Chin-Kee — the startling caricature of a negative stereotypical Chinese in Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel “American Born Chinese” — was the biggest dilemma series creator Kelvin Yu faced in adapting the novel into a Disney series.
The fictional character symbolizes the harmful stereotypes reflected in the racist nature of American pop culture in the past. In Yang’s novel, Chin-Kee was depicted as an embarrassing cousin who other characters wished to avoid as much as possible.
“The cousin character is the most controversial part of the book,” Yang tells NextShark. “He is purposely offensive. He’s the embodiment of all of the negative stereotypes that many of us Asian Americans grew up with, so to move that onto screen on Disney+ really was difficult.”
Concerned with adapting the caricature for modern audiences, Yu reflected on his own journey in Hollywood as an Asian American actor.
“What Kelvin and his writing team did was they infused Kelvin’s own experience as an Asian American actor. Kelvin’s very first acting job was one where he played a stereotype character named Freddy Gong and that translated into Freddy Wong on our show,” Yang explains.
Yu appeared on Ryan Murphy and Gina Matthews’s American comedy-drama TV series “Popular,” which ran for two seasons on The WB from 1999 to 2001. Freddy Gong emerged in six episodes of the high school teen drama as an unpopular, stereotypical Asian student.
In the series, Wong is a character on “Beyond Repair,” a ‘90s sitcom series that is being rebooted. While the caricature part has been dropped, Wong still appears as a comic-relief character with an exaggerated Asian accent. Wong is played by the actor Jamie Yao, who soon reflects on his past sitcom role, in the fictional world of the “American Born Chinese.”
“I remember when I first heard about this character when I was offered the role, it scared the hell out of me. In fact, I actually passed on it because I told our creative team that this is the type of portrayal that we do not want to see in 2023,” Quan shared at a post-screening Q&A in New York City.
The 51-year-old actor later had a change of heart after discussing the character with Yu’s creative team, noting that Wong is “like art imitating life.”
In light of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Yang hopes that the Asian American community will value the importance of storytelling as he has in creating “American Born Chinese.”
“I hope they see that our stories are important, our stories are a vital part of the fabric of the society and if we have something to say, we should say it,” Yang says.
“It’s visibility,” executive producer Melvin Mar adds. “I think with all that’s happening in our community these days, changing the narrative and reducing the otherness in our community is vital.”
Mar tells NextShark that he has been a fan of Yang’s graphic novel since 2006 and has waited 10 years for it to finally be adapted into a show.
“I have never read anything that sort of spoke to me and stuck with me that much,” Mar says.
After Mar met Yang on a panel that their mutual friend was hosting at the time, Yang eventually welcomed the idea.
“He called me two months later and said, ‘I think I’m ready to do this,’” Mar shares.
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