When it comes to entertainment, I believe we’re all subconsciously searching for characters or plot lines we can relate to — something you can watch and say to yourself, “that’s so me.”
In animation, there were no expectations of characters that resembled myself; after all, what could anyone, regardless of race, possibly have in common with a sponge living in the ocean or a magical dog?
At least, that’s what I thought before stumbling upon “We Bare Bears.”
The popular Cartoon Network series follows the adventures of a grizzly bear, panda bear, and a polar bear. At first glance, it may be difficult to see why such a show would gain so much popularity among the Asian American communities, but upon closer examination, the show contains deeper messages of representation and belonging as a minority – something most Asian American children are far too familiar with.
The show, in many ways, is the first of its kind. It unapologetically showcases and simultaneously normalizes Asian culture through their references to Panda’s love for K-pop and K-dramas, the Bears’ regular trips to their favorite boba shop, and Ice Bear’s impressive ability to speak fluent Korean and cook traditional Korean dishes.
As Daniel Chong, the creator of “We Bare Bears,” led me through their office at the Cartoon Network studios in Southern California, we passed by a massive shelf with various bears merchandise from all across the world as well as a wall of fame for all of the celebrity guests who have been on the show. We stopped by the picture of T-Pain. “He actually has a tattoo of Panda on his hand,” Daniel told me. After seeing an Instagram post of T-Pain’s “We Bare Bears” tattoo, Daniel reached out to the rapper via Twitter about being on the show and the rest, as they say, is history.
I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought, but I was also amazed by his story. While the bears are struggling as outcasts on the show, they certainly were becoming celebrities of their own out in the real world.
As we made our way to his office, it became more and more difficult to imagine a time when these three bear brothers once belonged to a very small part of the internet, as a webcomic series called “The Three Bare Bears.”
“Well it started with my girlfriend’s niece who is the inspiration for Chloe, I actually created the show with her,” Daniel explained. “She was like 10 at the time and we were in the library and I was just doodling and the bears came out of that doodle session where I was just messing around trying to get her to laugh — her real name is Jamie but Chloe’s the name of her sister so I just kind of did a mash of the two, and she’s Korean.”
According to Daniel, Jamie is now in college. “The real life Chloe, does she watch the show?” I asked.
“Oh yeah and I think she tells people that she’s Chloe but nobody believes her,” he said as we both started laughing.
“I needed an outlet when I was working in feature animation so [the original webcomic] ‘Three Bare Bears’ became an outlet where I could write whatever I wanted in any tone, in any age group — it was just like stream of consciousness writing.”
Over several years, the idea of the bears evolved from being a collection of doodles, to a fun webcomic series that was written for no one in particular, to an animated series made for everyone — no matter their age, race or gender.
When the bears took to TV screens across the world, their characters and plot lines became more complex through incorporating themes surrounding Asian pop culture as well as experiences drawn from Daniel’s personal life.
The show’s frequent use of hip hop, R&B music and basketball are all references to his interests. “The show is super personal and it’s really everything that I love and who I am, it’s been kind of encapsulated in the show,” he said.
Despite not being Korean himself, the Singaporean-Chinese animator has also included countless references to Korean culture in his show. “I mean, K-pop culture and everything started hitting America like pretty big and even my office workers, they all really love K-dramas and K-pop and stuff like that. I’m not immune to it either, I watch it when I can, so those things all kind of just started playing a big role into the show,” Daniel said.
And fortunately, Cartoon Network gave him the creative freedom to carry out his vision. “When we wanted to put Korean in the episode, they didn’t force us to put subtitles or curb it a little bit, I think they understood what we were trying to do,” he said, praising the channel. “Like the first time we put Korean in the episode was when Chloe’s parents met the bears but the bears didn’t understand what they were saying. The audience is supposed to be a little bit alienated from the scene, that was the point.”
“It has been a joy to be able to put these really specific cultural things into the show,” Daniel said. “I guess I didn’t realize it mattered. I definitely didn’t go into this show understanding the impact it would have on the Asian American community.”
Although he couldn’t have anticipated the amount of love and support the show would receive from the Asian community, the desire to create a show that was an allegory for living as an outsider in America was always a central theme for the bears.
The characters Grizz, Panda and Ice Bear all have their own ways of existing and coping as outcasts as well as their own sets of flaws to make them more human. While the oldest brother, Grizz is extroverted and constantly attempting to come up with new ways to make friends, phone-addict Panda is the classic introverted middle child. His struggles with social situations and dating life — or lack there of — make him the most flawed of the three and therefore, the more relatable. Ice Bear on the other hand is the quiet, youngest sibling that no one really pays attention to but what he lacks in speech, he makes up for through his unlimited talent, from cooking and speaking several languages to table tennis and martial arts.
“The messages about these bears trying to fit into human society, I always imagined that was what I experienced as an Asian American,” Daniel explained. “But I think the reality is that everyone’s all trying to do that same thing, just in a different way, you know?”
“So in a way, we are pretty united in this desire to feel like we’re a part of this world,” he added.
The desire to belong and be represented has become an integral part of the Asian American identity. After all, there has never been a period in American cinematic history when there was an abundance of Asian leaders in the entertainment industry.
Daniel was aware of the significance of positive representation and normalizing Asian culture. “Seeing an Asian person on screen in general is important because it really validates your existence in a lot of ways,” he said. “Also, not treating it like everyone’s pointing out that you’re a different kind of character, but just making it like you’re just one of the masses.”
He also took this into consideration when deciding on other general aspects of his show. Setting the series in San Francisco was a deliberate choice made by Daniel to ensure the show would take place in a diverse setting. “There’d be all kinds of different races in the background, but we never draw attention to it, it was just part of the landscape.”
“One of the reasons I really wanted to create my own show is I really wanted to take control of my career,” he continued.
“I felt like, the industry at the time didn’t really have a whole lot to offer me that I was relating to or that I was really connecting with. And I realized, you know, waiting around to get a chance to direct was just not going to work for me.”
And since he made this leap to creating his own series, the show’s success has taken him all over the world to meet dedicated fans. He recalled a funny moment he had on his trip to China:
“They were asking me like, ‘Who do you think is the most famous bear here in China?’ And I said, well, I mean I didn’t want to be cliched, but I was like, ‘Panda probably because you guys are from China,’ and they said, ‘No, it’s Ice Bear.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, why is that?'”
“And they said — this is the most Asian answer — ‘It’s because Ice Bear is really talented. He’s really good at what he does and we all aspire to be him,'” he said as we both laughed.
“I guess we all want to pretend we’re Ice Bear when really, we’re closer to Panda,” I commented.
“It’s funny because everyone in the crew, we all pretty much are Panda, myself included,” Daniel added.
“We Bare Bears” is far from your ordinary children’s cartoon. “We make it for ourselves and kids are just kind of along for the ride, you know?” Daniel tells me. Despite each episode being only 11 minutes long, Daniel and his team of creative writers manage to pack plenty of both light-hearted humor and slightly heavier, emotional elements into these short time periods.
Although he can’t pick a favorite episode, there were definitely a few that he felt were especially important for the show:
“There was an episode we did called ‘Burrito’ in season one. I think one of the things that felt really important to me when we were writing it was, we had to cover an emotional twist at the end of the episode. And to me, it felt really important if we could pull that off because to me, it was the first time I think in our show that we showed that there was a little bit more emotional depth to our characters in our show,” he explained.
“It also helped you love Grizz more because I think he’s traditionally a character that is tougher for people to like, he’s a little more aggressive and talks a lot and I think that can turn off a lot of people. But I knew that if this episode worked, that people would love him and sympathize with him.”
The team of writers and animators at “We Bare Bears” seem to share a strong bond, and to Daniel, this collaboration is one of the most rewarding parts of the job. “Just being able to work with them and be inspired by them every day is just pretty amazing,” he says.
They’ve also had their fair share of funny moments and ideas for the show during their interactions. “One of our writers had a really funny idea, I think Mikey Heller came up with the joke, that the baby bears someday will meet the adult bears and you’ll find out the whole time they were actually two different sets of bears the whole time, ” he said bursting into laughter. “But no, that’s not true.”
With the show’s popularity growing day by day, it’s safe to say “We Bare Bears” likely isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
“Would you ever consider making a ‘We Bare Bears’ movie one day?” I asked before leaving the office.
He paused to think, “One day, if we do end up doing a movie, we think we’re ready. Yeah, we’d be ready for it.”