Kung Fu Star Olivia Liang on Martial Arts and Demystifying Asian Stereotypes

The CW’s modern-day remake of Kung Fu is about showing a character who has “a full life — not just the stereotypes,” the series' star says.

by | April 6, 2021 | Comments

With a growing sense of awareness in the United States of the prejudices and hate crimes inflicted upon Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders, it’s an interesting time for the premiere of The CW’s Kung Fu.

A new take on the martial arts franchise often associated with the David Carradine–starring Western from the 1970s, this version focuses on Olivia Liang’s Nicky Shen. A Chinese American college dropout from San Francisco, Nicky ditches the life her parents had planned for her and ends up practicing martial arts in a Shaolin monastery – until tragedy strikes and she ends up back home just when her family might need her the most.

Olivia Liang in Kung Fu

(Photo by Kailey Schwerman/The CW)

In the series, which premieres April 7 and is created by Lost and Hawaii: Five-0 vet Christina M. Kim, Nicky is seen protecting herself and those closest to her with jabs, strikes, spins and kicks while barely breaking a sweat (and sometimes to the surprise of her siblings; Shannon Dang’s tech-wiz Althea and Jon Prasida’s medical student Ryan).

“It definitely conflates my own sense of self confidence,” Liang admitted during a recent phone interview with Rotten Tomatoes.

“Especially with the things that are happening in the world right now with Asian hate crimes and violence, I find myself walking on the street and being, like, OK what fight choreography did I learn that I can translate if need be at the drop of a hat right now?” she said.

Fight training is a relatively new skill set for Liang. Although she has a background in dance, martial arts was a completely new art form for her when she was cast as Nicky. Training began when she was still busy at her previous job on The CW’s Legacies. That Atlanta-set show’s stunt coordinator, David Morizot, showed her basic moves between takes before she worked with stunt coordinator Sam Ly to prep for the Kung Fu pilot. Then it was an aggressive three-to five-hours-a-day schedule for two weeks where  “they molded me and they whipped me into shape,” she said.

Olivia Liang in Kung Fu

(Photo by Dean Buscher/The CW)

Although she’s not allowed to do any of the intense wire work lest she get injured and cause a delay in production, she said, “you can maybe expect to see at least 65% me” on screen during the fight scenes and that “I try to do as much as possible because it’s also just really fun and really empowering and I feel really cool when I do it.” But she gives credit to her stunt double, Megan Hui, and others in that department “if I ever look cool and badass and powerful during a fight scene.”

The show also both fits in with the other programs on The CW and stands out from them. It’s one of the few options on that channel that concentrates on a woman and is the only one with a predominately AAPI cast. And, although Kung Fu is about a woman crimefighter and counts Arrowverse kingpin Greg Berlanti as one of its executive producers, Liang’s lead doesn’t come with either superhero powers (like The Flash or Supergirl) or – depending on the season of Batwoman — family connections or the luck of finding the high-tech suit of a lost vigilante.

“I think it’s pretty cool that Nicky’s just a regular person who has a skill set and wants to use it for good,” Liang said. “She’s not a superhero and she’s not necessarily wanting to be a hero, but she is very heroic.”

Olivia Liang in Kung Fu

(Photo by Kailey Schwerman/The CW)

Kung Fu also has the hefty task of demystifying the world of martial arts, an art form that Americans may find alluring and stereotypical when we see it portrayed by people of Asian descent (like in Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and in Bruce Lee’s films) or as agro when portrayed by white men (like in TV series like Cobra Kai, Arrow, or even the original Kung Fu).

“The great thing about our show is the diversity all around that’s happening,” Liang said, mentioning the Kim-led diverse writers room in particular and that she and other cast members have been reading Charles Yu’s National Book Award-winning Interior Chinatown, which discusses both immigrant Asian stories and TV’s depiction of them.

“I think, because we’ve so long been on the receiving end of this voyeuristic [depiction] of ‘the Orient’ and the mysticism of Asian-ness or otherness, we really know how it feels .. to be under that lens. We know what we don’t want,” Liang said.

Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen and Jon Prasida as Ryan in Kung Fu

(Photo by Kailey Schwerman/The CW)

The show also brings up the question of what is a stereotype and what is part of a culture. In the first episode, Nicky is angry that her mother’s (Tan Kheng Hua’s Mei-Li) big dream for her was that her daughter attend Harvard. This could be perceived as trumpeting a tired trope, but wouldn’t most parents want their kids to get good grades and go to a respected university?

“The interesting thing about stereotypes, from my perspective, is that sometimes they are true,” Liang said, adding that she had “kind of a Tiger Mom growing up [who] did want me to be a genius” and that “I took Abacus lessons for some reason.”

“I think the problem with stereotypes is if that’s the only thing we know about that person and that’s the only thing that they’re defined by,” Liang said, explaining that Mei-Li may come across as a Tiger Mom in the first episode, “but we also get to see her backstory and get to see her care for her kids and where she’s coming from.”

With Nicky, Liang said, “She was the kid who was pressured to go to Harvard and to be everything that her parents wanted her be…[but] we also get to see her break out of that. We get to see her forge her own path, fall in love, fight with her siblings. We see a full life; not just the stereotypes.”

Kung Fu premieres at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 7 on The CW.

On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.

Tag Cloud

Horror psycho Acorn TV 90s all-time royal family reboot quibi 21st Century Fox A24 comedies The CW criterion Logo Certified Fresh Film Disney Channel Warner Bros. feel good war GLAAD DC Universe Holiday wonder woman Marathons Music comics Turner See It Skip It Comedy psychological thriller Christmas Broadway political drama die hard science fiction dragons new star wars movies animated deadpool superhero Best and Worst Awards TIFF game show YouTube Premium cults prank Tokyo Olympics Spike screenings Fantasy ABC Family remakes Cannes cinemax ESPN CMT indie zombie theme song australia Hear Us Out cartoon adventure hidden camera TCA 2017 Election marvel cinematic universe TBS kong cars pirates of the caribbean The Walking Dead concert popular Musical slashers thriller high school Legendary asian-american Fox News 1990s Infographic comic book movies mcc Bravo game of thrones Country Tarantino Spectrum Originals stand-up comedy Crunchyroll singing competition ID japanese Peacock supernatural Reality Funimation women disaster rotten movies we love Netflix football robots obituary Sneak Peek cancelled movies Sundance BAFTA Rocketman politics comiccon spain children's TV adaptation Mary Tyler Moore Sundance Now PBS Character Guide Lifetime LGBT Wes Anderson Paramount nbcuniversal medical drama police drama History Reality Competition BBC One dexter Lionsgate canceled TV renewals technology Cosplay Red Carpet Disney Holidays monster movies japan stop motion Tubi Comics on TV jurassic park foreign godzilla Podcast Ghostbusters PaleyFest universal monsters Apple TV+ Apple Awards Tour Disney streaming service Epix docuseries heist movie period drama Year in Review YouTube Pop richard e. Grant south america zero dark thirty composers Writers Guild of America Mary Poppins Returns critic resources ghosts serial killer Mary poppins zombies gangster Nominations canceled TV shows hollywood target toy story breaking bad cancelled television Baby Yoda OneApp superman Video Games video on demand New York Comic Con elevated horror 45 San Diego Comic-Con 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards spanish Fall TV Brie Larson TLC The Arrangement Avengers sports Walt Disney Pictures Trailer series spinoff parents biopic green book President Trophy Talk Hallmark BBC America TV Land TruTV cancelled TV shows cats nature anthology Countdown Ellie Kemper ratings Endgame crossover discovery what to watch 2017 jamie lee curtis Binge Guide Arrowverse facebook Women's History Month spider-man Extras RT21 24 frames classics Esquire Sundance TV razzies harry potter golden globes television mutant YA kids slasher Showtime 2016 Columbia Pictures Star Wars GoT Interview crime thriller Chernobyl latino Oscars DC Comics laika king arthur comic books Superheroes TV movies Crackle rt archives Musicals 93rd Oscars legend blockbusters NBA Hulu versus batman binge Elton John Discovery Channel 2021 Sci-Fi 20th Century Fox Nickelodeon CNN franchise Box Office christmas movies trailers VICE 71st Emmy Awards Adult Swim screen actors guild streaming movies Lucasfilm Paramount Plus diversity award winner dramedy comic E3 Image Comics Marvel Television 73rd Emmy Awards satire action-comedy SundanceTV HBO Go Thanksgiving Marvel hispanic BET Ovation strong female leads Stephen King witnail archives vampires X-Men Mindy Kaling rotten CBS BBC 2015 Animation SXSW FXX Rock chucky debate El Rey Pet Sematary Emmys werewolf young adult documentaries joker documentary NBC Action Nat Geo TV One 007 USA Network directors Heroines fast and furious critics scary movies space true crime Watching Series 4/20 miniseries LGBTQ Marvel Studios olympics cops Teen Disney+ Disney Plus video DirecTV Star Trek VH1 child's play MSNBC Shudder adenture RT History Rocky cancelled TV series Cartoon Network Mystery Polls and Games worst Winners IFC Pixar saw Classic Film Creative Arts Emmys marvel comics travel 2018 talk show HBO Max black YouTube Red Tumblr Trivia 99% halloween tv renewed TV shows Toys biography TCA Awards APB scorecard Western scene in color halloween SDCC reviews romantic comedy book Television Critics Association MCU stoner natural history ABC Black History Month sag awards Syfy GIFs FOX TNT BET Awards Shondaland docudrama a nightmare on elm street kaiju festivals Grammys MTV Amazon Studios Black Mirror A&E The Walt Disney Company Biopics TCA Winter 2020 cooking worst movies Emmy Nominations TCA Summer OWN blockbuster ABC Signature Set visit sequel Fox Searchlight Quiz Masterpiece Comic-Con@Home 2021 PlayStation FX on Hulu Martial Arts ViacomCBS Premiere Dates spanish language Rom-Com news Vudu telelvision hist 2019 casting Tomatazos Opinion DC streaming service lord of the rings basketball Britbox Family Dark Horse Comics Academy Awards blaxploitation Television Academy dc Paramount Network American Society of Cinematographers streaming twilight Comedy Central rt labs Kids & Family posters Pacific Islander WGN Apple TV Plus suspense Universal crime drama Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt dogs CBS All Access emmy awards VOD justice league unscripted hispanic heritage month NYCC HBO venice Valentine's Day finale Amazon golden globe awards free movies tv talk Lifetime Christmas movies doctor who spy thriller historical drama Film Festival Captain marvel rt labs critics edition toronto Turner Classic Movies teaser Disney Plus DGA Photos films festival Food Network dceu The Purge Comic Book independent name the review E! based on movie Amazon Prime king kong mockumentary FX dark Anna Paquin Amazon Prime Video Travel Channel First Reviews The Academy live action italian social media new zealand best Sony Pictures comic book movie mission: impossible nfl sitcom AMC new york 2020 IFC Films boxing Drama aapi Mudbound aliens CW Seed TCM Starz WarnerMedia french revenge Winter TV Super Bowl Hallmark Christmas movies National Geographic Calendar Exclusive Video know your critic Alien rom-coms book adaptation 72 Emmy Awards Pride Month Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Superheroe USA Netflix Christmas movies Spring TV movie fresh The Witch international transformers TV anime boxoffice romance indiana jones Freeform First Look crime Pirates james bond Schedule ITV Song of Ice and Fire sequels Pop TV