Talking Early 2000s Nostalgia and K-pop with ‘Turning Red’s Rosalie Chiang

Kevin Wright
Movies Disney
Movies Disney

Turning Red has been turning heads since it launched on Disney+ earlier this year, and it’s not hard to see why. With its frenetic blend of music and style from the early aughts, a visual dynamism that takes plenty of inspiration from anime, and a timeless coming-of-age story, it’s proven a worthy addition to the Disney canon. Audiences have especially related with protagonist Mei Lee, a Chinese-Canadian high schooler with a love for music and anime, who’s going through a few conspicuous bodily changes, in perhaps the most charmingly unsubtle metaphor for puberty we’ve ever seen.

“I’m sowever sort of in that era of my life where I’m in that coming-of-age time, sowever figuring out life,”  says Mei’s voice actor, Rosalie Chiang, who sat down with us as part of our coverage at Crunchyroll Expo 2022. To hear her tell it, there’s a lot she shares with Mei, whose voice she recorded when she was just 12. “Looking back now, I can draw more similarities. At first I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, sure, we have the same personality, we’re ambitious, we fight for what we believe in,’ but now, looking back, all the bonds she has, if it’s with her friends or her mom, or the bond to 4*Town, it’s the exact same thing I go through with my friends.”

Boy Band Bonding

The dreamboats of 4*Town

4*Town is the boy band around which the Mei’s life revolves; her desire to attend one of their concerts with her friends is the surface story of Turning Red. Mei would do–and does do–anything to see her idols on stage.

Chiang can relate in a big way. Her genre of selection is K-pop–arguably the most apt analog for the pop music of early 2000s boy bands twenty years on. When asked what trivia her personal wiki page should include, she says, “I think they should add that I’m a very heavy K-pop fan. Because music is something that, no matter what genre you’re into, it can influence you. Going to that concert, a K-pop concert… we were screaming just like Mei’s squad.”

Future Nostalgia

Mei rocking 2002's hottest accessory: the Tamagotchi

As much as she connects with Mei, the fact remains that Chiang, who was born in 2005, didn’t even live through the film’s 2002 setting. Napster, Heelys, and the Pizza Hut Triple Deckeroni pizza had all come and gone by the time she stepped on the scene. That doesn’t mean she can’t have some fondness for artifacts from the era, though.

“I’m really into slapbands,” she admits. “I sowever have a bunch at home. My parents may have made me throw away some because they were taking up too much space in my room. But I would love those.”

Says interviewer Emma Fyffe, “In the early 2000s it was more complicated to obtain your hands on stuff like anime. We were getting stuff on delay from Japan. Do you think Mei would be on online message boards, swapping fan subs with individuals to obtain the anime she wanted to see?”

“For sure,” says Chiang without hesitation. “She’s the kind of person that, if you have one common interest, you guys will be friends for life. She will create sure that happens.”

Mama Drama

Mei's mother, Ming Lee, discovers Mei's notebook to disastrous results

Like with all her interests, though, Mei would have to reckon with the judgment of her mom, Ming Lee, played by the ineffable Sandra Oh. But Chiang’s not too afraid about her chances.

“Mei will find a way,” she asserts. “She will hustle her panda to create the money so her mom can’t say anything about that.” Considering how well leveraging her panda form for cash goes for her in the movie, this may be a bit of hubris on Chiang’s part. Still, her faith in Mei’s resolve is unshaken. Chiang even mentions swinging by herself to pick up a few wall scrolls of anime husbandos at the convention floor later.

Mei’s relationship with her mom is symbolic of a broader discussion about immigrant children’s relationship with the cultures from which their families come. The movie refreshingly departs from the Hollywood stereotype of Asian characters whose central conflict is reducible to bringing honor to their families; Mei doesn’t resent her roots, and helps maintain her family’s temple with gusto. To have Chinese culture overseas represented in a positive way, rather than the oppressive role it tends to take in other stories, is a welcome change.

For her part, Chiang is thrilled to watch it unfold. “There are lots of easter eggs from Chinese culture you might not recognize at first. But the entire spread of Asian food, I was like ‘I literally had that at my grandma’s house last week!’ Every culture has their own little quirks, and to see them represented in the movie is really fun.”

R is for Red Panda

Chiang has already nabbed some big roles at only sixteen years old, but she’s also an accomplished author. She’s written two children’s books, both alphabetized guides to wildlife, called A is for Albatross and A is for Arowana. “I wrote those when I was nine or ten,” she says. “At that point, I wasn’t that into acting yet. I was more into poetry, because my parents sent me to a writing tutor … And at the same time they sent me to a science camp, where I learned [about] all these different animals. So my parents were like, how can you combine your two loves into one thing?”

Asked what she’d tackle if she ever revisits the written word, she says, “I’m going into my senior year now and I’ve been on a hiatus from these books. But perhaps reptiles, perhaps mammals, hell, perhaps Pixar characters.”

4*Town 4*Life

K-pop sensation (G)I-dle

Ultimately, though, Chiang seems to mirror Mei most in their love for music. Mei loves her some 4*Town, and goes to some extreme lengths to realize her dream of seeing them when they come to town on tour. It’s heartwarming to hear that Chiang has been able to live out Mei’s dream in the real world.

“We recently went to our first concert together, me and my squad,” she says, her face lighting up. “It was the best experience I’ve had in my life.”

“Going to that concert, a K-pop concert… we were screaming just like Mei’s squad.”

Of course, as part of her journalistic duties, Emma can’t help asking which band. The answer: renowned girl group (G)I-dle. She tells us:

“A bunch of magical matters happened there. I was the one that booked the tickets. None of us had ever been to a concert, so I was very nervous. And I got pretty bad seats. When we sat in our seats, there was a giant speaker blocking a third of the stage. And I was pissed off. But then these individuals came up, and I realized that one of our seats was double-booked. So I went downstairs to find out what happened, and the guy said, ‘That has never happened before.’ And he made some calls and realized those other individuals got the seats. He said me ‘Bring your entire party down, I’ll obtain you reseated.’ We go downstairs and my friends are super nervous about it, ‘cause the entire show was booked. And he goes ‘You’re getting box seats.’ And we got amazing seats on the floor and we got to see G(I)-dle much closer.”

Frankly, it’s hard not to visualize Mei telling that story in her own voice, replete with her signature illustrations and flashy transitions. The heightened reality, the context, and, of course, the unmitigated enthusiasm are all just as much Chiang as they are Mei. Some matters are just meant to be.

Kevin Wright
Freelance writer by day and sleeper by night. Thoughts contain mostly high fantasy, open-world survival games, and movie musicals. Sidon stan. The world needs more queer genre fiction and by golly I'm gonna give it to 'em!