Maybe it’s our vantage point from TaiwaneseAmerican.org that allows us to appreciate every product and project – especially a mainstream one like this – as a hard-won triumph, as a member of a lineage where people had doors opened for them, and in turn opened doors for others. As much as “representation” is a buzzy and flashy accomplishment, “opportunity” is its accompanying, more profound feat. We get to celebrate friends who have worked hard, who have overcome doubt and rejection, who have waited patiently for a difficult industry to catch up to their own imaginations.
I think when you’re in lifelong community with other Taiwanese Americans, you see the circumstances that have shaped and challenged them. You know their parents (or know of them), and the concessions they may have made as a family so they could pursue a career in the arts. Or you know how their dads were their best champions, shielding them from the harshest criticisms and patiently chauffeuring them with home-cooked snacks to and from auditions.
We know these stories because we know and love and have been cheering for these people. We celebrate their work for exactly the same reasons.
I was ten years old when Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, American Born Chinese, came out in 2006 and I remember buying the bright yellow paperback at the Taiwanese American Cultural Festival in San Francisco’s Union Square, the same place where I’d purchased Grace Lin’s The Year of the Dog the year prior. As a Taiwanese American growing up in an increasingly rich ecosystem of other Taiwanese Americans, I have been the beneficiary of multi-generational, cross-functional hard work among creatives and their stewards: finding the seed, planting the seed, protecting the seed, funding/watering the seed… it goes on and on.
So many people only see what has flowered; Ho Chie, TaiwaneseAmerican.org’s founder, always reminds me to look for their roots.
In Yang’s 2013 interview with TaiwaneseAmerican.org’s Kristina Lin, Lin asks, “what’s the deal? You’re a computer science grad from UC Berkeley and… a comic artist?”
“That’s the same question my parents had.” Yang laughs. “My dad told me if I majored in something practical, he’d leave me alone. I could do whatever I want. So I did… and true to his word, he left me alone. After programming for a few years, I decided to do two things: I started to teach high school and I started to draw comics.”
Yang’s dad, who is Taiwanese, grew up in poverty and developed a practical mindset that sustained his eventual immigration to the United States. “Growing up, I would butt heads with him a lot,” Yang reflects, “because all I wanted to do was draw cartoons.” As an adult and parent, though, Yang is more empathetic and understanding of his father’s intent. Almost all children of immigrants – probably all children, everywhere – eventually share the coming-of-age epiphany that he articulates: “there doesn’t have to be a dichotomy between what my parents said and what I wanted to do.” He speculates that it may be a part of American culture to find conflict in everything, but this only makes more apparent the role of artists to temper conflict with creativity, to seek connection over critique.
The Disney adaptation is produced by Kelvin Yu, another Taiwanese American and former TAF’er (Taiwanese American Foundation camper). We caught up with him in 2016 to chat about his role as Brian Cheng on Netflix’s hit series Master of None, co-produced by Taiwanese American Alan Yang and comedian Aziz Ansari. “I think the immigrant experience tends to be feast or famine in entertainment.” he said. “It tends to be either all about the immigrant experience, or they have multi-ethnic people that are never commented on…” In Master of None, though, the writers had the opportunity to tell their story on their terms.
The first episode was co-written by Yang, Kelvin Yu, and his brother, Charles Yu. Charles is the author of the novels How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and Interior Chinatown as well as the short-story collections Third Class Superhero and Sorry Please Thank You. In 2020, he received the National Book Award for Fiction. In 2021, he established the Betty L. Yu and Jin C. Yu Creative Writing Prize. The Prizes are named in honor of Betty Lin Yu and Jin-Chyuan Yu for their service to the Taiwanese-American community, including establishment of TACL LID Youth Camp in Southern California, co-founding of the South Bay Taiwanese-American School, the first school in the United States specifically for the purpose of Taiwanese Language instruction, establishment of North America Taiwanese Engineering Association, Southern California Chapter (NATEA-SC) and longtime support for other organizations including Formosa Association for Public Affair (FAPA), North America Taiwanese Women Association (NATWA), and Taiwan American Association (TAA). The first episode is dedicated in loving memory to Betty Yu.
Another one of the episodes of ABC is written by Taiwan-born Warren Hsu Leonard, who in 2022 tweeted: “Since I quit being a lawyer 10 yrs ago to write, I’ve staffed on 11 seasons of 8 shows, produced 100+ episodes, 16 of which I wrote, and sold 4 pilots. Today my Chinese immigrant Mom told me a personal injury law firm in Brockton, Mass, had an opening, in case I was looking…” He later followed up to say: “The 100,000+ likes to this tweet prove the idea that the more specific we are, the more universal something can become.”
That episode was also directed by Taiwanese Canadian Dennis Liu — in a really surreal moment, we saw a screenshot of the script’s cover page, headlined by three creatives of Taiwanese descent: Hsu Leonard, Liu, and Yang.
The show’s music score is composed by Taiwanese American Wendy Wang and edited by Taiwanese American Annlie Huang (another TAF’er). “I am so excited for the world to see this show and be introduced to the characters from stories that I grew up with as a kid presented in such a smart, funny, heartfelt way that’s both fantastical and so very human.” she wrote on her Instagram. “My little Taiwanese American heart has been bursting with pride & awe for months now.”
The cast, described by Daniel Wu as “our culture’s ‘Avengers’,” includes Taiwanese Americans Rosalie Chiang as Suzy Nakamura and Jimmy Liu as Wei-Chen.
To our friends who are a part of this magnificent show: we are so proud of you. We hope you feel seen, that your long road here has felt worthwhile, that you have more ahead to look forward to. We hope your successes open doors for others, that you become predecessors for the next generation of curious and creative people.
And we hope your parents know how much Taiwanese America has needed and needs you.
American Born Chinese premiered on Disney Plus today. Watch the trailer here.