“Kung Fu” star Olivia Liang and showrunner Christina Kim spoke with NextShark about reinterpreting the 1972 American drama of the same title to inspire a modern-day take on martial arts and Asian representation.
The CW’s rebooted “Kung Fu” series is one of the few American dramas to feature a predominantly Asian American cast. The series follows Chinese American Nicky Shen, played by Liang, as she returns from a Chinese monastery to reunite with her family at home in a corrupt San Francisco.
Kim, who is one of the executive producers and writers of the show, saw the “Kung Fu” IP as a way to inspire a new generation of Asian Americans by developing role models adapted to relate to modern-day events and experiences.
“I think it’s a great time right now to retake this narrative and make it relevant to our modern times,” Kim told NextShark. “The original ‘Kung Fu’ was groundbreaking at the time, so I give full credit to that show for showing the beauty of Kung Fu to the American audience, but there were also things I wanted to change. The lead, which was played by David Carradine, was portraying a half-Chinese character, but he himself was fully Caucasian.”
“When I was developing this show, it was really important for the narrative and for the family that I was trying to build to have the lead characters be fully Asian or Asian American,” she added. “I also wanted it to be a modern interpretation of martial arts. I wanted to have a character that could use martial arts in a positive way, like in the original series, but adapted to the modern audience.”
Kim explained that, as many other Asian Americans may have experienced while growing up, she was the only Asian student back in her school in Chicago. Today, she feels most proud of being able to give audiences Asian American heroes on TV.
“I really didn’t have any Asian role models on TV,” she shared. I didn’t really realize that until I got older and had my own kids, and I just thought, it’s really interesting that even to this day in time, my kids don’t have that many role models that they watch in movies and TV.”
Liang, who had a similar experience, told NextShark: “I’ve often said I can’t even call it a dream come true role, because I truly never dreamt that this would be possible. When I would dream of becoming an actor, I’d think, ‘Oh, I’ll become the best friend.’ I’ve never been the lead, so to get this part in the show that is the first of its kind—groundbreaking in so many ways—it’s truly an honor.”
The 28-year-old actress hopes that women can look up to her character and feel “inspired to use their voice and to go after the things they want in their lives and not be afraid to take up space.”
Adding dimensions to the Asian characters
Recontextualized in a contemporary setting, the first season of “Kung Fu” also touches upon current real-world issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the “model minority” myth. The action-adventure drama premiered in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as during a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes across America. In an effort to combat the inhumanity of recent racially infused violence, the shows’ creators were careful to fully develop each character’s backstory in “Kung Fu.”
“We need to, unfortunately, keep humanizing ourselves, keep showing people different facets of what it is to be Asian and Asian American, so that we can start to bridge some of those cultural divides, so people can see us as humans, which is so sad to say, but it is what it is in this time that we’re living in right now,” Liang said in relation to the show’s narrative and diversity.
The show’s production process has also been an emotional, healing journey for both writers and cast members.
“I worked in the business for quite a bit, but as I looked at the screen on the first day on set, I couldn’t believe that every single face was Asian,” Kim recalled. “I actually teared up. This is certainly very special.”
Kim shared that her favorite part of production is being able to write rich and full life stories to each “Kung Fu” character. As for Liang, portraying Nicky has been a cathartic experience, allowing the actress to stand up for her community and talk about what is happening in the real world.
“I never had a problem with the stereotype that Asians were put into – like doctors, lawyers, engineers, tech wizzes and martial artists,” Liang said. “All of those things are true, right? Martial arts is a beautiful part of our culture, and there are a lot of Asian doctors, lawyers and engineers.”
Liang continued: “I think what our show does beautifully is start to give more dimension to the Asian doctor in Ryan Shen, who is a gay Asian doctor who came out to his family and is navigating the dating scene in San Francisco for the first time. We’re getting more dimension to Althea Shen, who is the tech wiz, but she’s also hilarious and fashionable and so strong on her own. I think we are reclaiming those stereotypes, but we are more than the stereotypes now.”
“We have so many more sides and personalities,” she added. “Yes, Nicky Shen can do martial arts, but you also get to see her fall in love and fight for her family. When you see the reason she’s fighting, it just gives more meaning to martial arts instead of other Asian characters in the past who have come onto the screen to do a couple kicks and punches. We get to see way more than that in ‘Kung Fu.’”
New limits and villains to expect in the new season
In anticipation of the Season 2 premiere today, Liang and Kim are teasing viewers with a few hints about what to expect. According to Kim, the storyline jumps six months forward in time after Season 1’s finale; however, viewers will have a new villain to look out for, requiring Nicky to push her limits in order to protect her family.
“We’re going to get to know the Tan family from the other side of town who lives in a fancy mansion protected by their wealth and their mysterious evil plan,” Kim revealed. “We’re also introducing the character of Nicky’s cousin. She’s a bit of a mystery, and we’re not going to be sure if we can trust her or not. She’s going to challenge Nicki in different ways that will be fun to watch.”
Liang also revealed that she trained with a wushu master to hone her martial arts skills.
“He taught me a lot about fight choreography in the industry, which is super awesome,” Liang said. “I think, overall, all of the characters who get to fight on our show were much more confident and skilled coming into the second season. I’m so excited for people to see the stunts we’ve been working on.”
Above all, Kim’s wish is that “Kung Fu” will continue to give all audiences hope.
“Regardless of whether they’re Asian or Asian American, I hope that they can connect to the characters,” she said. At the end of the day, there’s a universal language that we’re all human, and we all have similar problems, whether it’s figuring out our careers and relationships. The main goal is that they’re watching it and at the end realize that they just connected to the characters without them thinking about their race.”
“Kung Fu” Season 2 premieres tonight on The CW at 9 p.m. ET.
A daily dose of Asian America's essential stories, in under 5 minutes.
Get our collection of Asian America's most essential stories to your inbox daily for free.
Unsure? Check out our Newsletter Archive.