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Vanessa Kai on Pei-Ling’s Big Reveal and Wild ‘Kung Fu’ Theories

Warning: spoilers for this week’s episode of Kung Fu, “The Alchemist,” below.

With Kung Fu’s midseason return tonight, we learn something shocking about Mia’s (Vanessa Yao) destiny as a hybrid.

Kung Fu — “The Alchemist” — Pictured (L-R): Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen and Vanessa Kai as Pei-Ling Zhang — Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW — (C) 2022 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Based on the history by the creator of the Guardian and Warrior bloodlines, the alchemist Xiao, any hybrids of the two bloodlines were destined to become corrupt and become a force for evil. After coming in contact with ancient gems during a fight with the Tan family, Mia’s subconscious is transported into another realm — the warrior/guardian realm. Xiao’s spirit, who lives in every Warrior and Guardian, is determined to kill Mia before she could turn. Nicky (Olivia Liang) finds a way to access the realm and save Mia, but learns that the image that she thought was Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai) was actually Xiao in disguise. 

With the major reveal of Xiao entering Nicky’s subconscious, many will question how long Xiao had been there. Since Xiao is in the Warrior blood too, does this mean Xiao has been tricking Nicky since last season? Kai, who plays both Pei-Ling and now Xiao, assures The Nerds of Color that the Pei-Ling seen in Nicky’s subconscious in Season 1 was the real Pei-Ling and that Xiao only came about this season. 

“I wish that I had something that was a little bit more enticing,” Kai told The Nerds of Color over the phone on Tuesday. “But, in all honesty, these are just really delicious seeds that we’re planting for what will be revealed in all the episodes to come.” 

The entire conversation with Kai was fun to break down the new character and what she represents in Nicky, Mia, and Zhilan. Kai promises that fans won’t be disappointed in the appearance of Xiao and what the character means for Nicky’s journey. “It’s going to be delicious,” she said. We also got to chat about interesting fan theories and hypothetical shipping that will leave you in tears. 

Check out our conversation below:

The Nerds of Color: You played the sweet natured Pei-Ling who served as Nicky’s mentor, but now you’re playing another side of Nicky’s subconscious — Xiao — that is a little bit darker. How is it to portray these two extreme characters?

Vanessa Kai: Oh my gosh. How has it been? It has been truly exciting. It has been really wonderful. It is an honor and a privilege to play these two characters that our showrunners Christina M. Kim and Bob Berens would entrust me to play such deeply impactful and dynamic characters. The opportunity to play Xiao this season in this episode has been really just a stretch. It has been really exciting. I didn’t find out about Xiao’s storyline until we were probably in the middle of shooting episode 5. At the start of the season, we all had a one-on-one with the showrunners and they gave me a brief scope of [our character’s journey this season]. They simply said “we were working on a lot of things. Stay tuned. We’re not quite sure what that is yet, but just keep up with your martial arts training.” I basically spent a good portion at the beginning of filming trying to remain physically and creatively limber so that I could prepare myself for whatever may come my way or whatever they have in store for me.

Kung Fu — “The Alchemist” — Pictured (L-R): Vanessa Kai as Pei-Ling Zhang and Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen — Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW — (C) 2022 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

When I found out, I was terrified and excited but, then, deeply honored. Then I [went] straight to work. So, part of my diving deep into Xiao was [asking]: Who is she? How do I anchor her? The goal was not to create someone who is the polar opposite of Pei-Ling. My intention is not to create a caricature. I relied on the text in the language of the script to find out what is her core and the line that always struck me was in the form of Pei-Ling in the dreamscape. Pei-Ling says ‘Xiao’s design was meant for a better world.’ So it made me question what was the world that Xiao was living in? What compelled her to create the Warrior and Guardian Line? What was her experience? Either as a woman [or] as an Alchemist as in that time period. What trauma or any of those things that compelled her to want to create these warriors and guardians? And, how have those experiences shaped her [and] what motivates her in this very singular way — a “no holds barred”/”take no prisoners” kind of way. That’s sort of been the guide [for me]. I would always check in with the showrunners to inquire about her voice, her movement, who she is, and always checking to make sure that I remained on track — just to make sure that who she is [as a character] is within the tone [of] the world that we’re creating. So, here she is.

There is so much to say about Xiao because she is the creator of the Guardian and Warrior bloodline, so she must have done something right to create these badass people to protect the evil weapons from the wrong hands. But, she seems to be bad for wanting to destroy any hybrids of the two. Would you consider Xiao a villain or an antihero?

Oh my goodness. Do I consider her a villain or an anti-hero? I’m afraid to say anything. So I think I’m just going to say I’m not quite sure yet. Because I think that as individuals — technically, she’s fictional — but I feel like her motivations are real to her. To everyone else in the outside world, [her motivations] may feel very villainous. To her, she could be a hero. Or the way that her experience has shaped her, maybe she is a villain — maybe she doesn’t care [if she is]. In the episodes to come, we’re going to find out more about her and her motivations.

Now that we know Xiao is connected to all Warrior and Guardian blood. Did she manifest herself into Zhilan’s consciousness too to sort of do her bidding to find Mia?

My goodness, these are excellent questions. So, [Zhilan and Pei-Ling interacting] were in the first two episodes, so I didn’t find out about Xiao until we were in [episode] five. Whether or not what the big bosses had in mind storyline-wise, I would say — and this might seem like a boring answer — I’m going to leave that up for interpretation. I think it’s juicier. I also think, especially for episodes to come, would leave more room for where these characters are going, not just for Xiao, but for everyone. Ultimately, I think what’s also keeping everyone on the edge of their seats for every character is “what is really the core motivator?”

I can’t help but to think about eugenics and the twisted experiments that Xiao put these people under to create the Warrior and Guardian. It makes you wonder if the Warrior/Guardian blood is a blessing or a curse because of the experiments done on them. Would you consider the bloodline to be a blessing or a curse?

You know what comes to mind are all these superheroes that we now have out in the world that are the result of science. For example, Captain America. He’s a force for good. But, that is the result of science. To Xiao, she is a scientist. It’s eugenics, but [it’s how you utilize that power] to be a force for good or a force for evil. To her mind, I’m not quite sure. I feel safe to say that whatever compelled her and motivated her, that was a necessity. Whether or not it was fulfilling her own agenda or whether she saw that the world needed [the bloodline], I think I’m going to leave those questions up to the big bosses. I can only speak for as far as I know – whatever it is, for my own homework and [her] backstory, whatever compelled this character for me, stepping into her shoes, it was deeply, deeply necessary.

Kung Fu — “The Alchemist” — Pictured (L-R): Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen and Vanessa Kai as Pei-Ling Zhang — Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW — (C) 2022 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Will we ever see Pei-Ling again since this major reveal? Does she have some sort of power beyond the grave to overcome Zhao or was Pei-Ling always done and gone?

I can’t give too much away, because I don’t wanna get in trouble. I will say that this is not the end. There’s more to come. And, to please stay tuned.

There are so many theories on this show — we heard Pei-Ling is actually Mei-Xiua at one point. There is Zhilan being Eddie’s mom or even Pei-Ling is Eddie’s mom. What theories have you heard and what has been your favorite?

Oh my gosh. I I am very confused now.

Oh, have you not seen all the theories surrounding your character, especially since not much was known about her beginnings in the first season — and her death. There have been theories that Pei-Ling could have been the mother of Russell Tan’s children. She ran away from him — hence, why Kerwin is so strong. There are so many theories that people have been coming with. Are there any that you’ve heard that shocked you?

I think the Russell Tan one is probably the craziest one that I’ve heard. I think they’re all — so much! You just blew my mind all over the place right now. 

You’d be surprised at all the theories people have come up with! Zhilan is Eddie’s mom?

I’ve heard the theory of Zhilan as Eddie’s mom, which I thought was hilarious. But, I need to sign in to whatever chat room this is happening so I can really dive in deep and see what the other theories are. To be honest, I think that, thus far, the Russell Tan version is the craziest to me. This all sounds so fun. I wonder if I should start a rumor. I’m kidding. 

Oh, no joke! We can definitely start one here. We can start one here with my favorite topic — relationships. Is there a favorite relationship of yours on the show — or here’s a fun hypothetical one. Pei-Ling never got to find love. Any ideas on who you’d like to pair Pei-Ling with?

Oh my goodness! I’m so ready to get into this, because — as Vanessa, I’m very curious. I’m not quite sure who she would ship with. I am curious about who she was before the road on the way to the monastery. What was that like? But, for [hypothetical], I think I’d be digging myself into a hole. I’m going to plead the fifth. I don’t think I can think of one off the top of my head. Laura, I wasn’t prepared!

Kung Fu — “Clementine” — Pictured (L-R): Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen and Gavin Stenhouse as Evan Hartley — Photo: Dean Buscher/The CW — (C) 2022 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

I mean, I did. Evan is single and a hottie. Pei-Ling deserves to have a fun side piece. 

I can cosign on that. I can definitely co-sign on that. Sure, why not?

I mean, there is also Henry. I mean, “sorry Nicky, but your sifu’s got this.”

[Laughs] Oh my goodness. No. I couldn’t do that. Although… that actually would be funny. Oh my goodness! That’s taking it to an extra level [with the] younger men!

I mean, we have people shipping the hot chef Sebastian and Mei-Li. So, anything is possible. 

Oh, what was it that Olivia called it? Mebastian! Oh my goodness. Yeah, anything is possible. I think Pei-Ling and Evan probably sound [the best for me]. 

The biggest age differences are the funniest ones. 

That’s true. Well, I will follow your lead. What do you think?

Although I don’t ship them, because [Russell Tan] is the worst. I’d like to jokingly think that Russell Tan became evil because Pei-Ling broke his heart. In my mind, back in the day in China, Tan wanted Pei-Ling’s hand in marriage, but she rejected him, so he sought the weapons – hence, her father’s death. Tan was so hurt from the rejection that he became evil. Of course, it’s been disproven, but I still hold that theory close. 

Oh, I like where your mind is going with this though. That sounds really juicy to me. I’m here for it. I’m definitely here for it. Absolutely! I love that one!

Kung Fu airs on Wednesdays at 9pm on The CW. 

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