American Born Chinese

April 21, 2007 at 4:53 am | Posted in awards, comic books, fantasy, genre fiction, monsters | 5 Comments

american-born-chinese.jpgYang, Gene Luen. Color by Lark Pien (2006). American Born Chinese. New York: First Second Press. 

 I discovered American Born Chinese in a display of manga, comic books and graphic novels near the YA section at my local public library. Based on the book’s cover, I picked it up with mixed feelings. The title ABC is derogatory slang familiar to 2nd generation+ Chinese-American families such as mine. (Fresh Off the Boat–FOB— is retaliatory slang for recent Taiwanese and mainland immigrants). I couldn’t dismiss the novel as inflammatory junk though, because the graphics were artfully rendered and the cover featured 2 book award medallions. Once I opened the cover and saw the words “Monkey King”, I had to read it. The Monkey King is one of the most famous characters in Chinese folklore, but I haven’t been able to get my kids to slog through a full translated text.   abc_monkey1.jpg

American Born Chinese has three storylines. The first is a comical retelling of the Monkey King legend, with kung fu and Chinese fable elements for authenticity.  The second story features Jin Wang, a Chinese-American teenager in a white neighborhood. Jan perms his hair and rejects his Asian school friends to win a date with a redheaded honor student. The final storyline is an over-the-top paper sitcom featuring Chin-Kee, the ultimate Oriental student stereotype. Chin-Kee has a pigtail, wears a kimono, eats strange animal parts for lunch, is the class know-it-all and oblivious to his social gaffes. Yang deftly interweaves the three separate stories to a surprising, but satisfying end involving the mischievous Monkey King.

 082806_americanbornchinese03.jpgI was blown away by this book! I can understand why American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel nominated for a National Book Award and was Amazon’s “#1 graphic novel pick of 2006”. Writer-illustrator Yang also won the ALA Printz award. His novel is both hysterically funny and brutally honest in its exploration of image, identity and self-acceptance. Although the characters represent different Asian stereotypes, the story will resonate with readers from age 10-adult who are struggling to define themselves and to belong. There are story elements of teenage romance, Chinese folklore fantasy, supernatural monsters, spirituality, and hidden clues for a mystery relevaled in the climax. The only genre missing is the western, though there are elements of adventure, a long journey and the hero’s lone battle to conquer a harsh environment.    

 There are books by Laurence Yep, Amy Tan, Allen Say and other Asian-American novelists who’ve written serious novels about their experiences. What makes Yang’s book different is its iconoclastic, hip approach to the issue of cultural identity. In a December 2006 interview with The Trades, Yang speculates on why he’s seen as blazing a new path in fiction. Growing up in San Francisco, Yang was told to “Keep your head down, study hard, and make a good life for yourself. Don’t make any waves.”  The idea of writing caustic social commentary is new and frankly scary for many Chinese who lived through the upheaval of the Communist regime.

Yang’s content takes risks in confronting prejudices and misconceptions about American Born Chinese. In contrast, his illustration style is skillful but abcmeeting325.jpgconventional, even conservative. Each page contains 4-5 panels which read left to right. The book is read as an English-language text, from front to back (the opposite of the manga page pattern). The text is conveyed through standard thought bubbles. Characters are 2-D rendered in flat colors, with the visual style of an Archie Comics. His Asian characters, aside from Chin-Kee, are visual amalgams of Western and Eastern features, reinforcing his message of assimilation. This message is hammered home on page 194, as Yang shows a freeze-frame transformation from black haired Oriental Jan to blond, blue eyed Danny as the teenager’s wish to be like his classmates comes true–briefly.  

American Born Chinese was originally presented in serial form as a web comic self-published by Yang. This is his fourth published graphic novel, and his first published with a promising new graphic novel press which debuted in 2006, First Second.  For more information about Yang’s works, visit his website, Humble Comics or check out Comic Book Resources.



RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

  1. […] reading that post reminded me of is American Born Chinese, a comic book by Gene Yang. Yang’s comic is one of the best treatments of struggling with […]

  2. As you might know, sonic producer is one of the hottest beat creating tools on the marketplace
    today. Really, all us comicbook movie fans can do is wait and see which approaches
    Marvel chooses for its future movie projects and hope that their
    decisions meet with both critical and box office success down the road.
    The price may be a little questionable, but read our full-length review for more
    information to see if you think the cost is worth it.

  3. Hi there Google works well but your site is running steadily which
    actually went on around one minute to finally load up, I am
    not sure whether it’s my very own issue or maybe your site problems.
    Around the other hand I appreciate you for writing lovely article.
    In my opinion this has been totally helpful to user who visit
    here. I am hoping I’ll be able to find more amazing content and I should flatter you simply
    by saying you have carried out awesome writing. I now have you saved
    to my bookmarks to see new stuff you publish.

  4. Hey there other sites works perfectly however your web site is running slowly which had taken close to one minute to finally load, I am not sure if it’s my very own issue or maybe
    your website issue. Well, I’d like to say thanks for placing
    excellent article. I’m assuming it has been helpful to lots of individuals .
    I personally must say that you have done brilliant work with this and also wish to discover
    many more brilliant content through you. Just after checking out your post,
    I have book marked your web page.

  5. Hey there! Your webpage is loading slowly in my situation, it took sort of
    a minute or so to actually reload, I really dont know if it’s entirely me or perhaps your web page although facebook loaded acceptable for
    me. Nevertheless, Let me thank you very much for adding beautiful content.

    I do believe it really has already been totally helpful to user who seem
    to visit here. I hope I’ll be able to get more amazing stuff and I
    also should certainly flatter you by saying you have done wonderful job.
    I already have your site book-marked to look at blogs you post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at
Entries and comments feeds.

%d bloggers like this: