Before ‘Shang-Chi,’ you should watch ‘Warrior’

Honestly do you even need to read this after seeing that header image?

On September 3, actor Simu Liu will debut as the first Chinese Marvel hero Shang-Chi in Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings. From the trailers we know that Shang-Chi’s backstory involves being raised within the assassin’s guild the Ten Rings before absconding at some point to live a normal life in San Francisco’s Chinatown. There’s a history and a significance to setting Shang-Chi in San Francisco; it has the oldest Chinatown in the United States, established by Chinese immigrants in the 1850s as a cultural enclave for a population that faced discrimination so rampant that to this day, Chinese immigrants are the only ethnic group that the American government has ever banned from entering the United States. For over 170 years, San Francisco’s Chinatown, now towns, has persevered.

Writing the first Asian Marvel hero as a Chinese man living in San Francisco roots his fictional history with the established story of Chinese immigration in America — a story that is further explored in the excellent TV show Warrior.

Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), the lead character in Warrior, is also a Chinese badass trained to be a living weapon who escapes his former life by immigrating to San Francisco’s Chinatown. His story takes place in the 1890s, forty years after Chinatown was roughly established, and his martial arts skills all but guarantee him a spot in the district’s most powerful tong (an opium-running gang, they have matching suits and everything). Warrior follows his journey as the right-hand man to Young Jun (Jason Tobin), the de facto heir to the Hop Wei tong.

Warrior’s tone is what would happen if one of the characters from Boardwalk Empire kicked John Wick’s dog. The historical recreation of Chinatown is remarkably well researched, and while the show takes creative liberties with its characters (especially Ah Toy, a real Cantonese madam played as a deadly swordswoman by Olivia Cheng), it’s extremely cool to see a period action-drama that doesn’t revolve around a bunch of white people in ruffly shirts.

Warrior’s tone is what would happen if one of the characters from Boardwalk Empire kicked John Wick’s dog.

The martial arts aspect is also the best anyone can get in a television production, with choreographed fights built around a huge roster of martial artists and stuntmen — the Joe Taslim (Sergeant Jake from The Raid: Redemption and Sub-Zero in the recent Mortal Kombat movie) plays one of the main antagonists. Every episode of Warrior has at least one action set piece, whether it’s Ah Sahm kicking some cops down the street like uniformed pebbles or a massive, fully choreographed gang war, and they’re all incredible.

Warrior’s dedication to great fight scenes stems from its creation, which itself is a part of San Francisco’s Chinese legacy. The legendary American actor Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco before he was raised in Hong Kong, and in 1971 he wrote a treatment for a television show set in historical Chinatown called The Warrior, in which he intended to play the lead role. American executives balked at the idea of an Asian leading man and his idea laid dormant until his daughter Shannon Lee brought the treatment to Cinemax, where it was picked up 42 years after Bruce Lee’s death and retitled simply Warrior.

Warrior ran for two seasons on Cinemax and was cancelled when Cinemax pulled out of the original content game. HBO Max rescued the show and announced their attention to produce a third season of the show for their streaming service. Since production had fully shut down in the interim, Warrior has to start from scratch with reassembling its creative team, remaking its sets and costumes, and getting all the actors back on board, so it might be a while until Season 3 shows up, but those first two seasons are available to stream right now. And right now, with a new Chinese hero about to rise from San Francisco, is a great time to check in on a fantastic show that pays homage to Chinatown’s fascinating history.

Warrior is streaming on HBO Max.

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  • August 21, 2021
  • NEWS