Olivia Cheng and Perry Yung discuss Warrior

Olivia Cheng and Perry Yung sat down with me to talk about their characters Ah Toy and Father Jun in Warrior. We talked their developments and the use of the different forms of English.
Warrior Season 2 -- Photograph by Graham Bartholomew/Cinemax
Warrior Season 2 -- Photograph by Graham Bartholomew/Cinemax /

If there’s one historical drama that you need to watch, it’s Warrior. This was one of Cinemax’s and then Max’s most underrated shows. Now it has a chance of a new life on Netflix.

The series is set during the Tong Wars in 19th century Chinatown, San Francisco. We follow a group of Chinese immigrants who are looking for their slice of the American Dream. Instead, they are forced with racism by not just the Americans but the Irish-Americans—who seem to forget that they were hated for their nationality once, too.

Perry Yung plays Father Jun, the head of the Hop Wei Tong. Olivia Cheng plays Ah Toy, the Madam of the brothel in Chinatown, who is definitely not your typical Madam. I sat down with the two of them to talk about their characters over the course of three seasons.

Caution: There are some spoilers for Father Jun’s character in Warrior Season 3 for those who are just watching it on Netflix. If that’s you, I’d suggest coming back to watch the video, but I won’t include spoiler stuff in the write-up.

Olivia Cheng talks about playing a different type of Madam in Warrior

I started off talking to Cheng about Ah Toy in Warrior. So many times, the Madams of brothels are seen as sleazy women who just want their girls to make their money. That’s not the case for Ah Toy. She protects her girls as much as possible.

"“It’s been a journey for sure. When I first saw the role, I had a sense of resistance about it, because it’s the usual thing for Asian women to play sex workers on screen because of the historical connotation that we carry…But I trusted in the team, and they didn’t let me down, in terms of allowing me moments of vulnerability and humanizing for you to understand what her journey was to get here and that, in her own way, she uses what she can and she does what she can to protect the community of women that she has under her wing.”"

Olivia Cheng

The third season was renewed during the pandemic, which was when we saw a lot more Asian hate than in recent years. This was something that came up with Cheng. Actors try not to bring their personal life into their work life and vice versa, but filming Warrior shortly after the pandemic was a time of life and art mimicking each other.

"“That was difficult in a sense. When we’re actors we…try our best to leave it and go on with our lives. I think with everything we went through in the pandemic, and even experiences I’ve had before the pandemic, it brought up this reminder that our show is too topical for things that happened in the world to the Asian community…we are seen in a narrative that we had no part in constructing.”"

Olivia Cheng

For more Warrior check out this interview with Dianne Doan, Langley Kirkwood, and Joe Taslim

Perry Yung discusses where Father Jun’s loyalties lie in Warrior

Father Yung is one of those characters that you want to dislike as you start to like Young Jun. At the same time, you can see that he is doing what he believes is right for his tong. As much as he calls characters “onions” on screen, he is an onion himself in a different way.

"“He is an onion. When I first read the script, because I know Asian-American history…I went, I know who that guy is. He’s an activist. He’s the architype of the strong man in Chinatown. But why does he do what he does?”"

Perry Yung

He went on to share the line that stood out for him in the audition (‘We are the most powerful tong in Chinatown, to prevent the violence of the Ducks among us.’), and why that was so important to him.

"“And I went, that’s Malcolm X. So when I did the research on Malcolm X, he’s unlike anything that the media portrays him as. He’s a very loving guy to his community…so I went, how do I bring this guy who cares about his community into the words that [showrunner] Jonathan Tropper wrote? In between all the lines, it’s about I care about the community more than anything.”"

Perry Yung

It was a chance to humanize a trope within Asian-American stories. However, it was important to bring a likable side to Father Jun, meaning to find his past trauma and understand him better.

We do see that Father Jun also loves his son, but he doesn’t believe Young Jun knows the right way to lead the tong just yet. What was it like for Yung to balance this and make us believe he’s a father as well?

"“I just looked at Jason Tobin as my son. He’s my son, and what do I need to impart to my son in this world that is full of systemic oppression and racism? How can I teach him to behave better and to actually respect our brothers?...So I have to actually feel those things as I say those words.”"

Perry Yung

I don’t want to go into spoilers for Warrior Season 3, but in the interview there is a chance for Yung to talk about him and Tobin to have some time together on-screen in one, heartbreaking, episode. It’s around the 7-9-minute mark, so if you want to skip over the spoilers, that’s where to skip but also where to go if you want to hear Yung talk about Warrior Season 3, Episode 9.

Speaking two different types of English throughout the series

From the beginning, Warrior has used different types of English in some interesting ways. We get the modern-day English as Chinese characters talk to each other to make it clear they are meant to be speaking Cantonese to each other. Then we have the 19th century English when white characters are speaking to each other. Then there is broken English that Asian people often speak when they’re learning English as they get older.

Cheng did it more than Yung, so I asked her how difficult it was to switch between the two. It turns out, for her, speaking Cantonese was the hardest.

"“It is actually incredibly easy for me, because that is my family’s sound. That is what my mother sounds like; it’s what my father sounds like; it’s what many people from Hong Kong sound like. If you actually think of that stereotypical Cantonese accent, the musicality of it actually comes from the British accent. The Brits lift on the vowels.”"

Olivia Cheng

The broken English is often used as a device to undermine characters, especially when it comes to Asian-American characters. Warrior used it in a different way to remind us that Ah Toy is a force to be reckoned with.

"“I think that’s what I like about that vocal device in our show…It’s another way to contribute who I come from, what I come from…To be able to play that accent not as a joke, not as a device where the audience is laughing at me because of the way I express myself…That’s Ah Toy.”"

Olivia Cheng

What was it about speaking Cantonese, though?

"“To be honest, it was speaking the Cantonese that was more challenging, because I grew up speaking Mandarin.”"

Olivia Cheng

She goes into a lot more in the interview about this. Check out the full interview with Perry Yung and Olivia Cheng below:

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Warrior is available to stream on Netflix on Friday, Feb. 16. All three seasons are currently on Max.