The original “Kung Fu” is a relic of its time. The series, which ran from 1972 to 1975, starred actor David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk who traveled through the American West helping others and outrunning a bounty on his head — all with the power of the martial arts on his side. Of course, Carradine was not Asian in any way and with our current ability to cast authentically, it make sense to reboot the series in a way that promotes a more positive depiction.
“Kung Fu,” which premiered on The CW on April 7, tells the story of Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang), a young Asian-American woman who spends three years in a shaolin monastery only to return to her native San Francisco when her mentor is murdered. Neither Liang nor showrunner Christina Kim had a deep familiarity with the original series prior to embarking on this iteration.
“Looking back, and just thinking of the time that this first aired, it was such a groundbreaking show in so many ways,” Kim told IndieWire. “This idea of a main character using Buddhist wisdom, and spirituality, and kung fu skills to help people. It’s such a novel idea.” Veteran actor Tzi Ma, who plays Nicky’s father Jin, watched the original when it aired, describing it as “funky.” He said it’s important to bring up how the original series provided opportunities for Asian performers whose choices were often limited back in the 1970s.
“It was as an opportunity for a lot of Asian-American actors to work,” he said. “I watched it for that reason. I got to see Robert Ito, James Shigeta, Mako, Nancy Kwan, Kam Yuen, Pat Morita, Keye Luke. An all-star Asian-American acting roster!” Ma said, and noted that, if anything, Carradine himself was the fortunate one for getting to work with such a lineup. “Because of all the martial arts in the show all the Asian-American black belt ranked [members] got a chance to do it.”
For Liang, this series was a chance to tell this story in a way that acknowledges the past lack of representation. “It’s all the more special to know that we’re telling the story from this perspective now,” she said. “Maybe that’s how it should have been told from the beginning.” But where the original series provided Ma an opportunity to look at Asian-American stars of the studio era, this new take on “Kung Fu” wants to expand and attract an entirely new audience who haven’t felt seen onscreen. Liang, for example, said she was too young as a child to realize she didn’t see anyone who looked like her onscreen.
“It wasn’t until I became an adult and reflected on my childhood that I realized I never saw someone who looked like me [who] I could look up to,” she said. “So it’s with hindsight that I realized I didn’t feel represented. I’m just excited that there will be young Asian boys and girls out there who will feel represented by the show.” Ironically, the opportunity to work opposite Ma, who was recently listed by Vulture as one of the best character actors working today, was a big deal in Liang’s household.
Her mother, who didn’t know what a pilot was, “freaked out” to discover Ma was playing Liang’s father. “That’s just to speak to the legend that is Tzi Ma,” Liang said. “He’s been doing the work, laying down the groundwork for us for decades and to be able to work opposite him and watch him has been a masterclass for me.” Liang said seeing him play a warmhearted, kind, fun father, in contrast to the stereotype of the cold Asian father, was a trope she was excited to see broken.
Breaking barriers was a big deal for “Kung Fu,” from the deliberate decision to transform the character into an Asian-American female who trains at an all-female monastery, to having scenes utilize Mandarin subtitles. “The studio was 100 percent behind it and they supported me,” Kim said. On top of that, Kim also wanted a diverse group of directors and writers. “Having women in positions of power is really important,” she said. “In our writers’ room we’re a split, 50/50, male/female which is still unusual, sadly, for the time.” Kim said she felt the need to uplift and give as many opportunities as she could.
It’s hard, though, to discuss “Kung Fu” without acknowledging the growing anti-Asian racism that has popped up in the headlines over the last several months. Kim explained that she’s “heartbroken and outraged.” “We need to come together as a society to condemn these terrible acts of violence,” she said. “I don’t think my TV show is the solution but I really do hope shows like ‘Kung Fu’ [are] going to bring about greater cultural awareness and acceptance of Asians.”
It’s a bittersweet time to release this series, but Liang similarly hopes there’s an opportunity to do good. She said the series doesn’t seek to depict all Asian-American experiences, but one specific set of characters that can be relatable to others. “It seems silly to boil down anti-Asian racism and hate crimes to a lack of representation but it really is a huge part of it,” she said. “If we’re not in people’s homes, on their screens…we just continue to be other, to be seen as unrelatable and not fully human.”
“Kung Fu” airs Wednesdays on The CW.