Hollywood lore has it that martial arts star Bruce Lee wrote an eight-page pitch about a kung-fu master who wanders through the American Old West—but major studios never took it up, presumably because America was not yet ready for an Asian-led television series.
Decades later, his daughter Shannon Lee discovered the story and was able to bring her father’s vision to life in Cinemax’s newest series, Warrior—a story set during the height of Chinese immigration to the US in the late 19th century. With acclaimed director Justin Lin (Fast and Furious, Star Trek Beyond) at the helm, Warrior tells the story of Chinese immigrant and martial artist Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), and his adventures in the tong-led Chinatown of San Francisco.
Ah Sahm enters the employ of the most powerful tong in San Francisco, and not only has to fight the other tongs, but also racist white government officials who want nothing more than to see Chinese immigrants expelled from America. At his side are the princeling of his tong, Young Jun (Jason Tobin), and the owner of a brothel and opium den, Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng).
They’re Taking Our Jobs!
As Ah Sahm arrives fresh off a boat of Chinese immigrants, he is welcomed to America with a brigade of protestors chanting “send them home!”
In fact, the attitudes of white Americans in Warrior against Chinese immigrants bear an uncanny resemblance to certain contemporary American attitudes against Mexican immigrants. In a later scene, white government officials bemoan that Chinese immigrants “are criminals and gangsters”, much like how Trump once called Mexican immigrants drug dealers, criminals, and rapists. At the same time, white American laborers cry out that they’re “going to take back [their] jobs, [and] take back [their] city [from the Chinese]”—a protest that seems to fit as well in 21st century America as in 19th century America.
What’s surprising though is that most of the script for the pilot episode was written during the Obama administration—it was only later in the series that showrunner Jonathan Tropper found the opportunity to “slip some of [Trump’s rhetoric] into the script.”
“We did find such haunting similarities between what was being said then [and now], so the whole thing seems to be happening again,” Tropper said at a media roundtable in New York.
Indeed, modern America seems to be slipping back towards the 19th century—a central arc of Warrior‘s first season is the government’s effort to stymie the flow of Chinese immigrants, by passing a series of laws and treaties that would culminate in the Chinese Exclusion Act: an indefinite ban on Chinese immigrants. One can’t help but to draw parallels to Trump’s ban on visitors from a number of Muslim nations or his desire to build a wall on the US-Mexico border.
A Punch in The Face
However, Warrior is a martial arts show—and that means that the heroes get to fight back against racism—violently. The 19th century was a rougher era, where brawls and brutal murders would occur in the streets of San Francisco regularly, and the speech of the day was strictly non-PC.
Warrior certainly does not shy away from the brutal realities of the era—it’s unabashedly raw in its violence, and harsh in its dialog. Within the first couple of minutes of the pilot, Ah Sahm fights a white immigration official who mistreats a fellow Chinese—but not before calling him a “fat white fuck”‘. Throughout the show, white men frequently refer to the Chinese as “chinks”, a term that ranks similarly alongside an epithet hurled against black Americans in the same era. Racist white men ambush and murder Chinese immigrants, while Ah Sahm fights back against perceived injustices on behalf of his fellow Chinese.
In an America where “trigger warnings” insulate sensitive personalities from the harsh realities of life, Warrior is a much-needed punch in the face.
Even Tropper “was pulling his punches” when writing the script, said director Justin Lin. Justin had to coach all of the cast members—Asian and white—to be able to “go there” and authentically portray what life was like in 19th century Chinatown: “[the cast] understood the magnitude, [and] we didn’t want them to pull any punches. We wanted them to embrace the brutality, and the honesty of these characters.”
Shannon Lee echoed this sentiment when asked why Warrior was so adult in its presentation, saying that she wanted to “have a sense of the tensions of the time, and not shy away or sugarcoat [it] in any way.”
This drive for authenticity extended towards the casting—Warrior is arguably the first mainstream American action series to feature a predominantly Asian-led cast. Both Lee and Lin saw this as a watershed moment for Asian-Americans on the big screen.
“The no brainer portion of it is to be able to have it cast in the way that it should be cast,” Shannon Lee noted on the importance of Asian representation in the making of Warrior. “My father himself ran into the issue of not being able to star in a show because he was Asian, and obviously we want to take that away—we’re more able to do so today than 40 something years ago.”
Justin Lin noted that he “didn’t have to do this” series at this stage in his already established career, but he wanted to do so in part because he was also an Asian immigrant, having moved to the States from Taiwan in his childhood—but he wanted to “do it right.”
“I wanted to make sure I didn’t take this opportunity for granted. I wanted to make sure everything we did, we did it right.”
The Asian-American Experience—Then and Now
Of course, Warrior is very much about the Asian-American experience, and the series dives deep into the meaning of the term “Asian-American” itself—perhaps doing so best by shying away from the term entirely.
Despite some of the Chinese characters in the series actually being born in America, none of them are actually seen as true Americans. Young Jun for example, was born in San Francisco— in modern parlance we might call him an “American-born Chinese” or “ABC.”
But in the 19th century, things were different—for starters, birthright citizenship wasn’t guaranteed until an 1898 Supreme Court ruling. Young Jun also barely speaks English, and as a result, struggles to define his own identity—a situation that stands in contrast to many contemporary Asian-Americans who can’t speak their cultural mother tongue. In one scene, Young Jun bemoans that he is “a Chinaman who’s never been to China… born in San Francisco, but no fucking American”—to which Ah Sahm replies, “you’re as Chinese as I am.”
This identity struggle persists in modern Asian-American discourse, where the term “Asian-American” comes with connotations of homogenization and undertones of conformity and disempowerment. And of course, one only needs to take a glance at the Facebook group “Subtle Asian Traits” to get a glimpse of the identity struggles that the young Asian diaspora face growing up in Western countries.
A world where Asian-Americans are seen as Asian—but not American—may seem foreign to many contemporary Asian-Americans, who grew up in a much more American context, and at times struggle to fit in in Asia as much as they do in their adopted Western homes. But that’s the brilliance of Warrior—it’s another punch in the face for Asian Americans who grew up in an era where they have the luxury of struggling with their identity, and are not strictly pigeonholed into being foreigners.
More Asian-Americans On Screen
Forty years ago, it would have been unimaginable that an Asian-led cast would star in an American television series—let alone an action series at that. But in a world where Crazy Rich Asians and Fresh Off the Boat exist, Warrior is giving Asian Americans a fighting chance in action genre.
Justin Lin hopes that Warrior “will open doors, and also create opportunities for this cast.”
“I’m glad that now we have people who have different backgrounds getting in the rooms and fighting. Before we couldn’t even get in the rooms and fight. We’re just looking for a fair fight.”
Warrior will be available on HBO CINEMAX starting April 5th.
Warrior —US. Created by Shannon Lee, Jonathan Tropper, and Justin Lin based on an original idea by Bruce Lee. Starring Andrew Koji, Olivia Cheng, Jason Tobin, Dianne Doan, Kieren Bew, and Dean S. Jagger.