Multicultural characters abound in We Bare Bears

OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes (above), a superhero comedy; and We Bare Bears (top), about a polar bear, a panda and a grizzly trying to fit into human society, are series on the Cartoon Network.
Daniel Chong

Daniel Chong always knew he wanted ethnic and gender diversity in We Bare Bears, the popular series he created for the Cartoon Network.

But he soon discovered that walking the talk requires committed, sustained effort.

Speaking to The Straits Times in Los Angeles recently, the 38-year-old explained his decision to put two Korean-speaking characters and a hijab-wearing woman on the show.

Now in its third season on the Cartoon Network (weekdays at 6am and 9pm and 10am on weekends, Singtel TV Channel 226 and StarHub TV Channel 316), We Bare Bears follows a panda, a grizzly and a polar bear as they awkwardly attempt to fit into human society, which often treats them unfairly.

For their Chinese-American creator - whose parents migrated to the United States from Singapore in 1973 - the show is "an allegory for what it feels like to be a minority in America" - something he has grown increasingly outspoken about since the election of US President Donald Trump last year.

Chong, who previously worked on Disney and Pixar films, says "expressing different points of view and different cultures" was "always important to me, (even) pre-Trump - especially coming from an Asian-American background".

"That was something I didn't feel was very well represented in animation and I knew it was something I could bring to the table."

When he launched We Bare Bears in 2015, "and saw the story crew I ended up building around myself - my supervising director is Mexican, I have a Korean guy who's a board artist and designers of different nationalities - I was, like 'I've got to use this to our advantage' because this is what's going to make our show unique."

And it did. The quirky, charming series reflects both its setting - the multicultural Bay Area around San Francisco - and the heritage of its creators.

"A Korean board artist named Bert Youn did a ton of episodes and we had a character who's Korean, Chloe. Her parents are from Korea and you can tell English is not their first language. We had them speaking a lot of Korean, with the audience not knowing what they're saying.

"But that's reality - you sometimes don't understand what people are saying. So I pushed him to make that part of the show's DNA."

Sustaining this requires constant effort.

"Another thing I realised is that even picking background characters, you really need to put conscious thought in it," says Chong. "You have to just stop everybody and say, 'There's too many people of this race' or 'We need more girls here.'

"That's not a decision you want to be spending time on in the scheme of things because so many decisions need to be made. But if it really matters to the show, you just have to. I realised I have the power to make that difference - I just have to put the time in because it's work to make these changes."

The political climate has only made him more determined. "Once Trump got elected, that became a really big deal... It taught me that, okay, it's a cartoon for kids and we could be dismissive about it, but it's important that these things are represented. When we're kids, these things are so formative."

And fans have embraced it, he says. "When we put the woman in a hijab in - front and centre, and in a lot of episodes - we got lots of messages on social media and people screen-grabbing her and going, 'This is important.'

"It's been received quite well and I hope this will be part of the lasting impression of the show."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline 'Multicultural characters abound in We Bare Bears'. Print Edition | Subscribe