If the Huang kids thought Orlando was a culture shock, wait until they hit Taipei.
On the Season 3 premiere of “Fresh Off the Boat,” the Huang family takes a trip to Taiwan, so that Louis (Randall Park) can mend fences with his soon-to-be-married brother Gene (Ken Jeong). While Jessica (Constance Wu) is excited to return to her home country, her boys aren’t so sure what to expect.
Creator Nahnatchka Khan told IndieWire about the importance of the Huangs making the trip. “For us it was really, the Asian-American, the Taiwanese-American experience,” Khan said. “That hyphen in there is really important because the kids were born in America. That is part of their identity. We really wanted to explore what that meant when they were going back to their parents’ country for the first time.
“When they first arrive… [Evan] is talking about being a tourist and going to the AAA to get pamphlets,” Khan continued. “[Jessica is] like, ‘You don’t need that. You’re not a tourist. You’re home.’ That idea is interesting as kids to sort of figure that out.”
Meanwhile, both Jessica and Louis are finding difficulty adjusting after two decades away. “Yes they were born there and lived half their life there, but they’ve also lived the past 20 years in the United States,” Khan said. “What does that experience do to you? Do you ever feel like you belong in one place or another? Do you feel like you’re anything in this? All of the thematic things really fit into the DNA of our show.”
Shooting on Location
Khan knew that in order for the episode to have the right impact, it couldn’t be faked by shooting in Los Angeles. She credits producers Melvin Mar and Justin McEwan for making the budget work in order to shoot in Taiwan. The show partnered with EVA Air, met with ministers of culture for Taipei and received tax breaks.
During one scene shot like a music video, Eddie (Hudson Yang) is seen sporting Air Jordan 11s while surveying Taipei from Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall.
“It’s huge, like an entire city block. We shot that first thing in the morning,” Khan said. “We were able to bring in that lowrider car on hydraulics, which was interesting and super fun. A lot of tourists were taking a thousand pictures because no one could understand what was going on, like ‘What is this car doing here?’”
The episode also features the elaborate Grand Hotel, bustling Dihua Street and a number of cityscapes. “Boat” had to avoid (or painted out) the Taipei 101 financial center skyscraper, since it was erected years after “Fresh Off the Boat’s” 1990s setting.
Joining the Huang family on the show and in marriage is popular Taiwanese model-actress Ann Hsu, who gamely played Gene’s bride-to-be Margaret. “We knew we wanted to cast a local Taiwanese actress for his fiancee, and the Taiwanese crew suggested her,” Khan said. “We had a Skype session with her, and she was so funny and a fan of the show. It was crazy to be out there with her. We had paparazzi everywhere.”
Khan also said the show was fortunate to use a local Taiwanese production crew, which Mar arranged through Ang Lee and producer David Lee. Despite the language barrier, the episode was able to shoot in record time — only four days as opposed to the usual five. At first, Khan tried relaying her directions through multiple people until it got translated to the camera operators in Mandarin.
“After a while, that was not going to work. It was going to take way too long. I just started talking directly to the camera guys,” said Khan. “We don’t speak the same language, but when you’re talking about the shot, you would sort of just do hand gestures for what you want… They understand exactly what filmmaking is and what main characters are doing and the rhythms of the scene, and they were laughing at the rap video stuff.”
“I think the first episode sets in motion a season theme for us of identity. We keep coming back to that idea as we move forward to the Season 3 episodes of really focusing in on what that means and the different versions of it,” Khan said.
“We have an episode coming up, which will air a week before the [real-world] election, which deals with the election in ‘96, when the show takes place 20 years ago,” she added. “It’s amazing how relevant it still is. First of all, it was Clinton vs. Dole 20 years ago. They’re talking about Clinton in the episode, and Hillary is running [now]. So a big issue back then as it is today is immigration. That sort of becomes an issue for our family. We found ourselves coming back to that idea of identity.”
When Eddie’s Idols Fall
From the start of the series, Eddie’s main way of relating to the world and his peers is through rap music. Events in 1996 and 1997, however, will have a profound effect on his life.
“Even for Eddie’s character this year, this is when Tupac dies,” Khan said. “That’s a big deal for him. And then later on in the season, Biggie dies. So it’s like in ‘96 Tupac died, and then in ‘97 when you get into the spring, that’s when Biggie died. Obviously we’re a comedy and we’re doing it in an entertaining way, but it comes down to identity. We keep coming back to that word.”
Chinese New Year
Just as some TV series have an annual Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas episode, “Fresh Off the Boat” is owning Chinese New Year as its traditional holiday episode.
“Every year we’re going to do a Chinese New Year episode. We’ve got that planned,” Khan confirmed. “Since last year was our first one, we kind of introduced the idea to the American viewer of what this is and what it means. So this year we want to focus on the idea of starting the year with a clean slate because that’s part of the Lunar New Year. You want to go into it and ensure good luck for the year with no grudges, no debt. You want a clean slate going in so you can welcome in the good luck and the good fortune. It’s the Year of the Ox I think. 1997.”
“Fresh Off the Boat” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.