‘Kung Fu’ Rights the Wrongs of Its Ancestor
Nearly 50 years after David Carradine rose to fame as an enigmatic, half-Chinese Shaolin monk in the Wild West, “Kung Fu” is returning to network television in a new iteration on the CW.
But this time, the gender-flipped reboot, which will be the first network drama to feature a predominantly Asian-American cast when it premieres Wednesday, is attempting to right some of the wrongs of the original series.
In 1971, not long before starring in the high-octane films that made him internationally famous, Bruce Lee shopped around an eight-page treatment for a new television show called “The Warrior” about a Chinese martial artist who journeys across America’s Old West. Studio executives at Warner Bros. decided to pass on Lee’s pitch, which Lee said was because they thought American audiences wouldn’t watch a show with an Asian lead. A year later, Warner Bros. debuted a similar show on ABC called “Kung Fu,” with Carradine, a white actor with no prior knowledge of martial arts, in the lead role.
The original show’s creator, Ed Spielman, has said that his idea was based on 10 years of personal research, which included Chinese language studies at Brooklyn College; Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, has argued that “Kung Fu” is a retooled version of “The Warrior.” (Shannon Lee, the actor’s daughter, later partnered with the director Justin Lin to produce “Warrior,” which premiered on Cinemax in 2019.)
“Kung Fu” ran for three seasons from 1972 to 1975 and remained a fixture in syndication, introducing many Western audiences to the cross-cultural power of martial arts.
When Warner Bros. asked Christina M. Kim, a television writer and producer best known for her work on “Lost” and “Blindspot,” to spearhead a reboot, she agreed. Then, she created a show that is a dramatic departure from the original, starting with the protagonist.
“I really, really wanted a kick-ass, strong female Asian lead,” she said in a video interview last month.
The modern-day adaptation follows Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang), a young Chinese-American woman who drops out of college and travels to a monastery in China, where she undergoes intensive martial-arts training. But when she returns to find San Francisco overrun with crime and corruption and her own parents, Jin (Tzi Ma) and Mei-Li (Kheng Hua Tan), at the mercy of a powerful organized crime group originating in China, Nicky uses her fighting skills to protect her hometown — all while reconnecting with her estranged family and friends and searching for the ruthless assassin who killed her Shaolin mentor (Vanessa Kai).
In the works since 2019, “Kung Fu” arrives amid an alarming spike in anti-Asian racism, giving its focus on Asian-American people who are victimized and fight back an additional, if unplanned and unwelcome, weight. “Certainly, our show is not the solution, but I hope that we are a part of the solution,” Kim said during a press event, the morning after eight people, six of them women of Asian descent, were shot to death in Atlanta. “Having a show like ours on the air makes us part of the narrative.”
When she began writing the pilot episode in late 2019, Kim wanted to highlight the unique dynamics that exist within an intergenerational Chinese-American family. She knew that she needed two key ingredients: a charming, athletic actress who could handle the emotional and physical demands of the lead role, and a revered Asian-American actor to lend credibility and gravity as the patriarch.
She auditioned more than 150 young actresses before finding Liang, best known as Alyssa Chang on the “Vampire Diaries” spinoff “Legacies.” But for the father, Kim had one name in mind from the beginning: Tzi Ma.
With a career spanning four decades and more than 140 credits across film, theater and television, Ma has developed the reputation of being “Hollywood’s go-to Asian dad.” Despite not having any children of his own, Ma, now 58, has played the father figure for a bevy of Hollywood talent — including Awkwafina in “The Farewell,” Sandra Oh in “Meditation Park” and most recently, Liu Yifei in Disney’s live-action adaptation of “Mulan.”
Born in Hong Kong and raised on Staten Island, Ma discovered musical theater in junior high, where he sought acceptance after getting into regular fights with fellow students over his race. He began his career on the New York experimental theater scene in the late 1970s, where he studied and worked with the Oscar and Tony-nominated godfather of Asian-American theater Mako Iwamatsu and the Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang.
Following his successful collaborations with Hwang, Ma traveled to Orange County, Calif., during the 1988 writers’ strike to star in the playwright Eric Overmyer’s “In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe.” He was discovered by producers during the play’s successful four-week run, which ultimately kicked off his television and film career on the West Coast.
“I realized that these two media are much more powerful than the theater because of the sheer number that we can reach in such a short period of time,” he said. “I said: ‘You know what? It’s important to get into the living rooms and into the [movie] theaters in the world, to really give us the opportunity to change perceptions of how people see us.’”
Throughout his prolific career, the versatile actor has been a leading advocate for Asian-American representation in Hollywood, refusing to take any roles that he considered demeaning or stereotypical.
“Mako gave me that attitude,” he said. “I don’t have to accept the jobs that I don’t want to do, and I don’t want to put myself in a position where I have to do it, so I keep my needs very minimal.”
“I don’t feel typecast at all, because I always believed that nobody twists your arm to do it,” he added. “You don’t have to do it; you can always say no. Nobody forced me to do anything.”
After a mutual friend introduced him to Christina M. Kim at a Lunar New Year gathering hosted by the actor Daniel Dae Kim, Ma was interested to hear that a woman of color would be leading the reboot of “Kung Fu,” a series that he had watched when it was first on the air. “I’ve never worked with a woman showrunner, no less a woman of color that looks like me,” Ma recalled. “I said: ‘I’m ready, let’s go. If you want me, I’m there.’”
“Having Tzi Ma come on to the show,” Christina M. Kim said, “he is so well-respected in the community that it just opened so many doors for the casting.”
As they began to round out the cast, Kim and her production team — which included the executive producers Martin Gero, Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter — auditioned actors from all over the world to play Nicky. No one felt right until they saw Liang, who almost missed the screen test because of her shooting schedule for “Legacies.”
“It was just truly a breath of fresh air to see an email that says: ‘Kung Fu. Nicky Shen. Lead. Chinese-American woman,’” Liang said. “I was just like: ‘Whoa, what’s happening right now? Lead?’”
Liang’s favorite part of the casting process came on the final day, as a room full of Asian actors prepared to audition for network executives, “which doesn’t happen a lot,” she said.
“We were all like, ‘If it’s not me, thank goodness it’s going to be one of us,’ she said. “That energy and camaraderie was really amazing to be a part of.”
Liang had not previously had any martial-arts training. But Kim, who oversees “Kung Fu” with Robert Berens, the other showrunner, said that the actor’s combination of charisma and athleticism was “perfect for the character.”
“I needed to find somebody who was super relatable but who was also mentally and physically capable to take down the bad guys every week,” Kim said. “Olivia is just charming, down-to-earth, funny and kind of goofy. She also has this dance background, so she picked up the kung fu really fast.”
The Covid-19 pandemic shut down production on the pilot episode in March 2020, but Kim was able to put together a sizzle reel compelling enough to convince CW executives to greenlight a 13-episode first season. Since resuming production last October, the cast and crew have been shooting the show under strict coronavirus protocols in Vancouver, British Columbia.
While “Fresh Off the Boat” was the rare sitcom to focus on an Asian family, and Asian-led series like “Never Have I Ever” and “Wu Assassins” are available on streaming platforms, there has never been a broadcast drama with a predominantly Asian-American cast. “Kung Fu” will become part of the slight but steady advances that Hollywood has recently seen in Asian representation onscreen, especially after the international success of films like “Parasite,” “Minari” and “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
“We talk about it all the time — we talk about the historic nature of what we’re doing, and we also try not to think about it too much because of how much pressure it brings on,” Liang said. “We just want to make our community proud.”
The cast is also well aware of the significance of this multigenerational show during a time of increasing attacks on people of Asian descent, seemingly spurred by the pandemic. While they are careful not to frame a TV drama as any kind of solution to racist violence, they do note that the relative lack of Asian actors in mainstream entertainment has led to a kind of cultural invisibility.
“Representation, as much as it is about us being able to see ourselves onscreen, is more about being seen by other groups of people who are not Asian,” Liang said.
“The lack of representation 100 percent contributed to the horrifying things that are going on right now against Asians because we’re not a part of a lot of people’s narrative,” she continued. “They don’t see us in their communities; they don’t see us on TV. They forget that we are part of the world.”
Ma said that for all the martial-arts fireworks, the most potent aspect of “Kung Fu” is that it presents “a realistic portrayal of who we are.”
“We face the same problems, and some other problems that you may not know about,” he said. “We also want to bring in our cultural element of who we are so that this understanding of who we are gets deeper and deeper.”
While the show might be told through an Asian lens, Liang said she believed that the story, at its core, is universal.
“To be able to do this project that was so close to Bruce Lee’s heart is truly an honor — it shows how far we’ve come as an industry that there’s an appetite for this kind of diverse and authentic storytelling,” she said. “It’s exciting that we get to reclaim it and to say, ‘Hopefully, we’re doing it justice, the way it should have always been done.’”
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