Ke Huy Quan remains the real hero in every universe.
American Born Chinese follows Jin (Ben Wang) and Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu) as they embark on a quest to save the heavenly realm, inhabited by ancient Chinese mythological gods, from destruction. While the show is mainly about Jin and Wei-Chen’s adventure, there’s a neat little subplot starring the one and only Ke Huy Quan that’s a lot more important to American Born Chinese‘s story than you might think.
Quan plays a former actor called Jamie Yao who found fame in the ’90s through a sitcom called Beyond Repair. On the sitcom, Yao plays “Freddy Wong” — the friendly neighbor to the show’s protagonist and an incredibly offensive caricature of Asian stereotypes. His signature catchphrase is “What could go Wong?” delivered right before a clumsy, slapstick moment, like a ceiling fan falling on his head. In American Born Chinese‘s main story, set in the present, Beyond Repair is finding a resurgence in popularity, thanks to Wong’s catchphrase being used as a sound bite for memes on social media. When Jin accidentally takes a tumble down his school’s hallway, someone even films him and posts the video on TikTok with Wong’s catchphrase playing in the background — it’s a meme that’s clearly targeting Asian Americans.
Credit: Disney / Carlos Lopez-Calleja
In the present, Jamie Yao is actually working as a repairman, in stark contrast to his clumsy character on Beyond Repair who couldn’t get anything right in his home, and also teaching a college Shakespeare class to aspiring actors. With the sitcom’s newfound popularity, a reunion special is planned, and while Yao is understandably apprehensive, he joins the special. When asked what he’s been up to by the reunion’s host, Yao shares that he thought his role on Beyond Repair would open up doors for him, but those doors never opened. (It’s similar to Ke Huy Quan’s own Hollywood story: After his success as a child star in films like The Goonies, the actor had trouble booking roles — then came Everything Everywhere All at Once.)
Yao shares that he often questions who and what a hero is. He admits that a hero can be someone with superpowers, but a hero can also be an ordinary person who fights for something that matters, someone who’s willing to go on a journey. He ends by sharing that he hopes all kids and adults who look like him can realize they don’t need to be the punchline all the time. They can be the hero instead. It’s a message his colleagues at the reunion special timidly applaud, but Jin finds great inspiration in. Yao’s character arc and his beliefs ultimately mirror Jin’s own path toward self-acceptance.
Throughout American Born Chinese, Jin is regularly treated as the butt of the joke by his classmates. From various microaggressions to the Freddy Wong meme made of him, Jin is the exact punchline Yao was referring to. Instead of fighting back, for a large portion of the show Jin excuses his classmates’ behavior to try to fit in and get them to like him. When he watches Yao’s speech in the reunion special, Jin realizes that he can and wants to be a hero instead. Rather than letting his identity be dominated by others’ perception of it, Jin learns to reclaim his own narrative.
Credit: Disney / Carlos Lopez-Calleja
Jin sees himself in Jamie from the show’s get-go. At the start, it’s their mutual experience of racially motivated “jokes,” but by the finale, it’s their mutual evolution, with Jin finding inspiration in Jamie’s growth and boldness in publicly defying everyone’s expectations of him. Some deal with racism in Hollywood, others deal with it in high school, but across both experiences is a universal struggle bound by solidarity. At its core, Quan’s subplot grounds American Born Chinese‘s navigation of identity and Jin’s struggle with accepting his heritage. It’s the last bit of icing on the show’s larger cake, and it’s the catalyst that motivates Jin to finally accept who he is and where he’s from, proudly.
Quan’s subplot also lucidly tackles the treatment of Asian American actors in Hollywood, and is a piece of meta-commentary when considering the feat of American Born Chinese as a show itself. The subplot recognizes the kinds of roles Asian American actors were pigeon-holed into in the past, but American Born Chinese is led by an all-Asian cast playing mothers, fathers, awkward teenagers, and gods, who are all proud of their identity and reject outdated stereotypes. It’s a celebration of heritage and how far representation has come, while recognizing how much further it still needs to go.
Quan’s subplot augments the show’s grappling with identity and offers a touching, relatable story that’s inspiring — whether you’re the son of a mythological god or a teenager daring to dream of more.
American Born Chinese is now streaming on Disney+.(opens in a new tab)
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