Olivia Cheng fights for what’s right both on and off the screen. As Mei Lin in Netflix’s Marco Polo and Ah Toy in Cinemax’s Warrior, Cheng has played uniquely strong women who subvert stereotypes and overcome trauma. In particular, Ah Toy is one of the most layered and fascinating characters in Warrior. Inspired by the real life historical figure of the same name, Cheng brought the character to life with her strong and regal performance as one of the most powerful figures in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Ah Toy is also one of the only characters on the show with a dual identity, as she moonlights as a sword wielding avenger against those who abuse the Chinese, and Cheng has balanced both aspects of her character masterfully for the last two seasons.
While in real life Cheng may not cut people down with her sword (at least I don’t think she does), her voice is no less powerful, especially when it comes to speaking out against injustice. I had the chance to interview Cheng before the start of season 2 of Warrior, and it was clear how passionate she is about using her platform and voice to not only speak on Asian related issues, but to support Black, brown, Indigenous and other communities as well. I greatly appreciated Cheng’s perspective on building community, something that was inherited from her parents, and how much she respects contributing to Bruce Lee’s legacy.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Watch Olivia Cheng and the rest of the incredible Warrior cast in the season 2 finale this Friday on Cinemax!
POCCulture: How exciting is it for you to be on Warrior working with Shannon Lee, who is obviously Bruce Lee’s daughter, but herself is also an inspiration for Asian-Americans?
Olivia Cheng: I don’t really know how to capture how…almost surreal or odd it is to not only become a small part of the Bruce Lee legacy, but to be able to experience Shannon, like you said, in her own right. She’s one of the coolest, wisest, most compassionate people I’ve ever met, and I think because she was born into a family that was thrust into the spotlight for so many reasons and in so many ways, across international lines, and she’s gone through so much tragedy, I think all of that experience has shaped her into such an incredible human being. And to be part of a Bruce Lee project that has her blessing and has as much of her heart as it does her father’s spirit, is an incredible…honor. I was trying to think of a different word than honor, but it really is an incredible honor.
POCCulture: I spoke with Shannon and she mentioned how important it was for her in developing this show to have women characters who are multi-faceted, and I think Ah Toy is such a shining example of that. What do we see from her in season 2 that you put into her to further expand her character?
Olivia Cheng: Thank you. It’s a great question. The writers really gave me a lot of gifts. They gave me a lot of opportunities to show a more private and vulnerable side of Ah Toy. I love that for all the characters, all around, you get a greater sense of their origin stories. Some of the wounds and trauma that have shaped their best qualities and also in some ways continue to be weaknesses. It just makes it more relatable and human, and I think that’s so important for the audience. Specifically with Ah Toy, I think the audience comes to see that beneath the facade, beneath the very calculated veneer of control and…almost…there’s a real regal quality to Ah Toy, but beneath that, there’s still a woman who’s endured incredible trauma, sexual assault, and risen as a survivor to rebuild herself to not only survive, but thrive. But then again she’s got the conflict of how she rose to that position of thriving. And that conflict and contradiction that exists in her life and her heart is something that the writers really allowed me to explore this season and I’m really grateful for that.
POCCulture: Going back to your role in Marco Polo, you really seem to be able to take these characters who have suffered and put into difficult situations, and you subvert stereotypes and show how they’re able to overcome and that’s a huge credit to you.
Going to Ah Toy’s origin, she’s an actual historical figure, and you were aware of her before the show. How much research did you do into the actual person and how did that inform how you played the role?
Olivia Cheng: You know, I already knew about Ah Toy like you said, and all I did was revisit whatever was out there on the internet. I definitely noticed that anything that was out there had this mythical, urban legend, quality to Ah Toy, and I have yet to find anything that was in her own words about her own story. So there wasn’t too much for me to do in terms of research because I already knew so much about the history of San Francisco within the context of Asian America’s entry into America. So it really just took a settling and a patience and a trust into finding her skin and her spine. I don’t know if that makes sense…but something like this, it’s not something you can research. It’s almost like finding and allowing a part of you that understands this character to be the most dominant and live outwardly. If you meet me in life, I’m pretty goofy, I trip over things a lot, I’m always cracking jokes and I’m super animated. But when it comes to characters like Mei Lin [from Marco Polo] and Ah Toy, I become very still. I become very…almost internal. I think the camera really has to come to me to get inside my head. That’s just more about me putting forth my “shadow self” and allowing my shadow self to live fully between “action” and “cut” and getting to know how that shadow self might think and feel in the situations that the writers create for me.
POCCulture: It’s really fascinating how introspective you are about that. So on screen, that’s your shadow self. In real life, you’ve talked about being a student of the Asian immigrant experience. You’re vocal in support of social justice. Why is it so important to you to be vocal in support of social justice?
Olivia Cheng: I’ve never been asked that and this is new for me. I think I’m so used to screaming into an echo chamber…how do I explain it…I don’t know if it’s in my blood, because my parents actually met protesting outside a media station in Edmonton. I’m not even sure what the exact circumstance was, but there was an American show that had some portrayal about China or the Chinese, and the local Edmonton Chinese committee organized to protest in front of the station that aired the episode. And then my parents also went through the phone book when I was 1 or 2, and they called every Asian name they could find in the phone book to find a group of parents and a teacher who started the Mandarin bilingual program, which the last I heard…you might want to fact check this…but it was the second largest language immersion program in the Edmonton public school system.
So growing up my father’s daughter, it’s not like we talked about it, but maybe seeing his actions influenced me. My dad is such a community builder and has such a pride in cultural roots, and it was so important to him to instill that in his children. He’ll still text me in Mandarin to force me to text back in Mandarin. I sent him the Warrior trailer and I’m not sure if he didn’t watch it, but he and my mom just sent back some Youtube video from China! And now that I talk to other Asians who are the first generation to be born in Australia, England, America, Canada, I realize that a lot of that environment that my dad created for me naturally instilled in me…I don’t even have to think about it, this is part of who I am.
It just seems like, why wouldn’t I say something? I don’t think I’ve mindfully been an activist in the past, in a way I feel like I’ve been a reactivist. Especially when it hits a chord for me and I have something to say about it. It’s not even like I realize that anybody is watching. Honestly, most of the things I’ve been saying feel like they go into the ether and into this echo chamber where I’m screaming to myself. I think it’s when someone wants to argue, mock, put out a dangerous sentiment or untrue perception…I want to be careful not to make this into “us” or “them”…but when a dangerous sentiment is put out and it doesn’t jive with my lived experience, I can’t help myself, I will say something back. Not because I’m trying to instigate an argument, but because I feel like this does not reflect my understanding of my community that you’re disparaging. I’m rambling a bit. I’m still sort of new to talking about all of this.
Look, I went into the pandemic, and I didn’t think I would become an activist, and I still feel really shy using that word pertaining to myself. Like I said, I feel like I’ve been more of a reactivist with no long term strategy. Right now with this racial reckoning, and really starting to understand as a Canadian what is happening for Black, brown and Indigenous people in America and here in Canada, it’s been incredibly painful and uncomfortable, and it’s been a real wake up call for me to examine the privilege that I have as an East Asian woman that I was not tuned into what was happening to these other communities, even as I fought for my own. And that’s something…it would not be integrity for me to champion for my community and ignore similar through-lines and issues that have manifested in an even more horrific way. Anything I say for my community means nothing if I don’t say it for another community as well who maybe needs more.
POCCulture. Right. Thank you for that. Director Jon M. Chu has said that he’s also shy about being vocal and an activist, and I think our community as a whole struggles with that. But what you’re doing and saying isn’t being lost in the ether. It’s being heard and it’s impactful and important.
Olivia Cheng: I’m like tearing up on this side! Sometimes it feels like such a lonely road. I started following the hashtag #Asians4BlackLives just to see who else is out there, who else is saying something? I would love to read Jon’s comment because I think that really speaks to the idea…I didn’t even know the term “model minority” until this entire racial reckoning. And then to be horrified and at the same time compassionate with myself to understand that I benefited from being perceived as a model minority even if I did nothing to earn it. But I walked in the door and already people who want to are going to see “reliable, dependable and responsible,” and I am those things, but that’s already been set up for me. And then with me knowing Asian American history, it was a quick transition for me to also understand that this model minority myth came as a survival mechanism for Asians in this part of the world; to put our heads down, be invisible and not be a threat, and assimilate in order to survive. And we cannot forget the origins of that because it’s a different manifestation of the same system that is harming a lot of communities. And I don’t want Asians to stay silent because I know how powerful our community can be when we come together.
POCCulture: Yes! And also when we align with other communities of color too. And I think the media and public has to see that and your activism and voice is contributing to that. And by the way, I think it makes your performance as Ah Toy more impactful knowing how you are off-screen.
Olivia Cheng: If I could add one thing based on where our conversation has gone, because one thing I’m learning from being in the academic circles more and really learning to be just as passionate about listening as I am about being heard, and one thing I’ve really learned from these amazing leaders who are out there on the front lines every day, is that we cannot erase the contributions that have come before, and because this is a Bruce Lee legacy project, I really think we have to shout out that Bruce Lee was not only so innovative and ahead of his time as a martial artist and as a performer, but also as an activist. Because he understood that Hollywood and story-telling was the greatest way to put forth the beauty of his culture. And I really want to encourage anyone who is a Bruce Lee fan to watch Bao Nguyen’s Be Water on ESPN. And especially if you’re Asian and you need hope right now, and you need a blueprint for how to navigate this incredibly painful and unprecedented time, watch that documentary and let it plant some seeds and let it bloom how it’s going to bloom. It was the first thing I’ve ever seen that showed me Bruce Lee the immigrant and Bruce Lee the anti-racist and multi-racial community builder before we even had those terms or concepts laid out before us.
POCCulture: That’s the perfect bow to our conversation, to the show, and to the discussion of Bruce Lee. You said it perfectly. Thank you for your time!
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.