Olivia Cheng talks breaking new ground in Warrior and real life

Journalist-turned-actor Olivia Cheng is a force to be reckoned with. When she is not kicking ass on screen, she is speaking up for her community.

Since her debut in the Emmy-winning movie Broken Trail, Cheng has never been one to shy away from bold female roles, such as the deadly assassin and concubine in Marco Polo. Now, she dazzles in Warrior, a television series inspired by the writings of Bruce Lee, as the successful owner of a brothel in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Like the legend himself, Warrior is breaking new ground in all arenas, including a predominantly Asian cast, as well as a stylish and seamless blend of classic martial arts and Old West drama, a feat entirely worthy of a genre on its own.

The show takes the audience back to San Francisco Chinatown in 1878, four years before the Chinese Exclusion Act came into effect, which as Cheng explains, was a “period that really defined the Asian narrative that still resonates today.”

From delivering adrenaline-pumping fight sequences to tackling themes of systemic racism and racial oppression, this action drama packs a powerful punch.

Warrior is incredibly funny and entertaining; [but] yes, we do not shy away from xenophobia and showing the abuses of power that happened at the high levels in terms of pitting communities against each other,” Cheng said.

Cold Tea Collective founder Natasha Jung sat down with Cheng to discuss how Warrior is tackling racism head on, how Cheng’s character is breaking stereotypes, and the importance of showing up for the Asian and Black communities.

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

BRUCE LEE LEGACY PROJECT

Hailed as a “Bruce Lee Legacy Project,” Warrior has been brought to life by Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, as well as Justin Lin, the director of The Fast and Furious, and Jonathan Tropper, the co-creator of Banshee.

It is almost unfathomable how an idea conceived 25 years ago still remains relevant today — a testament to Bruce Lee’s ingenuity. However, a television show with an Asian lead and majority Asian cast, told from the perspectives of immigrants, would not have been possible in Hollywood at that time.

“Bruce Lee’s mere presence on screen was a protest in and of itself,” the Canadian actress said. “So much of that pioneer, innovative, spirit of cultural pride, and defiance are just imbued into this show and represented so beautifully by our central Asian characters, who have always been positioned as the most important characters of the show.”

Not only is Warrior challenging traditional Hollywood stereotypes, it also highlights an important history lesson often blotted out in mainstream media and the education system.

“I really hope what Asians can get out of this is for them to see heroes on screen who look like them and who are taking on the system of white supremacy with the spirit that Bruce Lee embodied,” Cheng said.

Olivia Cheng, Miranda Raison, Hoon Lee. Photo Credit: Warner Media

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

PLAYING A REAL-LIFE BOSS

Among the cast of complex characters, strong female characters also serve as key pillars of the story. As Ah Toy, Cheng portrays a Cantonese brothel madame who wields great fortune and connections — and a sword when necessary — in the middle of a gang war and a political power struggle.

Like an onion, a term the Asian characters in Warrior often refer to each other as, there are many layers to be peeled away and revealed.

“There’s a lot of historical pain around how hyper-sexualized we are as females in this community by Hollywood,” Cheng said. “Just stick with this character and we’ll flip it on its head for you.”

Olivia Cheng. Photo Credit: Warner Media

Cheng’s character is based on a real-life figure, also named Ah Toy, who was the first Chinese prostitute in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. According to historians, she was incredibly business-savvy and made a fortune out of the prostitution business while skirting the legal system.

 “She was arguably the first Asian immigrant to use the US legal system to protect her business and her assets,” Cheng said. “This woman was boss.”

Even as a modern-day woman, Cheng resonates with the pride and defiance that she refers to as the backbone of her character.

 “As you get to know [Ah Toy], you realize she really is someone who thinks about her people,” Cheng said. “She recognizes that she is one of the only ones in Chinatown who is thriving to the point that she . . . has a luxury to think about the future of the community.”

Olivia Cheng. Photo Credit: Warner Media

“Especially during this pandemic, I have come to realize that I definitely really care about my community,” Cheng said. “I’ve spoken on behalf of the community before and I really feel like it’s important to do so now.”

SPEAKING UP FOR COMMUNITIES

Born in Edmonton, Cheng was raised by Cantonese immigrant parents who helped her cultivate a strong sense of cultural pride and identity from a young age. Through watching her parents, she was influenced by the way her dad advocated for the Asian community and led by example.

Cheng’s father paved the way for establishing the first Mandarin bilingual program in Edmonton. It is now the second largest language immersion program in the Edmonton public school system.

Despite being “a quiet and conservative man,” Cheng also describes her dad as a “real powerhouse” when it comes to organizing. In order to get the program up and running, her parents cold-called every Asian name they could find in the phone book and found a teacher.

“It influenced me in some way, not only in knowing that my dad saw a need for something and took it into his own hands, but also because he created a program where I learned to be proud of being Chinese and learned the beauty of my culture,” she said.

Having experienced racism growing up, and having worked as a broadcast journalist, Cheng feels passionate about speaking up for communities that need a voice.

“All that comes together to one: understand what it feels like; but then two: also have an experience of what it is [like] to have a platform to say something,” she said. “When you know that nobody else is in that position to say it, you kind of feel that responsibility to say it for everybody who can’t.”

DISMANTLING MODEL MINORITY

With the surge of anti-Asian sentiments during the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing global support for the Black Lives Matter movement, Warrior is painfully reflective of the racial issues the world still wrestles with.

In the series, ethnic communities are turned against each other and used as pawns in a political play between the higher powers in government.

“Part of my deep dive and reflecting over the past few months has been around this whole idea of the model minority myth and where that came from — and it came from the time that we’re examining in Warrior,” said Cheng, who was also a former ET Canada correspondent.

Olivia Cheng. Photo Credit: Warner Media

Motioning to the history books in her drawers, Cheng refers to excerpts from Chinatown newspapers that explicitly encouraged assimilation as a survival strategy, advising Asian immigrants to modify their physical appearances and affiliate themselves with white people.

“When that was so successful, I think people in power — and these are themes we examine in Warrior — start to use that success against other communities of colour,” she said. “That has created this a dynamic that also needs to be dismantled.”

It is only through unravelling and understanding the model minority myth that members of the Asian community can begin to defy the system built on racist oppression and heal from generations of pain.

In order to bridge the Asian and Black communities, Cheng believes that the history of support needs to be shared and applauded, whether in the context of the judicial system or within the entertainment industry. 

“As an Asian artist, I know that we would not have these opportunities if we were not standing on the shoulders of Black artists who have busted the gates open and made it easier for other marginalized communities to also say we want our terms,” she said.

ONCE A STORYTELLER, ALWAYS A STORYTELLER

Other than using her voice to advocate for communities of colour, Cheng is also using it to tell stories through film as an actor and a director.

Prior to becoming an actor, she was a broadcast journalist and youth and feature writer for a national Canadian newspaper.

“That experience in the media exposed me to a lot of people,” Cheng said. “It gave me a window into the human psyche [to understand] how people reacted under extreme stress, including myself.”

Her real-life interactions and observations created a foundation for interpreting characters and raw emotions on-screen, and to craft compelling human stories even under a time crunch.

“In the news every day you’re writing a script, sometimes five,” she said. “Every day you’re learning to write what visuals you have to tell a story.”

Now, she is making a foray into directing and is working on a short film, starring her co-star Dianne Doan.

“I’ve just always known that I’m a storyteller, and I think acting is a vehicle for it — it is by far my passion,” she said. “I also just love facilitating a good story, and I always wanted to create something from the ground up.”

THE SHOW TO WATCH

The highly anticipated, action-packed Season Two of Warrior will be unveiled on October 2nd.

During these uncertain and troubled times, Cheng believes the show can be therapeutic for the Asian audience.

“Especially if you’re feeling down right now about [the] Anti-Asian sentiment that’s happening in our world, this is the show to watch because we are the heroes of a time that, although set 100 plus years ago, is awfully resonant and mirroring of 2020.”

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

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