In 1971, Bruce Lee had a vision. He wanted to tell the stories of a martial artist living and working in the Old West of the late 19th century with intention, depicting the Asian community in all its fullness, complexity, beauty, and love. As Hollywood lore tells it, that idea was good enough to be reworked and whitewashed into the series Kung Fu, starring David Carradine—but without Lee’s involvement. The legendary actor died in 1973 and never saw his vision come to fruition. Almost fifty years later, his daughter Shannon Lee picked up his mantle to bring Warrior to life. Set during the Tong Wars of 1870s San Francisco, the Cinemax series sees the Wild Wild West come to life—without whitewashing—as Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), a Chinese immigrant and martial arts prodigy, navigates California’s lawlessness in pursuit of his missing sister. With an incredible cast by her side, Shannon realized her father’s dream of telling diasporic stories without compromise.
Enter Canadian actress and art-ivist Olivia Cheng. She plays a fictionalized version of the notorious real-life Ah Toy, a sex worker and madame known for amassing unprecedented levels of wealth as a landed immigrant, but also for being the first Asian woman to successfully use the U.S. court system to protect herself and her assets.
“I never thought Hollywood would invest in [Asian period pieces],” says Cheng. “The norm for many Asian actors is to play the ‘dependable exposition giver’—constantly available and helping the leads solve the case, or as a doctor in a hospital without a full character arc,” she says. “My role in Warrior is to play complexity and humanity in all its colors: joy, humor, grief, pain, conflict.”
The historic lack of equity and inclusion in Hollywood begins behind the camera and shapes the sort of narratives that make it to our screens. According to USC Annenberg’s 2020 Inclusion Report, less than four percent of top film directors are Asian-American, which has a direct correlation to the quality and quantity of roles for Asian actors. And television, usually considered more democratized, isn’t that much different. Warrior is defying all industry odds, and watching this dynamic cast and crew illuminate 19th-century San Francisco while centering the Chinese trailblazers who lived there is nothing short of monumental.
While Cheng enjoys painting a psychological portrait of a powerful and complex woman of color reduced to a footnote in American history, she’s honest about playing a sex worker when Asian women are a historically hyper-sexualized community. “At first glance, three of my most high-profile roles have been concubines and madams,” she says. “This always conflicts me, yet I [don’t] want to shy away from representing the women who survived this history and get you to think about what they endured. Because these characters are given full arcs and complexity, my hope is, if you stay with them, you’ll understand what these situations force them to do and become.”
Cheng points to the entertainment industry’s failure to imagine people of color outside these boxes. “If there were more varied representations on screen—for any culture—people wouldn’t feel as limited by the slim pickings of stories being told, especially if they’re told in ways we can humanize and relate to characters,” she says. This is where Cheng’s art and activism collide: With a short film under her belt and several projects in the works, she’s excited to jump behind the camera to expand the range of Asian stories that exist in the mainstream. “I consider myself a keeper of old stories and I look forward to building our connection to one another through storytelling,” she says.
As is our collective reality, this has not been the year Cheng anticipated. At the start, she’d just landed a part in a new series, and was excited for what the industry had to offer her. By February, the severity of the global pandemic became clear, but the worst was still to come. Trump would officially begin referring to COVID-19 as the “foreign virus” or “Chinese virus,” instigating widespread anti-Asian racism and xenophobia. This would soon take an incredibly violent turn with an uptick in hate crimes globally but especially within the United States. Cheng recalls the viral video that captured an elderly Asian man being ridiculed and assaulted in San Francisco. “I couldn’t bring myself to watch it,” she admits.
Cheng grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, a place where, she says, “I always had my identity questioned in the only home I’d ever known because I wasn’t white. Hurtful assumptions and jokes, feeling invisible or ‘other,’ and physical attacks aren’t new.” But the pandemic brought something else entirely. “Every day it felt like I was seeing something that broke my heart,” she says. She started volunteering as a driver in Vancouver Chinatown to support elderly Asian people navigating the pandemic. That’s where she witnessed a man yelling racist slurs and throwing trash at an older Asian woman with her back turned.
Cheng’s emotions are both palpable and familiar. As a Black woman, I understand her pain: Mourning is a daily experience for me and my community. Cheng explains how these events fueled her to become more active in addressing anti-Blackness. “I’m not proud that it took a pandemic for me to really understand the scope of what’s happening for Black and Brown people in America and to question what my Black friends in Canada experience daily, including from the Asian community,” she says. Cheng’s been having important conversations with those closest to her: “My dear friend of 12 years—I never knew the fears she had as a Black woman with Asian people. I didn’t know the everyday ways she struggled with finding employment and housing. And she didn’t know my fears and stories. Why didn’t we share sooner? We never really dug in until now.”
Outside of these conversations, Cheng is attending Black Lives Matter protests, doing book giveaways and political webinars with Inspire Justice, and following the hashtag #AsiansForBlackLives to organize in new ways. It’s been a time for immense growth and understanding. “It was very inspiring to see the global diaspora of Asians speaking out on behalf of our community and identifying the links between us and the Black community,” she says. This solidarity between people of color is something Cheng wants to help foster: An acknowledgement that people of color experience different levels of racism, but that there is an opportunity for us to be stronger together.
We are wrapping what has been an excruciating year and setting intention for our collective “new normal.” If we believe what Cesar Cruz said, that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, then artists like Cheng will be even more instrumental as we pick up the pieces. There is a desperate need for art that does more than reflect the times we’re in; it must reflect the empathy and relationships we’re seeking to build. That doesn’t mean we’ll always get it right—but we should always be committed to showing up, even if we don’t get it perfect the first time.
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