For decades, it was a half-whispered rumor, another puzzle in the already considerable mythology surrounding Bruce Lee.
In 1971, just two years before his death at the age of 32, Lee wrote a pitch for a TV show about a martial arts master in America’s Old West.
But Hollywood studios turned it down, unsure of whether American audiences were ready for a Chinese lead.
Later, Warner Bros. made a series called Kung Fu (1972-75), starring white actor David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine, a half-Chinese Shaolin monk wandering through the Old West.
The show’s creator, Ed Spielman, claimed it was based on his own experiences in New York’s Chinatown. But many suspected that Warner Bros. had stolen the concept from Lee.
Decades after his death in 1973, Lee’s daughter went through his belongings and stumbled across a collection of drawings and notes—handwritten and typed—describing his vision for an unfulfilled passion project.
Now, that vision is finally being realized with the series Warrior, which premieres on Cinemax and HBO Go on April 6.
Directed by Justin Lin, whose bona fides include four Fast & Furious films, the series follows martial arts prodigy Ah Sahm—played by Fast & Furious 6 star Andrew Koji—who immigrates from China to San Francisco in the 1800s.
Searching for a mystery woman from his past, he finds himself caught up in the tong wars, the brutal battles fought between the city’s powerful Chinese organized crime families.
But Warrior is more than just an action flick. It’s also a historical drama about immigration, xenophobia, and culture clash. And that’s exactly how Bruce Lee intended it.
“My father wanted something of the authentic Chinese experience to be reflected in Hollywood and in the world.”
“My father wanted something of the authentic Chinese experience to be reflected in Hollywood and in the world,” says Shannon Lee, his daughter.
“He wanted this character to be an immigrant, to be arriving in the United States in this specific time period, which was post-Civil War, pre-Chinese Exclusion Act, and right at this time when the railways were finished, the gold rush was ending, and Chinese people are now in the U.S. and there’s a lot of tension around that.”
This fraught history underlying the action-filled plot reflects Bruce Lee’s creative philosophy to never show violence just for the sake of violence.
In a 1971 interview with Canadian journalist Pierre Berton, Lee said a story ought to explain “why the violence was done, whether right or wrong,” and the racial tension of 1800s America offers just that.
It’s no secret that Bruce Lee was sidelined by Hollywood studios because of his race.
In the same interview with Pierre Berton, Lee was asked whether executives discussed the race issue.
“Such question has been raised. In fact, it is being discussed,” Lee said. “And that is why The Warrior is probably not going to be on. Unfortunately, such thing does exist in this world, in certain parts of the country, where they think, business-wise, it’s a risk, and I don’t blame them.”
Although he admitted that race was one of the reasons why Warrior was shelved, it remains disputed whether Kung Fu, starring David Carradine, was a riff off Lee’s idea.
Warner Bros. claimed it had been developing the concept for some time, while Bruce Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, insisted that it was Lee who came up with the concept.
“It had always been part of Bruce Lee lore that this transpired,” says Shannon Lee. “But it wasn’t until late 2000, when I took over looking after my father’s legacy, that the archive came into my possession—all of my father’s writings, photos, and memorabilia. In the process of going through it, I came across the treatment for this show and a number of notes and drafts.”
“That’s when we decided, ‘Let’s complete what he started.’”
A week later, she met up with Justin Lin, and they went through Bruce Lee’s eight-page treatment.
“Growing up, I was so confused watching David Carradine,” Lin says. “I’m like, ‘Wait, he’s Chinese? But he’s not Chinese.’ So it’s always been kind of my life’s journey to find out what the hell happened.”
“It was amazing to be holding it in my hand,” Lin says of the treatment. “That’s when we decided, ‘Let’s complete what he started.’”
‘This is real’
Although the past few years have seen a string of prominent Hollywood productions helmed by Asian names—Crazy Rich Asians, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Master of None, and Fresh Off the Boat—the makers of Warrior say it breaks new ground because it does not sugarcoat the Asian-American experience.
“It’s a drama action thriller,” says Rich Ting, who plays Bolo, a friend of the main character. “It’s not a romantic comedy. You’re not going to watch it and just feel good about yourself. You’re going to watch it and be grabbed by the intensity, the accuracy, by the violence, the blood, the sex.”
For Justin Lin, the series was an opportunity to rewrite the Western.
“Growing up in America, it was always frustrating to go to American history class and see there’s barely a paragraph on Chinese Americans,” Lin says. “Then you watch Westerns, and the Chinese are usually the guys with the queues doing laundry.”
(Read more: Why the Chinese laundry stereotype persists)
Many of the actors in Warrior are working on a major production with a majority-Asian cast for the first time. Such a project is still a rarity in the North American entertainment industry.
“I’ve always been the only Asian or the token Asian on set to the point where I’ve kind of got used to it,” says Dianne Doan, who plays Mai Ling, the woman that Ah Sahm is searching for. “But our cast really is like a huge family. It’s amazing to see all of us together on camera.”
“There’s nothing funny about ‘Warrior,’ and that’s what I’m most proud of.”
For the actors, it was also an opportunity to upend stereotypes about Asian men and women.
“We dive into a time where the Asian male was so emasculated in the media and through the American lens,” says Olivia Cheng, who portrays powerful Chinatown madam Ah Toy, a fictionalized version of a real historical figure. “We don’t shy away from diving into that perception and playing within that as a way to answer to the social injustice of the time.”
“There’s nothing funny about Warrior, and that’s what I’m most proud of,” Ting says. “It represents the history of Chinese immigration, the brutality of working on the railways, and the reality of being influenced and pressured to join these notorious Chinatown gangs.
“It’s not a feel-good series,” he adds. “It’s a real series.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.