I recently caught up with Taiwanese American actor Jimmy Tsai, who plays Christopher “C-dub” Wang, a suburban urban-wannabe who dreams of a career as a pro basketball player in the unbelievably funny comedy film, PingPong Playa, just now hitting theaters.
Christopher “C-Dub” Wang is the anti-“model-minority” Asian American lead character who lives in the shadow of his older brother, a doctor and ping pong champion. When C-Dub reluctantly takes his mother’s place as the the ping pong teacher at the local Chinese Community Center, the group of misfit students find themselves in an unfortunate situation. And when the Wang family livelihood is threatened by a rival ping pong player’s attempts to lure the kids away, C-dub must refocus his energies and become the player he pretends to be all in the name of defending his family’s ping pong dynasty. It’s a funny plot, and the C-Dub character will make you laugh and cry at the same time!
I was fortunate enough to see the premiere screening of Ping Pong Playa several months ago and am excited that it is now moving to wider release. Jimmy was gracious enough to join me for a brief interview to, in his words, “show love for Taiwan!”
H: Jimmy! Thanks for taking the time to share a little about yourself and this incredibly hilarious new film you star in, Ping Pong Playa! I saw the premiere at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival earlier this year, and I just loved the character you played!
J: Thank you so much. I’m really happy to hear you enjoyed the film!
H: I heard this role was based on the character Christopher “C-Dub” Wang that you created for video ads for your company Venom Sportswear. The story went that you didn’t realize that Ping Pong Playa was being written with you in mind as the lead…
J: Yes, that’s right. So, what happened was the Venom Sportswear spots came first. Then, at the production company I work for –Cherry Sky Films– we had helped Jessica finish her film In the Realms of the Unreal, and we had such a great time working with her, (producer) Joan and I were like, “We need to find another project to work on with Jessica.” Then Joan came up with the idea of doing a ping pong comedy, and when she mentioned it to Jessica, Jessica said that it would be a fun idea to use the C-dub character as the protagonist. So then we set about developing the film with Jessica and myself writing the script together. But on one side of the conversation, Joan and I were always wearing our producer hats and discussing who we could possibly cast in the role of C-dub, while on the other side, Jessica was always just assuming I’d do the role. So one day when Jessica and I were working on the script, she mentioned something to the effect of: “When we’re shooting, I don’t want you to worry about rewriting or tweaking the script.” And I said, “Well, why not?” And she said, “Well, you’re practically in every scene!” And I was like, “Whoa– you should talk it over with Joan first.” (laughs) I was always one hundred and twenty percent either way though, whether or not we wanted to cast someone in the role or whether they wanted me to do it.
H: That’s so great! And you’re really perfect for the role, too! So, how is Venom Sportswear coming along by the way?
J: Well, in terms of visits, it gets a decently okay-sized number of visits. People like the commercials. But the actual clothing sales? Not so good. We’ll be lucky if we average one sale every three or four months. (sniff, sniff)
H: It’s a tough business for sure. Well hopefully this interview will draw some attention to your clothing line! Anyways, this is your first acting gig in a feature length film working with critically acclaimed director Jessica Yu, who is well-recognized in her own right as an Oscar winner for one of her short films, and with actor Roger Fan (also of Taiwanese heritage!) who was in Better Luck Tomorrow and Finishing the Game. How did you feel on the set working with such great Asian American talent?
J: I felt EXTREMELY EXTREMELY lucky. Jessica is such an amazing and fun director to work for and with –she’s great in so many facets. She knows what she wants, she knows how to get it. And we had so much fun shooting the movie. That all starts from the top down. And Roger –Roger and I are really good friends, so I knew from the start we would have a fun time working together on the project. When we were shooting, I had the realization that I was working with all these amazing, seasoned actors– Roger, Jim Lau, Elizabeth Sung, Smith Cho, etc.– and I’m like, “Man, such great actors to be around! I better not screw this up for everyone!”
H: Haha! Well, your acting looked quite natural to me! Y’know, what I loved most about your character C-Dub is actually his “sensitivity” towards perceived racism. I think that most of us who are very aware of our Asian American identity and history can relate to the hilarity of the scenarios. Tell me, what was it like for you growing up Taiwanese American in Houston, Texas? I’m guessing it wasn’t the typical “model minority” experience?
J: Well, I guess it all boils down to how you define the “model minority” experience. If it means doing the music, making good grades, and being a good student and studying for the SATs and such, I have to cop to the fact that I was actually guilty of all that. Jessica calls it the “Rushmore” syndrome (the movie). That was like my high school years in terms of being in like a million clubs and doing a lot of extra-curricular activities, but, unlike the Rushmore kid, I actually made good grades and was never in danger of getting thrown out of school. But I feel fortunate that I didn’t have to deal with a lot of the racism issues that many Asian Americans experience. It was probably predominantly because I was always in magnet or arts-type schools where people separated themselves along art areas –like music, theater, visual art, or dance –instead of along racial lines. But I was also lucky that my parents kept it real so that I still knew the language and the culture growing up. Plus, I spent some memorable summers in Taiwan as well where I lived with my grandparents or other relatives. I always look back upon those times with much fondness.
H: What part of Taiwan is your family from? Have you been back recently?
J: Kaohsiung is where my family is from. Mom’s side of the family is from Kaohsiung city; Dad’s side is in a small town on the outskirts of Kaohsiung called Yu Chiong (that’s Taiwanese; it’s “Yo Chang” in Chinese). Recently, I’ve been back on average about once a year. I love Taiwan. It’s the motherland, fo’ sho’!!!
H: And fo’ realz! Woot! (laughs) Hey, so what do your parents think of the film?
J: I think they like it a lot! At least I hope so! (laughs) It’s great that I can actually make this film that my parents can be really proud of and support because when I was in high school and college, I had a tendency to make violent, bloody movies –all shorts –and my mom was always like, “You’re such a good kid. Why do you have to make such violent movies?” (laughs) But then again, this is Jessica’s film, so maybe if you find me directing down the line, I might have a different response to this question if I happen to be making the kind of action movies that I would like make.
H: Yea, the idea scares me just a little… So, how much of this urban NBA wanna-be Asian pride character Christopher “C-Dub” Wang is actually you? I mean, should little kids be afraid?
J: Hahaha! So, if you ask my good friends, they’ll probably tell you that C-dub is a slight exaggeration of my own persona. Should kids be afraid? Absolutely! Just kidding –they should only be afraid if they don’t heed C-dub’s message and follow their dreams with a passion. It’s funny, though, a lot of the scenes with C-dub beating up on the kids are –let’s say– “inspired” by true-life events. I didn’t exactly beat-up this kid on the basketball court so much as I schooled him –twice– at that Hoop Shots game. You know what I’m talking about? The one in the arcades where you can play head-to-head? I also schooled this little girl and her father at Whack-A-Mole. That video is up on YouTube somewhere.
H: Speaking of games, does your family have one of those old warped ping pong tables sitting in either your garage or basement? Y’know Taiwanese-style?
J: We did! It’s not there anymore, but we had a ping pong table that got totally warped because we left it outside. In the Houston weather, with the humidity, the heat, and the rain –that thing got warped pretty quickly. So sad. So sad. There was a period of about a year –I think I was in fifth or sixth grade– where me and my friends pretty much did nothing but play ping pong for fun.
H: Ping pong is fun! If you’re good at it. I suck. (laughs) Well, it’s so exciting that Ping Pong Playa is opening in several major cities this month! San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle. What’s the plan for wider release?
J: Well, if it does well in the first few weekends –cross your fingers– then we will be able to expand out to other major metropolitan areas. But it’s definitely gonna require word-of-mouth spreading since we don’t have the huge marketing budgets that many studio films do. So if you’re reading this and like the movie, please tell all your friends, relatives, and anyone you know!!!
H: I second that. Oh, I ask this question a lot: What’s your favorite Taiwanese food?
J: Oh wow. That is a tough, tough question. I’m gonna have to go with my childhood favorite –the roasted corn that you can get at the night market! Of course, there’s always Taiwanese shaved ice, too. Mmmmmmmm…shaved ice (tswa bing)…
H: Oh man! Good stuff! So Jimmy, you’ve got lots of life lessons to share, quoted both on your T-shirt designs and throughout the movie. In the character of C-Dub, you got one more for our Taiwanese American audience?
J: Fo’ sho’! How about: “Keep it real, my Taiwanese brothers and sisters. Word to the motherland. Peace!”
H: Awesome. Thanks again, Jimmy! Good luck to you and all the folks behind Ping Pong Playa! I’m looking forward to watching it again! And to the TaiwaneseAmerican.org audience out there… you have to catch this film and watch some of the Venom ad clips below. It’s some funny stuff!
TaiwaneseAmerican.org is proud to offer an autographed Ping Pong Playa paddle and lifesize movie poster to one randomly selected reader! Send your entry by email to [email protected] with the subject header “PPP” and we’ll notify the winner on Sept 30th!
*EDIT: Congratulations Peggy C. of Flushing, NY for winning the raffle!*