Kheng Hua Tan spoke with Subjectify Media about her role as Mei-Li on the CW’s Kung Fu. Tan discussed Mei-Li’s journey from season 1 to season 3, the satisfaction to be found in portraying a character with so many layers, the symbiosis between show’s cast and writers, and working with her beloved “kids.”
Singaporean actress Kheng Hua Tan portrays Mei-Li, the matriarch of the Shen family, and it is her conflict with Nicky that kicks off Nicky’s hero’s journey in the Kung Fu pilot. After many years of being “the golden child,” Nicky reaches a breaking point with her mother when Mei-Li uses what Nicky assumed was a cultural tour of China to try to find Nicky a Chinese husband, in spite of the fact that she had a long-term boyfriend at home. Abruptly tired of being the perfect child, Nicky runs off to a Shaolin monastery, cutting off all but the most basic communication with the outside world for over three years. But after the death of Pei-Ling, her shifu, Nicky finds herself back in San Francisco reconciling with her family and trying to solve the mystery of Pei-Ling’s murder.
If there is one particular genre tv convention that Kung Fu turns on its head, it’s found family. So many memorable genre shows are built around the theme of found family — Supernatural, Buffy, Our Flag Means Death. Kung Fu dares to ask the questions, what if your found family is your actual family? When Kung Fu begins, Nicky is estranged from her family and each family member is holding onto that hurt to various degrees. Her return forces everyone to reevaluate that relationship and decide how to move forward. Her relationship with Mei-Li is the most fractured. When we meet Mei-Li she is holding tightly to her hurt and anger at Nicky. Over the course of season 1, Nicky and Mei-Li rebuild their relationship and in the process, all of the relationships in the family grow into something new and stronger. Essentially they all choose, again or anew, to be a family.
One of my favorite elements of Kung Fu is that, while it is ostensibly a ‘superhero’ type show, the mytharc never overshadows the real, human problems of each character. Sometimes, yes, Nicky does need to save the world, but that doesn’t mean her parents aren’t still struggling with their business or her siblings don’t still have their own worries. From the start, Mei-Li was a character I connected with and wanted more from. After watching the pilot I remember thinking, very specifically, there has to be MORE to her. The potential for that character was evident immediately, in spite of her somewhat harsh introduction, but it’s in no way a given that a supernatural action show like Kung Fu would put focus on the parents of the fully grown adult hero and have them continue to play such important roles. It might have even be expected for Mei-Li to exist mostly as a foil for Nicky, gleaning drama or humor from conflicts in that relationship, or for Mei-Li to exist only in relation to Nicky — bring out the mom specifically to illuminate something about Nicky.
But instead, Mei-Li has continued to grow and develop outside of her relationship with Nicky, while also finding her way back to a meaningful, supportive relationship with her daughter. As the mother of a nearly-fully grown human being, I long to see that kind of relationship on television. Loving, but not necessarily perfect parents who are there to support their kids, but who are also separate, full human beings who have hopes and goals and dreams that are their own? Chef’s kiss. The way Kung Fu balances all of this inner life and growth across such a strong cast of characters is quite unique and satisfying, but I do take special delight in Mei-Li’s story.
In Kung Fu season 3 episode 3 “The Compass,” we finally got to see Mei-Li and Pei-Ling, Nicky’s mysteriously re-alived shifu, sit down and have a conversation. Pei-Ling had been carrying a measure of guilt for not reaching out to Mei-Li when she took Nicky in. Pei-Ling felt she had to keep Nicky’s confidence, but she also knew the pain Mei-Li must have experienced being cut off from her child. From the moment I became aware that a scene between them was coming, I started imagining what I wanted from it, and in our conversation review for Kung Fu season 3 episode 2, I mentioned my hopes for that scene. I was blown away by the result. Mei-Li’s ability to look back at that time and see how she had failed Nicky and to appreciate that someone else was there to step in where she could not struck such a meaningful chord for me and my parenting. I am just so grateful for all the adults in my child’s life who have been able to provide Sylvia something I could not. It takes a village, indeed.
Tan’s insights on the creative process, collaboration and, yes, parenting were so thoughtful I came away from our chat feeling almost like I’d been catching up with an old friend and listening to them philosophizing about life! While we spoke in advance of season 3’s delightfully bonkers fourth episode, “Harmony,” when it came down to it, episode 3’s poignant conversation between Mei-Li and Pei-Ling provided such fertile ground that it called for a real deep dive and an exploration of how that moment represented all the work Tan has been doing on Kung Fu so far. However, in addition to discussing that important scene and Mei-Li’s character growth, a question about cast chemistry on led to Tan saying she hoped I was able to speak with one of her main scene partners, JB Tadena, at some point. All I can say about that is, “Same, Kheng, same.”
Hi Kheng, it’s so nice to talk with you!
Hi, Nichole, it’s very nice to finally hear your voice. I’ve been reading your conversations on Subjectify and can I just tell you, several times I have laughed out loud!
Oh my goodness, everyone is so supportive of those articles. We really appreciate it. It’s a real labor of love.
It’s wonderful, Nichole. It is very in-depth. It’s very detailed. It’s very honest and I crave all of that here in North America and you guys give it to me, so it’s an honor to be speaking to you right now. Just ask me any question you want and I’ll do my best to answer.
I really wanted to talk about episode 3 and the conversation between Mei-Li and Pei-Ling, because if you read that article you know that was exactly what I was looking for out of that conversation. It was so meaningful to me, and so I wondered, I know you’re a parent as well, what were your thoughts on that conversation between the two of them?
There is a great symbiosis between our creators, our writers, our story developers, and the cast. There is a great amount of effective listening between the cast and the people that are forming our stories and developing our characters. And I must say, Nichole, that this is gold in any production. I know that you know I’m not from this country, I’m from Singapore. This is the first time that I’m on a regular main cast of a television series and everybody tells me that it highly unusual, the amount of listening that goes on between the creators, the writers and the cast. It is respectful. It is effective. It is highly enjoyable. I think that this really affects how characters are developed and stories are told on Kung Fu.
I think the conversation between Mei-Li and Pei-Ling is, to me, reflective of how sensitive our creators and our writers are. I think that sensitivity comes from a quiet observance from them of us, not just as people, but as characters — what’s working, what’s not working, what they like, what they want to develop. And, delightfully, a lot of the choices that they make, and I will only speak for myself, for Mei-Li, sit very comfortably with me. When it comes to parenting and values in parenting, not only do you see a reflection of that in that conversation between Pei-Ling and Mei-Li, but throughout the seasons you will see it. You will see how Mei-Li started and how she has developed from season 1 to season 3. You will see how the definition of parenting has extended, because parenting in the series is not just about blood. It is about love, it is about support, it is about emotional care. And you will see how I regard Pei-Ling as a parent, because she stepped in when I failed.
In essence all parents will tell you, whether they like it or not, they have needed other people who are not related by blood to step in and to help them parent. This is a beautiful scene for me as a parent, and for many people. It’s a beautiful way of looking at things. It’s a beautiful way for two women to relate to each other. It is a beautiful show of vulnerability, which, like all actors, I leap onto and and grab by the horns. I want every opportunity to shade Mei-Li’s character with, not just goodness, but also places where she is completely and utterly flawed. In three seasons the creators have given me ample opportunity to do this. I am so grateful. The Pei-Ling and Mei-Li scene is exemplary of how the writers take care of Mei-Li. I loved it, loved it, Nichole. It is gold.
I love that whole answer and it also touches a bit on another question I have, which is that in that conversation we see, from Mei-Li’s perspective, who she was when Nicky left versus who she is now and that there has been this change. Do you think that what Nicky’s return brought to Mei-Li was something that was already fundamental in herself, that she had lost and is going back to — more playfulness and more freedom in how she deals with her children — versus in season 1 when she was a bit rigid, a bit controlling? Is that something she had had before but lost, or is it a new thing that was unlocked by this experience with Nicky? And when you first saw the character did you have any idea how much Mei-Li would grow? Because as Natalie mentioned in our last article, it would almost be hard to go back and watch season 1 because of the tension in that relationship versus how it is now.
I think this is a wonderful question. I would like to answer by saying that you are absolutely right in observing that perhaps these more light and humorous and vulnerable shades of Mei-Li were something that she buried in the earlier years of parenting. As a mother, I can also say that there are phases at the beginning of parenting where you hold on to what you think is right because it’s a relationship with your child. You’re getting to know your child and you’re getting to know yourself as your child grows up. I have gone through this myself and I believe Mei-Li went through this with Nicky. She saw something truly amazing in this second daughter of hers and she, at that stage in her life, did what she thought was right to help her child to maximize and optimize her child’s potential.
And of course that potential has so much to do with her own dreams and desires and vision for what she, Mei-Li, wants and regards as successful in her own life. I think all parents do that. I don’t judge parents for that. My role as an actor playing a character is not to judge my character. I just am the character. Certainly I saw that Mei-Li was projecting her own views of success onto her child and simply because this particular child showed so much promise and she felt that her responsibility as a mother was to support that, was to push that, everything that is great that she saw, and, of course, she didn’t know her limits.
I love going back to season 1 and watching where Mei-Li came from, because it helps me so much to play a character that is 360 degrees and three-dimensional. I can see where she came from and therefore I can shift and be a shapeshifter and add more layers from that starting point. I love seeing how hard she was. I love thinking how stern she was, and then to create new lighter funnier sides of her, still stemming from the same place. And actually, when you see me talking to my husband, I am stern with him, but loving. For me, because my relationship with him is also a dimension of that same person that was a stern mother, I just have this stern, willful, determined side of Mei-Li and I love that side of her. She’s actually learning how to use that side of her in much more effective ways, not just in parenting, but also in her relationships with her husband, and with her co-workers, with Sebastian, with her new partners as well. She never lost that side of her, she just is using the willful, determined side of her in new and better ways.
I think it’s just a real gift of the show, the way the characters are all so three-dimensional. There’s not a dud in there. It’s seems very deliberate, this attempt to make all of the characters really feel like real people. You were talking about going back and that still being a part of her – that scene where Mei-Li says something like “phones at the table?” was this tiny glimpse back at what would have been this huge deal for her before, and I really loved that little callback and this different way of seeing how she dealt with that situation now.
I would like to bring up also that how the writers have created these dimensions is in the best way, which is collaborating with the different characters. For me, as an actor, what I really like is that the way that Mei-Li has evolved is not insular. She is reacting to all the different situations that the writers have created for her within the relationships that she has with the important people in her life — her children, her husband, her business. So all these changes do not come out of nowhere, which allows audiences, like yourself, to grow old with me, to grow up with me and to develop with me. This is something that I love you about this particular acting project — they don’t take any shortcuts and I love that.
You mentioned Sebastian and Mei-Li’s relationship. JB Tadena came in as a guest star, but now he’s a regular and Sebastian is obviously a part of the family. You guys had such amazing chemistry right from the get-go and I’m wondering if, as an actor, you have any insight on what makes that click between actors and specifically, you and JB. Why are you so great together?
I think chemistry —not just between actors, but between children and their parents, between friends, within a work environment — a lot of it is inexplicable, Nichole. I mean I really do believe that. Why is it that I just love one person much more than another? The minute I met JB, when he and I first sat down, the first thing that we connected on was that he and I both had a serious full-time corporate job before we became full-time actors. We really, really bonded on that because we really thought that all those years that we gave to another life really helped us to appreciate and be the actors that we are today. We became full-time actors in our adulthood and by then I think so many parts of us were already thought through and mature and making that decision to become an actor so much more grounded.
I love that about JB. I hope you get to meet him and talk to him one day. Just like all the rest of my kids, and I call them my kids, my Kung Fu kids, all of them — they have a great capacity to learn, they are pure-hearted people, they are deeply committed to their work, they have great work ethics, and they are incredibly fun and interesting to be with. That, again, is gold, so I’m not just speaking about JB, but about all of them. They are very special people. I know for the rest of our lives we will be close no matter what happens to Kung Fu. That is something that in my body of work I do not take for granted at all.
Well thank you so much. It was so nice to talk to you and even though we didn’t talk about it, episode 4 is amazing. I love how much Mei-Li is in it and you had some amazing scenes.
I loved it too. I loved it too and I loved making it. Thank you very much, Nichole, for your time.