“Kung Fu”: A Great Leap Forward, or a Kick to the Throat?

kung_fu
with Keye Luke as Blind Master Po

Today is the birthday of David Carradine (1936-2009). Given the fact that I was between the ages of seven and ten when his hit show Kung Fu aired (1972-1975), I could not let this day pass without a big time shout-out.

Martial arts was a big time craze in the mid 1970s. Elvis did karate. Bruce Lee became a huge folk hero. That hit tune “Kung Fu Fighting” came out in 1974. To cater especially to kids of my age there was Hong Kong Phooey

The title of Carradine’s show initally had me confused. I thought the guy’s name was Kung Fu: “Hey, can you do karate like that dude Kung Fu?” The character’s name of course however was Kwai Chang Caine. He was supposed to be a Shaolin monk and martial arts master who was forced to flee his native China and wound up in the Old West. Much was made at the time about how all liberal and progressive the show was. After all, it was about a Chinese American hero and everywhere he went he encountered American prejudice. Caine NEVER entered a western town without being immediately surrounded by a gang of pudgy, oafish crackers spitting tobacco and demanding, “What’re YEW doin’ here, Chinaman?” On the other hand….Caine was played by a vaguely mongoloid ANGLO dude from a famous American acting dynasty, making the show essentially an opportunistic yellow-face act. (The obvious person to cast in the role, Bruce Lee was passed over). And all of that “Oriental Mysticism”…isn’t that straight out of Dr. Strange or Terry and the Pirates or something? Kids might think it’s cool, but it’s hardly calculated to create any actual UNDERSTANDING in the world, unless it’s somehow beneficial to international harmony to believe that Chinese people have magical powers.

At any rate, Caine was a man of peace…until he was pushed too far, at which point he had to kick six or a dozen white guys’ asses, often flying through the air in slow motion in a manner not unlike The Six Million Dollar Man.

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