Salt Lake City is not immune to the anti-Asian hate that’s happening across the country. And neither are Utah children.
“One fourth grader came over to [an Asian American] kid, slapped him as hard as he could and said, ‘Oh, I’m just trying to get the corona off your skin,’” said Max Chang, a native Utahn who advocates for equity, diversity and inclusion in the arts and education. “And the thing is, the kid who hit him thought this was normal. When you have this normalization that the Asian American community are foreigners, it’s a problem.”
And part of the problem is that, since Americans started watching TV in the late 1940s, Asians have been largely absent. For decades, if they appeared at all, it was as sidekicks, comic relief or villains.
When white Americans sit down and watch TV, most of the people they see look like them. The first series about an Asian American family didn’t come along until “All American Girl” in 1994, and it was canceled after one season. “Fresh Off the Boat” (2015-20) and “Dr. Ken” (2015-17) featured Asian American families surrounded by mostly white characters. (Made-in-Utah “Andi Mack” featured a part-Asian lead in an interracial family.)
“It almost seems to be like we’re not really part of society,” Chang said. “We’re always that perpetual foreigner. I think that’s why representation is important.”
American TV has never, in its long history, aired an hourlong series centered on a family of Asian descent. Until now. The CW’s reboot of “Kung Fu,” which premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. on Ch. 30, focuses on the Shen family. Eight of the nine series stars are of Asian descent, as are virtually all of the guest stars and even the extras.
“I think the timing of our show is really impeccable,” said Olivia Liang, the show’s star. “Representation and inclusion is not so much that we, as Asians, need to see ourselves represented on the screen, but we need to be invited into people’s homes who don’t see us in their everyday life, just to humanize us, normalize seeing us, remind them that we are people just like they are.”
The series premieres three weeks after six women of Asian descent were shot and killed by a gunman in the Atlanta area, drawing a bold line under the issue.
“Certainly our show is not the solution,” said showrunner Christina M. Kim. “But I hope that we are a part of the solution. And having a show like ours on the air makes us part of the narrative.”
And veteran character actor Tzi Ma, who co-stars as the Shen family patriarch, Jin, said he believes “Kung Fu” is part of the “long-term solution … to show the world who we are. And hopefully those messages will come out loud and clear about inclusion, about representation.
“Short-term solutions, I don’t have any.”
Rebooting ‘Kung Fu’
In the original 1972-75 “Kung Fu” series, David Carradine starred as Caine, a Shaolin monk who traveled around America’s Old West righting wrongs. The character was supposed to be half-Chinese; Carradine was white.
The show was slammed for that casting, and there have long been stories that Carradine was cast instead of Bruce Lee.
Utah Rep. Karen Kwan (D-Murray) said that when she was a kid, she was perplexed as to why Caine wasn’t played by an Asian American actor. “I seem to remember asking my mom that one time and her answer was that David Carradine had eyes that looked Chinese,” she said. “Nope, even as a kid I didn’t buy it.”
But there was no criticism of the original series from the new cast or the producer. Kim called it “iconic,” adding that “it was groundbreaking at the time.”
In the reboot, Liang stars as Nicky Shen, an American born to Chinese immigrants. Her mother, Mei-Li (Kheng Hua Tan) sends her to China and, unbeknownst to Nicky, tries to set her up with a Chinese husband. Nicky rebels, runs off to an isolated monastery and spends three years learning philosophy and kung fu. After another crisis, she returns to her hometown — present-day San Francisco — where she battles evil forces with her astonishing martial arts skills.
The cast of characters includes her brother, Ryan (Jon Prasida); her sister, Althea (Shannon Dang); Althea’s fiancé, Dennis (Tony Chung); Nicky’s ex-boyfriend, Evan (Gavin Stenhouse); Nicky’s possible new love interest, Henry (Eddie Liu); and an evil assassin, Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai), who Nicky is determined to hunt down.
They’re not presented as some kind of cultural lesson; they’re just presented as everyday life. “The details of us being a Chinese American family are specific, but the story is for everyone,” Liang said. “We can all relate to the Shens.”
A female Asian lead
Kim said it was “really important” to cast an Asian in the lead in the “Kung Fu” reboot. And she “really wanted a strong female Asian lead who was kicking butt and was the role model that I wished I had growing up on TV.”
“Kung Fu” is the first hourlong American TV show with a female of Asian descent as the sole lead. Liang got misty-eyed talking about what her role means to her.
“I think any woman of color is placed into a box. She is defined, she doesn’t get to define herself,” she said. “And I think that was Nicky’s story for a very long time — just trying to be what everybody expected of her, what everyone projected onto her. … I think we as women and people of color can all relate to that.”
And, she added, she feels “empowered” by playing a character “who has found her voice. … It has empowered me to do the same in my own life and to encourage the men and women around me to do the same.”
‘Magical mysticism’ and just plain fun
“Kung Fu” mixes martial arts and what Kim calls “this touch of magical mysticism.” Nicky, born-and-raised American that she is, is “reluctant to believe that magic is real, there’s something bigger at play.” But there is.
It’s actually rather funny, and there’s a good deal of humor in the show.
But the scenes of the Shen family members interacting are what will really engage the audience in this surprisingly entertaining new show that only vaguely echoes the original series. Kim said it was “very important” to include a multigenerational family to tell the stories of both the immigrant parents and their first-generation American children.
Ma, who was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to the United States when he was 5, said the show is “an opportunity to give you a realistic portrayal of who we are. We face the same problems, and some other problems that you may not know about, and you don’t face.”
A lot of effort has gone into correctly portraying a Chinese American family, and it has paid off, said Chung. He was born in Texas and raised there and in California, but he also worked in Asia for several years and he’s “very impressed with the scrutiny to detail and cultural nuances. … And to see them represented in a show that’s going to be predominantly seen by Western audiences is just freaking awesome, frankly.”
Kwan said she’s “excited by the prospect of more opportunities for Asian American artists. … I’m all for diversity and nuance in media.”
How much do we need this? Chang said he knows Asian Americans in Utah who have been called “Corona” since the pandemic began. His cousin is married to a doctor in Massachusetts who has been on the front lines of battling COVID-19. He was driving a few days ago and someone angrily yelled, “Thanks for COVID!” at him.
“His family immigrated here a hundred years ago, and he’s still considered to be a foreigner,” Chang said.