Bringing the immigrant experience to screen with Warrior’s Chen Tang

Actor Chen Tang talks about his two latest projects, Mulan and Warrior.

Chen Tang is a Japan-born, China-raised, Southern America-bred actor quickly making his name and presence known in the industry. With recent roles in Disney’s live-action Mulan and season two of HBO Cinemax’s Warrior series, Tang’s past two years have involved lots of flights and new IMDB credits.

Cold Tea Collective’s Natasha Jung connected with Tang to talk about his two recent major projects, bringing his immigrant experience to his acting, and the parallels in racism between fiction and reality. 

To hear the complete interview, check out the full Pearls of Wisdom Podcast episode.

Getting started with Warrior

Warrior is a kung-fu action drama following a cast involved in various Tong factions of the late 1800’s San Francisco, Chinatown. The show is based on an original concept by Bruce Lee. It is executive produced by Justin Lin and Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter.

Tang enters the show in season two as Hong, who he describes as a “baby-faced assassin from Qing dynasty China.” 

While Tang says they aren’t necessarily striving to be historically accurate, the show aims to honour the experiences of people in that period in history—while making it entertaining.

“The interesting thing is that we’re not given a lot of backstory about Hong,” said Tang. “I had to fill a lot of that in. I had a lot of my own inner secrets as I navigated the season.”

See also: Olivia Cheng talks breaking new ground in Warrior and real life

Mulan vs Warrior

After playing Yao in Mulan and Hong in Warrior, he says that the projects filming processes “couldn’t be two more different boats.”

When working on a large studio feature like Mulan, “everything is planned and done almost to an inch of its life.” On the other end, Warrior had a smaller team and required some scrappiness and creativity to make the most of their budget.

“We punch above our weight, no pun intended,” said Tang. “[HBO] encouraged us to work with producers. ‘Whatever ideas you have, we’ll meet you halfway.’ For an artist, it’s a lot of fun.”

See also: Mulan: A critical look at its portrayal of feminism and Chinese culture

Bringing the immigrant experience to screen

After travelling to Cape Town, South Africa for the first time to shoot the series, Tang says playing Hong, a newcomer to America, wasn’t too far off from his own experiences.

“I thought, ‘How perfect.’ This is a guy who comes to a new country, basically an alien world,” says Tang. “It was a very new thing for me, living in a new country and working for a new company.”

Cape Town wasn’t Tang’s only experience moving to a foreign land. Born in Kobe, Japan, he spent most of his childhood in what he calls the “deep south of China,” the Guangxi region, right at the border of China and Vietnam. He then immigrated to Memphis, Tennessee where he picked up a Southern accent that still surprises people to this day.

“It was a cocktail of different cultures and experiences,” says Tang, who frequently went back and forth between the U.S and China. 

For him, the immigrant experience meant he never quite felt like he had a “home, home.”

Although he connects to the Asian-American experience, there are many parts of him that he considers more Chinese than American. 

As a big believer in “the malleability of the human mind and spirit,” Tang believes people can absorb and adapt to their surroundings through “osmosis.”

“It’s all about the sum of the experiences we’ve had,” he says. “I’ve experienced that firsthand, being able to flow into different communities. When you’re a child, it’s a survival mechanism.”

“I love exploring different peoples’ lives, my characters’ lives. There’s a galaxy of meaning behind every little thing. It’s an infinite playground to explore.”

History repeats itself

Given the political climate of the show’s setting, rampant, anti-Chinese racism is a major theme in Warrior. In the show, politicians use the Chinese community as scapegoats for the death of a white woman. A mob of Irish workers hunts down Chinese laborers, blaming them for stealing their jobs, while police and politicians look the other way.

Tang says that it’s “crazy” that Warrior is releasing season two at a time where anti-Asian sentiment is at a high amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This happened, 150 years ago, and things don’t change because we didn’t talk about it enough. Now that it’s literally happening again, it’s so relevant.”

Shining a light on the underrepresented experiences of Chinese immigrants in 19th century America, “albeit in a fantasized way,” is something Tang was happy and proud to be a part of with the Warrior series.

“I read maybe half a paragraph on this in history books,” said Tang. “They were here for the railroads. Done.”

See also: Opinion: The coronavirus is scary but it is not an excuse for racism

Representation and identity

For Tang, the endgame of Asian representation is not to have shows be recognized for Asian representation, but rather, be known as shows that happen to have Asian actors in it.

“When we were shooting [Warrior], it never felt like we were otherized. It never felt like an Asian show,” said Tang. “It just happened to be that a lot of the main cast was Asian because that’s who the characters are. The refreshing thing, it wasn’t a big deal.”

“We’re in the entertainment industry. It’s entertaining, it’s a fun show,” says Tang.

Looking back on his childhood, Tang wishes he could go back in time and tell his younger self, “you are enough.” He remembered a time where he said he would’ve “given up everything to not be apart of this culture.”

“Looking back, everything we’ve gone through makes us who we are,” said Tang. “Who you were, all our backgrounds, all the things you are, there’s nothing else quite like it and you should be proud.”

To hear the complete interview, check out the full Pearls of Wisdom Podcast episode.

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