Ten years ago, Philip Wang and Cathy Nguyen shot a breakup scene on a park bench in South Pasadena for “Strangers, Again,” a short film by Wang’s production company and YouTube channel, Wong Fu Productions.
The 16-minute story about how a relationship falls apart in seemingly inevitable phases has since garnered more than 20 million views on YouTube and remains the most popular video on the Wong Fu channel, which is home to hundreds of other short films, sketches and miniseries highlighting Asian and Asian American stories.
Wang, who grew up in Walnut Creek and gave himself the nickname “Wong Fu” while he was a student making home camcorder projects at Northgate High School, told The Chronicle during a video chat from his company’s Los Angeles office that even a decade later, fans still post about “Strangers, Again” on social media.
“I see personal stories of, ‘Oh man, this short helped me get over a huge breakup, it’s literally what I needed to hear,’ ” he recalled. “Or, ‘I watched this when I was 16 … I thought I was gonna be single forever. And now I’m a mom and I’m holding my kid as I watch this.’
“That’s so cool, to know that our work and our brand has evolved with people.”
Since “Strangers,” Wong Fu has developed a reputation as a springboard for Asian and Asian American talent. Fans sometimes refer to actors who have appeared in the company’s videos as part of the “Wong Fu universe,” in a nod to its many connections to superhero shows and films. For instance, Wong Fu is part of the origin stories of stars like Randall Park (“WandaVision”), Justin Min (“The Umbrella Academy”), Anna Akana (“Jupiter’s Legacy,” “Ant-Man”), Brittany Ishibashi (“Marvel’s Runaways”) and Simu Liu (“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”).
Today a scrappy team made up of eight Asian Americans, Wong Fu’s roots trace back to UC San Diego, where Wang met and created a video-sharing website with co-founders Wesley Chan, a Millbrae native, and Ted Fu, who grew up in South Africa and Taiwan. In 2006, one of the trio’s short films attracted so much online traffic that they had to shut down the site and ask for help paying a $1,300 bill for exceeding bandwidth.
Donations from around the world showed them they had supporters, and after graduating later that year, they decided to move to Los Angeles and launch a formal production company. When they found studio executives resistant to stories with Asian leads, Wong Fu decided to focus on building a following on YouTube, where it now has more than 3 million subscribers.
“They were some of the most prominent Asian Americans in the media sphere for so many years throughout my adolescence and early adulthood,” recalled Liu, the Chinese Canadian actor who makes his debut as the first Asian lead in Marvel’s film franchise on Friday, Sept. 3. “As a struggling actor, I always kind of looked at their example as proof that it was possible to make it, possible to build an audience speaking about Asian issues and our lives.”
So when Liu landed his first season of the sitcom “Kim’s Convenience” and decided he might “give this whole Hollywood thing a go,” he set up a meeting with Wang and expressed an interest in getting involved, even if only as a background extra. He’s since appeared in Wong Fu projects like “Asian Bachelorette,” a 2017 parody sketch of the ABC dating show, and “Yappie,” a 2018 miniseries that touches on topics like the “model minority” myth and interracial dating.
Liu described a “real entrepreneurial spirit” at the company, pointing to an ability to create quickly on a minimal budget without compromising a vision to satisfy outside investors or studio execs.
“Oftentimes, being an actor can feel very powerless and derivative,” Liu said, noting that much of the profession is predicated on the work of screenwriters or casting directors. “What I really got from Wong Fu and certainly what inspired me to go and write and produce my own short film (‘Meeting Mommy,’ 2018) is what I learned from them — which is a sense of, ‘Look, if a door is not opening for you, you need to go and make your own door.’ ”
Victoria Park, who plays Kamilla Hwang on CW’s “The Flash,” also highlighted the encouraging atmosphere at Wong Fu, which gave her one of her first acting jobs.
“For people like us who are underrepresented, sometimes we can kind of come into this industry with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if they want me,’ ” the Korean American actor said. But trying things out at Wong Fu, where Park was given her first major lead role, helped her “realize I belong here and I deserve to be here,” giving her the confidence to pursue bigger gigs.
Wang said he hopes his company can continue to “thrive as an “incubator” that finds and supports Asian talent both on- and offscreen, noting that experiential and pay gaps in the industry stem from a lack of equitable opportunities to gain practice and experience.
“My intention is to continue to create this environment that can refill,” he said. “That’s what Hollywood is — that’s what they’ve done for generations. … Asians have not yet been able to create (that) on our own, so I actually feel like we’re building a brand-new system.”
That’s not to say Wong Fu doesn’t also want to apply pressure on the traditional system. The company’s first feature film, “Everything Before Us,” began streaming on Netflix in 2016 (it’s now available free on YouTube). That same year, its miniseries, “Single by 30,” was chosen to be part of the launch of paywalled shows on YouTube. The latter production paired Wong Fu with industry professionals for the first time, with YouTube supplying a writers’ room and bigger sets.
The experience was an exercise in giving up creative control: YouTube didn’t move forward with a pitch for a second season, and without full ownership of the rights, Wong Fu couldn’t continue the story. Yet discovering that he could collaborate on that level allayed Wang’s fear that the company’s YouTube background made it inherently inferior to Hollywood creatives.
Now, Wang says he feels he has taken Wong Fu’s YouTube channel as far as he can. “I know that in order for me to grow as an artist, and also to help Wong Fu, we need to start going fishing and playing in this other system,” he said.
He credits the 2018 release of “Crazy Rich Asians” — which includes appearances from two Wong Fu alums, “Glee” actor Harry Shum Jr. and singer Kina Grannis — with paving the way for a more “robust” landscape of Asian creatives.
Wong Fu is looking ahead at pursuing projects like feature films and TV series, he said, adding that he is pitching and developing with different Hollywood producers.
“It’s all stuff that is happening right now, so maybe in a few years you’ll see the final product of that,” Wang said. “But what’s great is that Wong Fu doesn’t have to stop and wait for that.”
While the company works on slower-moving projects, it can still engage with its fans on YouTube and elsewhere online. For three years now, the company has shared content with monthly contributors on Patreon, a membership platform that allows fans to pay for exclusive perks such as access to pilot programs or behind-the-scenes looks at a creative team’s day-to-day life. In May, Wong Fu launched a clothing and art brand of Asian American-inspired designs.
And this month, Wang and Nguyen reprised their roles as fictional exes in “Strangers Never Again,” a three-part YouTube miniseries that continues the beloved story line from 2011 that helped put Wong Fu Productions on the map. Though the production value was higher this time around, the hour-long sequel was still made with a fraction of a studio or TV network’s budget, Wang said. The company recouped its costs during a 10-day window when fans could purchase early access starting at $15.
“It is a two-lane street right now,” Wang said, referring to mainstream and independent productions. “We’re on different roads that ultimately are going to the same place, which is more Asian representation, more Asian stories.”
“Strangers Never Again”: Romance-drama. Written by Philip Wang. Directed by Taylor Chan and Philip Wang. Starring Philip Wang, Cathy Nguyen, Dia Frampton, Yoshi Sudarso and David Choi. Three approximately 20-minute episodes. All episodes streaming on YouTube.
Article by Jennifer Zhan for Datebook & The SF Chronicle