No Witness: "Warrior" and the Histories of Anti-Asian Violence

March 22, 2021   •   By Min Hyoung Song

BRUCE LEE HAD AN INSPIRED IDEA for a television show. It would focus on a Chinese man, skilled in kung fu, wandering the American West. When he pitched the idea, the studio said no one would be interested. A short time later, ABC began to air a show called Kung Fu about a Shaolin Monk who wanders the American West, using his martial arts skills to help people as he worked on some personal issues. The lead went to the white actor David Carradine, a casting choice that still galls many. It certainly galls me when I think of how confused I felt as a kid when I used to watch this show.

If he were still alive, Lee might feel some vindication that his idea has become the basis of the original Cinemax series Warrior, executive produced by his daughter Shannon Lee and Justin Lin, most well-known for his revival of The Fast and the Furious franchise and the ground-breaking independent film Better Luck Tomorrow.

Set in 19th-century San Francisco, Warrior has a large and racially diverse cast of characters. Its primary action centers on the Chinese members of two large Chinatown tongs who fight each other for control over the drug trade and on the ongoing debate between factory owners, politicians, Irish workers, and the police about what to do with the “Chinese problem.” Overshadowing everything is the impending passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which would prohibit the immigration of Chinese laborers.

It’s this focus on the 1882 law that makes Warrior so haunting to watch, as it seems to be speaking directly to the present. No one is, of course, debating whether the United States should prohibit the entry of Chinese laborers today, but then again maybe they are?

I have to admit I’m not sure how to answer this question. Maybe the laborers we’re talking about now are no longer, or no longer just, ethnically Chinese but are nevertheless being treated in the same way Chinese immigrants were treated in the late 19th century. Maybe the figure of the Chinese laborer has become a metaphor for any nonwhite foreign worker, or maybe they always have been. Remember Srinivas Kuchibhotla? He was the Indian-born engineer in the United States on a H-1B visa who was shot to death in a Kansas bar in 2017 by a white man shouting, “Get out of my country!”

Certainly, anti-immigrant sentiments are intense right now, and this helps explain, at least in part, the ex-president’s continued popularity with millions of voters. It was Trump, of course, who began his campaign for president by calling Mexicans “rapists” and who spent the last year of his presidency making a racist joke of the pandemic, proudly and insistently calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” “China virus,” and even “kung flu.” Everything foreign is to be feared and ridiculed.

It’s worth pointing out that there have been many who were eager to follow the president’s lead and laugh. Take, for instance, a T-shirt with a logo that imitates the label of a Corona beer. At its center it reads “Covid-19,” and underneath, in smaller lettering: “imported virus from Chy-na.” What’s noteworthy about this T-shirt is that it was seen being endorsed on a public Facebook page by Jay Baker, a captain in the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office. It was Baker’s job to inform the press of everything his office had learned about the killer who recently shot up three Atlanta-area spas — one of which was in Baker’s county — leaving eight people dead in his grisly wake. Six were Asian American women.

Understandably, many online have taken offense at Captain Baker’s characterization of the killer as having had “a bad day,” a statement that sounded like another corny bad joke. The Captain also insisted that the cause of the violence wasn’t racial. The killer allegedly disavowed racism as a motive, and the Captain believed him. Instead, the killer’s motive was that he had an addiction to sex and viewed the spas as a temptation he had to remove violently — never mind that the Korean news outlet Choson Ilbo reported a witness had heard the killer say, “Kill all the Asians.”

Maybe this last bit of news doesn’t count because it was written in an Asian language.

If it’s not in English, it’s not credible.

If the witness isn’t white, there is no witness — at least, this used to be the law.

In 1854, the US Supreme Court ruled in People v. Hall that the testimony of a Chinese witness in the murder of a white man was inadmissible because he belonged to, “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point.” In this way, the Chinese joined the Native American and the African American in their shared lack of standing in the courts.

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The violence in Warrior starts right away, in the opening scene of the pilot episode. Ah Sahm is in the dark hold of a ship with a large group of other Chinese men. As they exit, we are told that it’s 1878 and they are in San Francisco. The new arrivals are greeted by a larger crowd of unkempt white men chanting “Chinks, go home!” While they are behind a fence they seem to lean in close.

The men shuffle along, disoriented and cowed. Another Chinese man, well-dressed and confident, welcomes them with lies about all the money they will soon be making. He then introduces three white immigration officials, one of whom says, “Christ, these people stink. I don’t understand how the little shits can even stand to be around themselves.” He then turns to a new arrival: “Hey, Chingchong, do you smell yourself?”

It doesn’t take long for Ah Sahm to insert himself between the official and the immigrant he’s bullying, and after revealing his ability to speak fluent English by insulting the officers, he takes all three down with a few punches and a flying kick.

The violence is fast and one-sided, and very satisfying.

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Warrior is far from perfect. It’s telling, for instance, that the series is obsessed with the coming of the Chinese Exclusion Act but has nothing to say about the Page Act, which passed just three years before the show begins. It was the first piece of legislation to regulate immigration to the United States, ending the nation’s long history of open borders. It specifically targeted immigrants from “any Oriental country” who may be entering the nation “for lewd and immoral purposes,” and was primarily used to stop the immigration of Chinese women who were all assumed to be involved in sex work.

This assumption, cemented in law, is one possible origin story for the unique way Asian women have been eroticized in American culture, being legible in 19th-century America only through sex and money. Warrior does nothing to upset this circuit of associations, and, worse, accepts the belief that there’s something intrinsically demeaning about sex work. 

Even Ah Toy, a brothel owner based on an actual historic figure also named Ah Toy, accepts this belief. Because she happens to be a master swordswoman, she attacks another, less reputable brothel in the second season and frees a large group of Chinese women from what is presented as sexual slavery, including keeping women in cages and chaining them to beds when they are working. Such conditions may be historically accurate (it’s been a while since I read the relevant books and a lot of new works have come out since), but then Ah Toy takes the newly freed women to a vineyard operated by a white philanthropist — a woman who happens to be her lover — where they will become agricultural laborers, and, as she departs, makes her trusted henchwoman stay behind, telling her if she comes back to her brothel, where conditions are much better, she’ll have to start having sex for money.

The show is completely uncritical of the philanthropist and uninterested about whatever the labor conditions at her farm might be. She is driven only by altruism and not by any kind of moral panic about paid sexual labor. The choice between engaging in sex work or agricultural work is never presented as a difficult choice, as the vineyard is, visually, a pastoral paradise and the women who toil there are all seemingly content. But neither the Chinese sex workers themselves nor the laborers at the vineyard have speaking parts in the show, although Ah Toy, as the boss, has a lot to say.

I keep thinking about the way Chinese women are presented in this show because I’ve been puzzled by how many rushed to claim that the Korean American and Chinese American women who were killed in the Atlanta massacre were sex workers. Even now, a few days after the event, and with the help of numerous news accounts of the women who were its victims, I’m not sure how involved in sex work they were, or how they themselves would have characterized their jobs.

What do I know? I find myself reading meaning into incomplete details as I’ve been obsessively consuming newspaper accounts of the incident, and my interpretation is shaped — like most people’s, I suspect — by the very kind of narratives about sex work that popular shows like Warrior are always selling, lurid and titillating but with a veneer of moralizing to satisfy the prudish.

What I do know is this: the historic Ah Toy was only the second Chinese women to arrive in San Francisco. While she had the bound feet of an upper class woman, May Jeong observes in the New York Review of Books, she traveled alone and eventually, “set up a shanty on Clay and Kearney Streets, in modern-day Chinatown” to become “the first recorded Chinese prostitute in the New World.” Beloved by miners, she grew her business, establishing a prosperous brothel on Pike Street and hiring other Chinese women who were arriving in substantial numbers in the 1850s to work in it. She was also not shy about suing men in the courts to protect her interests until she lost her right to testify.

Unfortunately for Ah Toy, the next decade became increasingly inhospitable to her trade, as the rising number of women in California dented the popularity of paid sex work, and Chinese women in particular were singled out for moral opprobrium at the same time they were also beginning to compete with white women for jobs in the nascent apparel business.

As Jeong goes on to observe, however, “What sealed the fate of Chinese prostitutes in San Francisco was the arrival of large numbers of white Victorian women, who started families and formed missionary circles.” It was, in other words, philanthropic women like Ah Toy’s fictional white lover in Warrior who viewed sex work as evil and the Chinese women engaged in it as needing saving. 

Here’s one way in which the past might haunt the present. As Atlanta’s spas face a lot of scrutiny as a result of the massacre, and as this scrutiny gets framed by the language of “sexual addiction” and “temptation,” they risk becoming more strictly regulated and even shut down. The victims of the massacre, then, will not only be the eight people who have tragically lost their lives, but the working-class Asian American women employed in these businesses whose livelihoods may now be in jeopardy.

Were this to happen, it would be the killer’s testimony that would guide the outcome, as if we were still in a 19th-century courtroom.

If the witness isn’t white, there is no witness.

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To its credit, Warrior understands a lot about popular storytelling, which makes me genuinely sorry that it may now be over. Cinemax has recently announced it will no longer be financing new content, and the only chance the show has of continuing is if HBO Max, where it is currently streaming, decides to pick it up.

It’s handling of racial stereotypes in particular is savvy. It doesn’t simply reject them, allowing them in this way to dictate what is presented on the screen in a futile attempt to deny their existence, but steers directly into their direction. Its depiction of Chinatown draws from the most obvious ways of depicting the Chinese in the late 19th century: Chinese women are mostly sex workers in need of saving (as I’ve already pointed out), the Chinese live in a maze of often subterranean dwellings, they are prone to violence and vice, and their opium a source of abandonment and lethargy. The Irish also follow a familiar script: they have large families, drink nonstop, fight and lounge around but don’t work very hard.

But then the show adds on layers of complexity to what is already familiar: the Chinese characters have a lot of feelings and resent the racism they keep encountering, they have ambitions and dreams of their own they are actively pursuing, the stories the show tells are told explicitly from their perspective (even giving them the camera’s first-person perspective), and the Irish are shown not to be poor because of their aversion to work but because of the collusion of factory owners and politicians. While this strategy might backfire, as in its treatment of sex work and race, it also makes some fresh representation possible.

One of the final episodes of the second season follows what happens to Jacob, a Chinese servant who inadvertently kills the mayor and who triggers a white riot in Chinatown — which deliberately mirrors several historic riots, including, most famously, the 1871 massacre of the Chinese in Los Angeles. This story is told completely from his perspective, even though he has until now been a minor character. The story ends with us experiencing what he would have seen and heard hiding in a pine coffin while attempting to escape from San Francisco, just before the police catch him and a mob of out-of-work Irish laborers lynch him with a rope. In this way, we are able to feel all the fear and panic he would have felt, a perspective that is otherwise largely absent across the US media landscape. Warrior gives Jacob the right to act as his own witness, a right which remains elusive for so many still.

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