How Bruce Lee Inspired Max’s Cult Favorite Kung Fu Show
Last Friday I finished watching Season 3 of Warrior, the Bruce Lee-inspired show set in San Francisco’s Chinatown circa 1878. The series follows the story of Ah Sahm, a mixed-race martial artist who sails from Foshan, China in search of his sister, Xiaojing, who has fled to California after escaping her abusive warlord husband, a man she was forced to marry in order to spare her brother’s life.
When Ah Sahm, played by Andrew Koji, finally lands in America, he has his “you’re not in Kansas anymore” moment. Passing through immigration he sees how his fellow Chinese are ridiculed and assaulted. A white immigration officer slaps him after he stands up for one of his countrymen. And though his impulse is to hold his head high and fight back — in a clear homage to Bruce Lee, Ah Sahm tastes his own blood and then proceeds to whoop the asses of three officers — it doesn’t change his new, searing awareness that the Chinese occupy the bottom tier of society in this foreign land. He’s soon conscripted into one of Chinatown’s tongs, the Hop Wei, and not long after discovers that his sister has remade herself on this side of the Pacific as the strong-willed wife of Long Zii, leader of a powerful rival tong and the Hop Wei’s mortal enemy.
You couldn’t ask for a better setup for a pulpy, wisecracking kung fu drama that’s rooted in a deep cut from American history — a period of racial tension in the West between working class Chinese and Irish in the run up to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — but self-aware enough to have some fun with it. Of all the Chinese dialects, I’ve always heard that Cantonese has the most prolific and effective profanity, a lexicon for insults that rises to the level of poetry. So listening to the sharp-tongued repartee in Warrior, which is delivered in fluent English for the benefit of viewers, is probably the closest I’ll ever get to enjoying the braggadocio of Cantonese.
The producers behind Warrior, Justin Lin (best known for Better Luck Tomorrow and the Fast & Furious franchise) and Shannon Lee (daughter of Bruce Lee and head of his estate), are well aware of the shoulders the show stands upon. The near-mythical origins of Warrior can be traced back to an 8-page treatment that Bruce Lee wrote…