Shannon Dang “Lives Vicariously” Through Her Kung Fu Character’s Wardrobe

The L.A. native, who stars as Althea on the hit CW show, is back for season two. And this time around, the acute attention to cultural details have been elevated even further.

by Max Gao

Photographed by Noah Asanias

Shannon Dang was always destined to be a performer. Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Dang grew up watching the likes of Brenda Song on the Disney Channel and began dancing when she was just three years old. After making her professional debut with the Los Angeles Sparks’ kids dance team at age 13, she danced three seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers and three seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, which included performing at Super Bowl LIII, before calling time on her career in 2019. But while she had already completed her undergraduate degree in business administration at the University of California, Riverside, Dang realized that part of herself still longed to be in front of the camera as an actor.

“It was my last season with the Rams, and I hadn’t had a steady acting career so far,” Dang tells W over Zoom. “I remember just being terrified, and then right when I quit, two months later during pilot season is when I booked Kung Fu. I was like, ‘Wow, the universe has a weird way of closing some doors and opening new ones for you.’”

The gender-flipped reimagining of Kung Fu, which returns for its second season this Wednesday on The CW, stars Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen, a young Chinese-American woman who uses her martial arts skills to protect her hometown of San Francisco after spending three years at an isolated Chinese monastery. The show, which is the first network drama to feature a predominantly Asian cast, is a watershed moment for a community that has fought for greater onscreen visibility in recent years—and it was an invaluable opportunity that Dang instantly recognized when she landed the role of Althea, Nicky’s larger-than-life sister.

“I remember reading the breakdown and they were looking for all of these Asian characters, and I was like, ‘Wait, what? You don’t want just one—you want a whole cast full of Asians?!’” Dang recalls. “I remember [the description for Althea] just said ‘tech-savvy older sister who is planning her dream wedding.’ I didn’t really know what that looked like, but I was like, I’m just going to do a version of myself, maybe times three, because that’s fun.”

“I will never forget Shannon’s audition for Althea because she came in [wearing] this hot pink jumpsuit,” says Christina M. Kim, the creator and co-showrunner of Kung Fu. “She walked in the door, and she had this bubbly, happy energy, and she just nailed the character. Everyone in the room just knew it. She walked out of the audition and everyone was like, ‘That’s Althea.’ Her comic timing is truly genius; I don’t think she realizes how talented she is half the time.”

Dang has a serendipitous connection to both iterations of Kung Fu: In addition to reuniting with Tzi Ma, who plays her father in the new series and was her co-star in the 2007 film Baby, she discovered her grandfather had appeared in the original series in the 1970s, at a time when Hollywood would source Asian shop owners to be actors in their productions.

“I was like, ‘Wait, Grandpa. You never told me you were part of this!’” she recalls with a glowing smile. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. We’re just so proud that it’s coming back with an all-Asian cast and that you get to be in it.’ He was over the moon, and he watched it every Wednesday.”

Since signing on to the project nearly two years ago, Dang says she has leaned into her initial interpretation of Althea—a young woman in tech with a keen eye for fashion—and worked with the costume designer, Angus Strathie, to bring that character to life. “I live vicariously through Althea’s wardrobe,” she says. “I think the fans love it because it’s different from the other costumes on the show.”

“From the very beginning, I wanted to make her wardrobe match her essence. Althea is very fun, light, youthful, flirty, bubbly, and a little bit spastic, so I wanted the clothes to reflect that,” Dang explains. “I never have her wearing black. Just like her personality, she takes up space. I definitely take a lot more risk with Althea’s costumes than I do in real life.”

But in the show’s freshman season, audiences quickly discovered that Althea’s perky, happy-go-lucky façade masked the trauma of an unreported sexual assault that she had suffered at the hands of her former boss. Dang was unaware of Althea’s backstory when she first auditioned for the role, but when producers sat down with her to discuss her character’s emotional journey, she says she immediately felt a lot of “pressure and responsibility to get it right.” She spoke at length with Kathryn Borel, the writer of the episode in which Althea confides in Nicky about her painful experience, and conducted her own research about the #MeToo movement and other victims of sexual assault.

“I don’t personally have firsthand experience with this, but I took the pressure off by just reminding myself that, as long as I was honest and vulnerable as possible and didn’t force anything, then I think I would do it justice,” Dang says. “There were a lot of fans and viewers who commented that this story made them feel seen and heard. [They] felt uplifted that someone could come out the other side of it as strong as Althea did. That was really rewarding for me, because if one person was affected by her story and her journey, then I feel like I’ve done my job.”

Kung Fu debuted last April amid an alarming spike in anti-Asian racism and violence, giving the show’s themes of social justice an additional, if unwelcome, resonance. The show delivered the highest total viewership numbers for a Wednesday debut on The CW in more than seven years and led to a renewal less than a month later, allowing the cast and creative team to reunite for another 13-episode season (which is wrapping up production this week in Vancouver). “We had a lot of expectations around season 1, but now we just get to have a great show,” Dang remarks, adding that all elements of the show—including the intricate fight scenes, the interwoven storylines, and the acute attention to cultural details—have been “elevated.”

“Our first two episodes [of season 2] take place during Lunar New Year festivities in San Francisco, and you get to see Chinatown light up, the parades, the dragon dances, the food, the red envelopes, and how important family is during this time,” Dang says. “I think a lot of Asian Americans are going to have a sense of pride and enjoyment watching these episodes, and non-Asian Americans are going to just see it as really cool.”

After finding her voice and getting married to Dennis (Tony Chung) at the end of last season, Althea will now be attempting to reenter the workplace, Dang previews. “She jumps back into the tech world, and she’ll quickly start to question whether she made the right decision after joining a new start-up whose goals don’t match hers,” she says. “Althea is brilliant, she works hard, she has a big heart and wants to help people, and you’ll see that she’s struggling with that. Is this really where it ends, and is this really what she wants to do?”

With the Shen family now in the know about Nicky’s extracurricular crime-fighting, everyone will also become embroiled in the effort to take down the sinister billionaire Russell Tan (Kee Chan)—and the siblings’ long-lost cousin, Mia (Vanessa Yao), could be the deciding factor. “Althea is definitely a lot more on the front lines this season,” Dang says. “Everyone coming together to help Nicky—we like to call it the Scooby gang. The Scooby gang is getting bigger.”