In March 1973, two weeks after my doctor said I’d be dead within five years from cystic fibrosis, I saw Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss at a drive-in theater in Vestal, New York. During his opening fight, Lee — dressed in a white T-shirt with buttons from the chest up — took on a lunging thug with a knife. Our hero then executed a pair of the fastest kicks in cinematic history.
Inside me, it was as if a switch had been tripped. No longer was I depressed and waiting to die. Now I desperately wanted to live so I could learn how to do what Lee did so expertly on the silver screen.
After buying every bit of media and memorabilia I could find, I dove into the Bruce Lee universe. I learned that after The Green Hornet was canceled in 1967, he’d penned a script for a TV show. Warner Bros. subsequently turned it down because company execs figured that American audiences wouldn’t accept a Chinese leading man. Later, a few magazines reported that the concept had morphed into the Kung Fu series, which similarly snubbed Lee.
Fast-forward to April 2019: While channel-surfing, I ran across a Cinemax series called Warrior. In the episode, a bearded hero named Ah Sahm (played by wing chun expert Andrew Koji) flashed a trademark Lee pose, then ended a fight with a racist San Francisco immigration officer with a side kick that resembled the kick Lee used to nail someone who was holding a body shield in Way of the Dragon.
When another scene showed Ah Sahm wearing a white T-shirt, I knew it was safe to say that Bruce Lee is back — in a time-lee fashion!
Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee serves as Warrior’s executive producer, and she agreed to this interview so Black Belt readers can get the full story on the series. “Everyone has a unique experience watching my father because he was such a unique human being,” she told me. “He has a palpable, dynamic energy signature, and when you watch him move and speak the way he does, you can feel it. Even now, that energy signature is expansive, loaded with possibilities, and it explodes with power, enthusiasm and grace. It lights a fire within you. To think anybody can recreate that in their performance — I don’t think it’s possible. What is possible is to take that energy signature and paint it across the screen and story.
“We didn’t want Andrew to pretend to be Bruce Lee. It would be against my father’s philosophy of self-actualization and honest-built expression. People would see that limitation, and [Koji] wouldn’t be a real human being on-screen. Yet by tapping into that energy signature, we can infuse Bruce Lee’s energy into this and other projects.”
On December 9, 1971, Bruce Lee philosophically described that real-vs.-reel energy in a post-Big Boss interview with Pierre Berton in Hong Kong. During the exchange, it was clear that Lee had no delusions about Warrior or Kung Fu: “Such things exist in this world. If a foreigner came to Hong Kong to be a star, if I was the money, man, I probably would worry whether or not the acceptance would be there.”
The remarkable way he handled himself in the interview reflected his true nature as a human being, a martial artist and a philosopher. He didn’t put down anyone or whine about his predicament. He merely vowed to be like water and overcome the obstacle. It doesn’t excuse Warner Bros., yet perhaps the flow was redemptive for both sides with Enter the Dragon.
Originally titled Ah Sahm, Warrior began life as an eight-page treatment set in 1870s America. It concerns a Chinese immigrant who possesses extraordinary martial arts skills. He arrives in California, where he works as a hatchet man for a San Francisco tong. Although six-shooters were abundant in the Wild West, the treatment featured the way of the fist as a frequent solution to conflict, and the series does likewise.
Ah Sahm’s aim is to unite the tongs into a powerful force so they can help the Chinese people restore the Ming dynasty by overthrowing the Ching. Armed with a bamboo pole and helped by a friend and guide named Big Bill O’Hara, Ah Sahm travels across America in what Bruce Lee described as a slam-bang Western adventure series.
“I’ve always known about this part of my family history,” Shannon said about her father’s concept for the series. “When my mother stepped down at the end of 2000 and the legacy was passed on to me, I received many boxes. It wasn’t until early 2001 when I started going over his writings and found the treatment. Then I put it back.
“He was intent on creating different entertainment vehicles to showcase his martial arts, philosophies, beliefs, and the beauty and culture around them. He wanted to tell authentic Chinese stories. Big Boss was a seeing-if-this-works kind of thing, Fist of Fury was his idea to talk about the Chinese/Japanese tension, and Way of the Dragon — which he wrote, starred in, directed and did fights in — was about the overseas Chinese experience in Rome.”
In 2015 Shannon received an out-of-the-blue call from director Justin Lin, asking if the rumors surrounding her father’s treatment were true. The answers he received ignited a creative flame. Most who envision and then propose Bruce Lee–related projects to Shannon or want to use his image seek her permission rather than her involvement. Not Lin. “Justin said, ‘If we can’t make the show right, we won’t make it. We should do this in a way your dad would’ve wanted, to his vision, a way that reflects his legacy,” Shannon recalled. Suddenly, the project became a partnership.
Bruce Lee’s treatment included a critical point in history that most Americans know nothing about: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. I was reminded of this when I spoke with Jonathan Tropper, Warrior’s writer/creator.
Born in 1970, Tropper saw his first martial arts film 13 years later: Chuck Norris’ Lone Wolf McQuade. At the time, he was practicing hu bei tai chi. “It’s a combat version of tai chi and wing chun,” he told me. “My master’s philosophy [was] you had to learn to crawl before you learn to walk. [For example], we first learned to move in a straight line and in advanced stages in a circle.”
Not long afterward, Bruce Lee entered Tropper’s world. “I’d heard of Bruce from posters and T-shirts,” he said. “Then one night, I [was] flipping channels and recognized him in Way of the Dragon. It was the scene when he exits the restaurant into the back alley and beats those guys up. That was it, that was the moment.”
I mentioned to Tropper that Ah Sahm’s first fight was against tong members, and the action seemed like a re-enactment of the sit-on-the-guy’s-chest scene in Way of the Dragon. “Exactly!” he said. “That’s the move I had to pay homage to in the first episode — it was the first thing I ever saw Bruce do.”
During our conversation, Tropper and I rehashed other Bruce Lee-isms. “There’s nothing coincidental or accidental about any of them,” he said. “It’s a Bruce Lee–inspired show. They’re in there because we’re all big Bruce Lee fans.
“Thus, I had to capture his views on a period in American and Chinese history in Chinatown when tong wars and the Chinese Exclusion Act were looming. The goal was to make the show for him. Sure, he wanted a kung fu show, but he also wanted to convey a sense of what it felt like to be … a foreigner, an immigrant. It was crucial to thematically deliver the heart of his message.”
Tongs play a pivotal role in Warrior. The first tong was founded circa 1853 in San Francisco. In the beginning, they were benevolent organizations that arose to offer Chinese laborers legal, financial and protective services. Tong names were derived from a member surname or the region from which a prominent member came.
Things started to change in the 1850s. Previously, Chinese immigrants were admired for their moral code, generosity and hardworking nature. However, in 1852 California Gov. John Bigler ginned up hate by propagating fake news like this: “Five hundred came last week, 1,000 on the way, 20,000 line ports waiting to come to be paid $4/month and bring slavery to California.” His leaflets essentially gave Americans permission to attack the Chinese.
In the 1860s, with America desiring more trade with China, with the gold rush in the West and with the push to build a railway from coast to coast, Chinese immigration skyrocketed. When the Chinese were subsequently labeled as inferior, race riots erupted. Whites and Mexicans reportedly lynched Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles in 1871. The Page Act of 1875 banned Chinese women from immigrating in an effort to stop the population from expanding. As the Chinese male-to-female ratio grew — at one point, it was estimated at 20:1 — the tongs splintered and ventured into prostitution, protection rackets, opium sales and gambling. In 1876 the Workingmen’s Party, founded by a naturalized Irishman, unveiled a “Chinese must go” policy to purge the foreigners. Which brings us back to Warrior.
Set in 1878, a year before Sen. James Blaine introduced the 15-Passenger Act, which limited to 15 the number of Chinese who could be on board any ship entering American waters, Warrior has fresh-off-the-boat Ah Sahm searching for his estranged sister. He goes straight from the frying pan into the fire of the Workingmen’s Party, then gets sucked into a steaming wok of tong wars.
Caught in the Act
In Warrior, Sen. Crestwood runs for president. He’s the fictional version of U.S. President Chester A. Arthur, the man who helped the Chinese Exclusion Act become law on May 6, 1882. It marked the only time in American history that a specific nationality was targeted by a law. In short, it throttled immigration and prevented Chinese nationals already living here from becoming U.S. citizens. Originally meant to last 10 years, the CEA was enforced for 60.
“The CEA was something my father wanted to touch upon,” Shannon said. “In casually talking to people during working on this, most ask, ‘What is CEA?’ This Chinese experience isn’t taught in school as part of American history.
“We’re in a time when immigration is a huge topic at the forefront of conversation. This history that contains CEA — it’s one place to look at and not be repeated. We began this project prior to the current administration, [and] it moved in a direction where immigration and xenophobia has become a bigger part of the mind, unfortunately.”
Fights of Warrior
Because Tropper is known for scripting battles blow by blow, I asked him if he was ever on the Warrior set to monitor the action. “Absolutely,” he exclaimed. “I felt pressure to deliver great fights because when Bruce Lee’s name is on your show, you cannot disappoint. My two levels of expertise are 20 years of martial arts experience and 40 years of watching martial arts films.
“A lot of time was spent developing the spirit and tone of the fights. Our fight coordinator had to understand martial arts and Bruce Lee — Brett Chan was our man! When I scripted each fight, I’d give Brett the film reference of what I was talking about. So when I wrote ‘four very fast roundhouse kicks into a guy’s ribs,’ I’d write in, ‘Moment in Way of the Dragon when Bruce kicks Norris.’ Brett always knew what I meant.
“There’s a lot of blood-and-guts set pieces in old kung fu films that I also wanted to incorporate into some fights. We found moments to sparingly insert Bruce Lee quotes and moves because it’s about paying homage. Yet the show had to stand on its own, so we were careful not to overdo it — to a certain degree.”
Knowing the evolution of the choreography Lee used in the films he made from 1971 to 1973, it’s obvious that Warrior mirrors what he did. Since each Lee fight featured a formidable villain, it necessitated the creation of magical moments of combat that caught audiences off-guard, and it was all done without wires, fancy camerawork and snappy edits. When Lee created art, his essence — what Shannon calls his energy signature — shone through. It’s the same with Warrior.
With Tropper and Chan resisting the urge to do stylized fights in the new show, they make sure Ah Sahm’s abilities grow, and we see how the hero adapts to different opponents in different ways at different times. It’s a tribute to the genius of Lee’s combat philosophy. And when they strategically place Bruce Lee-isms at various points in the fights, it generates heartfelt emotion.
Other things make the fights of Warrior stand out. The choreography is different for each one-on-one duel and each group fight. Regardless of who’s battling, especially when non-martial artists are involved, the action just works. And when weapons are added to the mix, there’s no loss of rhythm or continuity.
Twenty years ago, Shannon said in an interview that she was practicing martial arts as a way to better understand what her father went through to reach the level to which he rose. Then she dabbled in film to develop an appreciation for his other passion.
Today, Shannon Lee is more rooted in her own identity. Mother, singer, actress and matriarch of her father’s legacy, she exudes a confidence that comes from knowing herself, and she gleams with the intent to maintain a spiritual connection with her dad.
“I’m in a constant relationship and evolution with my father’s life and body of work,” she said. “I was never on the path with martial arts like my father was in terms of it being such a huge part of his life. The training was invaluable to me in terms of understanding what he was trying to do. Being able to put a physicality into the physical movements and the philosophy has been extremely grounding, and it helped me to think and to make that jump from the theoretical to the doable in a lot of ways.”
Clearly, this is reflected in Shannon Lee’s work on Warrior. If she has her way, her father’s legacy and philosophy will continue to flow for generations to come.
Dr. Craig D. Reid is one of Black Belt’s contributing editors.
“Bruce Lee” is a registered trademark of Bruce Lee Enterprises LLC. The Bruce Lee name, image and likeness are intellectual property of Bruce Lee Enterprises LLC.
Bruce Lee Universe When Shannon Lee isn’t working on Warrior, she’s focusing on other ways to spread her father’s message. “I’ve written a book that’s coming out at the beginning of next year: Be Water, My Friend,” she said. “It’s about my father’s philosophy, telling some of his stories, my stories and how to use and benefit from his philosophy in your life.”
The Bruce Lee podcast has moved into a new season, she added. “I hope everybody listens to our conversations about applied philosophy.
“And we’re growing Camp Bruce Lee. This summer, we’ll have one in Culver City, [California], and at Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum. It’s for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade. We teach them a mind/body/spirit approach to life, introduce martial arts for body movement, physically create confidence, and talk about his philosophies and the spirit of harmony and how to work together.”