Have you watched Kung Fu yet? The adaptation of the original 1970s series is a far cry from its origins. I talked about the conflict I had with the story of the original Kung Fu in my coverage of the series’ WonderCon panel, but after watching the two episodes of this newly modernized version, my fears have disappeared.
In the place of a problematic casting comes this refreshing story about a Chinese American family with Olivia Liang leading the show as Nicky Shen, a Harvard Law School drop out who’s spent the last three years training at a monastery in China and has recently returned back to her family home in San Francisco. The series stands as the first Asian American drama series with Christina M. Kim, an Asian woman, helming the show.
I spoke with Liang about her time filming with the Kung Fu cast, her time working with the immensely influential Wong Fu Productions, taking on action scenes, and more.
Therese Lacson: I’m in love with Kung Fu, and it means so much to me to see a Chinese family on screen as a Chinese American myself. Can you talk to me about working with your fellow actors and bonding with them for this action-family drama?
Olivia Liang: Thank you so much! Our chemistry as a cast was truly immediate. I already knew John [Prasida], Shannon [Dang], and Eddie [Liu]. Shannon and Eddie, in particular, I’ve known since like 2017, and then we met John after the casting process and we really went through that process together.
And then getting to meet Tzi [Ma], Kheung [Hua Tan], Vanessa [Kai], Yvonne [Chapman], Tony [Chung], and Gavin [Stenhouse], I mean, the chemistry was so immediate. I think a lot of that has to do with the shorthand of what it is to be Asian and Asian American and just having not having to explain yourself in any way. Then of course being in this bubble of only having each other to lean on has exponentially made our relationships grow even deeper, we just have so much fun together and I think you can really see that on screen.
Therese: For sure, the chemistry is just off the charts with everybody on screen. So, I saw that you are what I like to call a ‘Wong Fu alumni.’ And I grew up watching Wong Fu, I watched it when I was in high school with my friends, it’s been a staple of my life. What is it been like being an Asian actor journeying from working with Wong Fu to taking this leading part in Kung Fu?
Olivia: It has been so amazing to see the landscape change right before my eyes. You know, I also grew up watching Wong Fu in high school. They’ve been doing this for 15 years and they really have paved the way. Some of our favorite Asian American actors are in, what I like to call, the Wong-Fu-niverse. You know, we’ve got Simu [Liu] who is now our superhero, right? We have Randall Park who is like the best, he was in Wong Fu. We’ve got Ki Hong [Lee], we’ve got Victoria Park and Arden Cho.
Isn’t that crazy? Like Wong Fu was kind of a launchpad for many of us, because we didn’t have anywhere else to go. We didn’t have any really juicy parts in mainstream media yet. Wong Fu was writing those things for our community and that was the source for so long. I’m so grateful to them, and it makes me emotional because it really feels full circle. We just did a press thing with them and it felt so full circle that this is what they’ve been working towards and they get to see it now, and it’s so amazing.
But yeah, for myself, it’s been really amazing to watch the landscape change where, you know, all I had was watching Wong Fu videos to see a fully Asian cast. And now leapfrogging to today where, on The CW, there’s about to be a predominantly Asian cast set in San Francisco, Chinatown. And, you know, we are now going to kind of be like the Wong Fu of The CW, where, hopefully, we’re a launchpad for other Asian actors. I hope that we give someone their first guest star or recurring role and then they go on to do something amazing themselves.
Therese: Yes! Definitely. I feel like Wong Fu has provided a platform for the community for so long, because every time, I’ll look up an actor and the actor will look familiar, I’ll realize that I recognize them from Wong Fu. It’s really a wide variety of people they were bringing together. I just love to praise them because I feel like they’ve done so much hard work over the years that they kind of deserve to get some praise.
Olivia: Yeah, 100% agree.
Therese: I read a tweet from you the other day basically saying that martial arts have been traditionally typecast for Asian performers, but, the problem is that their characters are never really well fleshed out and they were more just like silent fighters. How do you think you guys have sort of redefined or maybe reclaimed Kung Fu?
Olivia: We have totally taken it back. I think the general sentiment with a lot of Asian actors is, we pushed the Kung Fu, and the martial arts of it all away because that was the box that we were told to fit in. And it’s because all we were asked to do was come on screen. Silently throw a few kicks and punches, and then leave. We have no idea who that person is, what their backstory is, what their character is about, what they like and don’t like, and all of those things.
But now I feel so proud to be doing martial arts on our show. Because it is a huge part of our culture, it’s a huge point of pride, and it’s a wonderful thing that so many different people can appreciate kung fu. But the difference with our show is that we’re infusing the fighting with meaning. And people are getting to learn about our characters and know what they’re fighting for, which I think makes the fighting all the more powerful. I’m just so glad that we get to celebrate something that’s so rich in our culture and share it with the world.
Therese: And what was it like preparing for the physical part of this role? Did you have any previous martial arts training or was it a start-from-scratch kind of situation?
Olivia: It was a start from, maybe not scratch, but it was missing some ingredients. I have a background in dance, and so that was a good foundation for at least TV and film martial arts, which is very much about choreography, it really is like a dance. And so I was able to take that aspect and bring it into this. Then really it was a crash course in foundation, and basic martial arts, and Kung Fu. We have an amazing stunt team, I cannot give them enough credit. I cannot shout them out enough, they really whipped me into shape and have made me stronger and more powerful. They’ve really helped me look good. And my son double Megan Hui is the queen of my heart.
Therese: I feel like so often, especially with Asian Americans, but also with other immigrants, we feel torn between two identities. We have our American, Western self, and then we have our family and our Asian self. I feel like Nicky, in particular, kind of struggles with that dichotomy. Do you feel connected to Nikki in that way, or was that something that you more pulled more from the script?
Olivia: I 100% connected with Nikki in that way and with what you were saying. We are torn between these two worlds, we’re in this limbo of going back to the motherland and very clearly sticking out like a sore thumb like you’re an American, but then you know being in America and constantly having been othered by our own country. Nicky goes through that, and she goes through that with another layer to where she actually did go back to China and spend years there and is now bringing back what she learned there to America. So it’s like this double fish-out-of-water, personality cultural whiplash for her. And it was very easy to relate to that as an Asian American.
Therese: And what has this experience been like being able to see fans get excited for the show, speaking with the press, hyping up the show? What have been your general reaction and feelings?
Olivia: My general feeling at the end of the day is just excitement and gratitude. This is a once-in-a-lifetime dream opportunity for me and I feel so privileged that I get to be part of this reckoning of Asian in media. We’re at a turning point. And I feel so privileged that I get to be part of that story and part of the needle moving forward. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with that as well. But my castmates and I are sharing that load and we all know the importance of our show and we’re so, so excited that we get to bring this story to a major network that will reach many homes, and, hopefully, people who have not yet seen themselves on TV will get to see a slice of themselves. I hope they grow with us, they keep tuning in and keep discovering new things about themselves. Getting to see more of themselves represented, it really is a privilege.
Therese: Well, I’m in love with the show. I loved seeing a female lead in a role that is often reserved for a male lead. It was so great! And she’s being mentored by another woman in a cloister full of women, I was glad to see it.
Olivia: We have so many strong women on the show. There’s Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai). Even our big villain, Zhilan (Yvonne Chapman), she’s a strong woman. I find myself, as Olivia, like, I’m kind of rooting for Zhilan. I know I’m not supposed to, but she’s really awesome. There’s Mei-Li (Kheng Hua Tan), the matriarch. And then Althea (Shannon Dang) is such a strong woman, too. We get to see her storyline develop and blossom and watch her find her voice as well. And you know what, that’s because we have a strong woman leading our show, as our showrunner. And it starts from behind the scenes and then it trickles down to what we see in the scripts and finally on our screens. I am very, very grateful.
It was absolutely amazing getting to speak with Olivia Liang about Kung Fu and about her character Nicky. There are currently two-episode available on The CW, if you haven’t watched the series, it’s time to start!
Catch Kung Fu on The CW on Wednesdays!