While we in the US are typically more familiar with its meaning as a kickass martial art possibly practiced by pandas, the term “Kung Fu” (功夫, pinyin gōngfu) in Chinese actually refers to any sort of study or discipline that has been mastered through hard work. For example, if you were really good at making burgers because you spent years studying the art of the burger and perfecting the ultimate recipe, your cooking skills would be “kung fu.”
It is perhaps appropriate, then, that Albert Kim and Greg Berlanti‘s new series, titled Kung Fu, does not seem to be about martial arts at all. Evidently, the show is, in fact, a procedural, and centers around a kung fu studio that’s secretly a center dedicated to helping down-and-out Chinese Americans. The hour-long drama, which has been picked up for a pilot at Fox, also features a Chinese-American woman as the lead.
After the explosively popular Crazy Rich Asians, which proved to moviegoers that Asians can do more than martial arts, math, and piano, Asian-American stories have been on the rise, particularly in television. Deadline notes that the original incarnation of this sequel series, developed by Fox and Berlanti Productions, was a lot more straightforward and maintained the martial arts aspect of the 1972 original. The reboot will no longer involve the old walk-the-earth model.
ABC also has two Asian-American led shows in the works, and HBO recently announced an Asian-American series, as well, titled KTown. All of these projects have Asian Americans behind and in front of the camera, and none of them seem to be about martial arts, math, or playing the piano. None of this would have been possible without the success of Crazy Rich Asians. And I think that’s fantastic.
I won’t bore you with the exact same spiel all over again about how representation matters, because Pierce put it better than I, but I think the manner of representation that these non-martial arts dramas are putting forth is important. As a model minority, we Asians tend to get a slightly longer short stick than everyone else. We don’t get the glares and suspicious looks from old white folks (at least, not in most places), we aren’t shot by cops, and the US government is not yet actively hunting us down.
And yet, we still get shoeboxed into a particular position, even if it’s one that my high school classmates told me for years was supposed to be a good thing. You gotta be a doctor or a lawyer. If you want to play basketball or be in movies, tough. Many of the stars of Crazy Rich Asians themselves noted that they went into other professions before seriously considering the movies, with Ken Jeong possibly being the best example, since he’s, like, an actual medically certified doctor.
But anything can be kung fu. Brilliant performances by Asian-American actors are kung fu. Jeremy Lin has kung fu. The writers and talent behind these series all have kung fu. Heck, as an aspiring cartoon writer, I’m practicing my kung fu with this article right now. The spirit behind the term kung fu as intended is, indeed, perhaps the most American value of them all: that with dedication and training, you can achieve whatever you want to.
There is perhaps some irony in the fact that a show as chock full of cultural appropriation as the original 1970’s Kung Fu has been reimagined in this time of representation, but, to appropriate language from my white high school classmates, “I don’t mean that in a BAD way!”