Warrior Is Based on a Brutal, Untold Chapter of American History

Warrior Is Based on a Brutal, Untold Chapter of American History

When the historical martial arts drama Warrior was canceled after two seasons by Cinemax due to Covid-related shutdowns, it looked like that was the end of the road for the series. But then the streaming service Max, which had previously picked up those first two seasons for its platform, renewed the show for a third season of expertly choreographed gang warfare set against the backdrop of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Warrior follows Ah Sahm, played by Andrew Koji, a martial artist who emigrates to the United States in the late 1870s in search of his missing sister, and is soon drawn into the underground world of the tongs, an array of clashing gangs and secret societies formed by Chinese immigrants.

The show has earned favorable comparisons to other gangster period pieces like Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire from critics, and Season 3 has now kicked off on Max, making this the perfect time to get into Warrior from the beginning.

Warrior has a fascinating origin story.

The idea for Warrior was first conceived by screen legend Bruce Lee in the 1970s, who created an outline for a series about a Chinese martial artist exploring the American West and pitched it to studios. The idea was never greenlit, which Lee attributed to a hesitance to put a non-white lead on TV screens—although the 1972 series Kung Fu starring David Carradine bore a striking resemblance to Lee’s original concept.

Following Lee’s tragic death in 1973, the Bruce Lee Foundation was formed to continue the actor’s legacy. When his daughter, Shannon Lee, took over the foundation in 2000, she discovered the eight-page treatment for a show called The Warrior in her father’s journals. She shared the document with Fast & Furious director Justin Lin, and together they workshopped the premise, transposing the central character into the hard-boiled tong underworld of San Francisco—Lee’s birthplace.

“If Bruce Lee hadn’t written down those eight pages about the Chinese-American experience in the 1800s, which was the foundation of Warrior, I wouldn’t be here right now,” says series lead Andrew Koji. “I feel weirdly, strangely connected to him in a way. He’s indirectly changed my life.”

The series is rooted in real history.

While Ah Sahm and the other characters may be fictional creations, almost everything else about the show and its milieu is based in fact, including the Tong Wars that played out in San Francisco following an influx of Chinese immigration. With anti-Chinese discrimination rife, new immigrants were funneled into Chinatowns, where they formed tongs as a means of survival. The pulpy plot turns, shifting allegiances and dynamic fight scenes all serve to illustrate (however luridly) a very real chapter in American history.

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Philip Ellis

Philip Ellis is a freelance writer and journalist from the United Kingdom covering pop culture, relationships and LGBTQ+ issues. His work has appeared in GQ, Teen Vogue, Man Repeller and MTV.

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