“I joke that Tzi Ma has the title of the America’s best Asian-American father. I’m America’s worst Asian-American father,” said Perry Yung in a bit of self-deprecation.
It’s an emotion fans of his might not expect from an actor who has played his fair share of tough characters, such as Hop Wei leader Father Jun from Warrior, whom Yung described as “an archetype of power and control” and “a menace” for other characters in the series. The series recently finished its second season and has moved from Cinemax to HBO Max. It’s there that fans hope the series can continue into a third season.
Indeed, in real life, Yung seems relaxed, his tone gentle and inviting. But underneath that is the throughline he shares with his characters–an intense groundedness in himself, his emotions, and his opinions, particularly where racial and social justice are concerned. Yung allows his own experiences and knowledge to inform how he tackles characters that could become flat villains in other actors’ hands.
“The character came from my historical understanding of Chinese in America and…how systems of oppression affected the Chinese culture, aside from African black, Latinx culture and other [cultures in America], because I had my minor is an Asian American studies. So, I already knew who that character was.”
Yung also knew of the era from his time playing Ping Wu, an opium den proprietor in New York’s Chinatown on The Knick, set in 1900.
“I already had the history of why the Chinese were sort of penalized in Chinatown, [the fact that] we couldn’t leave Chinatown because if we did, [white people in power] wanted to keep us together in one place to keep an eye on us,” he said. “There were laws against Chinese marrying [white people] and being able to move up in society. They’re all kind of taxes against Chinese…so they couldnt actually make it like white folks.”
That history informed much of Yung’s monologues in the series, such as the one he gives in the first episode explaining to his son Young Jun (Jason Tobin) and Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) why he’s such a force to be reckoned with.
“It’s because I [as Father Jun] fought in the Opium Wars,” he said. “I’ve fought off the white imperialists in China who were spreading opium, so [Father Jun] is already a revolutionary. I liken him to one of my heroes, Malcolm X, as opposed to Martin Luther King Jr., who is another hero. In this context of a Hollywood TV show, Malcolm X would probably be a stronger choice based on the [series’] writing, because he’s going to take an eye for an eye, by any means necessary. I’m going to protect my people. If you’re going to attack us, we’re going to attack you back stronger.”
America typically thinks of X as the “villain” because of his hardline stance on fighting racism. He’s often contrasted to King’s nonviolence, often exploited as a tool to keep Black people in line. The truth, though, is that both men are two sides of the same coin. Both shared the same duality of righteous anger and loving warmth. The same is true of Father Jun–even though we don’t see his warm side often in the series, it has to be there.
Yung alluded to this when talking about his research into X’s life, which included reading the work of activist Yuri Kochiyama, who became part of X’s inner circle.
“She said several times…he was such a warm human being. He was so warm and nice,” Yung said, adding that X would come to Kochiyama’s Harlem apartment, where she would hold activist-minded, anti-white supremacist meetings. “And when he came, she was blown away at how warm he was, and I believe it because you have to have that to balance out the other. Otherwise you’re not a balanced human being. To be able to do what he did, to have that power and focus…Kochiyama said that Malcolm said you have to understand where you’re coming from and your history and how it relates to politics, especially in America.”
Yung’s portrayal of Father Jun lives in that concept of understanding history and, more specifically, how whiteness works in America. To defeat your enemy, you have to understand them after all, and for Father Jun, triumph over whiteness means exploiting it to benefit your bottom line.
“I think in the second episode…he has a speech after Ah Sahm gets arrested,” he said. “…He talks about how Chinese can’t buy land and they get blamed for this and that. What are we supposed to do? Well, this is how we do it–we make money off them. So he’s already a thinker [in that] he has an understanding of the situation and the laws that are preventing them from succeeding.”
Perhaps Father Jun’s ability to think several steps ahead is also a callback to Warrior‘s originator, Bruce Lee. A philosopher as well as a martial artist, Lee wrote down his observations of America’s relationships to race and class, becoming the basis for the show we see today. While Koji’s portrayal of Ah Sahm has Lee’s physical attributes and mannerisms, Father Jun symbolizes Lee’s intensity of thought and observation.
“It’s amazing,” Yung said of working on the series. “I mean, I kept pinching myself, I can’t believe I’m shooting this series because Bruce Lee was my hero. It’s why I’m an actor.”
Yung recalled the first time he saw Lee on screen, which profoundly affected him as a child.
“When I was a kid growing up, I was the youngest of three boys, and my parents were busy working–they were immigrants doing the traditional Chinese American jobs, and I was often left home alone. So, it was the late 60s and early ’70s, and I just watched a lot of television,” he said. “And what was on television at the time? Mainstream Hollywood movies, television shows that all have [white men]…At the time, I wanted to be those guys. I thought I could be like Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis. I thought I could be that guy, until one day, I saw Bruce Lee on the screen in Chinatown in a movie, and I went, “Oh my God, no, that’s the guy. That’s the guy I could be. He looks like me.”
“In all of his movies, he’s fighting oppression, and he opened my eyes to what Chinatown was [and] what it means to be oppressed in Chinatown. There was a big, white world out there that we rarely went out into…would my parents feel safe going outside of Chinatown?” he continued.
Through Bruce Lee’s popularity, Perry saw how racial groups, such as Black Americans, could find common ground with Chinese Americans instead of harboring tensions.
“There was tension between Black people and Chinese. But when Bruce Lee’s movies came out, everything changed,” he said. “We would go to the downtown theaters right on Broadway…and there would be lines around the corner, Black people dressed in kung fu clothes. And that’s when we would go, ‘Wow, I think we’re having an effect on the culture here.’ Chinese culture is having an effect on Oakland culture. We’re no longer feeling threatened. And when we’re walking down the street to get in line to see Enter the Dragon, you have Black people high-fiving us. That gave us all a common enemy and we know who the enemy is.”
Yung’s realization of the common enemy, white supremacy, informs much of Yung’s artistic expression, even in the most subtle ways. One of the few moments the first season has of Father Jun at some level of peace is before the duel between Ah Sahm and the rival tong’s fighter Li Yong (Joe Taslim). Here, we see Father Jun playing a flute from the old country, a direct insertion of Yung’s talent with flute-playing, making, and collecting. But even with something as relaxing as flute-playing, Yung inserts his focus on activism and social justice.
As the Georgia runoffs were heating up, Yung put some of his flutes up for auction to raise money for the grassroots political organizations that helped Georgia turn blue. And with every role he takes, he’s advancing Asian representation in American media. Such as his upcoming part in Eddie Huang’s directorial debut Boogie. Yung plays another hardcore father, but this time he’s the father of aspiring NBA star Alfred “Boogie” Chin (Taylor Takahashi). From the trailer, it looks like Boogie will tackle various themes at once, such as how Asian masculinity is often challenged in America, interracial relationships such as the one between Boogie and Eleanor (Taylour Paige), and living between cultures. Through Yung’s role as a father intent on his son living up to his forebears, Yung once again brings that Father Jun-Malcolm X spirit of using any opportunity as a means to change society.
“What do I want my art to say about my experience as a human being on this planet?” he said. “I want art to be helpful for the individual. To give a moment of self-reflection and respond with the right way of thinking.”
“With the flute-making specifically, it’s the zen tradition of reflecting, meditation, going into yourself and questioning, observing the inner mind,” he said. “And through that process, you might find what you like and don’t like, and…hopefully what you don’t like is things that cause harm. That would persuade you to make [your] actions shift [and create] happiness, less suffering, compassion…Everybody is responsible for their own happiness, but you can use compassion to help deal with suffering. So my art, my flute-making, should alleviate suffering.
Right now, Yung said, the most prominent form of suffering comes from racism.
“If I can let my flutes speak for themselves and get into the hands of people who want to donate to FairFight.com and [support] Stacey Abrams,” he said, “that means they’ve put their money into helping society and that they get a flute that could help with alleviating pain.”[T]hey send the money to alleviate white supremacy, and then they get a tool that allows them to do introspective questioning. That’s the deep work–ask yourself how could you help? How could you make your own life better for society?…Through art, if I could do it in a way in films like Bruce Lee, somehow underneath my work as an actor, under these villainous, bad characters that I play, people will say, ‘That guy actually has something to say other than being a bad dad.'”
Yung has added to his “bad dad” resume with the character Wang Kei Yu from Red Rope Production’s A Father’s Son, an upcoming short film directed by Underneath the Grey‘s Patrick Chen. Based on the work of crime novelist Henry Chang, A Father’s Son stars The Daily Show‘s Ronny Chieng as Det. Jack Yu who is torn between cultures as he investigates the murder of a young boy in Chinatown. Wang Kei Yu is Jack’s father, and Wang Kei’s actions set the tone for his and Jack’s tumultuous relationship.
“In some ways, [the relationship] is a very tradtional Chinese or Cantonese upbringing with the father being patriarchal,” said Yung. “Chinese traditional patriarchal families don’t have that sort of Western, European kind of father-son relationship where it’s buddy-buddy. It’s very much the father teaches the son. In Confucian society, son obeys father; son obeys mother; son obeys grandfather. There’s a hierarchy in traditional Asian cultures that doesn’t exist [in the West]. In [Western cultures], it’s an unconscious part of society, but in Asian cultures, its how society works. You follow the same ranking. So the father is basically the one that’s kind of berating [Jack] because the son sold out. It’s like his son is whitewashed–he wants to work with the cops when they’re the ones harassing us.” The tension between father and son, Yung said, never gets truly resolved for the audience, but it sets the tone for the entire film.
While the characters’ internal struggles provide the film’s drama, one of the biggest draws for A Father’s Son is its position as one of the first times, if not the first time, that Chang’s work has been adapted for film.
“Yeah, it is a bit of history isn’t it?” he said. “Henry Chang’s a cool dude. I’ve read some of his books to get ready for the role, and I love the flavor that he captured of Chinatown. It’s very stylistic, very cool. It needs to be a TV series. It needs to be something that’s on Amazon or Netflix that’s not mainstream, to keep its original content and original voice and comment on the Chinese experience. Something like how HBO is supporting Black-centric shows, like Lovecraft Country. We need a show based on this book…and then to work with a community that Patrick has been cultivating and galvanizing with the ‘OG actors,’ as he calls us…Patrick wanted to include everyone beucase it was like a community affair. This is something that can resonate for Chinatown…it’s a show of solidarity and unity and love for the craft and for storytelling.”
The short film connected actors and creatives from other major Hollywood projects on one set, such as costume designer Vera Chow, whom Yung had previously worked with for Boogie. Ma, one of Perry’s friends in real life, plays the father of the victim in Yu’s case. Henry Yuk plays rival tong leader Long Zii in Warrior–a role that could be the series’ version of King compared to Father Jun channeling Malcolm X. But, he also plays Hu Yi in A Father’s Son. Yung is a fan of production designer Wing Lee’s work on the 1986 film The Great Wall Is a Great Wall. And as things would happen, Lee was also recruited to head production for A Father’s Son. For Yung, it was like “things coming into a circle.” Chen’s collaborative spirit, plus his respect for those who paved the way for him, goes into why Yung called him “a very sensitive director.”
Chen’s sensitivity also extended into putting the Cantonese language front and center in the film. Yung also felt it was essential to represent Cantonese’s importance, especially since it is underutilized in mainstream Hollywood stories.
“It’s really important to capture this moment. It’s Chinatown in the 1990s, and the language of Chinatown in the 1990s is Cantonese, and a lot of it was from a specific province in Canton called Toisan, which is more hick. For example, if you were to say that you got to speak English and the [story] is about Texas, you can’t use California English.”
Cantonese gives the film its authenticity, but it also highlights how Cantonese is slowly disappearing. Yung said Mandarin, the language most Americans recognize with China, is “creeping in and becoming a kind of dominant language” in Chinatown, which wasn’t the case over two decades ago.
“It is sort of a disappearing language because of the area where it’s from in China, the Chinese government is trying to basically remove Cantonese,” he said. And it’s sad. It’s a beautiful language. If I can use the analogy, Mandarin as the main Chinese language would be like classical music–very structured. Cantonese is like jazz. You can slide in and out of it, and the rules can be shifted and changed. It’s a mind-blowing, beautiful language, and to lose that would be a shame for humanity.”
Again, Yung shows his activist-minded spirit, which he reiterated by saying how his main inspiration for his work is “to show the beauty of our culture, and our artists.”
Yung jokingly called his role in the film “a bad-ass father.” While that might be true as far as Wang Kei’s sternness, that description could also mean something positive. As Yung has shown throughout his roles, being “bad” or a “villain” is just one side of the coin. As with Martin and Malcolm. As with Father Jun and Long Zii. As with Father Jun and Yung himself.
If looked at from this perspective, being “bad-ass” is a net positive.
Warrior is currently streaming on HBO Max. Boogie will be released March 5 from Focus Features. A Father’s Son is in post-production.