Editor’s Note: This feature is part of CNN Style’s series Hyphenated which explores the complex issue of identity among minorities in the United States.
“American Born Chinese,” the new Disney+ show based on Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel of the same name, transports viewers to two distinct realms: Heaven, via iconic Chinese mythology, and Earth, via an American high school.
For series’ costume designer Joy Cretton, that meant creating ensembles that were both grounded and otherworldly.
“You’re going back and forth between two insanely different worlds,” she said in a Zoom interview with CNN. “Is it a hoodie? A blinged-out lotus crown? It was interesting to get to have such a drastic contrast in the costumes that we were always working on.”
Costuming the ‘other’
The series follows three distinct story lines. The first centers on Jin Wang (Ben Wang), a Chinese American teenager at a mostly White high school. Jin just wants to make the soccer team and fit in, but his plans are derailed with the arrival of Wei-Chen (Jimmy Liu), a new student who lacks the anxiety that comes with being “the other.”
The differences in the two boys’ personalities are made more apparent through their clothing. Jin, who doesn’t want to stand out from his peers, dresses in muted hoodies and T-shirts.
Wei-Chen, meanwhile, is much more confident and has a unique sense of style (after a student makes fun of his robot shirt in the first episode, Wei-Chen stands up for himself). He wears bold-colored graphic tees, a woven leather belt and socks with sandals. Cretton said she and her team drew inspiration for Wei-Chen’s outfits from elderly men on the streets of Chinatown in Los Angeles, as well as the art from the original graphic novel. They wanted his clothes to have a thrown-together feel that at first glance, “may seem nerdy or not cool.”
“But once you meet him and you see the way he carries himself with so much confidence, you realize that he is cool and that look is cool, and it’s something that other kids might want to wear too,” she added.
Chinese mythology, but make it fashion
As it happens, Wei-Chen has never had much reason to doubt himself.
He’s the son of Sun Wukong (Daniel Wu), or the Monkey King – a hero from the classic 16th century Chinese novel “Journey to the West.” Enter the second storyline. Wei-Chen, having stolen his father’s magical staff, is in California in hopes of defeating a celestial uprising.
(A third story line features Ke Huy Quan as Freddy Wong, a caricatured Asian character on a ’90s sitcom who becomes a viral meme.)
Though characters such as Sun Wukong are familiar to people of Chinese descent, Cretton – who grew up on Maui – said she didn’t grow up with “Journey to the West” the way that some of the show’s cast and crew did. But having so much Chinese and Chinese American representation on screen and behind the scenes proved immensely helpful.
Sally Woo, a Chinese American costumer on the show, told Cretton stories about the Monkey King she heard from her mother and grandmother, and shared other media adaptations of “Journey to the West” for inspiration. Cretton also spoke to the actors playing the gods and goddesses about their characters, which informed the costume design.
Working with such beloved characters, though, came with other challenges.
“We wanted the audience that knows these gods and goddesses to recognize them, but we wanted it to be a really new take on them as well,” Cretton said.
Striking the balance between traditional and modern was a daunting prospect, but Cretton said showrunner Kelvin Yu gave the team “permission to play around.”
That creative freedom is on full display in episode four, a flashback episode that sees Sun Wukong and his now rival Bull Demon at a Met Gala-esque party in Heaven. The celestial partygoers are outfitted in sequined blazers, flowy robes and intricate dresses – Cretton said she wanted the characters to retain their original essence, but reimagined in a high fashion environment.
Cretton collaborated with designers Phillip Lim and Prabal Gurung on costumes for two key characters: Sun Wukong and Guanyin (Michelle Yeoh), the Goddess of Mercy. Lim brought his signature silhouettes to the look of Monkey King for an end result that is regal and sleek. Gurung, known for styling celebrities in glamorous gowns on red carpets, was behind Guanyin’s ethereal ensembles.
The costuming process throughout the show was highly collaborative, Cretton said. Yeoh provided constant input on Guanyin’s costumes – from the shape of her light blue, lotus headpiece to her gold diamante face covering at the heavenly party.
“That was something she grabbed in our fitting room,” Cretton recalled. “We just had all these gold accessories and fabric and cords and things. We were just playing and putting things together, and she put that over her face. And we were like, ‘Yes that’s it!’”
Between the actors’ input and the close collaboration with designers and the costume department, which Cretton described as a “little family,” the team behind “American Born Chinese” was able to bring these fantastical elements – rooted in real-life histories – to life.
“Everyone was so excited about the story that we just put in so much extra than than we normally would because we were so determined to get it right and make something really beautiful.”