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Journal of Asian American Studies 5.1 (2002) 31-40

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"He Wanted to be just like Bruce Lee" 1
African Americans, Kung Fu Theater and Cultural Exchange at the Margins

amy abugo ongiri

"My nomination for the greatest blaxploitation hero of all time starred in The Chinese Connection"

Darius James, 19952

In Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture from Astro Boy to Zen Buddhism, Jeff Yang, Diana Gan, and the staff of A. Magazine make the effusively upbeat claim that:

Today at the turn of the millennium, America is more Asian than ever: a place where ramen is slurped on the run, curry is consumed in a hurry, and General Tso's Chicken rules the roost at every corner take-out; where Sonic and Super Mario duke out on home video screens, and John Woo and Jackie Chan reign supreme in Hollywood. 3

This same image of the happy marriage between cultures is not one in popular usage when it comes to Asian American and African American culture. Images of the "Black-Korean conflict," debates around affirmative action, and "model minority" mythmaking create African Americans and Asian Americans as polar opposites ever doomed to conflict in America's racial ideological landscape. These cultural imaginings disavow even the possibility of cultural exchange occurring at or within the margins of dominant society.

This article will explore one example of such an exchange in African Americans' longstanding interest in kung fu films and martial arts. While to proclaim that "everybody was kung fu fighting," as the seventies r&b [End Page 31] hit claimed, might be to overstate the case, African American interest in martial arts films, is an often anecdotally pronounced but rarely explored cultural phenomena. From Wu-Tang Clan's "Shaolin Shadow Boxing" to NBA basketball player Marcus Camby's prominent Chinese character tattoos and the kung fu signifying movement styles of "vogue" innovator Willie "Ninja" and various hip hop artists, African American culture is replete with images drawn from popular cultural representations of Asian and Asian American culture, particularly images drawn from early martial arts films.

The African American tribute to Asian culture evident in Black popular culture, however, goes beyond the forced exotica of something like Jim Jarmusch's Ghostdog (Artisan Entertainment, 2000) in which we are supposed to be startled by the cultural disjunction of a corn-rowed urban Blackman spouting verse from the way of the samurai. In Ghostdog "oriental," kitschy commodified paraphernalia, litters the screen like so many hiply executed ethnic stereotypes, which also clutter the screen. In the film, virtually every shot contains some remnant of Asian culture from Chinese Restaurant #1 to the Feng Shui mirror in the gangsters' meeting room or the paperback copy of Rashomon that reappears periodically throughout the movie. All of these items are meant to evoke, through their distance, a "hip" and ironic awareness on the part of the audience. In Ghostdog, we are supposed to laugh at the irony of the gangster's daughter sharing her copy of Rashomon with the hired assassin in the same way we are meant to recognize the irony in the racist gangster's love for the Black hip hop, particularly the socially conscious group "Public Enemy."

Though African American popular culture utilizes much of the same kitschy commodified paraphernalia as a movie like Ghostdog or the seventies television series Kung Fu, it operates in a radically different fashion. This becomes evident through an analysis of one of the kitschiest, most commodified objects of Asian culture, the seventies kung fu movie. For many African Americans throughout the seventies "Kung Fu Theater" was staple weekend viewing. Kung Fu Theater rebroadcasted the classic and not so classic films of the first wave of Asian-produced action movies, which mostly came from either Shaw Brothers or Golden Harvest studios in Hong Kong. 4 The exploits of Bruce Lee, the one armed [End Page 32] swordsman, the master killer and other heroes of the martial arts small screen...


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