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'American Born Chinese' is a window into what's changed for the community

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

"American Born Chinese" opens with the beginning of a new school year for Jin Wang. He's a Chinese American teen who just wants to be a normal high school student, playing on the JV soccer team and flirting with his crush until he is pulled out of class and introduced to a new student.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN BORN CHINESE")

BEN WANG: (As Jin Wang) What's going on?

JIMMY LIU: (As Wei-Chen, speaking Mandarin).

WANG: (As Jin Wang) Oh, so sorry. My Chinese isn't super-good.

LIU: (As Wei-Chen) Oh.

JENNIFER IRWIN: (As Principal Finney) Well, this is Wang Chung.

LIU: (As Wei-Chen) Wei-Chen.

IRWIN: (As Principal Finney) He's a new student, and he's Chinese like you.

WANG: (As Jin Wang) OK.

CHANG: The two get off to a bit of a rocky start, but Jin soon realizes that his new friend, Wei-Chen, isn't just any foreign exchange student. He is actually from a supernatural realm. His dad is the powerful, mythical Chinese figure known as the Monkey King.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN BORN CHINESE")

LIU: (As Wei-Chen) He lives in heaven. His name is Sun Wukong. He's the Monkey King.

WANG: (As Jin Wang) OK, cool.

LIU: (As Wei-Chen) Jin, wait. I know it's hard to believe, but it's real.

CHANG: This show, "American Born Chinese," was adapted for Disney from the 2006 graphic novel of the same title. It was written and illustrated by Gene Luen Yang.

GENE LUEN YANG: "American Born Chinese" the book is set in the vague '80s, '90s, which matches my own childhood.

CHANG: And in it, he tackles racist stereotypes of Asian people. So a warning - our discussion of those racist stereotypes will include a racial slur. Yang, who's also an executive producer on the show, says that the creative team decided to set the TV series in the present-day 2020s rather than in the past, which meant that the show had to differ quite a bit from the original book.

YANG: The conversation about Asian Americans, about race in general, has changed from then until now. One of the hopes is that, you know, if you read the book and you also watch the show - that the differences will say something about what's changed for us as a community.

CHANG: Including the way anti-Asian racism shows up in our everyday lives now. One of the biggest changes they made was how the show portrayed one particular character. In the graphic novel, the character is this amalgamation of a bunch of racist stereotypes of Chinese people. He has narrow eyes, buck teeth, a braid. He speaks with an over-the-top accent, and he has an intentionally offensive name, Chin-Kee. I asked Gene Luen Yang why he wanted to create such an exaggerated, racist character for his book all those years ago.

YANG: I would trace the origins of that character to my senior year English class in high school. We did a unit on satire. You know, we read "A Modest Proposal," and I was kind of struck by the power that satire has to critique society. And you're right. He is intentionally offensive. He was the embodiment of all of these ideas about who I was, who we are, that have haunted me since I was a kid, you know? And in a lot of ways, doing that portion of the book, drawing that character on paper, was kind of like an exorcism. So by the end of the book, I actually have this this panel where I take off his head. And there was just something very, very satisfying about drawing that panel. And in fact, that character was one of the reasons - one of the big reasons why I was so hesitant for so long.

CHANG: Yeah, tell me why 'cause I read that that character was part of the reason you didn't want to adapt the book for screens.

YANG: Yeah.

CHANG: Why?

YANG: Yeah, I was kind of freaked out. I was freaked out that if that character ever made it onto the screen, decontextualized clips of that character would show up on social media, and it would be the exact opposite of what I was trying to do with the book, you know? I feel like in the book, I have enough pages to make it very clear that I'm working within the confines of satire. But once it's released, I was freaked out that people would just clip it.

CHANG: Right, make ubiquitous this totally offensive character. But...

YANG: Yeah, that's right.

CHANG: Let me ask you about the solution that the TV series team came up with because Chin-Kee takes on a totally different form in the show. Instead, his name is Freddy Wong. He's a character from, like, a '90s sitcom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEYOND REPAIR THEME")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) Beyond repair.

CHANG: Freddy Wong is himself a stereotype.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN BORN CHINESE")

KE HUY QUAN: (As Freddy Wong) Ah, yes. Oh, Mr. Henderson, rest in peace. He have gone to meet his Maytag.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: This character is a short man, has a bowl haircut, wears dorky clothes, always gets bonked on the head.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN BORN CHINESE")

QUAN: (As Freddy Wong) As my wise ancestors say, what could go Wong?

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

CHANG: Why did you feel the Freddy Wong character was the way to adapt the Chin-Kee character for a TV screen?

YANG: Yeah, we needed a character that represented those stereotypes that have haunted us, you know? So it was a conversation between Melvin Mar, another executive producer, Kelvin Yu, who ended up being the showrunner, and me. And a lot of that came out of Kelvin's own experience. So what Kelvin did, which I thought was brilliant, was first, he took the fear that I had about this cousin character getting decontextualized and showing up on social media - he took that fear, and he made it a plot point in the very first episode. And then the second thing he did was he took that cousin character, and he kind of fed it through his own experience as an Asian American actor in Hollywood. And out came Freddy Wong.

CHANG: But was there a fear that Freddy Wong would also then be taken out of context and turn into some real-life meme just like he did in the TV show?

YANG: Yeah, that's right. I think what we're hoping is that because that happens in the television show and because it happens in the very first episode that the story itself will teach the audience how to think about characters like that.

CHANG: Right.

YANG: Like, in the story itself, you actually see the impact of those images on the main character and on his feelings and his relationship towards his family.

CHANG: When your graphic novel came out back in 2006, could you have imagined it becoming this huge TV series from a major studio?

YANG: No.

CHANG: Like...

YANG: No.

CHANG: What are you processing right now?

YANG: No, it's - my life has been really strange. When the book came out in 2006, there just wasn't a lot of interest in adapting it to the screen. I think people were worried about whether a mostly Asian cast would be able to carry a show, you know? And there was some talk about adapting it as an animated series because if you did that, then you can at least get some big-name non-Asian actors to voice some of the characters. That was the thought.

CHANG: Interesting.

YANG: So to go from a world like that to now, where you have a studio like Disney willing to invest in a show that has not just a majority Asian cast but - it's a show where a significant amount of the dialogue is delivered in Mandarin. You know, that's - it's a completely different world now.

CHANG: Times have changed. So what do you hope for kids like Jin, who are from Asian immigrant families? What do you hope that they will take away from watching a TV show like this?

YANG: Part of my growing up experience is accepting my own heritage, you know, accepting the history of me and my family and seeing the things that used to embarrass me as a kid as a strength, as - those things are things that I ought to be proud of. And I hope anybody who watches - they are able to see the things that are difficult in their lives that they might even find embarrassing as gifts.

CHANG: I love that. Well, I hope that lesson does imprint. Gene Luen Yang is the executive producer and graphic novel author behind the new TV series "American Born Chinese." Thank you so much for being with us. I so enjoyed this, Gene.

YANG: Yeah, thank you. It was really an honor and a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF WENDY WANG'S "PLAN TO ATTACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
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