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Almost everyone who reads “American Born Chinese,” Gene Luen Yang’s groundbreaking graphic novel, is a little afraid of Chin-Kee.
The book is a classic of young-adult literature, threading together stories of Asian American boyhood with a revered Ming dynasty novel. Chin-Kee’s role in it is a small one, but he is the bomb at the book’s heart. He’s a kind of Urkel character, embarrassing comic relief that isn’t so funny for the people who have to live with him — a cruel marionette pieced together from ugly stereotypes. He makes the old schoolyard “me Chinese” rhymes and begins sentences with “Confucius say …” He sings “She Bangs,” in a library, in the style of the “American Idol” contestant William Hung. At one point, he eats a packed lunch with a cat peeking out of the container. A laugh track runs in a ribbon under each scene, a brutal little receipt: “HA HA HA HA HA.”
So when news arrived, in 2021, that “American Born Chinese” would be adapted as a live-action Disney+ streaming series, the first reaction from some readers was, more or less, “Oh, no.”
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Additional production for The Sunday Read was contributed by Emma Kehlbeck, Parin Behrooz, Anna Diamond, Sarah Diamond, Jack D’Isidoro, Elena Hecht, Desiree Ibekwe, Tanya Pérez, Marion Lozano, Naomi Noury, Krish Seenivasan, Corey Schreppel, Kate Winslett and Tiana Young. Special thanks to Mike Benoist, Sam Dolnick, Laura Kim, Julia Simon, Lisa Tobin, Blake Wilson and Ryan Wegner.