Welcome to the 29th installment of our 2021 Pride Month Series! Each day in the month of June, we will be highlighting a different member of the LGBTQIA+ community who we think is a great example of representation and dynamic characterization. We will focus on fictional characters, celebrities, and activists alike — the positive voices within the LGBTQIA+ community and in mainstream media. Today’s spotlight is on Ryan Shen, one-third of the Shen sibling trio on The CW’s Kung Fu.
Ryan is the older brother of protagonist Nicky Shen. Left behind along with their sister Althea while Nicky trained in China for years, Ryan harbors resentment towards his sister when she first returns home. Before she left, Nicky was the only one in the family who knew Ryan was gay, and her absence made him face coming out to his parents alone. His coming out went as well as it could have from his perspective: their parents both pretend like it never happened. But it’s clear he wishes it went better and that he is still hiding a part of himself from them. As Nicky apologizes for not being there to support him, the two make up, and they are once again cheerleaders for each other.
As the series continues, we get to know Ryan as the amazing doctor he is. Ryan chooses to work in a community health center in Chinatown specifically to ensure his community gets the healthcare they deserve. He advocates for his patients and works tirelessly to make sure they get the social support and medical care they need, even at the expense of his own social life and mental health. While Nicky saves lives using force and investigative skills, Ryan works with the limited resources he has and within a broken system to even the playing field for his patients.
But Ryan does get some romance into his social calendar with Joe, an activist working with the Black Lives Matter movement. Joe is a perfect complement to Ryan, sharing his passion for community activism while encouraging Ryan to let go of his anxieties and find time for happiness even when the problems of the world can seem overwhelming. Ryan is inexperienced when it comes to dates and especially romance, confessing to Joe that beyond one-night stands, he gets too worried about the future to date for long. But Joe is there to reassure him, and soon, Ryan returns the favor.
When Andre, an unarmed Black teenager, is killed by police in Chinatown, Joe is in charge of organizing protests. The entire Shen family is involved in various ways, but Ryan decides to use his medical expertise by becoming a medic for the protest. He wants to support Joe the way Joe has supported him and signal that he considers their relationship to be serious. Ryan makes sure Joe can see him in the crowd when Joe gives his speech and later helps Joe get injured protestors into the Shen restaurant as the police use tear gas on the crowd. After Joe has a scary run-in with police who accuse him of inciting a riot (disproven by Althea’s social media sleuthing), Ryan tells Joe that he’s here for him, whatever he might need. Ryan’s actions at the protest make Joe realize Ryan really is serious about him, and Joe pulls Ryan in for a kiss, saying “this” is what he needs.
But Ryan’s complex emotions around coming out and his place in the family come back again, showing the normally confident man in a more vulnerable spot. When a secret about Nicky’s destiny comes to light and it’s clear their mother Mei-Li intentionally withheld the truth, their father Jin leaves to take time for himself. Ryan goes to him to convince him to come home, and Jin says he can’t be with someone who could live a lie for so long. Ryan says, “Sometimes hiding the truth, keeping a part of yourself secret, can trap you. You get used to living with the lie and before you know it, years have passed and it feels like no one knows the real you anymore. Even then, it still feels safer like that.” When he leaves to call Mei-Li, Jin thinks about how Ryan’s words relate to his sexuality more than Jin’s fight with Mei-Li.
When Ryan returns, Jin is ready with some truth of his own, apologizing and saying, “I’m sorry. For not saying more when you told us the truth and we were silent. We didn’t know how to talk about it.” Ryan begins to get emotional as he tries to brush off the impact their silence had on him, but Jin continues.
“Do you want to know what I thought when you told us you’re gay? I thought we were blessed with such a brave son. I’m sorry if the silence made you doubt, made you think we loved you less. I only love you more.”
As Ryan sobs into his father’s arms, Jin asks if Ryan is happy and if he has someone he’s seeing. Ryan says he is and tells his father about Joe, and Jin says he hopes Joe is a good man because Ryan deserves it as they embrace. It’s a beautiful scene and provides healing for Ryan, who has finally heard the words he needed to hear from his father.
Kung Fu as a whole is a victory for representation with a majority Asian cast (a first for network television dramas). But Ryan in particular is a rare example of a queer Asian character, which actor Jon Prasida noted in an interview for Digital Spy where he discussed how Ryan’s identities as a Chinese man and a gay man intersect.
“I don’t want to trivialize the intricacies and complexities of race and sexual identity. But I do find that sometimes they align … as you know, that surge of anti-Asian violence that’s happening globally, that’s a result of fear. Tzi Ma, who plays my father on ‘Kung Fu’, he put it quite nicely: we don’t have a short-term solution. As far as a long-term solution, it’s having our faces and being represented — to invite people into our homes, to sit down with us and be like, ‘Ah, it’s a normal thing.’ I find that with Asian representation, and I find that is also congruent with LGBTQ+ representation as well. We could do with more stories to normalize it.”
Ryan is a compelling character from the start for his heroics as a doctor, his wit, and his protective instincts for his sister. While he may not see the efforts he makes as being particularly impactful, the show goes out of its way to show that he is great at what he does and a valued member of his community. His struggle with being open about his sexuality despite his fears about his parents’ acceptance is relatable and endears the viewer to him. As the first season comes to a close with its final batch of episodes and we look ahead to season two, it’s clear that Ryan is not only a great example of LGBTQIA+ representation but also an interesting character who is fun to watch.
Be sure to check back tomorrow for another Pride Spotlight! Kung Fu airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.