"People don't know this history": Shannon Lee on the Chinatown Tong Wars in Bruce Lee's "Warrior"

Shannon Lee appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss the martial arts show, representation & her dad's relevance today

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published October 3, 2020 3:30PM (EDT)

Joe Taslim (as Young Jun) and Andrew Koji (as Ah Sahm) in “Warrior” Season 2 (Graham Bartholomew/CINEMAX)
Joe Taslim (as Young Jun) and Andrew Koji (as Ah Sahm) in “Warrior” Season 2 (Graham Bartholomew/CINEMAX)

As an African American I've come to accept that huge gaps of my history will always be missing. While multiple websites have allowed me to trace my lineage –– I'll never know my native language, tribe or the part of Africa where my family originated. Luckily there are many films and movies that compile dense parts of African and African-American history, which gives me a piece of that experience and the ability to imagine what my ancestors endured. Shannon Lee, actress, business woman, and the daughter of Bruce Lee is doing the same for Chinese Americans with her Cinemax show "Warrior."

"Warrior," based on a script written by martial artist icon Bruce Lee over 50 years ago, is set during the Tong Wars in the late 1800s around the world of Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), a fighting prodigy who was forced to move from China to San Francisco, where he ends up becoming a hatchet man for the most powerful Tong in Chinatown.

Shannon Lee serves as executive producer on the series. I recently got a chance to talk with her about her father's legacy, representation in Hollywood and building the show's second season, which debuts on Cinemax Oct. 2. You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Lee here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more her dedication to preserving her father's legacy through television, films, books and more. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How have you been holding up in these COVID times and with everything else going on in the world?
It's an excellent opportunity to practice some of my life skill sets. I've been hanging in there okay. I've been healthy. My family has been healthy. It's really a good time to practice being in the flow, being with oneself, noticing what comes up and working towards that sense of peace, that sense of inner calm that we really need to try to retain as we stay present with current circumstances.

Congratulations on a second season of "Warrior." The show is beautiful, it's addictive, it's extremely necessary. For our viewers and readers who are brand new to "Warrior," can you give them just a brief synopsis of the world you've created?
Thank you. "Warrior" takes place in late 19th century San Francisco, Chinatown. A martial arts prodigy who comes over from China into the United States gets swept up in the Tong Wars of the time that are happening in Chinatown, as well as the politics at the time. This is a time and place in America right before the Chinese Exclusion Act was written into law. We have different factions against one another, not just the Tongs within Chinatown, but the police, the Irish labor workers, the politicians of the time. It's a very high tension, beautiful period piece, but also it feels very modern and contemporary. It's very relatable and let's not forget it's got lots of amazing martial arts action.

The original script and story was developed by your dad, Bruce Lee. How long ago?
Fifty years this show has been in the making.

At what point did you feel you wanted to just tackle this and bring it to life? Is this something that happened a few years ago or was this already in you from 20 years ago? 
Well, I wish I could say I had a plan in place but look, everything of my dad's that I work with, it is my absolute honor and joy to try to bring forth and into the world. I've known about this story my whole life really. He was writing it right around the time I was born. I knew the story of him pitching it and being rejected and being told he couldn't star in a U.S. TV show because he was Chinese and all of these things.

And then later in my 20s, when I started reading his writings and then later when I started running the business, I came across the actual pages. And I would love to say at that moment I was like "Okay, I'm going to figure out how to make this show." In my heart of hearts I thought, "Wouldn't it be amazing if I could actually make this show?" 

But what it really took to get this off the ground was Justin Lin coming in and saying to me, he called me up and he said, "So I've heard this story over the years that your father wrote this show that he pitched and was turned down and rejected and all that. Is that true?" And I said, "Absolutely, it's true. And not only is it true, here it is." It took Justin being Justin, and I don't just mean in a position of power in Hollywood, I mean also being a person of integrity and a person who wanted to partner on this, who wanted to collaborate with me and who was absolutely showed up for it. He said to me, "We should make this into a TV show but we should only make it if we make it the right way."

In terms of the research for this show, I imagine you had to do so much digging. Being a minority myself, I understand that different parts of my history are fragmented and not celebrated and there's so many pieces missing. For this story, we're talking about the fire, we're talking about what people were able to document and hold on to, and even if you're trying to dig into those primary documents like newspapers, you have to questions like, "Was the journalist an honest person?" Can you talk about your research process?
Yes, thank you. As you said, there are books about the era. There are things to research and articles and all that sort of thing. But as you mentioned, there was a fire in San Francisco during which a lot of records were lost, a lot of the stories. People are like, "What's the Chinese Exclusion Act?" They don't know and so I actually really value this show for telling that story because it's a very relevant immigration law and it's an American story, right?

And so yes, Jonathan Tropper did a phenomenal job. There were notes about the Chinese Exclusion Act and about the Tong Wars. There wasn't a ton, but there are books. We took the flavor, we took the intention and the thoughts surrounding those things, as well as pictures from the time and place and all of that to create this world.

What are some of the biggest challenges of working on a time piece?
I mean you have to create the whole world, right? There's very little that you can use that is just right there readily available, but that's also part of the amazing creativity of it. I think for us it was really challenging to do because this is a period piece was also make it accessible from a contemporary standpoint.

And I think that Jonathan Tropper and the whole creative departments of the show did such an amazing job of giving you that feel of the period, but also making it feel very relevant, very contemporary. All the Tongs dress a particular way and the Hop Wei, which are our main Tong in the show, they have these awesome suits with these red pocket squares . . .  But you have to come up with how are you going to convey, not just the look of something but the feel of something and make it engaging. And it's a whole world of creation.

Oftentimes the Asian experience in America is left out of the mainstream narrative. We just don't get it. That is why this show is groundbreaking because so many people are now able to access some of those early Asian-American experiences. Did you think about the impact during while creating?
Yes, and thank you. A lot of people don't know this history. There's a lot of history that's been lost not just for Asian Americans but a lot told through a biased point of view. This show is important, in particular it's also important in terms of representation. I don't know of many, if hardly any, TV shows in the one-hour genre that have significant Asian cast and that have Asian characters that are so multilayered so complex so three-dimensional. Our show not only gives us back some of our history and introduces this history to the world today but it also is so important in terms of representation on screen.

Hollywood told your dad no 50 years ago, and you were able to get this series done, but we're seeing a shift where it's kind of like Hollywood is just opening up. Do you feel like things are getting better in the industry?
I do think that they are. I think, look when we're talking about systems we're talking about these monoliths that are really hard to change. You have to . . .  It's like this giant boat, it doesn't turn on a dime, right? You have to just start to slowly go in one direction. I do think it's getting better, in particular just because there is a conversation that is happening. I think it will be awhile before, a long while probably, before there's a naturalness around a mode of operation that is inclusive, that is representative. There was a documentary that came out recently about my father called "Be Water," it was an ESPN 30 for 30. And in it, one of the people interviewed says Hollywood is racist because America is racist. So Hollywood is just a reflection of its larger set and setting and there's a lot of change that has to take place everywhere.

I know you lost your dad when you were really young, but do you think that he knew the impact he would have? That he would be important to so many young Black kids running around in America? I'm from Baltimore City, and the one thing that Baltimore has in common with Detroit and it has in common with what Harlem and Brooklyn and the streets of Oakland is, we all love Bruce Lee. Everybody has a Bruce Lee T-shirt, Bruce Lee posters hanging on a wall right next to Michael Jordan, Dr. King or Malcolm X.
I am always amazed and astonished at his impact and the way that it has reached across and created bridges to so many different places and people. It's interesting because even during his lifetime, somebody was asking him about when he was making the movies in Hong Kong and starting to have all this success in Hong Kong in particular he said, "When I started training in martial arts, I had no idea it was going to lead to this." I pretty much think he didn't have any idea that it would lead to this, right? But at the same time, he worked so hard and he pushed so hard to not just accomplish things, but to also work on himself.

Several months before he passed away, when he was shooting "Game of Death" and negotiating "Enter The Dragon" and in a very busy time of his life, he started writing this essay and in it, one of the things that he said is, "All of the success is great, but the thing that would really be an accomplishment is if someone were to look at this and say, 'Now there is someone real.'" And I think that that is what you feel from him, which is why we continue to be engaged. We continue to feel real possibility and this sense of energy that is so strong with him.

It's crazy that you put it like that because when I see interviews with your dad, I get that feeling — not just as a fan but just as a person. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions out there about Bruce Lee's legacy?
Well, it's funny, there seems to be this narrative going around lately that my father was this a**hole. That he was super arrogant and that. And look, it's not to say he couldn't be an a**hole. We can all be an a**hole. I can be an a**hole. I think that a lot of people are mistaking his confidence – and his sense of innate drive for quality work and his drive – for arrogance. They don't understand the amount and level of work both on himself and out in the world that he had to undertake to accomplish what he accomplished. I mean, he only lived to the age of 32. He only made four and a half movies, and yet 50 years later – 47 years later I guess technically – we're still talking about him. He's still relevant, he's still engaging us. His philosophies are still teaching us.

I think there's that, and then to that same coin, the flip side of it is, is that when I have asked people who knew my father and were friends with my father, not business people, not people who wanted something from him, not rivals, but friends. They say the thing, that people don't know about your father is he cared so deeply. And some of my father's friends, they would say your father, sometimes he could get really upset, but it was because he was right. It was because he cared. It was because there was something he was trying to do.

Is there anything else you're working on and you can tell us about?
I actually have a book coming out. My first book is called "Be Water, My Friend." It comes out October 6th and this is my gift of my father's philosophy. It was gifted to me and now I'm gifting it to everyone. And it's got some great stories about him, about his life. It's got stories about me and my life, but it also provides access to some of his teachings that can be so helpful to everyone. Not just, not martial artists, not action film fans, but everyone. They speak directly to the human condition and how to try to step in to fulfill our potential in the way that he did.

Where can everybody see Season 2 of "Warrior"?
You can see "Warrior" on Cinemax. Season 2 debuts October 2nd. And once Season 2has aired I believe they're going to put both Seasons 1 and 2 on the HBO platforms. So then you can also catch it there at some point in the future. It, as you say, is this addictive show, it is so fun and it is so thought provoking and you will learn a lot.

"Warrior" Season 2 airs on Cinemax beginning Oct. 2, and both seasons will soon head to HBO Max.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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