As a kid, I would never have expected to grow up and see Disney of all places produce a show aimed specifically at capturing my experiences as an American-born Chinese kid of immigrant parents. But the times, they are a-changing. The series is adapted from Gene Luen Yang’s award-winning graphic novel of the same name, and weaves together Chinese folklore with a story of Asian American boyhood. Jin Wang (Ben Wang) and his parents, Simon (Chin Han) and Christine (Yeo Yann Yann), face the same trials and tribulations as any other family—a moody son, a rocky marriage, money troubles—heightened by a fantastical quest to save the heavenly realm. And yet, no one can figure out how to pronounce their last name (Wang rhymes with song, not sang).
We had the opportunity to speak with Chin Han about the show, and the significance of his own name.
The Singaporean actor goes by Chin Han, but in Mandarin, it would actually be pronounced a little different—Jīnghàn. And his full name is actually Huáng Jīnghàn.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty as to what to call me because the first name and the last name in Asia and the West, they’re kind of inverted,” he explains. “In Asia, your last name goes first. And we call it the surname. It was hard for people to know whether to call me Chin or to call me Mr. Han. Or to call me Mr. Chin. And I would always say it’s Chin Han. And the meaning of the name, Chin Han, was actually quite well thought out….My brother’s name is Wei Han, and it comes as a pair. Han (汉) is because we’re 汉族的人 (Han Chinese people). Wei (纬) is actually the longitude of the world. Jin (经) is the latitude of the world. So basically, when my parents named us, it’s a pair, right? It’s the two brothers who define the world as we know it. I mean, obviously, it’s very lofty. But it’s very meaningful.”
American Born Chinese mixes the genres of drama, comedy, and action, no doubt inspired by the rich history of Wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. Chin Han is also no stranger to action, having appeared in films like Mortal Kombat, Ghost in the Shell, and The Dark Knight, but he didn’t mind sitting out the stunts on this one.
“I’ve been a big fan of Daniel Wu for the for the longest time. So just to watch him in action. I knew Leonard Wu—he had done the second season of Marco Polo, even though I was only in the first one. And he played the Bull Demon. And of course, Michelle and Jimmy, who’s actually quite good with the stick. I was happy to sit this one out. I wasn’t chomping at the bit to join them. In fact, I was quite enjoying developing a dad bod for this show,” he chuckles.
To capture the kind of beaten-down energy Simon embodies in the series, Chin Han worked with the costume designers to find the perfect “dad” look.
“Everything went into giving him a little bit of heft, giving him a bit of age, giving him a bit of world weariness. That went into first, the choice of the glasses. That was the first thing that was picked,” he recalls. The glasses in question are a pair of rectangular metal frames straight out of the 80s, complete with nose pads.
“So the glasses came first and then it was the very heavy fabric, oversized, polo shirts, the corduroy pleated pants, and the very, very soft-soled, flat canvas shoes—the kind of fake leather shoes that gives him a kind of, not a waddle, but kind of a gait where the center of gravity is a lot lower. It was fun. There’s still a physical performance even though I didn’t get to be on wires and fight people.”
Much of the series is in Mandarin, a move that few other American shows and movies are willing to make for fear of alienating audiences. But it only felt natural in American Born Chinese that Jin’s parents, Chinese immigrants, would speak Chinese to each other, or that the legendary folk heroes would speak in a formal Mandarin dialect.
“I think I do about 80 to 90% of my scenes in Mandarin,” recalls Chin Han. “For Disney to actually take that leap of faith and say, ‘It’s fine, people are gonna read the subtitles, they’re gonna understand it.’ It’s really not just a leap of faith, but also showing respect to the audience that they are ready for it. They’re not just ready to see whatever they’re used to seeing in terms of films with Asian content, whether it is martial arts or fighting. They’re ready to see a drama.”
American Born Chinese is now streaming on Disney+.
Watch the full conversation below: