The D23 Expo may be near its end, but that doesn’t mean the news cycle has stopped. While ot the press line, The Nerds of Color had the chance to talk to Ben Wang and Daniel Wu, the stars of the upcoming Disney+ original series, American Born Chinese.
While the two talked about the impact of authenticity and the importance of bringing artists who have lived the experience, they also shared their excitement to bring kung fu, Chinese mythology, and Asian American representation to the streaming platform.
Based on the Gene Luen Yang graphic novel of the same name, American Born Chinese follows Jin Wang (Ben Wang), an ABC struggling with his school life and home life, as he meets a new foreign exchange student at his school, leading him to become involved in a battle between Gods of Chinese mythology.
The graphic novel is complex though very engaging as it addresses themes of identity, friendship, and love through the lens of an Asian American teenager. But the twist is that they bring mythology and cultural specificity into the show to give it some nuance and shine a light on the importance of having more on-screen representation for marginalized communities.
“Yeah, I’m so excited. I think I, you know, the creative team on this project is it’s like a who’s who of like, you know, the most incredible Asian American artists in the industry and getting to work with them and watching them work,” Wang said. “And you know, working on this project, it was so exciting. And yeah, I’m just, I just want them to watch it.”
As for the creative team behind the project, Wang saw how much the writers cared about giving audiences the chance to see themselves in these stories while also connecting with audiences with other resonating stories.
“I’m just excited for this show is it’s very smartly written. The care that the writers put into every script is so apparent, the first time I read them, and I think it, it brings a level of I mean, it’s while it’s a really entertaining show, it’s a whole lot of fun,” Wang said. “There’s Kung Fu, you know, but I think at its very core, it’s a really thoughtful show about examining the Asian American identity. And that I think, is something unique, that I’m really excited for people to see and start talking about.”
And what is it about the show that distinguishes itself from others?
“In one way, it’s really easy, because all I have to do is just be myself,” said Wang. “I mean, seriously, like I was talking to Gene, you know, the writer of the graphic novel, like on the first day of shooting and he said, ‘did you have to do a lot of research for this role?’ And like, as as a good actor, I wanted to be like, ‘yes, of course,’ right? But the truth is, I saw the script, I read it, and I was like, I already understand everything about this character. And that’s something that’s never happened. Right? The instant like familiarity that comes from the fact that it’s written by people who have lived that experience and understand that want to tell that’s all that’s all I ever asked for.”
While adapting a beloved title, especially one that speaks to an audience like American Born Chinese, is a daunting task, Daniel Wu, who plays the Monkey King, believes that everyone will be pleased with what Charles Yu and Kelvin Yu, who are writing the series, have come up with.
“I think people that are fans of the graphic novel are going to be really pleasantly surprised with this,” said Wu. “I mean, obviously, we had to adapt it to this big screen. A lot. A lot of people grew up with this book, like my nephews in their 20s, they grew up with this book. And it was so iconic for them to be able to see a story about their life, like being Asian American, growing up in a way high school and feeling, you know, there’s somebody telling their story out there was a really important, and able to put that on screen now and share it with even bigger audiences. Like even more important to all that is really important to me, but also just like, as a Chinese culture that we’re getting to share whether it’s the world like introducing the monkey cage, everybody like an Asia, everyone knows what the monkey hands, right. But in Western culture, they don’t. So they’re gonna see this character and hear me hopefully, I did a good job. And then people think he’s cool.”
And to bring American Born Chinese, a streaming series written and directed by an Asian American crew, was something Wu never thought he would see but is glad is happening because it is something that he would have wanted to watch growing up in the ’80s.
“It’s really important to me, because I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s,” Wu said. “And there was no representation, right. And so to be able to see it slowly change over time, to the point where we are now where, you know, an Asian American production crew, like, this is all Asian American, this this group, right? To see that, like, 10 years ago, I never thought that would happen, you know, and to see that as really positive, it’s enlightening. And it’s great showing that even though there’s a lot of conflict going on, right now that we are changing.”
And Wu reflected on the importance of having those Asian artists, the ones who have lived those experiences, tell those stories so that Asian Americans can see themselves in these characters.
“[It’s] super important because only we know what’s right and wrong,” right?” said Wu. “And so if you do an Asian story, but leave it up to, you know, white people to do it, there’s so much that can go wrong with that. And so their habits they’re telling us our stories to share with a wider audience is so important.”
As to what fans should be excited about when watching American Born Chinese, Wu adds that while the themes of identity are important, there’s also a lot of cultural nuance and fun fight scenes to expect.
“I’m excited to see how like non Asian audiences take the characters like Monkey King played by me, Guanyin played by Michelle Yeoh. We’ve got piggy we’ve got all these like mythological characters that come to earth and help those character you know, and so I’m very interested to see how they interpret those characters and if they adopt them as their own favorite characters as well. Because like monkey king is like every kid in Asia knows about Monkey King. Everyone loves that I grew up with it. Right and to have like another generation of kids, or even like white kids, you know, kids, black kids, love that character. That’d be great because it’s spreading the love even more. That’s it well.”
No release date has been set, but American Born Chinese will make its debut exclusively on Disney+