Reporter Journal / William Hennelly

An' 80s film reminds how perception of China has evolved

By William Hennelly (China Daily USA) Updated: 2015-11-12 12:08

Watching an old film recently made me think how much China's image in America has changed.

In the 1981 movie An Eye for an Eye, starring martial arts legend Chuck Norris and Christopher Lee (the late English actor known for his Dracula characters), the story centers on the Triads gang in San Francisco's Chinatown smuggling heroin out of Hong Kong.

Norris plays Sean Kane, a city narcotics officer whose partner is brutally killed in an undercover operation. The partner's Chinese girlfriend, Linda Chan (Rosalind Chao), a reporter at the TV station, was investigating the smuggling too before the gang tracked her down and killed her.

Norris is single-minded in avenging the murders. His violent quest for vengeance gets him reprimanded (by a police captain played by Richard Roundtree of Shaft fame), so he turns in his gun and badge.

Kane is helped in his pursuit of justice by James Chan, Linda's father and Kane's former martial arts teacher, whose knack for wise one-liners the film emphasizes, as when he tells Kane that his fighting technique is "sloppy".

And when he compliments Kane, Chan (played by a Japanese actor, Mako Iwamatsu) says: "Do not let my praise inflate your ego. It is already swollen enough."

When it's time for revenge: "It seems I too am in need of retribution." And, "I tried to question him, but he preferred to expire."

Kane deduces that a grunting, grinning hulk of a man is responsible for Ms. Chan's murder. That villain is "The Professor", played by Hawaiian-born Professor Toru Tanaka, a 300-pound former pro wrestler.

Kane informs Chan of The Professor's role, who calmly responds with: "Then we will find him and kill him."

The movie features beautiful views of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, often enshrouded in fog, and passing glimpses of Chinatown. Norris drives the city's hills in a red 1973 Pontiac Trans-Am, at times sporting a red Members Only jacket, certifying the movie's 1980s bonafides.

San Francisco itself is home to martial arts royalty. Bruce Lee was born at San Francisco Chinese Hospital in 1940, but grew up in Hong Kong before returning to San Francisco at age 18. (Norris, incidentally, battled Lee in the 1972 classic Return of the Dragon.)

Fast forward to November 2015: San Francisco has just re-elected Ed Lee, the city's first Chinese-American mayor, a Seattle native whose parents came from Guangdong province. Until earlier this year, Jean Quan was mayor of Oakland across the bay.

An' 80s film reminds how perception of China has evolved

The only Chinese city mentioned in An Eye for an Eye was Hong Kong, a major source of immigration to San Francisco for a good part of the last century. Now Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu are heard from much more and are prominent air routes from the US.

Cantonese is still the predominant form of Chinese spoken in San Francisco, but the number of Mandarin-speaking immigrants has surged. In 2002, 61,000 people came from the mainland, about 10 times that from Hong Kong and six times that from Taiwan, according to federal statistics. City department stores now feature Mandarin-speaking salespeople and signs.

Chinese now comprise 21.4 percent of San Francisco's population of 805,000, and also are settling in nearby Silicon Valley for high-tech jobs. They make up almost 7 percent of San Jose's population.

China seems much closer now than the distant, mysterious land it felt like in an '80s action movie.

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