In the latest season of Max’s Warriors, Assam (Andrew Koji) tells his lover Atoy (Oli Cheng): “It gets very tiring after a while.” “Survive. ?” she asked.
“Being hated,” he replied.
That was the late 1800s, the period between the end of the American Civil War and the signing of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Immigrants were numerous and racism was rampant. Assam and Toy are strolling through San Francisco’s Chinatown, the only place they can survive without any trouble. The refuge, along with much of San Francisco, was eventually destroyed by the 1906 earthquake. White architects would be hired to turn the affected area into a tourist attraction, that is, an exotic fantasy dotted with American-style architecture. Featuring colorful pagodas, dragon patterns and other chinoiserie elements. This TV series based on Bruce Lee’s book takes place in the original Chinatown, a place of hope and destruction.
For decades, Lee’s TV show, originally called “The Warriors,” was essentially an urban legend. Lee wrote the original script in the late 1960s, which was teased on The Pierre Burton Show in 1971 but was not realized before Lee’s death in 1973. In 2007, Justin Lin, the most famous director at the time, took over the show. A mockumentary called “Finishing the Game” was produced for his Asian-American coming-of-age film “Good Luck Tomorrow,” about another of Lee’s unfinished projects: “Game of Death,” which Lee was working on at the time of his death. Movies made. A few years later, Lin, obsessed with the legend of Bruce Lee, contacted Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon and asked if she still had her father’s promotional materials for “Warrior.” She gave Lin a binder that included Lee’s original eight-page show proposal, along with six drafts of sample episodes and scenes. Lin, along with Shannon Lee and Banshee creator Jonathan Troper, expanded the material into Warrior, which premiered in 2019 and recently concluded its third season.
At the beginning of the series, the protagonist Ah Sahm has just arrived from China and is standing in the immigration queue. When a fellow immigrant was pushed around by three white immigration officers, Assam jumped to protect him. One of the officers slapped Assam, who slowly turned his head and said, “If I were you, I wouldn’t do that again.” The ensuing fight was brutal and fast, complete with stylish The bass makes the protagonist’s footsteps feel rhythmic. Even those who watch Samurai without knowing the show’s connection to Bruce Lee will notice that Assam moves like him. Kung Fu characters are heroic, suspended in disbelief at a (sometimes cheesy) epic; they are the Greek myths of East Asia. But if the hero has a convincing air, as Assam does, attention immediately turns to Lee. During the fight, I almost expected Assam to let out a scream—a parody of Lee’s infamous battle cry that has defined the actor’s unique presence in pop culture. For subsequent generations of Asian Americans, its use was correspondingly racist: Growing up, all I knew about Lee was that the minstrel performed it to me. But Assam, played by a half-British-Japanese actor, is unmistakably modern, and his bravado comes through in the fluent insults of a man fluent in English. (He told the police, “I didn’t go halfway across the world on that damn boat just to make some fat white guy laugh.”) Assam won the brawl handily, the kind of thing non-whites would only dream of circa 1996. After being treated like a non-human being – this is an excellent way to deal with a miasma attack. Other TV shows have had similar impulses: In “Watchmen,” and also in “Max,” a black cop narrowly escapes a lynching, but he puts a noose around his neck as a kind of combat garb and stomps A group of hoodless Klansmen.
Soon after a run-in with immigration officials, Ah San was caught by a middleman named Wang Chao (played by Li Xun) and brought to a criminal family named Hewei. Wang is the only character who remains in the Qing line, and he speaks Cantonese. However, in Wang’s introduction to Ah San, the show uses what Troper calls a “‘Searching for Red October’ transition” of cinematography. The camera pans around Wang and his speech suddenly changes from subtitled Cantonese to fluent American English, turning the audience into his native speakers. The camera technique functions as a kind of disruptor of the racist atmosphere—preventing the audience from alienating King.
But translation comes at a cost. The show pays homage to Chinatown’s Chinglish dialect, in which shoehorned words are pronounced using tones as connective fillers that can be expressive in their own right. The “Ah” in Ah Sahm is a Cantonese word that, depending on the lilt of the speaker, may sound like “Yo Sahm” or “Heyyy Sahm,” a familiar but gender-neutral Sahm. However, the complexity of Cantonese as a well-developed system of communicating familiarity (and communicating insults) is lost in making the show so Anglicized. “Samurai” makes up for this by injecting wit and attitude into its dialogue, which is perhaps the essence of Cantonese, and of Bruce Lee himself.
“Warrior” tells the story of two crime families – the Hewei family, which Ah San eventually joins, and the Ryuko family – who are embroiled in a conflict known as the “Tang War.” Jeremy Lin has expressed his desire to write a history of relegation while creating mainstream entertainment. “I always felt like this was an American story that had never been told,” he explained in a 2019 interview. “Warrior” expands our view of what constitutes “American history” by focusing in part on another rivalry between the Irish and Chinese communities in San Francisco. The Irish community is led by Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger), a de facto labor organizer who goes to great lengths to harm Chinese workers in in-demand jobs and negotiate with American robber barons and elected officials. Meanwhile, Ryuko strikes a deal with a nativist deputy mayor in exchange for opium and increased security in the siege. The deputy, who aspired to be San Francisco’s next mayor, encouraged riots in Chinatown so he could run on a platform that involved expelling all Chinese residents from the city. But he was also interested in something more systemic: creating legislation that would target a particular racial group to restrict immigration. Both Leary and Ryuko represent fringe groups who sell out for fringe power. It was a clear charter for destruction, especially for the Ryuko, as their turf war would inevitably end with an immigration ban lasting more than sixty years, followed by more than two decades of restrictions.
Sometimes “Warrior” can feel radical. Not only did it create characters that had rarely appeared on television before, it also gave these characters a rich inner life. Still, there are occasional moments of insularity, perhaps because the show was conceived in the 1860s and the actors’ main interest was documenting the Chinese experience in America. Aside from the drug dealer and the vixen bartender, there are barely any black characters present, and despite taking place in the post-Reconstruction period, their storylines are bland. Even as the show focuses on Irish immigrants and Chinese coming to terms with whites and tearing each other apart, there seems to be an opportunity to shift the lens to nearby Stone Street, once San Francisco’s only black enclave.
Criticizing an Asian American show for ignoring the conflicts of other racial groups might come across as nit-picking, but the absence is glaring in an ambitious period drama that seeks to depict America’s forgotten history, as well as white people The ultimate scourge. That’s especially striking in 2023, when “Warrior”‘s narrow focus is not dissimilar to the politics of Asian parents whose calls for racial equality helped end affirmative action. Isolating history has the unintended effect of layering pain. It also allows groups, driven by their own ethnocentric tendencies, to roll back the progress others have made.
When the three creators of “Warrior” tried to revive Lee’s project, they focused on changing the proposal away from the weekly adventure format that was popular during Lee’s era and creating something more cinematic and prestige-y for television. The kind of thing that would feel right at home on HBO. But by leaving the rest intact, they inherited the blind spots of classic kung fu movies to which Samurai is a loving tribute. Take the 1990s film series Once Upon a Time, in which Jet Li played the fictional Wong Feihong, a doctor and warrior who defended the Chinese way of life from warlords during the ailing Qing Dynasty. Or the “Ip Man” series, which tells the story of Bruce Lee’s martial arts instructor who fought against the Japanese occupiers in Foshan during World War II before he was forced to move to Hong Kong. Both films follow the standard format of a kung fu movie, providing the hero with increasingly challenging opponents that must defeat them. Each opponent has an advantage over the hero because they are bigger, stronger, or equipped with unique weapons. But the underdog hero wins by being smart and keeping his cool. These Kung Fu Westerns are loosely based on the imperialist struggle to carve up China, but the external or systemic factors that lead to social chaos are unimportant because they mostly serve as background. The only thing that matters is the protagonist’s journey to overcome personal challenges. It’s an innocuous, if not classic, story, but what does it mean to be exposed to fictional history—or speculative reality—for so long?