American Born Chinese series is based on author Gene Luen Yang’s groundbreaking graphic novel that chronicles the trials and tribulations of a regular American teenager whose life is forever changed when he befriends the son of a mythological god. This Disney+'s project explores Chinese folklore and Chinese-American identity through the story of a young man's battle for his own identity, told through family, comedy, and action-packed kung-fu.
When the news first broke, big names tied to this project were noted – Michelle Yeoh, Daniel Wu, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, Yeo Yann Yann and Chin Han – and the general consensus was all for Asian representation and cultural heritage. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton is also onboard as an executive producer and director. Honestly, this is a dream team one can only wish for.
Thanks to Disney+, we got to chat with award-winning Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann, who began her career in theatre in her early 20s, and went on to star in many stellar TV series and films. She was awarded Best Leading Actress at the 56th Golden Horse Awards for her starring role in the feature Wet Season; Best Supporting Actress at the 50th Golden Horse Awards for her role in Ilo Ilo; and she even received Best Actress nomination at the 2020 International Emmy Awards for her powerful performance as a mother of an autistic child, in the HBO series Invisible Stories.
In American Born Chinese, we're lucky to have Yeo Yann Yann cast as a kind but sometimes pushy mum, and she tells us how's it like working with Singaporean actor Chin Han and staying in character, unexpectedly.
I think Christine is a combination of many different women that I know.Yeo Yann Yann
Yahoo Life Singapore: Growing up in Malaysia, were you surrounded by Chinese folklore and superstitions?
Yeo Yann Yann: Totally! I mean, I grew up with Journey to the West, although I don't know how many versions I've seen. I've read the book because I had to do literature for Journey to the West – the original book with all the poetry.
In the series, you play a stay-at-home mum, and you made a comment on the show that that’s an important role as well. Did you draw similarities from someone you know or yourself?
I think Christine is a combination of many different women that I know. I tried to pick the best parts to insert her into the script, the beautiful blueprint. I think I really liked her. I liked Christine very much because she is very warm and cheerful. She's so kind, but she's not perfect.
There's this one scene; I just binge-watched everything, and there's one scene towards the end where after I saved someone, I came up with the idea that when I jumped into the car, all I wanted to do is get a clean wet wipe to wipe my hand.
So when I jumped into my car, I turned to my husband and asked, 'Where's the wet wipe?' I realised that came from the creation of Christine and you can see she's not a perfect human being, but she's trying so hard.
Chin Han is one of the best collaborators I've had. I knew about him years ago, but we never had a chance to work together.Yeo Yann Yann
That was really funny though, because I think when you play a character for so long, I guess some of the character's energy or physical traits carry on with you. So how do you break out of character?
I think for this job in the USA, it was easier because the moment I finished working, I went back to Singapore. So I just moved away from the work life and also Christine's life immediately. For every character, I need time to get away from them and bring myself to the ground and prepare for the next one. You know, coming back to Yeo Yann Yann, and then preparing for the next character.
I liked that Christine is not just a Tiger mum; she’s even encouraged Jin Wang to pursue soccer as an extracurricular activity. What is your opinion of Tiger mums around the world?
I mean, it really comes from the fear of whether you can catch up with everyone who is on the same starting line as you. We really, really want the best for you. You know, I think in a way Christine already has confidence in Jin (played by Ben Wang) that he is okay. He's okay but sometimes she feels nervous. She regulates herself a lot. The other day, one of the members of the audience came to me and said 'Oh my god, Christine is a mum that I prayed and hoped I had when I was younger.'
But not everyone is always in that fear zone that our children are not able to be the best that they can be. Christine does have fear, but her confidence did help her to, you know, really put Jin in a place where she believes that Jin is a capable child. That's what I really liked about her.
We could see the beginning of the cracks in Christine’s marriage with Simon (played by Chin Han), and you could see there are obstacles in communication and trust. How do you build on those elements without revealing too much of the storyline in the show?
Chin Han is one of the best collaborators I've had. I knew about him years ago, but we never had a chance to work together. I had to fly all the way, halfway around the earth, to work with him. Then we realised while we were doing the background work, we understood each other very, very, quickly.
Before we started filming, we did have a whole story about these two, how they decided to come over (to the USA). It's actually in Gene Luen Yang's book that they actually came here as students. Simon, being a highly educated person, and Christine too, decided to come here and start from scratch, and do a lower-paying job. There's just so much work – the character exploration, discussions, and even arguments – for us to arrive at this point. But from the first, and second episodes onwards, you can see the chemistry of two actors who just work well together. You really believe they are a family. I mean, when I watch it, I was like, wow, this is the family.
American Born Chinese is now airing on Disney+