Five Thoughts On American Born Chinese’s “Abracadabra”

By | June 26th, 2023
Posted in Television | % Comments

We roll into the second half of this freshman season of American Born Chinese, episode 5, entitled “Abracadabra.” After the last episode’s detour into the legendary backstory of Sun WuKong, the Monkey King’s ascent to Great Sage, this episode returns us to the present-day plotlines of Wei-Chen’s search for the Fourth Scroll, Jin’s search for social acceptance, and the audience’s search for how it all fits together. The connections that Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel left largely to inference are more literally conjured together in the TV show, and we begin to see those ties in this fifth episode.

Warning: Spoilers ahead for Episode 5 of American Born Chinese, “Abracadabra,” as well as for Gene Luen Yang’s original “American Born Chinese” graphic novel.

1. Scrolls, Pendants, and Lego Hot Dog Flashlights

At one point, Ji Gong the Mad Monk (played with inebriated insouciance by Ronny Chieng) chortles, “What are you going to do, just sit around all day and name objects?” It’s a funny retort as Wei-Chen contemplates that the Fourth Scroll, the Sutras of Power, destroyed by the Buddha and dispersed like “sprinkled… Parmesan,” might be hidden in the jade pendants that Jin’s parents show off to him. Those symbolic objects have more magical significance than we might’ve guessed.

I have mixed feelings about this development. On one hand, this Fourth Scroll had nearly become a meaningless MacGuffin until this episode led us to Jin’s mother’s pendant in his hunt. On the other, the narrative feels somewhat cheapened, perhaps too schematic, when the myth world plunges right into the mundane world’s plotlines. As it turns out, Wei-Chen has been mystically led to Jin not only as his “guide” (not “servant”), but because Jin’s parents inherited the jade pendants from their dueling ancestors, the carriers of that sprinkled Parmesan of Power. The marital drama between Jin’s parents is not only thematically related to Wei-Chen’s mission, but it may turn out to be the crux of the whole uprising plot. 

Although Yang’s graphic novel does eventually reveal the same intervention from the heavens– Wei-Chen turns out to be the go-my-own-way son of Sun WuKong– most of the book treats the Monkey King story, Jin’s Chinese-American coming-of-age, and the Chinese stereotype caricature as three separate tracks whose sparks fly when they subtly meet. I’m somewhat less charmed by how they’re smashed together in this series. But much depends on how the show wraps things up in the last three episodes, whether the Abracadabra is convincingly witty or clumsily gimmicky. We shall see!

2. The Mad Monk of the Mini-Mall 

Of the divine and demonic incarnations we’ve encountered so far– “Auntie” GuanYin, goddess of compassion and furniture assembly, or Pigsy, the martial artist disguised as school custodian– it is Ronny Chieng’s Mad Monk, Ji Gong, who has manifested the mystery and ambivalence of these figures most interestingly, in my opinion. Ji Gong is an object of veneration by some and curiosity by others, and the show’s rendition of the Mad Monk, drunk and artsy in the basement of a “Golden Temple” (Chinese restaurant and karaoke bar) rides that line between transgressive and profound that befits him. Since Ronny Chieng’s emergence on “The Daily Show” and his stand-up shows on Netflix, I’ve been struck by how his gruff and cynical energy, quite characteristic to me of lots of Chinese performers, is so rarely represented in Western media’s Chinese characters. What Chieng brings to Ji Gong, his snark, his charisma, heightens this episode like his intoxication heightens his drunken fist martial arts style.

3. “This is Just Really Good Cheese”: Chinese Boy Visits White Family

This episode also earns points for what felt like a nuanced portrayal of what it could have fumbled into ham-fistedness: Jin meeting Amelia’s family and finding them perfectly pleasant… almost eerily so. Jin goes to Amelia’s house to study *ahem* Biology, and Mr. Taylor (or rather, “Dennis”) plays VR swordfight with her brother Holden while Mrs. Taylor offers Jin delicious cheeses that he doesn’t know how NOT to overindulge. It’d have been so easy to make Jin oafishly unfitting, or Amelia’s parents two more ticks up the “not racist” tryhard scale, or Amelia herself overwrought with adolescent shame. But all those elements of awkwardness are dosed in really fair proportions.

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It gives the whole scene a very low-key Get Out vibe when the Taylors’ TV has on another cringe-worthy Beyond Repair rerun. Amelia’s mom says brother Holden just left the TV on again, offering to show some embarrassing old Amelia theater videos instead. But between Amelia’s apologies for her mom’s “fake” positivity (underscored by Holden’s name as an allusion to the original literary “phony”-catcher) and Jin’s weirdly elevated heart rate, we’re pretty clued in that this ideal family scene is too pretty to be true.

4. The Parents Are Not (Kara-)Okay

In contrast to Jin with Amelia’s family, Wei-Chen’s interactions with Christine and Simon, as well as Christine’s Bible study group, have a deeply earnest and familiar quality, another place where American Born Chinese nails the cultural scripts of diaspora communities. The dialogue between Wei-Chen and Christine has all the flattery and excessive good manners of so many immigrant-parents-to-someone-else’s-immigrant-kids conversations. Yet none of it feels forced or fake, and Jimmy Liu’s Wei-Chen and Yann Yann Yeo’s Christine Wang share a kind of sincere and respectful affection… which makes Wei-Chen’s decision to take the pendant later all the more poignant.

Also poignant is how the tensions between Christine and Simon crescendo in this episode, so publicly while on the karaoke stage, so devastatingly showing the conflicting values and impulses that perhaps echo generations of this power-sutra-scroll-pendant-induced discord. It looks like a major difference between this 2023 show and the 2009 graphic novel will be how it’s not just Jin’s Chinese-American experiences, but those of Christine and Simon too, under examination. These intergenerational themes hold a lot of promise for what this show conveys and opens up, though again, I hope the narrative lands them gracefully in its last acts.

5. “I’ll Learn This Sausage Man Trick Later”

I have no idea if Gene Yang wrote that laugh line, when Wei-Chen reacts to Jin’s magic trick, but it sounds quintessentially Gene Yang-ish in its goofy humor.

Also ripped straight from Yang’s storytelling bag is the poignancy of Wei-Chen and Jin’s squabble over the pendant. The fate of the heavens versus the familial treasure.

And it also seems quite Gene Luen Yang-like to meet up with Ke Huy Quan’s character, apparently named Jamie, years later as a repairperson who seems to have left the spotlight behind, if not the stage itself, as he teaches a Shakespeare class at the local junior college. Yang’s stories often feature redemptive second chances. I’m curious if the actor of “What could go Wong?” winds up playing just such a role in this increasingly intertwined tale. And if it does the trick.


Please come back next week for American Born Chinese episode 7, which looks to be some “Hot Stuff” (as the episode is called!)


//TAGS | American Born Chinese

Paul Lai


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