On being inspired and inspiring through reimagination
On being inspired and inspiring through reimagination
Words: Jiselle Liu @jiselle03
Moderator: Laura Sirikul @lsirik
Talent: Olivia Liang @itmeolive, Eddie Liu @eddieliuwho, Shannon Dang @shannonnikkidang, Ben Levin @thebenlevin
Photos: Jeremy Choh @jeremychohphoto
Fashion: Francesca Giovacchini @xofrancesca
Makeup: Nikki DeRoest @nikkideroest, Tammy Yi @tammyyi, Aika Flores @by.aikaflores, Christopher Miles @christophermilesmakeup
Hair: Phillip Saunders @phil_nathaniel
Photo Assist: Chir Yan Lim @chir_yan_lim, Brenda Sarai Palencia @sarai.studios
In 2021, the action-adventure series Kung Fu premiered on The CW. Rather than rebooting the 1972 series of the same name, this version reimagines a story centered around a Chinese American family in San Francisco. Now in its third season, the show’s heroine, Nicky Shen, continues to battle mythical forces asnd everyday threats in the city with the help of her friends and family.
As Timid unveils Reimagine as the theme for our new issue, it is fitting that our first feature revolves around members of the Kung Fu cast. Joining Timid are Olivia Liang, who plays Nicky Shen; Eddie Liu, who plays Chinese history buff and fellow martial artist Henry Yan; Shannon Dang, who plays Nicky’s older sister and tech whiz Althea Shen; and Ben Levin, who plays the mysterious vigilante and misunderstood bad boy Bo Han.
With the season finale approaching, the cast reflects on the three seasons and how far they have come as the first predominantly Asian cast on network drama television.
“In season one, we were super stressed,” Liang recalls. “Because we were the first, and it's very scary to be the first. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to represent well, and we kind of shouldered the burden of ‘If we don't succeed, maybe Hollywood will just say no to the rest of the Asian projects afterwards.’ But that was way too much pressure to put on ourselves.”
Liu echoes her statement, adding, “Not only is it an impossible task to take on representing Asian America on TV, it's just not helpful to the artistic creative process. If our goal really is to represent well, then our goal is to remove any kind of box and confines so that we can do our job [and] play these characters truthfully.”
After the first season, they were able to relax a little. “We were just actors who get to be on a TV show, who just happen to be Asian,” Liang says. “So us being the [first]—that's not our focus anymore, and not what defines us. We have had a successful three seasons, and I think it goes beyond representation now.”
“We have a well oiled machine,” Dang notes, “and now we're just having fun. I think it's really rewarding to look back in hindsight.”
Levin, who joined the cast in the third season, had been supporting the show from afar right from the start. He emphasizes the joy he’s had in being a part of this incredible journey. “I feel really lucky and grateful that I got the chance to play out there with you guys,” he tells them. “And it's extremely meaningful to get the chance to have this show just exist and hopefully continue to exist, separate from the milestone of being the first. I think that's something that in itself feels dated and part of a time I hope we've moved past.”
While the responsibility of representation has worn off gradually over the years, they have not forgotten how important it is to have a show like Kung Fu. Diversity on television has improved, but it is still uncommon to see more than one person of color in a main cast, much less more than one Asian cast member. On Kung Fu, most of the cast is Asian, many of them fully fleshed out characters with their own storylines. There’s less pressure to portray them as good, moral characters to “represent well” and more room for creativity, which can only add to the depth of their storytelling and resonate not only with Asian Americans, but general audiences as well.
“I think my favorite stuff to watch on the show would be the family drama,” says Levin. “That is the beating heart of Kung Fu. I imagine that is a huge thing for [both] Asian and non-Asian [families] to experience, to witness real family dynamics that happened to be taking place in an Asian family.”
“We’re just people who deal with the same kinds of problems that everyone else deals with. And you're just seeing it through our lens,” Liu says.
Liang agrees. “I hope that we're not just a show that Asian people enjoy watching, because then that would defeat the purpose of representation, inclusion, and diversity, “ she says. “We want to invite people into our homes and into our stories. So the [Chinese] cultural aspects that we weave into the show, hopefully, seamlessly will introduce something new to people who may not be familiar with them. We don't have to hit them over the head with it.”
“We're not that sprinkle of diversity that we need to check off the box,” Dang says. “[The show] just exists. And when things just exist, more of other things can exist.”
The cast continues to discuss what made Kung Fu unique, with Dang noting that what stood out for her was how much the show empowers women by showing many different ways of being a strong female character. “You see that in so many of the characters, whether from Nicky who's a strong, brave warrior who's fighting for justice, or [...] Mei-Li [Nicky’s mom] and her version of strong, and then Shifu and Zhilan and Althea [...]. It's very empowering [and inspiring].”
“On TV, you often see a lot of different kinds of tropes, a lot of patterns, a lot of formulas, mostly because they work,” Liu says, contemplative. “People love watching things like Law and Order and procedural dramas because the wheel works—really well. So with those kinds of shows there's no need to reinvent the wheel sometimes. With our show, I feel like we've really relished the opportunity to hint at what could be a trope, subvert that, and then take you down a new road. And I feel like getting to play somebody like Henry is so fun and rewarding because in the past, the trope is, he's either usually just a kung fu guy, or he's just a library nerd. But in our show, we get to just smash those together. And it just goes back and forth, sometimes at the same time, sometimes one at a time, and either works for the story.”
As we delved into our issue’s theme, the four muse on the power of reimagining, both from a professional and personal standpoint. While shows like Kung Fu still stand out right now, it’s important to strive for a time when it’ll just be a show like any other and when firsts no longer matter, and to envision a time when these stories can easily exist in other spaces where Asians and other minorities have previously not been seen.
“This is a very specific story that we're telling in San Francisco Chinatown so it's going to be predominantly Asian,” Liang says, “but it'd be nice to see, you know, some more Asian people in [a show like] Succession. Because they exist in that world too. So yeah, our show’s very important at a time like this, but I hope that we don't carry the torch or the burden of having to be the important show.”
“That's what real progress is,” Liu says. “It shouldn't have to start and die with us. Other white-led shows don't have to worry about that [...]. How nice it must be for a Caucasian person in America watching that, and they don't have to get upset by saying ‘This show doesn't represent me and my family.’ No, because they can change the channel and turn on something else that they can relate to a little bit more closely. And we can take Succession for just what it is—entertainment. It's not a dissertation on the Caucasian corporate family, you know, and that's what we're all striving for.”
Liang goes on to state, “I think it's more important to have more people of color in positions of power [behind the camera], because when Kung Fu eventually comes to an end—hopefully not anytime soon—but when it comes to an end, I don't think the cast wants to jump onto another project and be a part of the ‘all-Asian project’ again. Then it just feels so confining and it feels kind of tokenism-y [...]. So I think it's super important to have people of color who are decision-making, who are show running, who are producing in order to tell more stories, and to include us more.”
On a more personal note, she shares, “By getting to play Nicky, I'm already outside of the box that I had put myself in. Because when I started acting, I was ready to play the lead's quirky best friend. I was like, ‘That's my bag. That's where I'm going to be, and I can't wait for it.’ That's how big my dreams were. So I guess I have bigger dreams now. Because I'm already outside of the box that I had placed myself in with this show—because of this show. I really never thought I would lead something. I wanted to be in a romcom. I wanted to be in an action thing. I wanted to be in a very dramatic thing. And then I realized I'm looking at Kung Fu and I'm like, ‘Oh, I get to do all of that within the show.’ I get romcom moments with Ben and Eddie, I obviously get action, then I get the family drama. So it has helped me reimagine what my career can look like.”
“I feel the same way,” Levin says. “I felt limited growing up with what I thought I could play, and I think this show is giving all these characters such dynamic moments. That in itself is just such a beautiful thing. And then I've been making music under the name Grasshapa for many years at this point, and now, to get to even have some of my music on the soundtrack [...]—that's the reimagined world that I could have only dreamed of.”
“I wish I had a show like this growing up,” Dang adds. "For as long as I can remember, anytime there was an Asian actor on screen, my mom would get really excited and bring my attention to it, like ‘Shannon, come look!’ because she thought it was really cool, and it was rare, and she was so proud. But it made me aware of ‘tokenism’, and think that there were only certain things I could play or that my opportunities only fit into this little box. Being on Kung Fu has definitely helped break those mental barriers for me, and I think Hollywood is getting there too. It's really exciting and it makes me hopeful."
Beyond expanding their ideas of what was possible for their careers, the show has also encouraged the cast to connect (or reconnect) with their roots.
“Kung Fu helped teach me a little bit more about my Chinese roots,” Levin says. “Growing up in New York City I wasn't raised with that much heritage. In fact, my mother's from Brooklyn, and we didn't really know much about that side. And I think this really piqued my deep curiosity and burning need for the connection that I am embracing now. So for me that's been the greatest takeaway from the past five months, getting the chance to to feel that connection.”
He goes on to admit, to the surprise and bewilderment and amusement of his fellow castmates, “And yeah, I'm taking my shoes off in houses now, which I didn't grow up doing. That's something I'm really doing. I know we tracked in dirt from New York City in [our] apartment, what can I say? We didn't know.” He jokes, “But now I know, and I'm going to become a very good Asian.”
Echoing Levin’s sentiment, Liu says, “This show has been such an amazing opportunity for me to reconnect with my Asian identity. I grew up in a very white suburban area, and I pushed it away because I didn't think that that was something I could be proud of. I didn't know how to be proud of it. My classmates, my schoolmates around me, they're all Italian-American, Jewish-American, everything else. And so I wasn't with people that looked like me. And then I went through all these things in my life—I went to kung fu school, I went to a Shaolin Temple in Queens, New York, I worked with senior citizens [...]. Then I came to Kung Fu and things started mirroring my past. Where I was at that point in my life, it just gave me this chance to look back and be like, ‘Whoa, look at where you came from. This is great. Look where you are now. These are all things to be celebrated and grateful for.’ So that's one of the many reasons why I appreciate Kung Fu so much.”
"As a third generation Chinese American—or is it fourth? I’m not too sure about the technicality—I've always felt somewhat distant from my Chinese culture,” Dang says. “Growing up in a heavily Caucasian suburban city I hesitated embracing whatever culture and traditions were passed down. So years later as an adult, being on Kung Fu was a cultural awakening for me. It helped me embrace my roots that I was distant from as a kid and I'm so thankful."
Looking ahead, they are excited to share the season finale with the world. When asked what we can expect, Liang reveals, “We're going to somehow see every single storyline cross and become one. Each character kind of has their own journey that they're going on, and they all collide in the finale. I don't know how the writers did it. And I will say that I cried so hard in a scene in the finale that my contact popped out, and I was blind for the rest of the day—if that's an indication for how emotional things are going to get.”
Dang explains, “There's going to be a lot of action, a lot of tears. I think the writers do a great job with planting seeds for each of the characters and storylines that foreshadow what's to come if we get a season four.”
“Emotional damage,” Liu says simply. “That's pretty much it. Yeah, drama, magic…”
“Trauma,” the rest chime in playfully.
“Twists and turns,” adds Levin.
With season four up in the air, wrapping up filming felt bittersweet. “In TV, nothing's ever guaranteed,” Liang states. “And you can just hope that you get to keep telling this story. If people are still eager to see the story unfold, I definitely think that there's so much more for us to do with the Shens. The finale really sets up a lot of cool stuff for future seasons, so I hope that we get the opportunity to do it.”
“[Olivia] and Eddie and I have been together since the network and producer sessions and everything,” Dang says. “So even back then, we had these little kid moments of [...], ‘Can you believe it?’ Or like in the next round [in] Vancouver like, ‘Oh my gosh, can you believe it? We're filming a pilot.’ Then we'd get to season one, and we're filming and we're just roaming around the stage like, ‘Can you believe it? This is our job.’ [...] I feel like over three seasons, [we’ve] really matured. I mean, there's always impostor syndrome, but you grow into it and you’re like, ‘Yeah, this is our job. We are good at our job. We're here, we deserve to be here. We're going to make good work.’ And then the last week of wrapping [was] right before the holidays. I remember crying because every ‘goodbye’ or ‘Happy Holidays’ is loaded with, ‘I hope this isn't goodbye.’ No one wants to jinx it. [...] I wish we just knew, then we could wrap and be like, ‘Yeah, see you next year.’ [...] It felt like a happy yet closing chapter just in case for me mentally.”
The loss of Kung Fu on its own would leave a void, not only in its network, but the television landscape as well. With the long list of show cancellations the past year has seen—especially from minority-led shows—it would be one even more deeply felt by audiences. We can only hope that the cast is able to continue on this journey longer. But whether through these characters or any future ones, it is clear that these four will continue to challenge what it means to tell layered, impactful stories, and undoubtedly, inspire others to do the same.
The season finale of Kung Fu airs on March 8, 2023 on The CW.
Disclaimer: The quotes above have been edited for length and clarity.