How a New Kung Fu TV Series Is Reclaiming Much More Than Just the Martial ArtsBreaking News
tags: film, popular culture, television, Asian American History
At the start of her career, Olivia Liang was “anti-martial arts.” To the Taiwanese American actor entering the entertainment industry in 2016, this was a box that Asian performers had been placed in for years—a form of typecasting she would go on to experience herself. “I had several people, the follow-up question to, ‘You’re an actor?’ was ‘Do you do martial arts?’” Liang, 27, says. And so she made a promise to herself: she was not going to learn martial arts unless someone paid her to. “I didn’t want that to be the only way in for me,” Liang explains. “And now, of course I’m on a show called Kung Fu and I’ve really done a 180.”
This shift in attitude did not come without careful consideration. Liang was wary of one-dimensional Asian characters whose martial arts skills were their only defining trait. But her role in Kung Fu—the CW series premiering on April 7—offers something entirely different. She plays Nicky Shen, a Chinese American woman who, after dropping out of college and spending a few years in a monastery in China, returns home to San Francisco. Nicky’s journey unfolds as she faces an organized crime group that threatens the safety of her family and community, and searches for the person responsible for murdering her Shaolin mentor at the monastery.
“To have a fully fleshed out character who also does martial arts has really changed my perspective,” Liang says. Kung Fu is also the first network drama that features a predominantly Asian cast—which includes seasoned actors Tzi Ma (Mulan, The Farewell) and Kheng Hua Tan (Crazy Rich Asians).
The makeup of the cast carries extra weight given that Kung Fu is a reimagining of the 1972 television show of the same name by Ed Spielman, which followed the story of the half-Chinese, half-white Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine, played by David Carradine, a white actor. The new adaptation arrives at a time when calls for an end to Hollywood’s whitewashing of roles have gotten louder. In recent years, a pattern of white actors cast as Asian characters in particular—from Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange to Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell—has sparked outcry for change.
The original Kung Fu aired for three seasons between 1972 and 1975. In the show, Caine faces anti-Asian discrimination as he ventures across the American Old West. In one scene, a character called the Jerk tells Caine he smells “yellow,” calls him “Chinaman” and taunts, “no speaking English?” The blatant racism is complicated by the fact that Caine was played by a non-Asian actor. Carradine also starred in the 1986 film and a television series in 1993—both of which were sequels to Caine’s story.
Before Carradine was cast, Bruce Lee was considered for the role. Liang tweeted about Lee’s absence from the show shortly after promotional materials for Kung Fu were released: “Those in charge didn’t think people would want to watch an asian-led show, so enter the YT man. We have come a long way and i’m proud we get to reclaim this.”
Fred Weintraub, who was an executive at Warner Bros. when the first Kung Fu was being made, recounted Lee’s audition and the response to it in his 2011 memoir—Bruce Lee, Woodstock And Me: From The Man Behind A Half-Century of Music, Movies and Martial Arts. “I was as enthusiastic as ever to put Bruce into the role of Kwai Chang Caine,” Weintraub wrote, and described sending Lee to Tom Kuhn, who was the Head of Television Programming at Warner Bros. In the audition, Lee gave Kuhn a stunning demonstration with nunchucks. Weintraub recounted Kuhn’s reaction: “‘He’s amazing,’ Tom gushed. ‘I’ve never seen anything like that. But getting him the lead is still going to be a long shot. He might be too authentic.’”
Weintraub, who later produced the 1973 film Enter the Dragon starring Lee, expressed his frustration at Kuhn’s words being “right.” “The powers that be had a hundred different reasons why Bruce was wrong for the part: he was an unknown, he was short, his English wasn’t good enough, he lacked the necessary serenity to play the role… But at the end of the day, there was really only one reason,” he wrote. “In the history of Hollywood there had never been an Asian hero—unless you count Charlie Chan. But even that iconic Chinese-American character was never popular in films until he was played by Warner Oland, who was not only Caucasian, he was Swedish, for chrissake.”
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