It is 1974. I am five years old. My brother, 9 years my senior, has just finished watching his favorite television show. He enters our shared bedroom to engage in what has now become a weekly, post-prime time ritual. He stands with feet wide apart, his arms slowing whipping the air, his fingers in tight, claw-like configurations. He says nothing, his eyes gone trance-like. He slowly tiptoes toward me (being careful not to “tear the rice paper”, you understand), moving in to strike. He will now proceed to pummel me senseless for the remainder of the evening.
My brother’s violent hypnosis was the result of Kung Fu, a weekly television series that centered largely on rednecks getting beat up in slow motion (a TV formula that remained popular throughout the 1970s). It was a show made – some would say market researched – for its time. The martial arts craze was in full effect. Bruce Lee, who had been considered for the starring role in Kung Fu, was wildly popular among American teenage boys, as was Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu comic book, crammed with ads for martial arts instruction by the likes of Count Dante. Kids watched Hong Kong Fooey on Saturday mornings. The new line of GI Joe action figures came complete with Kung Fu grip, while Big Jim, Joe’s sports-obsessed cousin, was designed for full-on karate chop action. The whole mania peaked with “Kung Fu Fighting”, a ridiculous and ridiculously catchy disco hit.
But, aside from cashing in on this mania, I always felt the reason the Kung Fu television show was so well-received during this period was that Kwai Chang Caine, the fugitive Shaolin monk played by David Carradine, was essentially a hippie. Granted, the counterculture overtones were far more overt in the film Billy Jack, where the karate master literally hung out with folk-singing Berkley communals. But Kung Fu also delivered the hypocritical thrill of a rarely-bathed, Buddhist man of peace who came through with a couple of good ass-kickings each episode. Caine kept the Vietnam protesters happy with a few Confucian bromides about the peaceful upkeep of one’s chi, but rest assured, when tobacco-spitting cowboys started in with some white supremacist swagger, kicks to the head were imminent. Shows like Kung Fu signaled the victory over pothead pacifism by the lust for the action-packed. Boys will be boys, no matter how long they grow their hair.
Though it was obviously the product of committee effort (and another of TV’s many excuses to reuse Old West sets), the show wasn’t half bad. Its quiet pace was unusual for a television drama, the cast was professional and the offbeat soundtrack, made up of ancient Chinese string and percussion instruments, sounded a little like Harry Partch. The one issue people had the program was pretty glaring: David Carradine ain’t Chinese. But even this brought another interesting level to the story, I thought. Like Mr. Spock before him, half-breed Caine has a conflict between his stoic, Buddhist self and his “human” needs to get laid and beat people up. Surprisingly, Carradine was able to convincingly portray a Chinese master of the martial arts while being neither Asian nor trained in kung fu. Of course, stunt doubles are also worth their weight in gold.
Ultimately, Kung Fu was, in those heady years following the ’68 assassination season, a treatise on civil rights. But while it seemed that the arrival of social realism in mainstream entertainment was the surest sign that the times they were a’changin’, it turned out to be another passing TV fad. As the ‘70s came to an end, the Maudes, Bunkers, Chicos and Mod Squads were cleared out to make way for the Reagan era, when the Drummonds and Cosbys tackled issues of race by pretending they didn’t exist. Those bitch-slapped rednecks of Kung Fu were, as it turned out, an oppressed majority, tired of being picked on by those liberal homos in Hollywood. Far from the wandering peacenik that was Kwai Chang Caine, the martial arts stars of the ‘80s became aggressively Schwarzeneggerian, leather-clad Rambos who ninja-starred first and asked questions never. In short, the Shoalin BECAME the redneck.
The transition was short. After all, my brother’s fixation on walloping his younger, defenseless brother wasn’t inspired by Kung Fu’s themes of spiritual balance and struggles for social justice. He, and all the karate chopping youngsters of that era, were in it for the kick-ass. In the ‘70s, the helping hand of brotherhood had a Kung Fu grip.
- Ashley Holt