INTERVIEW – ‘Warrior’ and ‘Mulan’ Star Chen Tang Brings the Light to All His Roles

Whether you see Chen Tang on screen or speak with him in person, the first thing that you notice about the Asian-American actor from Memphis, TN is that has a truly infectious joy. We all need the kind of joy that Tang has. He brought that joy to Disney’s live-action Mulan as Yao, and brought that joy in season 2 of Cinemax’s Warrior as a new member of the Hop Wei, Hong.

Hong has quickly become one of my favorite new characters on Warrior. It’s not easy to make an impression and stand out when you’re part of such an incredible cast, but Tang managed to do just that from his first episode. Watching Tang in 2020 feels like we’re getting to watch a shooting star just as it begins its ascent.

Beyond his effervescent personality and impressive martial arts skills, Tang also plays the first openly gay character on Warrior. I got a chance to speak with Tang about his experience immigrating from China to Memphis, TN, what it was like being an Asian kid growing up in the South, and how important it is for him to play a gay character on the show.

Below is part 1 of a 2-part interview. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Watch Chen Tang on Cinemax’s Warrior every Friday at 10 PM and on Disney’s Mulan available on Disney+!

Chen Tang Photo
Chen Tang
Credit: Ryan West Photo

POCCulture: Your projects this year have been amazing. 2020 has been awful for everyone…except maybe for you! [Laughing]

Chen Tang: No man! [Laughing] I think 2020 is sort of…I was just saying on an interview earlier, I was like, this is cocoon time for I think everyone. It’s a great time to go inward and I’m always very, very grateful to be on two projects like this that are just dreams come true. But also to have something during this pandemic. I’m very, very grateful for that. So I’m super thrilled to talk about the projects and you know, we gotta support each other. We’re all fighting the good fight and representation is also a pretty big thing for me too just by nature, you know, being an Asian-American in the entertainment industry. We’ve got to do our part.

POCCulture: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more. We’ve got to support each other. And I think the Asian-American community has started to recognize and embrace that. And I definitely want to talk with you about that, but first, my burning question to start is – how did a Chinese family end up in Memphis, Tennessee?!

Chen Tang: Oh, man! Well, let me just say first off, Memphis, Tennessee is the greatest city in the world! I’m always gonna put on for my city. But to answer your question, we immigrated here because my parents got jobs at the hospital, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. They’re headquartered in Memphis. So that’s where we landed and they were what brought us out of China and let me grow up in a deep South life.

POCCulture: That’s amazing. So what was it like being an Asian American kid growing up there? How old were you and what was it like growing up that time?

Chen Tang: I was about six or seven, so quite young. I always went back to China continuously growing up, so I’m still very close to my Chinese culture, but believe it or not, Memphis has a lot of Asian people. The deep South has a lot of Asian people. People don’t realize that! People are always like, “Oh you’re from the South!” and I’m like, “Yeah, there’re a lot of us.”

And it’s a very unique and sadly underrepresented slice of our community. And I hope to change that one day because I grew up with a Southern accent. That’s how I learned English, so I have a natural Southern accent. Honestly, it was a very cool city to grow up in. There’s something about Memphis, man…it’s just got soul. It’s a mostly Black city. And, you know, when you’re a kid, you don’t even question it. You don’t even think about, like, this is what it is. I was just like, “Oh, this must be how America is. This is how people talk. Nothing but Black people!” And that’s America to me. So to have that perspective and then later on growing up and going to different places, I’m like, “Wow, okay! It’s very, very different [in other places].

I really think growing up in, especially Memphis, in particular…and when I say it has soul, I think it’s just, it’s a Blues city. Everybody seems to be musical. Everybody seems to have a very clear sense of who they are. I don’t know why, but it really influenced me a lot as an artist. Now that I’m doing this as a living, to always really connect to your sense of authenticity, to your sense of truth, that was one of the things that was always ingrained in us since we were little in Memphis.

Chen Tang in Mulan
Chen Tang as Yao in Disney’s Mulan

POCCulture: That’s very unique and absolutely fascinating. How has growing up in Memphis, like you said, a majority Black city, formed your worldview about America? How has that impacted how you’ve been experiencing the kind of social justice push over the last few months and everything that’s been going on?

Chen Tang: It’s sort of interesting because, you know, Memphis is also sort of ground zero for the Civil Rights Movement. And I will admit…it’s gotten better over the years, but I will admit, race relations have always sort of been in the forefront. Because even though Memphis is mostly a Black city, it’s also very cosmopolitan. Growing up in the deep South, you experience things with race relations, with conflict and racism and all these things.

But you want to know something interesting? Weirdly, and this is purely anecdotal, this is from my own experience, it seems that because there’s a history of conflict and there is possible conflict currently…because people have conflict, they weirdly seem to understand each other better. It’s sort of like, the conversation is open and people have to deal. Like they live together, they have to deal with each other, and through that, you actually get a sense of better understanding, because you understand why people feel the way they do. It’s sort of like that thing, after you fight, and then you make up. This thing that we’re going through in this country, it’s really always been there, brother. It just has not been highlighted until now, and possibly because the pandemic has been a sort of catalyst for all the stuff. Make no mistake about it, it’s not all sunshine and lollipops, but with that being said, it’s my hope that through conflict can come understanding. It’s like if you have a wildfire, everything gets burned to the ground, in a way, but…and not that I want things to be burned to the ground! Don’t take that as what I’m saying! It’s a simple analogy. But the soil gets regrown and refertilized. We could create something…in 2020, in this generation, and especially my generation, the young people of this generation, we really have a chance and opportunity here to not only see each other as human beings, but to grow and become better than we were.

POCCulture: That’s like the best answer. I’ve ever heard. I think that’s so introspective and insightful. Because especially in the social media world we live in. It’s so easy to be in an echo chamber and we’re further and further apart from those who have different views.

Chen Tang: You want to know something about that? I think the biggest problem is people don’t take the time to listen. Look, someone’s gonna have a different opinion, but you can judge it or you can accept it and…that’s actually one of the cornerstones of acting in general is listening. And what it really means is, you can hear, but you may not be listening. What listening really means is to actually accept what the other person is giving you. You don’t have to like it, but you have to accept it, and the moment that you judge it and make it wrong, you actually cut off all communication right there. You cut off any possibility of empathy. Because empathy starts with understanding and the choice to put yourself in another person’s shoes. But I think one of the biggest problems in this world right now is that people don’t take the time to put themselves in other people’s shoes from a place of understanding, rather than immediately they go to judging. That’s not listening. That’s judging before before you understand them.

Chen Tang in Warrior
Chen Tang as Hong in Cinemax’s Warrior

POCCulture: It’s actually a perfect segue to your character in Warrior, Hong, because he’s dropped into this show and is the new guy, both to us and within the show, and is misunderstood by everyone from the beginning. What was it like for you being the new guy in a very close cast?

Chen Tang: Well, first off, entering a new show is never easy. It’s always a challenge because you have to like, sort of, fit in this life with them. However with Hong, in particular, it was actually a blessing in disguise to feel that way; feel like the new guy. I was like “This is how Hong feels. Done.” My work is done! [Laughing] I know how it feels. And also you’re in this new place, we shot in Cape Town, you know, like, this is literally how Hong feels! You come to an exotic new place, everything’s new, smells, languages, everything. What that inspired in me was this sense of wide open curiosity and joy. Which a lot of people told me that’s very apparent in the way I play Hong.

POCCulture: Yes!

Chen Tang: And that was by design. Because it all came from this sense of who Hong was and where he came from. I am a gay man from the end of the Qing dynasty, which is not exactly the most liberal place! [Laughing] So this is a person who’s been judged all his life and had to hide all his life. So when you come to a new place where nobody knows you, no matter what you had been running away from or suffering from before, everything could be very fresh. It’s like a fresh start. And that’s very exciting. I was like, “This is exciting. I’m here! Anything’s better than where I was! Everything’s great!” [Laughing] In that perspective, to come into a show, that was really cool. Our show…I love our show…it can get heavy and dark sometimes. And one of the things that [Executive Producer] Jonathan Tropper said to me was, “I just love the way you played Hong because not only was it seamless, but it was cool because it was a completely different energy and it brought the light. You brought the light!” And I was like “That’s such a nice compliment!” So yeah, it all helped a lot. You know, even the real life experience, because I took it and made it a part of it.

POCCulture: That’s such a great perspective because I completely agree that Hong is such a contrast to everything else kind of going on around him in Chinatown at that moment. He’s almost bizarrely joyful. And what you’re saying about his perspective as an immigrant, as a gay man, and feeling like this is fresh start, makes a lot of sense.

I really love that Hong is the first openly gay character on the show. So that obviously adds a huge layer of diversity and representation on the show. What does that mean to you to be able to add that additional level of important representation on Warrior?

Chen Tang: It’s…it’s just truly an honor. Something that I do not take lightly. And for me, what I love about the way they approached my sexuality was, they didn’t shine…and this was a direct quote from Jonathan [Tropper], “We’re not going to shine microscope on you, you just happen to be gay.” And that really is representation. That’s the endgame of our quest for representation, isn’t it?

You’re not an Asian writer. You’re just a writer. You’re just a human being. And what was really cool about it was like, you know what? Hong is gay. But the core of it is actually not that you happen to like men or women, it’s literally that you love someone else, another human being. To feel that and to have that, to try to represent and respect that, and honor that and show that…that to me is a big honor.

I’ll never forget man, I’ll share with you a little story. We were having the wrap party almost at the end of shooting. And the crew is there and I finally got to meet the man who designed my weapon. My chain weapon. He was the props master and his name was David. And David came up to me in the party, he looked me in the eye and said, “I’m David, I designed the weapon. This weapon represents…it’s very, very important to me and Hong is so important to me because I’m gay. And to me, it means so much to see a gay man who doesn’t hide it, doesn’t make a big deal out of it, is okay with who he is. But also is a badass and strong but sensitive and loving at the same time. And to me, it means so much for me to make this weapon for you because this is sort of Hong’s hidden strength. It represents Hong in a nutshell. Because it’s just a necklace, you can’t see it, but it’s always close to you and it’s deadly at the same time. And that’s your power.” He shared with me so much about, “I know what it feels like to be thought less of or to be underestimated. And Hong is so underestimated throughout the season. He’s not even seen sometimes. It means so much to me that the way you played him was to respect that and honor that.” And I was like, I’ll take forever. It made me very emotional. That to me is like the end game isn’t it? Not be a gay man. Just a man. That’s who you are.

POCCulture: I love that. That’s such a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing that.

Thanks to Chen Tang for taking the time to chat with me. Part 2 of our conversation coming soon!