WONDERCON ’21: Cast and creators of KUNG FU talk Asian American representation and the new CW series

WONDERCON ’21: Cast and creators of KUNG FU talk Asian American representation and the new CW series

The ensemble cast and creators of The CW’s new series Kung Fu came together for Wondercon 2021 to talk about the show’s upcoming series premiere. The series, which boasts influences from Arrrowverse executive producers Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter, is based on the 1972 series of the same name starring David Carridine.

Now, I have a LOT of problems with the original series. Not only did it cast a yellow-faced David Carridine as a half-Asia Shaolin monk, but it is widely believed that Warner Bros. stole the concept for Kung Fu from Bruce Lee. Certainly, Lee was responsible for much of the interest around martial arts in the 70s in Western media. But, even if Warner Bros. deny these allegations, it’s undeniable that the 1972 series was a platform for white writers (like Ed Spielman who is credited in the 2021 version) and white actors to launch themselves into the martial arts craze of the era.

There are a lot of problems when it comes to Kung Fu‘s history that are particularly hard to swallow nearly 50 years later. And for those interested in a series that fully credits Lee’s script treatment for his original idea of The Warrior, I’d point you to Warrior, originally from Cinemax and now fully on HBO Max.

But, all of this is not to say that the 2021 version of Kung Fu looks anything like its previous iteration. Christina M. Kim helms the show alongside Robert Berens as co-showrunners, with Kim penning the pilot episode and Hanelle Culpepper directing the pilot. And instead of Kwai Chang Caine leading the show, we have Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen. The series follows Nicky’s life as she hits a quarter-life crisis, she drops out of college, and goes to an isolated monastery in China.

A quarter-life crisis causes a young Chinese American woman, Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang), to drop out of college and go on a life-changing journey to an isolated monastery in China. But when she returns to San Francisco, she finds her hometown is overrun with crime and corruption and her own parents Jin (Tzi Ma) and Mei-Li (Kheng Hua Tan) are at the mercy of a powerful Triad. Nicky will rely on her tech-savvy sister Althea (Shannon Dang) and Althea’s fiancé Dennis (Tony Chung), pre-med brother Ryan (Jon Prasida), Assistant District Attorney and ex-boyfriend Evan (Gavin Stenhouse), and new love interest Henry (Eddie Liu) as well as her martial arts skills and Shaolin values to protect her community and bring criminals to justice…all while searching for the ruthless assassin who killed her Shaolin mentor Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai) and is now targeting her.

Moderated by Entertainment Tonight‘s Philiana Ng, the WonderCon panel covered the introduction of a new leading female character, the inclusion of an Asian American family, and the significance of this series for its audiences.

“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,” Kim explained in the panel. “[W]e’ve got so much heart. 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.”

And speaking on Carridine’s original role, it was important to Kim to cast a strong female lead and one who was fully Asian American. This was primarily what drew Olivia Liang to the role. “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 I know for sure I can represent, that’s exciting in and of itself already,” Liang said in response to the call of an Asian American actress.

“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.”

Kung Fu

Kung Fu

As one of the only primetime network shows to feature a leading female Asian character, “It is both constantly in the back of my mind and I’m constantly trying to push it away,” Liang says, before explaining that she and the cast are aware of the importance of the series to the audience. “The whole cast, we talk about it a lot. 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 narratives too. But, if we’re constantly thinking about that, [it] 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.”

The series features familiar faces in Tzi Ma and Kheng Hua Tan, both prolific actors with extensive credits, who play Nicky’s parents. Shannon Dang plays Nicky’s sister Althea, with Tony Chung as Althea’s fiancé, Jon Prasida plays her brother Ryan, Eddie Liu and Gavin Stenhouse play Nicky’s love interests, and Vanessa Kai as Nicky’s Shaolin mentor. Check out the video below for their full WonderCon panel!

Kung Fu premieres Wednesday, April 7th on The CW.

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