When actor Chris Pang was a kid growing up in Melbourne, Australia, he remembers he and his mother would act out wuxia stories in their backyard. His mom would be the Grandmaster, and he would be her student, but inevitably then the bad guys would poison the Grandmaster, and he’d have to fight to avenge her.
“I loved that,” he says. “That’s probably how I learned how to tell stories, not just on the page but through action and role-play.”
Pang, who will soon be seen in the highly-anticipated adaptation of “Crazy Rich Asians” (out August 2018), was raised by two martial arts instructors: Barry and Anne Pang of Melbourne’s Barry Pang Kung Fu Schools. While Chris’ parents both grew up in Australia, Pang’s father’s side of the family is from Canton, China, and his mother’s family was the first Taiwanese family to immigrate to Australia — as told to her family by immigration at the time.
While Chris Pang was in university, he took a year off from multimedia studies that he wasn’t enjoying and sold phones because he wanted to buy a car. He happened to walk into a casting agency that needed someone who could do a Chinese accent for a voiceover gig. In addition to selling them some phones, Pang got a job dubbing the voice of Jackie Chan’s brother in “New Police Story.”
“I couldn’t believe that people were getting paid to do that,” says Pang. “It was so fun. I got to watch the new Jackie Chan movie before it was released. It was a good start into this crazy industry, but it probably gave me the wrong impression because it seemed easy.”
Once he decided he wanted to be an actor, his first role came in an independent film called “Citizen Jia Li,” where he played an abusive boyfriend and low-level triad member. From there, he tried out his luck in Beijing and Hong Kong before hearing that there was a film adaptation of the popular young adult novel “Tomorrow When The War Began” being made in Australia. The dystopian story followed a group of teenagers who wage a guerrilla war against an invading foreign power, and the romantic interest of the main character was an Asian guy named Lee Takkum.
Determined to at least get an audition, he went on IMDB and emailed everyone he could, sent in a tape and eventually booked the part. The film ended up the highest grossing film in Australia in 2010.
“I was a star to all the 12-year-old kids of Australia,” he says. “And after that, I thought, ‘My face is on the side of buses, so people should remember me and give me jobs.’ But the jobs never came, so I spent a good year and a half playing Xbox. I got so good at Xbox, that if there were $24 million Dota 2 prize pools at that time, I might have tried to be a professional gamer instead.”
What he realized, after only getting offered two guest TV roles despite having starred in the biggest blockbuster of the year, was that there were no roles being written for someone like him in Australia. So in 2013, he moved to Hollywood.
We chat with Chris about not being recognized by his own friends in his two Netflix projects, how his “Crazy Rich Asians” character has nicer hair than he does, and how he basically had the coolest childhood ever but did not appreciate it.
Ada: What was it like shooting two back-to-back Netflix projects, “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” and “Marco Polo?”
Chris: It was an interesting time, because Netflix had just started becoming a thing. This was before “House of Cards,” so Netflix was trying to get quality original content, but they didn’t have the prestige and weight that they do now. So no one really knew how to feel about it yet. Honestly, when we heard that “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” was no longer going to be a theatrical release, we were a bit disappointed. But the first “Crouching Tiger” was one of the most watched and re-watched movies on Netflix, so it made sense that they’d want the sequel.
And then to go straight from that to “Marco Polo” was great. It was shot like a movie. I’m playing a massive Mongolian chieftain. I have my own tribe, and the show is about the political struggles between different tribes. Did I mention I’m a massive Mongolian chieftain?
Ada: [laughs] You did.
Chris: Yes. So I have really good friends of mine who watched “Crouching Tiger” and said, “Hey, I thought you were in the movie. I didn’t see you.” And I’d be like, “If you watched the movie, you definitely saw me.”
Chris: Yes. So I get married in the film, and that wedding is the wedding of the century in Asia. I’m wearing a nice tux. I’m clean-shaven. My hair’s done nicely, much nicer than I do it in real life cause I like to go for the free-flow look so I don’t have to put so much effort into it. But it was the first time I’ve ever gone into the makeup trailer and come out looking better than I did before. [laughs] Usually, it’s like, we need to put dirt under your fingernails. You’re a warrior, so we gotta bloody up your knuckles. Gotta put on a mustache. Or shave one-half of your head so you look ridiculous. But this was the more glamorous side of acting, and it felt good.
Chris: We didn’t live there, but I was definitely immersed in that world. But it was such a drag to me. When you’re a kid, everything your parents do is the most dull thing ever, so even though my parents did the coolest thing, I thought it was a drag. On holidays, I was so jealous of other kids who could stay home, watch TV and eat ice cream. Whereas I had to go to my parents’ kung fu camp. It was like those Shaolin movies, where they took a group of people into the countryside and trained them from morning to night. The kids loved it. And then my parents would organize these games at night, and there would be mass cooking in the kitchen.
Ada: That sounds so cool.
Chris: It was, but as a kid, I had no interest in kung fu at the Shaolin Temple. It’s the most embarrassing thing when your parents are teaching the class. And these are Asian parents steeped in the tradition, respect and honor of martial arts, so they were extra hard on me, it was a lot of pressure, and I really did not enjoy it. [laughs] I just wanted to ride my BMX around, be a derelict little kid and do nothing.
But in high school, I started enjoying training more, and my parents ran the kung fu clubs at universities, so eventually I ended up being the President of the Barry Pang Kung Fu school at my university. But since people know about Barry Pang Kung Fu School, on film sets, a lot of the stunt people would be like, “Are you Barry Pang’s son?” And I’ll have to say yes, because I can’t lie, but they then have these expectations that I’ll be an amazing martial artist, and I can see the disappointment in their judging eyes when I do a kick. [laughs]
Ada: What does your dad think now that you’re doing martial arts in movies?
Chris: Movie kung fu is very different than real kung fu. A real fight is over quickly, whereas in “Crouching Tiger,” you’re fighting for 5 minutes. You get stabbed in the chest and you’re still fighting. So my dad is the harshest critic. He’s judging people’s real kung fu from their film kung fu. He’s hopeless. [laughs]
Ada: OK, so we met cause you are Mr. July in this year’s 2018 Haikus For Hotties calendar, which is a project I created that celebrates Asian American (and I guess also Asian Australian men who have lived in America for five years) in the media. How come you agreed to be in a hot man calendar?
Chris: I first heard about Haikus With Hotties in Angry Asian Man, and I liked the inspiration behind it because growing up as an Asian guy in Australia, it sounds similar to what I keep hearing about the Asian American experience, and I just wanted to see Asian guys represented as being attractive and desirable. Not just in a way where they’re sexy and take their shirts off, though we have that in the calendar too, but desirable in every sense. I just liked the coyness of the idea, the humor, how playful it was, and I thought it was a nice balance of making a statement but doing it in a fun way.
Check out Chris Pang as as Mr. July in the 2018 Haikus For Hotties calendar.
Ada Tseng is a writer for Public Radio International and NBC Asian America. She hosts an Asian American pop culture history podcast called Saturday School. She made Chris Pang do an interview with her for TaiwaneseAmerican.org, because she really just wanted everyone to know that technically Haikus With Hotties is a Taiwanese American project.