“So here’s the funny thing, man. I’ve gone through 43 years of my life thinking I was Chinese and I got a DNA test … two weeks ago.”
Larry Teng was sitting at a table outside Bogart’s Cafe last month, getting ready to talk about his new gig as director for the the pilot episode and executive producer of “NCIS: Hawai’i” on CBS.
The network confirmed in April that the show had a straight-to-series order, so he’ll stick around to direct the first few episodes of the first season, too, before heading back to work on a new season of “Nancy Drew,” another CBS franchise.
But first, the bombshell:
“I am actually only 49.4% Chinese,” said Teng. “And I am 50.5%, Korean, Japanese.
“I had no idea until two weeks ago. I called my mom and she was like, ‘What are you talking about?’
“And I’m like, ‘I don’t know. You tell me?’ It was crazy.”
The revelation can only make Teng more endearing to local residents, many of whom — this “poi dog” included — are of mixed ethnicity and typically raised in a multicultural environment, unlike many other places in the United States.
While Teng was born in Queens, New York, and only moved west when it came time to get a job in Hollywood, this isn’t his first gig in Hawaii. He’s the one who picked Bogart’s for our interview, and it’s obvious he’s spent time hanging out in Kapahulu and Kaimuki before.
Teng, who celebrated his 44th birthday on June 12, credits an experience he had with a crew member while working on another CBS series filmed on Oahu as being so transformative, you can’t help but use the old cliche “life-changing” to describe it.
“He said, ‘You understand how important it is that somebody who looks like you sits in this chair that says, ‘director,’” Teng told his college alma mater’s newspaper, The Ithacan, last month of the interaction while on set working on “Hawaii Five-0.”
“It really struck me because they didn’t have any role models. They were all taught to believe that maybe the best they could do are these positions — not producing, not directing, not writing. And that’s when it kind of clicked. I was like, ‘I need to do something with this.’”
As he got ready to dig into a breakfast of coffee and fried rice — with an egg on top, of course — in Waikiki a few weeks later, Teng was resolute in his desire to be a role model for the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities in Hollywood and beyond.
“Now that I’m back (in Hawaii), I feel like I have a responsibility to make sure that the community here, the people, the crew, that they’re all represented properly, you know?
“(Hawaii) just did 10 years of a cop show with two white leads here. You’re going into your fourth year of ‘Magnum’ with a Latino lead. And now we’re coming in, we’ve got two Asian leads. I think it’s important that the crew can work on something that they kind of get behind.”
Teng wasn’t looking to come back and work in Hawaii. Along with his success on “Nancy Drew,” he was also looking to bring his own stories to the small screen.
“I had written my first pilot called ‘The Bay,’ with two Chinese leads,” he said. “It’s based on my relationship with my father and is a cop show set in San Francisco, kind of exploring the varying definitions of being Chinese American.
“It had gone really well. We sold it in the room to the studio, (and then) we sold in the room to the network. We thought we had a legitimate shot, but I think with COVID changing the business model, the studio and the network, they wanted to invest in brands that had a name.”
With the departure of “NCIS: New Orleans” from the CBS lineup and COVID-19 restrictions in place that made it unfeasible to film in some locations, filming in Hawaii made sense on a number of levels for co-executive producers and writers Matt Bosack, Jan Nash and Chris Silber. While Bosack makes the move to Hawaii after working on CBS show “SEAL Team,” Silber was show runner and executive producer on “NCIS: New Orleans,” while Nash was also executive producer and a writer on the show.
“’NCIS’ as a brand is safe. Filming in Hawaii with COVID was safe,” Teng said. “So for them, I think it was it was a no-brainer. And clearly, there was a hole left behind when when ‘Five-0’ went down. And there’s an infrastructure in place, you know, filming wise.”
With pre-production wrapping up, sources say filming will get started next week following a traditional Hawaiian blessing on Wednesday at a location on Oahu’s North Shore. Teng has been back on island for a while getting ready for the pilot as news slowly trickles out about the show’s cast.
During our breakfast in May, Teng knew he was stepping into some pretty big shoes.
“This is a love letter to the Navy,” he said. “But it’s a love letter to Hawaii, too, you know, and I gotta make sure we protect that. And, you know, it’s one of the things we stress about every day.
“I think the big thing for me is coming here, having started here 12 years ago, there are crew members that I met who are still doing the exact same job today. I want to create a base right where we can build this crew up, give them a chance to advance.
“We’ve already reached out to UH, the film department there. We’ve hired a couple their kids, recent graduates. I want to make sure that these guys, coming out of the film school, they have a place to go.
“Coming here is always special. I wouldn’t have done 11 episodes of ‘Five-0’ if it didn’t mean something. And honestly, in the last few years, this is our place, this is where we come, whether I’m visiting the guys working on the shows, or my girlfriend I go to Kauai or Maui or the Big Island.
“This will be a place where I always have a home, as long as I don’t screw this up. I’ll always have a home here and it’s always gonna be a question of, if there’s a fit, you know?”
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Jason Genegabus has written about food and drink, cocktails, music and entertainment in Hawaii since 2001.