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Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen in Kung Fu. (Credit: Kailey Schwerman/The CW)

Kung-Fu team hopes The CW series will be ‘part of the narrative with cultural acceptance’

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Mar 17, 2021, 5:12 PM EDT (Updated)

The cast and executive producer/creator of The CW's reboot of Kung Fu virtually spoke with reporters today from their set in Vancouver to promote the upcoming series launch on April 7 at 8pm EST. While the entire team was proud and excited to share insight into their series, which focuses on experiences of Nicky Shen's (Olivia Liang) San Francisco-based, Chinese-American family, they started the panel addressing the devastating Tuesday shootings of Asian women in Atlanta and the ongoing Asian community assaults and fomented racist sentiment regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Playing the patriarch of the series Jin Shen, veteran actor Tzi Ma said the recent event has broken his heart. "I’m not quite sure what the short term fix is," he said about the current tide of Asian racism. But he said part of finding a long-term solution are projects like this show, which features an Asian-American showrunner and a majority cast of Asian actors. "We are long term solution by doing our show and showing the world who we are as a message about inclusion and representation that will be loud and clear...We aim to knock it out of the park because this is important." And he added that the ongoing news of Asian person attacks have pained him every day, from when it was less reported to now, having recently been addressed by President Joe Biden in his national address. "But it still happens every day...."

Actress Kheng Hua Tan, who plays Jin's wife and Nicky's mom Mei-Li Shen added that their hope is Kung Fu, as one of the first Asian-American created and primarily cast broadcast dramas, will model practical examples of admirable social justice in action. "Our characters rise above their inhibitions to do what is right," Hua Ten said. "Our characters are of all ages and all walks of life coming together to do what is best for their community. And it doesn’t come easy. The characters face many challenges to find what works best as group. Maybe audiences seeing it [in action] will be inspired to adopt it for themselves in their real lives."

Executive producer/showrunner Christina M. Kim (Lost, The Ghost Whisperer) added, "Our show is not the solution but it's part of the solution. It makes us part of the narrative about cultural acceptance."

Pictured (L-R): Tony Chung as Dennis Song, Jon Prasida as Ryan Shen, Tzi Ma as Jin Shen, Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen and Shannon Dang as Althea Shen in Kung Fu (2021). (Credit: Katie Yu/The CW)

Kim also explained how this series is different from the classic 1970s series of the same name starring David Carradine as the wandering kung fu master, Kwai Chang Caine. "Using kung fu and Buddhism to help others is very much alive in our show," she said. "But in the original series, the lead was not Asian. I knew it was really important that we change that. And I wanted a strong female Asian lead as the kind of role model I wish I had growing up."

Olivia Liang admitted the original Kung Fu was before her time, so she had to do some research by watching clips as she auditioned and then more after she was cast as Nicky Shen. "What I carried on [from the original] is her sense of fighting for underdogs and not seeking out heroism, or having a hero complex. But she's all about seeing bad things happen and not standing by for it."

In the pilot, Nicky's origin story as a kung fu master is revealed when she has a “quarter-life crisis” that inspires her to leave her family and schooling in San Francisco to travel to an isolated monastery in China where she is taught by the wise female kung fu Master, Pei-ling (Vanessa Kai). That twist is one that actress Vanessa Kai said comes from real history. 

"In my research of Pei-ling, I found out the creation of Wing Chun is credited to a woman," Kai shared. "So to now have a female lead who is leading with kung fu is so fitting and brings back the roots of kung fu. And there's no better time for that than now."

The new series will also play with some of the structure in the original series, which featured many flashbacks between Kwai Chang Caine and his blind master, Po (Keye Luke). "We are doing that too," Kim said about drawing back to Nicky's time with Pei-ling at the monastery. But there are also more mystical elements that are native to this story, which Kim says aren't necessarily supernatural in nature, but more spiritual. "Those moments [when they happen] are not so much ghostly, but more aspects of her subconscious; a reminder of things she learned at the monastery. Nicky is a girl from San Francisco. This is all weird for her and we're seeing it through her eyes. Initially, she refuses to believe magic is at play but over the season she comes to believe, perhaps greater forces are out there."

Circling back to the inclusion Kung Fu is bringing to television for Asians and women, Liang shared with emotion that she really understands the personal struggles of Nicky as her own. "Any woman of color is placed into a box," she said with candor. "She doesn’t get to define herself and that was Nicky’s story for a long time. She was trying to be what everyone expected of her and that’s what made her freak out and need to find her voice. All women relate to that. Playing her has empowered me to play a character who has found her voice and use her voice. And it has empowered me to do the same."