‘Kung Fu’ Star Kheng Hua Tan on Mei-Li’s Evolution and “Mei-Bastian”

Kheng Hua Tan knows best. 

Playing the matriarch of the Shen family, Mei-Li, in The CW’s Kung Fu, Tan has come to understand her character’s development throughout the three seasons. From the strict disciplinarian mother in the first season of the series, Mei-Li has evolved into a different, more accepting person throughout these past three seasons. 

“I have grown Mei-Li,” Tan told The Nerds of Color on a phone call last week. “The writers and creators have enabled me to grow Mei-Li into the much more knowing and softer person that she is today [who] acknowledges her flaws.”

This season, Mei-Li has joined forces with a major corporation to expand Harmony Dumplings – all without Jin’s (Tzi Ma) help as he becomes more involved with community matters. With her new business partner Carrie (Kim Rhodes), Mei-Li is tip-toeing the line between keeping her creative culinary traditions and artistry with Sebastian (JB Tadena) and making sure corporate is happy. Despite the changes, Mei-Li’s focus remains on keeping Harmony dumplings afloat. 

Tan spoke more on Mei-Li’s focus this season, the new work relationship with Carrie and how that affects Sebastian, work life without Jin, and what she REALLY thinks of the ship “Mei-bastian” (Mei-Li/Sebastian). 

This episode really got to focus on Mama Shen and Harmony Dumplings fresh new start. What is Mei-Li’s mindset for this season?

I think Mei-Li’s mindset is very simple and that is to get this restaurant opened and back on its feet. Let’s just do whatever it takes. Of course, unforeseen circumstances happen – but for me, as an actor, my true line really was we will deal with [things] every day. We will get this place up [and] on its feet. We will do everything that we can – and, as the story unfolds, you will see that it’s the same entity that moves from one moment to the next moment and the next moment to the next moment. Lobster or not. Yeah, that’s kind of what her mindset is. 

It’s great to see Mei-Li back to doing what she loves, but now she has a new partnership with Carrie (Kim Rhodes). What is that dynamic like?

I think that dynamic is evolving. Let’s put it that way – I love discovering dynamics. Starting from the words, which are given to us [by the writers[, and getting cues from that. So getting cues from the words so far point to Carrie and myself relating to each other as women, as mothers, [and] as business partners. We definitely relate to each other as very honest communicators. I love how they’ve written Carrie. Mainly, we say what we mean and mean what we say. And I love that it’s a color that is very refreshing for me. So it’s quite unpredictable in that way, right? We are not going to waste time on things that are not going to serve us for the moment. Let’s always focus on what can be done. I love that. And Kim Rhodes is an amazing actress. I mean, she’s very much like that too. As actors and as characters, [we are always] on the next step and I think that that comes off really nicely. Now, this particular element and this way of honest communication between these two women, who find themselves in the same boat and trying to build the same ship, is [how they are going to evolve together]. I am discovering [new things] and love knowing [and] not knowing [what is going to happen]. [That is] what makes things real and what keeps things fun. We are at that stage right now in our filming because we’ve just gone through the halfway mark. Many things will be happening.

Kim says Carrie isn’t a villain of the series, but that she’s only doing what corporate needs to do which compromises her relationship with Mei-Li. Mei-Li grew up with a small business mentality. How is she feeling about the big leagues in business?

I feel, whether she is in a family business or in the big leagues with corporations, her core remains the same, which is to take care of my family. She made that jump into corporate alliances because of the earthquake. She needed the extra funds to rebuild Harmony Dumplings. She’s practical. She’s practical in terms of serving the need to take care of her family, which is ultimately what Harmony Dumplings was set up for. She and Jin set up this business in a brand new country [in order] to take care of their family. Whether or not they’re going into the big leagues now, [they still have that] core goal. I love that it is very important to both the character Mei-Li and the actor Kheng playing Mei-Li that I hold onto that core goal. It helps me to say my lines because it’s not about making money. It’s not about being a franchise owner or a celebrity chef. At the end of the day, she’s still doing what she did many years ago when she set up Harmony Dumplings with her husband and earned money to take care of their family. I love that. She feels like she’s doing what she needs to do now and trying to do it with the same core values as she did in the past.

Kung Fu — “Harvest” — Pictured (L-R): JB Tadena as Sebastian and Kheng Hua Tan as Mei-Li Shen — Photo: The CW — © 2022 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Showrunner Bob Berens said there is a love triangle going on between Carrie, Mei-Li, and Sebastian when it comes to the business. What can you tell me about Mei-Li being in the middle of business and art?

Back in Singapore, where I’m from, I produce a lot and my answer to you is that I make use of the feelings I feel as a producer when I’m trying to negotiate between creativity and the more practical aspects of a business. As a producer I’m looking at my creative team who want all sorts of things. And then, I’m looking at my financial team who’s only got this amount of budget. I’m sitting there and, if you can picture me looking to the left [and then] looking to the right [then back to] the left – and just trying my best to find answers that will help both sides to be happy because you need both sides to be happy.  I need my creative center Sebastian to be happy [and] to come to work [and] keep doing what he does well, but I only have this amount of budget. I’m constantly negotiating that. Another way to look at it is she is in a constant state of conflict. And for all actors conflict is where story happens [and] where character [development] happens. Certainly, I love seeing Mei-Li in conflict, I love scenes where she is trying her best. And it’s not easy for her to find the middle ground. [Showrunners] Bob [Berens] and Christina [Kim] and all the writers have helped me to do this so well with very tender words and sensitive dialogue. They allow her the time to grow and to learn and to try to find the corporate side of her and the small business side of her. It didn’t just happen in one episode, because that sort of treatment would be trivial. No, they’ve given her a season to do this. I love it. I just love it.

The cutest couple on the show is Jin and Mei-Li. With Jin now working in politics, how is Mei-Li holding up doing this essentially on her own?

I love how the team has dealt with a married couple. An older married couple with grown up children who have lives of their own and are now rediscovering themselves as individuals, but they’re still married. They’re definitely still married. They’re still each other’s rock. But they are giving each other the space at this time of their lives to rediscover parts of themselves that they had put aside for a little while to bring up children. As a mother, I am going through this stage right now, and I love that. Mei-Li cannot be doing what she’s doing in season 3 without Jin’s support. The writers and the creators have very sensitively written beautiful scenes between husband and wife to show that we are always there for each other despite the fact that we are going in different career paths. We’re no longer working in the same restaurant together. It’s a massive change. And it is not unlike the change that many older couples go through. I really applaud Mei-Li and Jin for supporting each other and each other’s independence and freedom in the way that they are doing. I hope audiences learn from this, that as an older married couple, you can give each other freedom. But you can also always appreciate and acknowledge that you wouldn’t be able to do this on your own without the many years that your partner was there to give you the security. You need it to fly. So sensitive. So detailed and lovely.

There is another ship that has been going around – thanks to Olivia. Mei-bastian. I need to know what your thoughts are on this ship.

I love Mei-bastian. I thank my daughter Olivia Liang for coining that. Mei-bastian is a joy – a delight. I love JB [Tadena] as a person [and] as an actor. Here’s the wonderful thing I love about Me-bastian. In the beginning, it [was] all too easy to put them into very stereotypical categories – lady boss, male subordinate or the older lady and younger man or whatever, right? When I read a scene between Sebastian and Mei-Li, I just see two people talking to each other. I love how the team has transcended a lot of these paradigms. It’s just two people who share the same passion and come from different walks of life and are trying to utilize their innate chemistry and their respect for each other. They [have] very natural respect for each other. The fact that they really enjoy working with each other despite the fact that they are so different from each other. They are like the odd couple, but they’re so not odd. And I love that. I love how real it is. It’s a very real reflection of many work relationships that have been successful. Yeah, I love Mei-bastian.

Kung Fu — “The Compass” — Pictured (L-R): Vanessa Kai as Pei-Ling Zhang and Kheng Hua Tan as Mei-Li Shen — Photo: The CW — © 2022 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

I know Pei-Ling was like a second mother to Nicky and only after Pei-Ling’s death, Nick came home. We saw the two “moms” hash it out in the restaurant before Xiao showed up, but with Pei-Ling’s return, are there some feelings of jealousy or uncertainty from Mei-Li?

I think the decisions [I made] for that scene [was] I wanted to just route where Mei-Li is at this point of her life meeting Pei-ling. If they had written a scene in season 1, I think her reaction would have been so different. The [writers] wrote the scene at this point in her life and, therefore, I was all too happy to show her compassion, vulnerability, [and] acknowledgement of where she went wrong, and to bridge her communication with Pei-ling on common ground rather than to take a negative [approach to] it. They bonded in more ways than one. I even saw the Xiao and Mei-Li moment of that scene as a bonding. Bonding doesn’t necessarily mean ‘bonding’, it just means that they discover each other. They suddenly see each other. So in that scene, Pei-Ling and Mei-Li saw each other – and Mei-Li saw Xiao. I’m very excited for where that is going to go as well. It opens up so many doors.

Mother always knows best. I ask this of everyone since Nicky is dealing with a love triangle herself – we have Team Henry and Team Bo. Who does mom approve of?

Okay, let’s put it this way. Mama is rooting for Nicky. Honestly, this is the truth. Mama is rooting for Nicky. As Mama Shen, whenever I’m looking at my daughter, I always tell her this: I want you to make yourself happy. I want you to be happy. I want you to make your own decision. And as long as you are happy, I will be happy. That is how I’m going to answer your question because I can tell you that [parents] will react in this way as well. It is the way that Kheng reacts to my own daughter. I always just look at her and I know that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what I think about who is best for her. It’s who she thinks is best for her as long as she is ready to accept all the consequences. Let me tell you, there will be many consequences coming up.