'Kung Fu' Stars Believe CW Drama Can 'Reshape,' 'Redefine' Asian Storytelling

Olivia Liang, Tzi Ma and Kheng Hua Tan were joined by their co-stars and the producers for a candid conversation at virtual WonderCon.

The Kung Fu cast and producing team recently gathered for their very first virtual panel at this year's WonderCon to discuss their upcoming CW drama, the significance of Asian representation in mainstream storytelling and what fans can expect when they tune in to the series in less than two weeks. Moderated by ET's Philiana Ng (Senior Editor, TV), series creator/co-showrunner Christina Kim and executive producer/co-showrunner Bob Berens were joined by cast members Olivia Liang, Tzi Ma, Kheng Hua Tan, Shannon Dang, Jon Prasida, Eddie Liu, Gavin Stenhouse, Tony Chung and Vanessa Kai for an illuminating, candid conversation about their upcoming show. 

A modern-day reimagining of the 1970s series, Kung Fu follows a young Chinese American woman, Nicky Shen (Liang), who goes on a life-changing journey to an isolated monastery in China. But when she returns to San Francisco years later, she finds her hometown is overrun with crime and corruption and her own parents are at the mercy of the powerful Triad. To go up against the powerful crime syndicate, Nicky relies on her sister, brother, ex-boyfriend and a potential new love interest, as well as her martial arts skills and Shaolin values, to protect her community and bring criminals to justice -- all while searching for the assassin who killed her mentor and is now targeting her.

"We have a little bit of everything for everyone in that we have amazing character stories. We've got a love triangle that's really hot. We've got some of the best kung fu on TV, I will have to say, and it's not bragging, it's pretty amazing. And we've got so much heart," Kim teed up at the top of the panel. "This family is an Asian American family. I'm so proud to have this on TV, to show a real realistic representation of this family that I think everyone is going to relate to."

Kung Fu had been in development for years before it came to Kim, who recalled watching the David Carradine series with her brothers when she was younger. In bringing it to 2021, Kim felt it important to tell the story through the perspective of an Asian American woman in updating it for today's times. "That was really important to me when we cast the lead, that a) it was a woman. It was time to reimagine it with a strong, kickass woman and she had to be fully Asian American," she said. "We searched high and low for her and found Olivia. We just felt so lucky and it felt meant to be."

"Reading the script and seeing the picture of the cast all assembled, there was just an electricity off of everyone," recalled Berens, who came aboard midway through the making of the pilot. "This sense of this large cast of characters that we could tell a hero story that wasn't just about one person accomplishing everything but a story about a loving but complicated family and all the people that Nicky relies on and needs in her life. I was very moved by the project and I've been very lucky to be a part of it ever since."

Liang, who many CW fans may know from her time on Legacies, opened up about what intrigued her the most about playing Nicky, the main heroine of the story, whom she feels represents a "double fish-out-of-water story that a lot of Asian Americans feel."

"The pure fact that she is an Asian American woman," Liang said, "because we as Asian American actors, we don't get a lot of those in our inboxes. It's usually an ethnically ambiguous character or they're open ethnicity. To have just someone who I know for sure I can represent, that's exciting in and of itself already. But as I was reading the script and the sides that were provided, I was like, 'Oh, OK, so I don't have to act at all. Nicky is just my experience.' Christina wrote it so beautifully and she really captured what it means to be Asian American, first-generation, daughter to immigrant parents. Just to be seen was attractive for me. I didn't really have to do much. It just felt like a continuation of all of our experiences and the stories that we are already living out in the world."

The actress said it's not lost on her how groundbreaking it is that a female Asian character is leading the charge on a primetime network show. "It is both constantly in the back of my mind and I'm constantly trying to push it away," Liang said with a laugh. "The whole cast, we talk about it a lot, you know? How historic this show is and how important it is for our community. And not just our community to feel seen, but other communities to see us and remember that we're part of their lives and their narrative too. But yeah, if we're constantly thinking about that, that would be a lot of pressure so I try to keep it away, keep it at bay and focus on telling this story that just happens to feature our faces."

Kung Fu also sparked something within veteran actors Ma and Tan, who have been in the business for decades.

"I'm more of a features guy. For me to do a TV series, it's got to mean a lot to me," said Ma, whose recent credits include Mulan, The Farewell and Tigertail. "And I look at this cast, this young, beautiful, talented cast, they're going to do a lot of the heavy lifting. So it makes my life a lot easier because they are so good. I'm so proud of them. I've seen a lot of people come and go for many, many decades. And all of these faces you're seeing today, you're going to see for a very, very, very long time.The attraction is, I get an opportunity to play a different kind of dad -- I've been playing a lot of dads lately. I really want this dad to be the dad that is more understanding, more loving, more open, more inclusive and I think this is the kind of Asian American dad I want to see right now. These are tough times for all of us given the climate out there and I think we need all the nurturing we can."

Added Tan (Crazy Rich Asians), who uprooted from Singapore to Canada for Kung Fu: "This adventure has been so rich and so indelible in so many different ways. I can't even begin to express all the different ways this particular experience has had an impact. Not just on myself as an actress, but myself as a person and being part of this. That has been the major difference. I can't begin to even express how amazing this particular part of my life, as a 58-year-old Asian actress -- for this to happen at this time in my life it is remarkable."

Later in the panel, Ma also discussed the significant role The CW series can play in the broader landscape of shifting people's perceptions and ideas of the Asian community.  

"We have the opportunity to reshape and redefine thinking and perception of who we are, millions at a time. We have that potential. So because the audience is already a willing partner. That's half the game," Ma passionately said. "You want people to listen. If they're willing to see your show, that's 50 percent of the game. And what we say is important, that's the other 50 percent. So really, what we're doing is really important. Don't just think of it, 'Ah, it's just entertainment.' It's not just entertainment. This is global. People watch American shows everywhere; really, to me that's always been understanding the gravity of what we do."

"For Asian American parents out there, if your children have any inkling of being a part of this, give them a camera. They want to write, let them write. They don't have to just be doctors and lawyers," the legendary actor added. "Remember this, brain surgeons say, 'One brain at a time.' We can really change millions of minds at a time."

Watch the Kung Fu panel at virtual WonderCon below.

Kung Fu premieres Wednesday, April 7 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW. 

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