Why Ke Huy Quan's American Born Chinese Character Had To Be Changed From The Book [NYCC]

In 2021, Disney announced that "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" and "Avengers: The Kang Dynasty" director Destin Daniel Cretton would be adapting Gene Luen Yang's seminal Asian American graphic novel "American Born Chinese" along with showrunner Kelvin Yu for Disney+. Shortly after the announcement was made, they started to assemble the cast by adding talent such as Ben Wang ("Sex Appeal") and Daniel Wu ("Into the Badlands").

All five men gathered at this year's New York Comic Con to talk about the upcoming series in front of an engaged and excited crowd at the Main Stage. They spoke on a variety of topics such as the themes of the show, their approach to the martial arts action, and the other incredible actors that rounded out the cast.

But when the panel began to talk about one performer in particular, that also meant that they had to address one of the biggest challenges of adapting Yang's original story into a different medium. The actor is the celebrated "Everything Everywhere All At Once" star Ke Huy Quan, who many grew up watching in "The Goonies" and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." The challenge is a character from the source material named Chin-Kee.

During the panel, Yang spoke about the difficulty around including Chin-Kee in the show. The character, named after a racial slur, is prominently featured in one third of the book and was constructed by "taking all of the stereotypes that have haunted me and my community throughout my entire life." However, some readers missed the point of the character and even approached the comic creator about Chin-Kee merch. So whenever the topic of an adaptation came up, Yang "was worried that I'd find clips of this character on YouTube completely decontextualized."

Beyond Repair

When Yu approached Yang with his pitch, he had an idea to alter the character in a way that stayed true to the message of the source material while updating it for a more modern audience. And that's where Quan comes in. The panelists revealed that the actor would be playing a character named Freddy Wong, who was the star of a '90s sitcom called "Beyond Repair" that is being rebooted in the world of the new version of "American Born Chinese."

In the clip shown to those in attendance, we got to see the "Full House"-esque opening credits sequence for "Beyond Repair" when Wang's character Jin decides to watch a classic episode on TV to see why it's being revived. We also got to see a scene featuring the problematic character that Freddy Wong was playing back in the day, complete with an over-the-top accent and all the worst stereotypes of Asians in the media.

However, as Yu put it, "[Freddy Wong is] a pretty important part of the puzzle. It might be the most important part." He elaborates further:

"It struck me that this character could be in a TV setting by being reprocessed or reimagined as a racist character on a TV show from the late 90s. And if you see Jin, he was watching TV. But more importantly than just the clip, we cut to Jin looking at his dad asleep. And so you're juxtaposing the image you're being fed of who he is to America at large with the reality of his dad who works all day and sacrifices so much for him. So those two things together is actually the point."

A new approach

After saying that it was a childhood dream for many involved to be working with Ke Huy Quan, Cretton pointed out that "there obviously is a meta quality for [Quan] to play a role like this, but the primary reason is that he's really a talented actor." He went to say that Freddy Wong's journey goes "much deeper" following this introduction in the series. 

As someone who is a big fan of the book, I look forward to seeing how this change alters the story because, as the author pointed out, something definitely had to change if the story was going to be adapted. Plus, it's great to see the Quan-aissance continue. And it's even greater to see it happen thanks to this incredibly creative take on the caricature that appears in Yang's acclaimed book. It'll be very interesting to see how Freddy Wong plays into Jin's coming-of-age story when the eight-episode series finally premieres on Disney+ in 2023.