Actor Daniel Wu on Tuner Builds, Activism, and Inspiring the Next Generation

The actor doesn’t think of himself as an activist, yet his actions indicate anything but.

byKristen Lee| PUBLISHED May 24, 2022 2:31 PM
Actor Daniel Wu on Tuner Builds, Activism, and Inspiring the Next Generation
Courtesy of Larry Chen. Courtesy of Larry Chen
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Few stand as prominently at the intersection of the automotive community and Asian American awareness as actor Daniel Wu. On-screen, Wu's Western roles include The Man With the Iron Fists, Tomb Raider, and Into the Badlands. Off-screen, you'll find him behind the wheel of a Honda Civic Type R race car or collaborating with his friend, Sung Kang, on a cool build. But throughout all that, Wu's constantly thinking about how to use his platform and his voice to lift up people in the AAPI community.

Wu is most active on Instagram and his account, which has 1.3 million followers, is a healthy mixture of track days, car meets, and posts from NextShark, an Asian American news site. About halfway through 2020, though, his posts took on a tonal shift.

"YOU DON'T SPEAK FOR US," Wu wrote on a post of a Donald Trump Twitter screenshot, where the former president blamed the COVID-19 pandemic on China and claimed Chinese Americans were "the most angry of all." In August 2020, he pledged a $15,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of the people who attacked an 89-year-old Asian woman and set her on fire in Brooklyn, New York. In February 2021, Wu and fellow actor Daniel Dae Kim together offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person that police said was responsible for assaulting three Asian people in Oakland, California.

Courtesy of Larry Chen

Since then, Wu's feed has been peppered with posts promoting the #StopAsianHate anti-Asian racism movement. Not only has he been raising awareness, but along with Kang, he's also started a streetwear-brand-turned-car-community called Student Driver that's done everything from helping a member locate his stolen Acura NSX to co-sponsoring a Stop Asian Hate charity drive.

It's clear Wu learned long ago that if you're Asian American and you want to be heard in this country, you have to be loud. It's a lesson he's taken to heart and one he applies to everything he does.

We Are Student Driver

Founded in 2020, Wu and Kang initially started Student Driver as a streetwear brand that was car- and lifestyle-oriented—kind of like what Mark Arcenal did with Illest, according to Wu. The original idea came to Kang one day when he was hanging out at a friend's shop and he spotted a student driver magnet, like the ones people in driving school put on their cars.

"Then," Kang told me in a call, "Will Wattanawongkiri from WRTeknica—he's a very accomplished driver—walked by and said, 'I'm a student driver, too.' And it hit me." Kang said Wu had always followed the same philosophy, so he was the natural person to partner with.

Courtesy of Larry Chen

"The whole ethos of Student Driver is no matter how much you know, you're always a student, and so there's always room to learn," Wu explained during a separate interview. As time went on, however, and the number of people following them grew, Wu and Kang wanted to do more. They knew of masters of the automotive craft like Kenji Sumino of GReddy and Erick Aguilar from Erick's Racing Engines who they thought more people should recognize. So they combined the two and decided to build a community of enthusiasts.

"It's more than just selling stuff," Wu said. "It's about creating events, creating situations where people can share and have our own community. Last year, we organized two large Stop Asian Hate rallies through our Student Driver program. It was for Asian Americans that were in the car scene that wanted to stand up against this stuff but didn't consider themselves activists or just didn't really know much about how to do that kind of stuff."

Event organizers thought about how they could pull the crowd in and do their own kind of protest, but the car way. They decided on a rally and the turnout was, in a word, impressive.

"We did a car rally here in Los Angeles where there were over 500 cars that showed up," Wu said. "We started in downtown LA and then drove out to San Gabriel to our friend, David Lee at Hing Wa Lee Jewelers. We did one up in the Bay Area as well, where there were about the same amount of cars. So instead of a protest, walking down the street, we got 500 cars together and drove to show our force."

Speaking Out

Wu was born in Berkeley, California, but lived in Hong Kong for 20 years. While there, race wasn't on his mind at all because "everybody was Chinese," he said. "Even in my work ... I got a role because of my ability and skills and not because of race or whatever, so I didn't have to think about it. But when I moved back, it just slapped me in the face: 'Oh, we've still got to deal with these issues and we're still a long way away from having an equal footing in this country.' And then when all the Asian hate stuff started happening, that just was the last straw for me."

That was when he and Kim put out the reward in Oakland. It was time to make some noise. "What we were really upset about was that we went through a year of all these Asian hate crimes going on and the mainstream media was not picking up on it, not concerned about it at all," Wu said. "By our actions, we wanted to bring attention to the issue and create a dialogue and get that going." Since then, the Biden Administration has named Kim a leader as part of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.

I asked Wu if he considers himself an activist.

"I wouldn't say I'm an activist," he said. "I mean, I'm someone who's really concerned about the community and what's been happening. There are people that have been in that field for years and years doing really good work, so I want to give them the credit. I'm really just using my platform to highlight what's going on in the community and pointing [others] in the right direction if they want to help—pointing them to these activists and organizations that are trying to make a difference in the community."

It's true; on Instagram, Wu is constantly posting about documentaries, foundations, and non-profit organizations that seek to benefit and help members of the AAPI and BIPOC communities.

In the year since the horrific Atlanta spa shootings, Wu observed that at least more people are paying attention. "I think people are more aware and empathetic now, and more understanding of the situation because by using our platform to highlight all the crap that was going on, people are like, 'Oh, I didn't realize it was still happening. I thought after the shootings, it calmed down.' But it hasn't, actually," he said. "There's still tons of this going on. In New York, Michelle Go getting pushed off the subway platform. Christina Yuna Lee getting murdered in her apartment.

"But what has been good is the community has galvanized and stood up and no longer is putting their head down, which is traditional of the Asian community: Keep your head down, just work hard and don't worry about it," Wu went on. "But now we've stood up and said, 'We've had fucking enough of this.'"

A perpetual problem Asian Americans face is being perceived as perpetual foreigners. Or that we're invisible and therefore our voices don't need to be heard. It's no coincidence, then, that some of the highest-profile people I've spoken to for these two years of AAPI stories have been actors.

"We're not represented in three of the major things that Americans value the most, which are entertainment, sports, and politics," Wu said. "I think during this period, people are starting to realize that we need more representation in those fields, we need more representation everywhere, and that we need to be seen as part of the American fabric."

Wu himself is working on a show called American Born Chinese for Disney+, a kid's show that's about "Jin Wang (Ben Wang), a teenager juggling his high school social life with his immigrant home life. When Jin meets a new foreign exchange student (Jim Liu) on the first day of school, their worlds collide as Jin becomes entangled in a battle of Chinese mythological gods. Identity, culture and family are themes throughout," per Variety.

I would have killed for a show like that growing up. Besides sounding like damn-good TV—we've got mythological gods out the wazoo, yo—that show will offer some solace and validation to many Asian Americans trying to saddle the bi-cultural existence that is living in the U.S.

"This is for the next generation," Wu said. "It's a kid show so that kids right now—my daughter's eight years old—can grow up and say she sees people like her on TV and get inspired by that. Making those moves in the entertainment world, trying to integrate those ideas into the car world—I'm just trying to make that a more conscientious part of everything else I do."

So when Wu says he doesn't consider himself an activist, I suspect perhaps he's being a bit modest.

Part of the Scene

Like many Asian Americans, Wu was drawn to the automotive community because—historically in Southern California, at least—it's been the most welcoming to us.

"I think a lot of the tuner culture stuff started in LA was done by Asian Americans," Wu said. "I remember back being in high school or college, [with] friends that were at UCLA, I had a friend that had a shop that sold aftermarket parts and lots of other friends that were into that because of the tuner culture stuff. So I think that really drove the Asian-American interest here in California with import cars and Japanese cars because it was a cheaper entry-level to get in and there were a lot of aftermarket parts you could get from Japan."

But it wasn't just Asian Americans. "There were Latin Americans [into] Japanese cars as well," Wu said. "[The cars] were cheaper, but they were treating them up so that they could beat American muscle cars, all that kind of stuff. This import market was like a parallel to the American hot rod scene that was mostly white." What Wu was describing was a particular scene during a particular time in a particular place that's since been immortalized by The Fast and the Furious.

Wu calls out 2017 as the year he ascended from merely loving cars to really getting his hands dirty. It was the year he was inspired by Sung Kang's "FuguZ" hot-rod 240Z build. They knew each other from the acting business but had not really chatted cars until then. From that, Wu went on to create his Datsun 510 "Tanto" build and then the Honda S800 project after that.

Courtesy of Daniel Wu
Courtesy of Daniel Wu

"I got the bug because I started meeting a lot of people in the community and I found it so warm and inviting that I started to get to know more and more people," he said. "When you show up to a show like SEMA and you have a cool car, it becomes an equal playing ground. People will just come up to you because they like your work and it has nothing to do with your race or who you are or wherever."

This year, Wu and Kang have plans to build a Buick Grand National with a Nissan GT-R motor named King Kuro ("kuro" meaning "black" in Japanese) and bring it to SEMA. "[We're] going to do it JDM-style," Wu explained. The Buick Grand National has a 3.8-liter turbo V6 and the R35 GT-R has a 3.8-liter twin-turbo V6. The two believe this would make for the perfect homage. "Our plan is to take it to SEMA then to Tokyo Auto Salon afterward," Wu said.

Tokyo Auto Salon is the destination, by the way. "We wanna go and show what Southern California car culture is about," Kang elaborated. "If we do a GT-R or some JDM build, the Japanese have seen it, they've already mastered it. But the Buick has this prominence to it, it's very American."

"Our idea is to make a truly Asian-American muscle car—to take that Buick Grand National and put a Japanese heart in it," Wu said. Sounds sick.

And when Wu's not building, he's racing. He drives a Honda Civic Type R TC in the WERC series and took on the 25 Hours of Thunderhill in 2021. Last year, he and his team were in the E1 class. This year, they've cut down on weight, increased horsepower, and moved up to the E0 class.

Wu documents all of it on Instagram, by the way, not because he wants the clout or anything, but because he sees it as a way to inspire young people to get into cars, too. "It's amateur racing, anybody can do [it]," he said. "I wanted to show the process. I don't have some special status because I'm a movie star, I got in on the ground up and I'm learning just like everybody else. I crash like everybody else."

At SEMA, he gets asked how people can involve young kids in cars. "I don't know, I'm not a young kid anymore," Wu said. "But by doing things like this, by showing my interests on Instagram, hopefully, that influences a bunch of kids to get into it. And it's really cool because I go to [Japanese Classic Car Shows] and I meet kids that want old Hakos, Corollas, and 510s. They're into that. It's really inspiring to see that they're carrying the torch on."

In his personal collection, Wu keeps a 1988 Porsche 911 (which belonged to his father and who passed just this March), a 2018 Porsche 911 GT3 Touring, the 1972 Datsun 510 show car, a 1970 Datsun 510 race car, the Honda S800, a 2017 Ford Focus RS, a Chevy Colorado diesel (for hauling the race car trailer), a 1961 Lincoln Continental, a Land Rover Defender, and a 2019 Volkswagen e-Golf for running around town with.

(Let it be known here: Daniel Wu is the guy who bought an e-Golf. "I thought that was the best one to have because it looks like a normal car," he explained. "I don't like electric cars that look like weird things.")

Ultimately, Wu and I spoke only for about 30 minutes. But in that time, it was abundantly clear that he's thought a lot about the Asian community, his place in it, and how to use his platform for the betterment of us all. He recognizes the size of his following, but "I don't want to be like, 'Hey, look at the cool clothes I'm wearing, or look at this Lambo I bought.' That kind of stuff," he said. "I want to try and educate the community of people that follow me and learn along with me about the things I'm learning about. A big part of my life is to be constantly improving myself and educating myself. To be able to then share that with my followers is a big gift. It gives them something substantial instead of just fluff."

Got a tip? Email me at kristen@thedrive.com.