American Born Chinese Author Shares Why He Was ‘Resistant’ Of A TV Adaptation For A Decade

 Michelle Yeoh, Jim Liu in American Born Chinese
Michelle Yeoh, Jim Liu in American Born Chinese

Among May’s Disney+ releases is the fantastical coming-of-age series American Born Chinese. The latest TV series from the streaming service stars the likes of Oscar winners Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, amongst a predominantly Asian cast and crew. American Born Chinese had to start somewhere and that place was the mind of Gene Luen Yang. As the graphic novel writer and cartoonist recalled to CinemaBlend, when he first created panels for the story inspired by Chinese folklore, he was just ”making it for my friends” without an ambition in the world that it would become the series it is today.

Yang shared that American Born Chinese started at a self-published comic that he’d draw and send off to Kinkos to print up copies and staple by hand before it was published in 2006 and went on to win an Eisner Award. During our interview with the author, he shared that he had no idea it could ever be among Hollywood’s upcoming book adaptations and why it took a decade to agree to hand it over to showrunners. In Yang’s words:

A lot of it was because I was afraid. I was very resistant for a very long time to adapting the book to a television series. Because, I was worried that some of the issues that I talked about in the book would actually get undermined by the adaptation. And, it wasn't until I met Melvin [Mar], and Melvin introduced me to Kelvin Yu, the eventual showrunner of the series that I felt like, oh, these guys kind of understood what I wanted to do with the book. And I felt safe with them.

American Born Chinese notably tackles themes of American stereotypes for Chinese and other Asian people. The story also follows teen protagonist Jin Wang, who is a Chinese-American who just wants to fit in with the other students in his school when he meets a Wei-Chen Sun, a Taiwanese immigrant who he reluctantly becomes friends with.

American Born Chinese comic strip

The person who ultimately convinced Gene Luen Yang to turn his graphic novel into an imaginative TV series is producer Melvin Mar, who worked on the recent Jumanji movies, Fresh Off the Boat, and fellow Disney+ series Doogie Kamealoha, M.D. Mar shared with us what it took to make the series a reality:

Gene was hesitant. I was on the receiving end from his publisher that he's not interested. And it was like a 10-year journey for me, just like trying to figure out a way to do it. Not every day, but it was one of those ones that I've been lucky enough to work on a ton of things and it's the one that always stuck with me. And I was like, trying to figure it out. When we finally got into a conversation about it, the most important thing to me was making sure that the graphic novel along with Gene [was] an integral part of the whole thing. We were building the team around him and we were able to sort of convince Kelvin to do it. And, Gene and Kelvin are the perfect nucleus for it. Eventually, we added Destin who just elevated it even more. And, then the cast came, and it's been great.

Kelvin Yu is a writer on Bob’s Burgers, who worked with Mar and his brother Charles Yu, who is the author of 2020 award-winning novel Interior Chinatown. While the project took so long to come about, American Born Chinese got together an incredible team including Destin Daniel Cretton, who helped break barriers for Asian representation in film with his movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings alongside Michelle Yeoh. The actress was one of the talents Cretton called up for the series and plays the “Goddess of Mercy,” Guanyin in the series.

You can see the graphic novel come to life with all eight episodes of American Born Chinese, now streaming for those with a Disney+ subscription.