In the first ten minutes of Disney+‘s newest series American Born Chinese, we see an exhilarating chase occur between the fabled Monkey God (also known as Sun Wukong) and his teenage son. Those familiar with the legendary character from Journey to the West might feel they’ve somehow lost the plot at this first scene. Not only does the fictional monkey seem uncharacteristically level-headed, but he’s now a father who’s trying to tame his rebellious son and he’s also Daniel Wu?
Indeed, the Hong Kong-American actor admits this isn’t like any other role he’s portrayed. From sparring under the tutelage of kung fu onscreen hero Jackie Chan in the early aughts to later starring in works like Westworld, playing a Monkey God is definitely something new in Wu’s filmography. “One of the reasons why I was drawn to the show is because I’m a father now and most of the stuff I’ve done is not child-friendly,” he laughs over our Zoom interview. “I wanted to do something that would impress and make her proud of her dad. And I thought playing a father was a cool challenge especially someone like the Monkey King. At this stage, he’s got responsibilities. He’s got pressure and he’s also got to raise his son. There’s like a whole new take on the character that I thought was really interesting.”
Based on and eponymously named after Gene Yuen Lang’s graphic novel, American Born Chinese, the series follows the story of Jin Wang, a second-generation Asian American teen trying to fit it in high school, as he soon befriends the son of Sun Wukong. Together, they embark on a journey of self-discovery interspersed with action and comedy—as the two worlds of heaven and earth collide. Making up the ensemble cast are film stalwarts like Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, alongside scintillating performances by Ronnie Chieng, Stephanie Hsu and Jimmy O. Yang. Given recent victories stemming from Asian American actors in the Hollywood bullpen, the series’s release comes swimmingly well-timed, yet it manages to bask in its own limelight. Given countless perspectives of the Asian American immigrant told through the medium of film and TV, what American Born Chinese does brilliantly is to tell its own story, while proudly advocating for Chinese culture via its revival of a historical folklore and its mother tongue—spliced throughout the script and even taking up an entire episode.
“In the show, we jump from a high school drama to a mystical scene in heaven with Chinese mythological gods and despite that, it still works perfectly. It kind of highlights our culture and heritage, especially as Asian Americans, where we are constantly jumping back and forth between two worlds,” Wu remarks. In fact, the 48-year-old actor resonates with many of the stereotypes presented during the high school scenes. He continues: “Growing up in surburban America where I was one of the few Chinese kids in school, I experienced those things, like in the show when the school principal deals with two students by putting them together just because they’re Chinese.” He then recounts a vivid memory when he first turned 18 and was so excited that he could finally vote—only to have been stopped by a volunteer at the voting office, because he “didn’t look like an American citizen”. “It’s not outward racism but just ignorance and prejudice that you experienced growing up and what we now term as microaggressions. I think this show touches on that in such a sensitive way that for my generation watching it, it really hits home for us,” Wu adds.
Playing the role of a father also made it more personal for the actor. While tapping onto the psyche of Sun Wukong, Wu was reminded of his relationship with his father. “He definitely raised me with a lot of tough love and it’s very different than how I’m raising my daughter. I had to reel back and not fall into the tendencies like negative reinforcement that my dad used to raise me. So it was a combination of those life experiences that informed me about the character. This is a story about a father and a son and how Wukong grapples with allowing his son to become his own man.”
While the audience gets to watch the family dynamics unfold, there’s also the fun bit where kung fu comes into play—with Wu flexing his prowess onscreen. “We were able to combine Chinese style action with American technology to do a couple of things like the hallway fight scene in the first episode. We also had a special harness that allowed us to spin horizontally,” Wu beams at the mention of his action stunts. A double-edged sword that has been inextricably linked to the actor, since he started training in kung fu at the age of 12 before debuting in Asian cinema. While that might be a formidable skill that he still considers part of his everyday life, he admits to keeping it at bay throughout his career, citing a piece of advice that he received from Chan, his mentor at that time. “Jackie said, if you can do other genres, do other genres. Otherwise, you’ll get stuck in action roles like me. So I took that to heart and hid the fact that I knew kung fu so that I wouldn’t be pigeonholed into just doing those kinds of action films.”
After 20 years of building his career in Hong Kong, it was only in the later part of Wu’s career that he decided to move back to America, but not without hesitancy. Given the limitations to the roles that he could play or the stereotypical parts that were being offered in Western media at that point of time, he notes that things have drastically changed in the past few years. “We’re now seeing Asian American actors or Asian actors in roles that are not necessarily written as Asian. The biggest change is that there’s a greater inclusivity for all races and all people of colour.”
Today, as Wu relishes a different phase of his life as a husband and a father, he adds: “I think high school is probably the toughest time of most people’s lives because you got these raging hormones and you’re trying to figure yourself out. And there’s so many influences here and there, especially with social media these days. I hope that the kids who watch American Born Chinese will realise that everyone goes through that and it’s okay to just be yourself.”
American Born Chinese is now streaming on Disney+.