Warrior - The Surprising Show With the Best Female Storylines on TV
Photo Credit: Cinemax/Kobal/Shutterstock
There is no doubt right now that the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) and Asian community worldwide as a whole, is hurting. Anti-Asian hate crimes have risen to a startling degree, largely as a result of racism over the coronavirus. But the disrespect that the AAPI community is facing is sadly nothing new. Hate crimes and racism against the AAPI community have been happening in this country since AAPI immigration to the States began.
If you are looking to help the AAPI community, of course first and foremost you should look into organizations where you can donate your time and/or money. However, another great way that you can support this community from your own home is to throw your support behind Asian/Pacific Islander lead projects.
Asian/Pacific Islander representation in movies and TV in the Western world has been EXTREMELY LACKING. I have previously written about the lack of inclusivity in Hollywood when it comes to AAPI, Asian, and South Asian representation. From outdated — and often dangerous — stereotypes to whitewashing/leaving them out of movies entirely, the AAPI community has been one of the most disrespected when it comes to media. Sure, in recent years we’ve had breakthrough hits like Crazy Rich Asians, Parasite, Always Be My Maybe and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (which has an Asian lead actress), and that progress is great.
But how about the fact that Steven Yeun’s Oscar nomination represents the FIRST time an Asian-American has been nominated for Best Actor? The Oscars have been around since 1929! How many movies are still whitewashing stories to cast white actors instead of AAPI? And this is largely because AAPI lead projects are still considered risky investments because of the worry about crossover appeal for Western audiences.
Support The AAPI Community
And this brings me to my point. A great way to easily support the Asian community is to seek out an Asian/Pacific Islander lead project and show your support by simply watching it. Many people are unaware of their own unconscious biases, so you could have passed over a TV show or movie with an Asian/Pacific Islander lead with the assumption that “this wouldn’t be for me.” It’s incredibly important to seek out stories that ARE different from your own. And, if you’re looking for a hidden gem of a TV series that is definitely worth the watch, look no further than Warrior on HBOMax.
I was raised devouring Bruce Lee movies from the time I was a small child. So, all I needed to hear was that Warrior was developed by Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, from a concept Bruce himself had written, before my interest was piqued. While Hollywood wasn’t yet ready for a TV series starring an Asian leading man with a mainly Asian supporting cast back in Bruce’s day, Warrior, on which Shannon serves as an executive producer, has a cast led by Asian/Pacific Islander actors.
Warrior takes place in San Francisco in the late 1870s. The 1800s marked the beginning of the Chinese diaspora, a wave of Chinese immigration that was so widespread that most cities now have their own “Chinatown.” San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinese community in North America, as well as the largest such community outside of Asia.
It’s incredibly important to seek out stories that ARE different from your own.
Many of these immigrants left China looking for work, and many arrived in the States already in debt to the people who ferried them to their new home. As a result, many of the Chinese immigrants were willing to accept jobs at highly reduced wages, typically with long hours and rare days off. But, as a result of this willingness to work for lower wages, Chinese American immigrants attracted negative — and racist — attention from other first and second generation American immigrant groups, as they began to replace them in the workforce. The Chinese immigrants were blamed instead of the people willing to exploit them for their own capitalistic greed. In fact, California tried to create legal impediments to curb Chinese immigration, including a requirement for Chinese-American business owners to have special licenses to operate.
The anti-immigration sentiment boiled over until, in 1879, Congress passed its first bill that was intended to curb the rate of Chinese immigration, which was vetoed by President Rutherford B. Hayes. However, in 1880, a new treaty, the so-called Angell Treaty, was reached between China and the United States, allowing the U.S. to limit — but not ban — immigration from China. And, of course this opened the door for Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This act suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers from China for a period of 10 years. It also required Chinese people traveling in or out of the U.S. to carry a certificate that would identify them as a laborer, scholar, diplomat, or merchant. This was the first piece of legislation in American history that was put in place to limit immigration and the rights of new immigrants.
At the same time, many Chinese immigrant communities were facing violent attacks. The Chinese Massacre of 1871 took place in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. A mob of 500 rioters attacked and lynched an estimated 20 Chinese immigrants. The second season of Warrior depicts the San Francisco Riot of 1877, in which four Chinese immigrants were killed and over $100,000 worth of Chinese-owned property was destroyed, further devastating the economically suppressed community.
Because of the economic hardship faced by the Chinese community in San Francisco, rival gangs, known as “tongs,” began to form. These Chinese-American gangs would often clash with each other in struggles for power. Warrior takes place in the late 1870s, during the Tong Wars. Our protagonist is Ah Sahm, a Chinese immigrant and skilled fighter who comes to the States looking for his sister, and winds up getting dragged into the battle between the tongs.
All Hail Bruce Lee
Now, as I mentioned before, I am a HUGE Bruce Lee fan. So, I went into Warrior with high hopes, but a healthy amount of skepticism that anyone could truly come close to living up to the legendary Lee. I am happy to report that within MINUTES of the opening scene of the opening episode of Warrior, my doubts were demolished. Lead actor Andrew Koji portrays Ah Sahm with the same mix of charisma, intensity, and humor that Bruce brought to his best performances. Not to mention the amazing dexterity and athleticism that Koji brings to the table — you can tell he puts in the WORK. Koji’s fight scenes are hypnotic: the actor performs complicated choreography with such skill that it almost looks easy. The fact that the handsome and talented Andrew Koji is NOT the world’s biggest action star at this moment is a testament to how racist the casting process can still be toward Asian actors.
While it was lead actor Andrew Koji and Warrior’s fight scenes that sparked my interest, what drew me in more was the show’s treatment of its female characters. Sometimes when a TV series or movie tries to include female-driven plots, they can feel pandering, out of touch, or inauthentic. But, that is NOT the case with Warrior. In addition to featuring a diverse cast of mainly Asian/Pacific Islander actresses, Warrior features some of the most interesting plotlines for its female characters that I’ve ever seen on television.
SPOILER ALERT FOR WARRIOR SEASONS 1 AND 2
You have Ah Toy, the bisexual, tough yet vulnerable madam who runs the Chinatown brothel and moonlights as a sword-wielding vigilante. Ah Toy does what she has to in order to keep herself and her women safe, and secretly dispatches those who commit crimes against the Chinese community with her trusty sword by the cover of moonlight. Actress Olivia Cheng brings Ah Toy to life with an impressive combination of ferocity and sensitivity, making her scenes some of the best in the series.
There is Mai Ling, Ah Sahm’s long lost sister whom he comes to the States to find, only to realize she has no intention of being found. Mai Ling fled China after being forced to marry an abusive warlord in order to save her brother’s life. As a result of this trauma, she has become cold and calculating, marrying the head of one of the tongs (gangs) with the ambition of taking it over for herself… after murdering her husband, that is.
There’s also Penelope Blake, the mayor’s pretty, blonde wife. Penelope is forced to marry the lascivious mayor, a man twice her age, in order to keep her family off the streets when her father’s business falters. Now, I have to admit that I was skeptical of a storyline featuring a white woman in a show with a predominantly non-white cast. And this was especially true when Penelope embarked on a romance with the show’s lead Ah Sahm. Sometimes when movies or TV shows engage in an interracial romance with a white woman and a non-white man, they handle it in a way that rejects or puts down the women from the non-white man’s own culture. However, Warrior handles Penelope and her romantic tryst with Ah Sahm in an interesting way, by drawing parallels between his low position in society’s eyes as a poor Chinese immigrant and her low position in society’s eyes as a woman. Neither have many choices available to them, they both just have to do what they can to survive.
These stories are important and they deserve to be told, but too often are kept purposefully hidden in the dark shadows of America’s shameful past.
Season two brings Rosalita Vega, a Mexican woman with a mysterious past. Rosalita runs an illegal fighting tournament, which is how she meets Ah Sahm. We also get Nellie Davenport, a wealthy widow who is working to help the Chinese community, especially the young women who were forced into prostitution. She also engages in a romance with Ah Toy. The character of Nellie is based on real life figure Donaldina Cameron, a nun who devoted her life to saving the young Chinese girls and women who were forced into the sex trade in the late 1800s in the U.S.
Warrior has complex, interesting, and new stories for women, especially women of color. And, this is in addition to the incredibly dynamic and absorbing storylines that it features for its male characters, as well. Add to that the beautifully choreographed fight scenes, the intricate art direction, production design, and costuming, as well as the cinematography and you have a show that is inherently watchable and definitely binge-worthy.
Warrior actually ended up teaching me even more about a dark time in American history and its treatment of Chinese immigrants than I had known before. These stories are important and they deserve to be told, but too often are kept purposefully hidden in the dark shadows of America’s shameful past.
As of this writing, Warrior has yet to be renewed for a third season. It is a travesty that a show this well-crafted and this unique has yet to find the audience it deserves. And I can’t help but wonder if this is because too many people see a banner or preview on their HBOMax home screen that is filled with Asian/Pacific Islander actors and think, “Oh, this show isn’t for me.” I’m here to tell you, it is. We need to show that we as a society want more stories from Asian voices, with Asian characters.
It took 40 years for Bruce Lee’s vision to come to television screens in the way he truly intended. We can’t in good conscience let it go off the air after only two.