“But at the heart of it is the story of a kid trying to figure out his identity”: Inside the American Born Chinese panel at NYCC '22
The cast and creators of American Born Chinese discuss the legacy of the acclaimed graphic novel and what it's been like adapting it
An enthusiastic crowd took their seats at the Main Stage of the Javits Center on Friday afternoon during New York Comic Con 2022 for the American Born Chinese panel, hyping the upcoming Disney+ streaming series based on the acclaimed 2006 graphic novel of the same name by Gene Luen Yang.
Following a brief teaser interspersing clips of the show with commentary from the cast and crew (including star Michelle Yeoh, who did not appear onstage but garnered spirited applause every time she appeared onscreen), panel moderator Juju Chang (best known as an anchor on ABC News’ Nightline) introduced the panelists: executive producer and director Destin Daniel Cretton, cartoonist and executive producer Gene Luen Yang, showrunner Kelvin Wu, and actors Ben Wang and Daniel Wu, who star as Jin Wang and 'Monkey King' Sun Wukong, respectively.
The panel’s admiration for Gene Luen Yang, and their respect for the graphic novel he created which serves as the show’s source material, was evident throughout. “American Born Chinese is a seminal work of literature… there comes a time when TV and film is ready to make the thing. The special effects were ready. The stunt coordination was ready. The audience was ready. And then came this guy named Destin, who’s pretty good with a camera,” Kelvin Wu said jokingly of the Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings director. “But at the heart of it is the story of a kid trying to figure out his identity.”
Despite the praise, Gene Luen Yang remained charmingly humble. “That [MacArthur Genius Grant] did not get me out of doing the dishes!” he laughed, before reflecting upon how far he’s come as a creator. “I started American Born Chinese about five years into my comics career. I put ‘career’ in quotes because back then, my career was drawing a comic, taking it to Kinko’s, running it off, and selling it by hand at conventions. If I sold like 12 — my mom and 11 other people would have it — I’d consider it a success! But I’d do these stories with Asian American characters in them, but their cultural heritage never played an important part of the story. So that’s what the book is. I wanted to center the Asian American experience. From there to now, having it as a show on Disney+... I feel like I have to pinch myself to remind myself it’s real.”
Cretton echoed Yang’s emphasis on strong representation. “The main thing that attracted me to this project was the authenticity of the script… it’s hard to find out what’s authentic and capture it correctly.” He added that the need for authenticity is reflected in the care put into the action scenes too, with several crew members brought in from mainland China who come from the region’s rich world of martial arts cinema. “Kung fu isn’t just punching and kicking… there’s a true art to it.”
Daniel Wu, who was born and raised in the United States but became a star in Hong Kong cinema, talked at length about the lack of opportunities (at least opportunities that didn’t involve racist stereotypes) for Asian-American actors early in his career. He first became aware of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel through his nieces and nephews, so when he was offered the role of The Monkey King in a show that offered nuanced representation for Asian characters he said yes “immediately.”
Ben Wang, who plays the teenage protagonist Jin Yang, had a similar reaction upon being given the script prior to his audition. “I never read anything like this before.” As a newcomer to the acting world, he also expressed awe at seeing a clip in which he appears that was shown mid-panel. “I’m sorry, this is only like my second time seeing that scene, and it’s so cool. That’s me.”
As the conversations played out throughout the rest of the panel, the conversation went into some serious directions, including the rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans in recent years. “2016 was not an easy America to come back to,” Daniel Wu said. “We had a president who embraced open racism.”
However, Kelvin Wu assured fans that despite the serious themes American Born Chinese explores, the focus is still on producing an entertaining coming-of-age story with plenty of kung fu action. “[The panel] sounds a little like a TED talk, but it’s really a comedy,” he said. “I wrote on Bob’s Burgers… I farted on people for five years!”
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