I have never had an identity crisis. I don’t know if it’s because I’m jaded enough to determine that it really doesn’t matter, or that I’m comfortable enough within myself to not care; either way it’s never bothered me. Until recently.
Then along came Jonathan Tropper’s Warrior. A series born from the writings of Bruce Lee, and a project he was ultimately never able to make. A story that is relatable to far too many; Asian immigrants seeking a better life far from home but met with resistance, ignorant racism, and circumstances too grim to fathom. Portrayed by British/Japanese actor Andrew Koji, Warrior follows Ah Sahm’s journey to the West. Ah Sahm becomes embroiled in the Tong Wars of 1870s San Fransisco that pitted rival Chinese gangs against each other. Add in Irish immigrants who feel hard done by the influx of Chinese workers and a corrupt political system and things absolutely do get messy.
I didn’t have to cross “the salt” in a boat crammed with other Chinese labourers, coping with the stench of fear and naive optimism assaulting my senses: I grew up in Wimbledon, a middle class, largely white neighbourhood of Greater London. Affluence was on my doorstep and my mother tried to provide me with everything all the little rich white boys had; tennis lessons, polo, a piano tutor. Even though I was an ungrateful brat and never appreciated this privilege, it was still all I knew.
Half of my heritage lies in the Far East. Well, slightly further East. My mother is from Thailand. Revered the world over for its perfect beaches, amazing food, friendly locals, getting more than you bargained for during a massage, and ladyboys.
For a long time my only exposure to this unfamiliar world was through my mother, practising Wing Chun, learning to meditate at the Temple in Wimbledon, and watching the movies of Yuen Woo Ping and Akira Kurosawa (Et Al.). Growing older allowed me to become more self aware and I began to notice things I did: even though living in a land of handshakes I unconsciously bowed or tipped my head as a greeting or when saying thank you, and I remember vividly when I was younger I automatically clasped my hands together to make the traditional Thai gesture when I received money from a Westerner for a birthday. He was confused but appreciative.
Ashamedly I first visited Japan only a couple of years ago, a country I was always profoundly intrigued by and felt a strong affinity for. I still don’t think I’d want to live there but I quickly discovered that I’d never felt so at home; the customs, philosophies, how people presented themselves. And despite the language barrier, I was comfortable, and at peace. New internal struggles arose: my head may lie in the west, but where is my heart?
Warrior is laden with internal struggles. All the characters have to deal with a great deal of intrinsic burden while a paradigm shift swirls around them in the most vicious and violent way. The subplots elegantly intertwine with the main narrative which involves Ah Sahm’s integration into the Hop Wei – and his intense hatred for his sister, who happens to be the head of the rival Long Zii tong – Dean Jagger plays Dylan Leary, leader of the Irish mob and hater of the Chinese (needless to say paths cross), there’s an overarching story with Bill O’Hara and San Fransisco PD’s Chinatown Squad that finds itself battling with both sides, and a political thriller that includes backstabbing, corruption, and women’s empowerment.
There isn’t a single throwaway character in Warrior, and the superb writing fleshes out backgrounds, stories, motives, and personalities. Creator Jonathan Tropper has given the Asian (and also female) characters agency and importance. This story is about them, about their struggles, their hopes and dreams, and reciprocity with their white counterparts. Characters, Asian or otherwise, are given consequences and reason for their interactions. Gone are the one dimensional stereotypes and lazy portrayals. Every interaction matters and white characters give energy and relevance to the Asian ones, and vice versa. The immigrants have a story to tell and we’re given a front row seat.
Warrior’s second season came at a time where disparity and embattled discourse was at an all time high. Whether it’s between classes, races, or political ideologies. Relevant to the narrative was the real world increase of Asian hate crimes. I’ve always felt different to my friends and people I met. But for me this feeling of difference has never been because of the colour of my skin – a tanned hue that is neither light enough, nor dark enough for people to have any clue as to where I’m from – but because of my culture. I am [half] British (despite what a lot of uncultured dimwits have to say about it); I have a very particular way of brewing tea, I scoff at the slightest inconvenience, and I talk about the bloody weather. A lot. Even so, the East is engrained within me. Regardless of whether I realised it or not. I’m quiet, I don’t particularly want to engage in society the same way everyone else around me does, I respected my elders and teachers, sought tutelage from those I knew I could learn from, and would choose a bowl of noodles over chips any day of the week.
Not narrowed down to a single country, humans from Korea, China, Thailand and elsewhere became victims to senseless abuse, sometimes fatally. Throughout the show, the ill treatment of Asians is often brought to the forefront. Warrior doesn’t ask ‘why’. We all know why. The writers knows that posing the question is dismissive. Instead the characters know it’s more important to overcome.
The bubbling anger and contempt between races comes to head during the latter half of season 2, where a Chinese character faces the consequence of his existence. Warrior makes no effort in hiding the fact that the situation is a hopeless one. While dramatised, it’s reminiscent of many real world situations.
By the end of the season I found myself confronted with a number of questions; is it simply a case of humanistic empathy or a deeper understanding that made the arc resonate with me so much? Did Warrior make me realise where I came from? Did it give me a pang of recognition that things could have been very different for me? Or a sudden appreciation for what came before me to allow me to have the life I have? Something it did make me appreciate was the overall narrative and writing of the show. The societal discourse it addresses is never clumsily presented to us. The inequality and struggles of women and Asians is drip-fed to us throughout so that it feels ‘normal’. The statement it makes is that this is the world we live in. With this deconstruction, I was met with one last question: Is it right that I see myself as a Westerner?
I implore you to watch Warrior. In between the action and drama it will make you stop and think. It’s a series that truly showcases a three dimensional Asian narrative with elegant writing and dramatic characters. Everything works masterfully well together. The characters are so well realised they draw you in to the world, and are given subjects that aren’t fantastical, but instead plucked from real life. The first season is executed perfectly. The second starts off slow but dramatically improves halfway through before reaching its crescendo. Both seasons are also given one fantastic self-contained episode, both featuring great action but giving the audience a respite from the intense nature of the main feature.
Speaking of action, I should end by saying it’s refreshingly impressive. Having dedicated much of my movie watching time to Hong Kong cinema and martial arts films I’ve become somewhat critical of action choreography. While I acknowledge the recent increased quality of western fight scenes, Warrior brings to the table a panache that is still rare to western audiences. Could there have been more action? Yes. Especially considering the show has the pedigree of Joe Taslim (The Night Comes For Us) and the clear ability of lead Andrew Koji. But what is there is sure to please.
Warrior is the best show you’re not watching, and you owe it to yourself to catch up before HBO brings us season 3.