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The television adaptation of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese has been welcomed by viewers, who are lauding the series for its celebration of Asian American storytelling. Readers of the original comics, however, will spot an absence in the adaptation: the minor character Chin-Kee, who is presented as an amalgam of racist anti-Chinese caricatures.

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“It is easy to see why comics are ideal for the story American Born Chinese wishes to tell,” says literary theorist Min Hyoung Song. Chin-Kee’s character design deliberately harks back to racist nineteenth-century American images of Chinese workers, with Song highlighting features such as his “big grin, pronounced buckteeth, eyes so small they are never seen except as a bold black line, sickly pale yellow skin, and a queue.”

Eventually, Chin-Kee is revealed to be none other than the Monkey King of Chinese legend, in disguise, while his ostensibly white cousin “Danny” is a persona cooked up by schoolboy Jin Wang, who “is so full of self-hatred as a result of the ways in which he has been slighted.”

“These dizzying revelations emphasize the ways in which American Born Chinese is interested in what is hidden from view,” says Song. He argues that the graphic novel “prompts its readers to consider how much such transformations in racial formation occur just beyond the eye’s ability to perceive.”

In his analysis, the Monkey King’s own shape-shifting ability isn’t exempt from the racial histories embedded in its image. The character’s appearance is a way for the graphic novel to address “how the image of the monkey has historically been deployed as a racial diminutive.”

In this way, race comes to be determined “not only by realist narratives but also by genre conventions, like the ones that comics have excelled in refining.”

Those genre conventions, including the ones that associate Asians with monkeys, “refuse to remain bracketed as merely manifestations of popular culture and continually bleed into the everyday, informing our understanding of race and the ways in which it constructs the worlds we inhabit,” writes Song.

In the TV series, Chin Kee is re-imagined as a new character named Freddy Wong, who is played by Oscar-winning actor Ke Huy Quan. Yang told NPR’s All Things Considered that he had reservations about adapting Chin-Kee for television, as clips from the show could be taken out of context and used in racially offensive ways. Yang explains that in print, he has “enough pages to make it very clear that I’m working within the confines of satire,” so it’s more likely that Chin-Kee will be contextualized by readers.

In that light, the American Born Chinese adaptation’s lack of Chin-Kee—who Song describes as “a complex, and troubling, figure”—continues to speak to the power of the visual medium.

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Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, Vol. 43, No. 1 (March 2010), pp. 73–92
University of Manitoba