a Chinese immigrant with a secret: he is the son of the mythical Monkey King (Daniel Wu) and needs Jin’s help.

Sydney Taylor plays Jin’s love interest, Amelia, while newly minted Oscar winners Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan play pivotal supporting roles.

“‘Fifteen and awkward,’ I feel like, is a universal experience for pretty much everyone, except for one person,” Taylor said, indicating Amelia.

“Apparently, she didn’t have an awkward day, which was infuriating,” the actress joked. “But, I learned a ton from her. She’s a very healthy person. She discusses her feelings. She is communicative, open, kind.”

Wang added, “She’s everything I aspire to be.”

The actor went on to describe his character, Jin, as “the average American teen.”

“That, in itself, is kind of a message. He’s Asian American, but look at him! He’s the average American teen,” Wang said.

“He wants to join the sports team and talk to his crush without tripping over his shoelaces like every other teen.

“But, at the same time, he has all of these extra burdens that stem from the fact that Oscar-winning actress Michelle Yeoh keeps crashing through his ceiling and telling him he needs to go found a cow demon.”

Taylor said she expects viewers will find something to connect to on the show, which explores themes of duty, family and acceptance.

“I hope they take away some form of relatability, whether that is to the Asian American experience or feeling lonely,” she said. “Whatever it is for them, I hope they feel seen and understood.”

Wang said he wants people to be swept away by the story.

“I hope they have a lot of fun. I hope they are thoroughly entertained,” he said. “I feel really proud. I’m the face on the poster, but I’m just a small part of this huge, huge endeavor. There are like 1,000 people working at the top of their game.”

Yang, who serves as an executive producer on the show, feels it captures the spirit of his book about an insecure young man finding himself, while also opening up the world he created to new possibilities.

“We made two decisions early on. One was that it wasn’t going to be a movie, it was going to be a television series, which is open-ended so we needed the world of the television series to be expanded, whereas the book was a finite thing,” the author said.

“The second choice we made was to move the time period of the story from the 1980s, when the book was set, to the 2020s. The conversation about who we are as a community, who Asian Americans are, has changed, so we needed that to be changed.”

Executive producer Melvin Mar said he has been a fan of Yang’s book since he first read it in 2006 and tried for years to convince Yang to let him adapt it as a film or TV series.

“It wasn’t until 10 years later that we met on a panel [discussion], and we hit it off. He said, ‘I think I’m ready to do this now,'” Mar said.

Kelvin Yu came onboard to write and produce the show.

“I just love what these two guys have done, which is take this graphic novel and moved it into a new medium, which is a television show and managed to make it a very personal story — there are personal themes throughout the whole thing — but infused it with these big action sequences and spectacle of an epic television show,” Mar said.

The filmmaker said he hopes family members of all ages can watch the show and enjoy it together.

“Daniel Wu and I talk about it all the time. Our daughters are the same age and I just love that we worked on something and we can sit there with them and our mothers and all watch it together,” Mar said.

The fact that two of their cast members picked up Oscars for their performances in Everything Everywhere All At Once after filming American Born Chinese was “pretty crazy, pretty wild,” he added.

“We won the casting lottery,” he said. “It couldn’t have happened to better people and it’s really, really exciting.”



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