'Warrior' Gives Viewers a "Universal Translator" in 19th Century Chinatown

In Bruce Lee's period drama for Cinemax, set in 1880s San Francisco, immigrant characters speak modernized English. Here's why.

In the new martial arts drama Warrior, set in racially tense 19th-century San Francisco, the series’ majority Asian and Chinese immigrant characters speak better English than the accented white Americans who police them.

As the showrunners tell Inverse, this was part of an intentional effort to make audiences reconsider what qualifies as American history. And to pull this off, Warrior implements a narrative device you may recognize from the 1990 spy thriller, The Hunt for Red October.

In the series, the actors playing Chinese characters speak modernized English among themselves, rather than their native Cantonese. They only speak in accented English when interacting with the show’s white Anglo-Saxon and Irish characters, who themselves speak in period-appropriate talk.

“The goal was to make the Chinese characters the most accessible on the show,” says series co-producer Jonathan Tropper.

Warrior, a new Cinemax series based on Bruce Lee’s television pitch rejected in the 1970s because of its Asian male lead, takes place during the Tong Wars of 1880s San Francisco, an oft-overlooked period in American history.

Because the show features Chinese, Irish, and upper class Anglo-Saxons alike, the series gets around the complicated dynamics of language with a unique solution.

“We’re giving the English viewer a ‘universal translator,’” says Tropper.

This “translator” is established in the show’s first episode, when the camera sweeps around Hoon Lee’s Wang Chao, who speaks Cantonese to Young Jun (Jason Tobin) only to begin speaking in English after an audible whoosh sound effect.

“That camera movement is what I call The Hunt for Red October transition,” Tropper says, referencing the 1990 Tom Clancy film that used a similar technique for its Russian characters. “It establishes they’re not speaking English, and we let them speak English.”

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Andrew Koji (left) and Jason Tobin (right) in HBO's 'Warrior.'

Adds Tropper, “It wouldn’t make sense for Chinese characters to speak English when there are people who speak English in the room.”

The rules of language were a particular hurdle in the long, long journey to adapt Bruce Lee’s dream project after 40 years. Adhering to Lee’s original vision, the series follows a Chinese migrant named “Ah Sham,” played by British-Japanese actor Andrew Koji, who finds himself smack dab in the beginning of the Tong Wars.

From the 1880s until the 1930s, San Francisco’s Chinatown was ravaged by violent turf wars waged between Chinese and Asian immigrant gangs, called Tongs. Not unlike the Mafia, the Tongs fought for control over drugs trades, gambling dens, and prostitution houses.

Justin Lin, series producer and Taiwanese-born filmmaker (Fast & Furious, Star Trek: Beyond) who grew up in California, was eager to tell a story about a chapter in history high school didn’t teach him.

“Growing up, that was two sentences in the history books,” says Lin. “This is an American story. We needed to make sure that, aside from the action, this is an opportunity we do it right.”

“It was more lawless than the rest of San Francisco,” says Tropper. “That’s why we show the creation of a Chinatown Squad in the first episode. There had to be a Chinatown Squad, because the cops didn’t want to go into Chinatown.”

But while the show isn’t aiming for historical accuracy does aim to de-otherize the show’s Asian characters. One way Warrior does this is through its use of language.

Tom Weston Jones warrior HBO
Tom Weston-Jones stars in HBO's 'Warrior' as "Richard Lee," a former Confederate soldier who becomes a cop in 19th century San Francisco. Like many of the Caucasian characters in 'Warrior,' Richard speaks in an antiquated southern accent, which differs from the modernized "English" the show's Chinese characters speak among themselves.

But the Tongs in Warrior aren’t speaking in completely modern English. Their dialogue is loaded with slang that the producers and writers invented, because words and meanings do get lost in translation.

“When it comes to Cantonese, there’s certain words that don’t have a perfect translation,” says Lin. “We decided to have fun and create our own slang.”

As a result, the Tongs in Warrior have a vocabulary of slang that isn’t accurate to how real-life Tongs actually spoke. The biggest example is how the Tongs call whites, in derogatory fashion, “ducks,” and white neighborhoods “ponds.”

“That was a very conscious choice,” says Lin, who grew up speaking English in his Taiwanese immigrant household. “The roots of it came from translations, and we took that as a starting point and went with it.”

There were other reasons for having Chinese characters “speak” English. Practically, only one actor in the show is fluent in Cantonese (the rest practice their lines of dialogue phonetically). Casting for the series spanned the globe, as the producers sought actors of the Asian diaspora in the U.S., Canada, and the UK. Joe Taslim, who plays the henchman Li Yong, is from Indonesia.

“One of the first conversations I had with Shannon Lee was about casting,” says Tropper. “I had seen with Mulan, they were strictly casting Chinese only. I’m looking at actors to see if they’re Chinese, Japanese Korean, and a lot of them, I noticed, deliberately don’t put that out there.”

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Hoon Lee as "Wang Chao," a shadowy figure in Cinemax's 'Warrior' who frequently communicates between Chinatown's underworld and the white characters who come and go within the neighborhood.

Tropper expressed concerns to his co-producers, Justin Lin and Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, if Warrior would be “in trouble” had they not cast exclusively Chinese actors. Shannon assured Tropper they would be fine. “She said her father would actually roll over in his grave if we were discriminating against different Asians,” he says. “And that opened up casting.”

Bruce Lee scholars recognize Shannon’s sentiments. In Bruce Lee’s lifetime, it was forbidden by Chinese kung fu masters to teach kung fu to non-Chinese. Even Lee, who had German blood from his grandfather, was treated as an outcast by his pureblood Chinese peers.

When Lee came to America, he taught kung fu to whoever wanted to learn. Some of Lee’s most famous students included Filipino-American master Dan Inosanto, actor Steve McQueen, and NBA player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who co-starred with Lee in The Game of Death.

In effect, Lee’s open doors allowed his message to resonate in ways even he probably never expected. So, too, the producers of Warrior hope the show can entertain, even if its setting and world is an unfamiliar one.

“The idea is that language is a very strong instrument of storytelling,” says Tropper. “We watch how everyone talks very carefully.”

Warrior airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.

Media via Graham Bartholomew/CINEMAX, CINEMAX, Cinemax