Basketball, Kung Fu, and the Cold War
Just before the tip off of the 2012 Rookie Game in Orlando, Craig Sager said something very revealing. He was about to interview Ricky Rubio and Jeremy Lin, and, in introducing the two players to his television audience, he described both as having “travelled a long way to get here.”1 Rubio, of course, had recently arrived in the NBA from Spain after a two year delay. But Jeremy Lin was a Harvard graduate who had lived most of his life in Palo Alto, California.
Now I should make it clear that I’m not out to get Craig Sager, bless him, or to call him a racist. I do, however, believe it is important to understand that in this brief remark we can detect echoes not only of centuries of orientalist rhetoric, but also of America’s Cold War ideology. This is not just an exploration of how, from his first successful start as a Knick, Jeremy Lin has been regarded with a patronising enthusiasm and seized upon greedily by the NBA in a cynical attempt to “tap into the Asian market.” Sager’s statement, I claim, hints at a more interesting—and far more sinister—story.
On the surface, awkward interviews in which Lin is asked by grinning white men to “give us a sense of that Mandarin,” to perform like a circus animal, may seem innocuous, even progressive; they are, after all, celebratory in tone, if a little clumsy. But to the more attuned and paranoid observer, they represent the latest chapter in the ongoing battle between the poisonous ideology of American capitalist democracy and the warm embrace of global communism, towards which it is our solemn duty to strive.
Lin, who was born in Los Angeles County and grew up in the epicentre of today’s neoliberal techno-plutocracy, the Bay Area, is a citizen of the United States. His first language is English. He is nevertheless rendered as the Other, as “Asian-American.” Just as, according to Homi Bhabha, the “mimic man” is “the effect of a flawed colonial mimesis, in which to be Anglicised is emphatically not to be English,” so in the case of the Taiwanese-American basketball player, to be Americanised is emphatically not to be American. He or she becomes “almost the same but not quite,” or, as Bhabha subsequently remarks, “almost the same but not white.”
Say it. SAY IT AGAIN.
In order to understand why Americans negotiate issues of race and culture in such peculiar ways we need to take a trip back in time and space to Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. on August 6th, 1945. The United States has committed many impressive crimes and atrocities, but perhaps its crowning achievement—its apex of evil—was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.2 The destruction of these two cities is best understood not as the end of World War II, but as the beginning of the Cold War. The bombs may have directly targeted Japan, but America was politically taking aim at the Soviet Union and the worldwide communist movement that was underway at the time.
While unscrupulous capitalists across Europe promoted and collaborated with the forces of fascism throughout the first half of the 1940s, communist groups had consistently offered strong resistance and fought for their homelands. In 1944, the Red Army of the Soviet Union rolled through Eastern Europe, liberating nation after nation from fascism. The victory of the Soviet Union over the most hated governments in the world caused the prestige of communism to soar, and communist movements emerged as legitimate and popular political forces in many nations during the immediate post-war period: the Finnish party won 23 per cent of the vote in 1945; the French party had over a million members; the Italian party over two million; the Danish party tripled in size; the Belgian party grew tenfold; in Greece, the communist party pursued an independent path of armed struggle against the villainous and despicable British-backed capitalist government. Capitalism was on the ropes.
In Japan, by contrast, the ground had been cleared for the cultivation of a pro-American, pro-capitalist government that would counteract the spreading communist revolution in Asia. In the United States, Japan’s image was carefully rehabilitated during the 1950s, neutralising it as a political threat and paving the way for economic exchange. But there was another motive behind the increasing aestheticisation of Japan: a growing interest in Japanese style became an expression of the principle of freedom of choice, helping to distinguish American democracy from its Soviet counterpart. During the Cold War era, one of the most common ways that Americans compared communism and capitalist democracy was to say that the former encouraged sameness, denied individuality, and lacked style.
Americans thus came to admire, preserve, and appropriate the cultural richness of Japan, China, India, etc., as a means to distinguish themselves and their tastes from other Americans and to craft the uniqueness of their identities. Cultural options from around the world allowed Americans to disrupt the monotony of a potentially homogeneous identity and reinforce the sense of individuality and freedom already strongly embedded in the American ethos. In a paternalistic gesture, the United States would remember what communist China wished to forget: within the temple walls forged in the American imagination, the cultural legacy of China would be fully protected.
And it is to this imagined temple—the Shaolin temple, to be precise—we now turn. Consider Kung Fu, a television series so vexingly stupid and condescendingly racist that Charles Barkley undoubtedly owns the complete VHS box set. Kung Fu serves as a useful case study for two reasons: it underscores how seemingly “good” stereotypes—the sort that Jeremy Lin has come to know all too well—can be just as harmful as “bad” ones, and it will also allow me to bloviate a little more about the politics of violence.
Kung Fu tells the story of Kwai Chang Caine—a half-Chinese, half-American monk—as he journeys through the Wild West fighting bad guys and dispensing justice. One of the actors originally considered for the part of Caine was Bruce Lee. Born in San Francisco and biracial in heritage (his mother, Grace Lee, was of Chinese and German descent), the martial arts superstar would have been perfect for the role. Yet, as his close friend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar later explained, there was just one problem: “whoever it was that decided such things made it clear to [him] that they didn’t think a Chinese man could be a hero in America. They passed over Bruce and gave the part, and the stardom, to David Carradine.”
In other words, it was felt that the (presumed) white American audience had to be able to visually see themselves in the figure of Caine, to see recognisable whiteness reflected back at them in the most visceral manner. This was precisely Caine’s function: as the protagonist and hero, Caine provided the primary identification for the viewer, who aspired to the show’s vision of fair-mindedness and spiritual acumen. Although Caine is obviously a minority as well, the fact that he is both Chinese and white allows a type of representational access for the dominant culture viewer that monoracial characters (or, rather, those who appear monoracial) do not share.
Thus, Jeremy Lin, like Bruce Lee, cannot be white America’s hero. Rather, Lin is destined to “carry the hopes of a continent on his shoulders,” while a player like Rex Walters—a Japanese-American who passes as white—can enjoy a career of peaceful mediocrity, free from scrutiny and sensationalism. “I don’t look Japanese,” says Walters, referring to his mother’s ethnicity. “When they see [Lin], it’s an Asian-American.”
At the height of the Cold War, Americans had cultivated an appetite for Chinese culture, provided it was mediated by a white man with whom they could identify. Likewise, today, as America engages in a new geopolitical war, encircling China militarily and economically via its “pivot to Asia,” NBA fans enjoy hearing “a sense of that Mandarin” so long as Jeremy Lin is kept at arm’s length, refused admission to the category “American.” Chinese culture may be commodified in order to sell alternate uniforms, but nobody is interested in hearing about the working conditions of Chinese labourers who, by their thankless toil, make the contemporary NBA spectacle possible.
It gets worse.
Kung Fu, like any other action show, is bound to a narrative structure that requires the elements of intriguing conflict and satisfactory resolution within the space of less than half an hour. The television format thus colludes with a broader ideological view that finds such a moral recipe palatable, and for a show that attempts to deal with complex issues of racial oppression, such an arrangement can be disastrous.
A clear example of Kung Fu’s Barkleyesque approach to matters of racial injustice occurs in the episode “Blood Brother” (January 19, 1973). Caine happens across the name of a man, Lin Wu, with whom he grew up in the Shaolin temple and searches the town for his old friend. Instead, he encounters Soong, an elderly Chinese man who is being viciously harassed by a group of drunken young men. Caine intervenes but is then thrown in jail “for his own protection,” suggesting the town’s racially fraught environment. As the story unfolds, it is revealed that the same young men are also responsible for killing Lin Wu and abandoning his body in the marshlands. The episode concludes when Caine finally helps to bring about their indictment.
By presenting only legal resolutions such as this, the show promotes the enactment of social justice via institutional channels of recourse (i.e., the law and the courts), and reaffirms the eventual effectiveness of these institutions. All alternative means of resistance to legal restitution are invariably written out of Kung Fu except one: pacifism. It is the ideal of absolute pacifism as proper response to racial injustice that, in fact, becomes the show’s significant message: if given the chance to kill or be killed by one’s oppressors, those who would choose the latter are, the viewer infers, more spiritually noble.
As John Furia, one of the producers of the show, later remarked about Kung Fu’s message, freedom comes by “freeing yourself of anger, and by freeing yourself of your own prejudices and by, in a sense, acting free.” This sort of response to racial oppression, while superficially appealing, places the responsibility for reconciliation squarely on the shoulders of the marginalised individual and perpetuates the dangerous illusion that peaceful resistance achieves anything whatsoever. In the eyes of the dominant—white—culture, the answer to racial oppression is indeed quite simple! By promoting an ideological contract that precludes other types of resolution, Kung Fu reinforces a hegemonic view that not only ignores the deep wounds of racial injustice by offering easy solutions, but also makes only one solution the morally correct one.
And so, to return to Craig Sager’s comment, we can now see that it was more than a mildly insensitive blunder. It was a message to the oppressed people of the United States of America: “it’s no excuse for people to go out there burning down people’s businesses, burning down police cars. That serves no purpose. That serves no purpose whatsoever.”
1 I can’t actually remember precisely what he said, and I can no longer find footage of this interview, but this was the gist of it. If anybody out there has access to this footage and can correct me I invite you to come forward. It is also possible, of course, that Sager meant it metaphorically, that he was referring to the fact that Lin’s journey to the NBA was made that much more arduous because of racial stereotyping. Lin was undrafted, after all. But I don’t care.
2 I’ve been to both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This isn’t really relevant, I’m just bragging. In Nagasaki there’s an oak tree that represents the friendship between Britain and Japan. It was brown and withered even in the middle of Spring.