Cinemax’s “Warrior” is San Francisco history of racial tension served from a Chinese point of view with a good helping of Chinese martial art fighting and some soft porn on the side. F-bombs frequently explode along with racial epithets. Full frontal female nudity is presented in the forgiving soft light while male back sides displayed but frontal male nudity is rendered more modestly with strategically place objects.
Cinemax bills “Warrior” as “what Bruce Lee would have wanted” and in the credits notes this is “based on the writings” of San Francisco’s own native-born legend. Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, his only surviving child, is on board as a producer so that’s a plus, but do we really know what Bruce Lee would have wanted? Due to the adult R-rated nature of the series, this series might suffer from the loss of the PG audience.
Season 1: Episode 1: The Itchy Onion
The year is 1878, the very year that the Ninth Circuit court decided that Chinese couldn’t become naturalized citizens. The American Civil War ended in 1865, but it is still in the minds of some of the characters. Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) arrives in San Francisco and, unlike most of the Chinese, he can speak American English courtesy of his American grandfather. His attitude and his English quickly get him into trouble, but because of his fighting skills, Ah Sahm quickly finds himself sold by Wang Chao (Hoon Lee) to one of the tongs, Hop Wei under the leadership of Father Jun (Perry Yung). He’s put under the tutelage of Young Jun (Jason Tobin) despite the opposition of Bolo.
Ah Sahm has come to the US searching for his sister who arrived two years prior. He finds her but she doesn’t want to be found. She’s taken a new name, Mai Ling (Dianne Doan), and has a new husband, Long Zii (Henry Yuk), the leader of the rival Long Zii tong. Chinatown has been ruled by the tongs who had an agreement, but that agreement was broken by the Long Zii under Mai Ling and a war seems to be brewing.
Ah Sahm wants to go back to China, but even Wang Chao can’t help him because he’s now owned by the Hop Wei. Ah Sahm finds some comfort with the brothel owner, Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng).
The white people or ducks are predominately anti-Chinese. The mayor Samuel Blake (Christian McKay) is married to a frosty younger woman, Penelope (Joanna Vanderham), and he’s the puppet for the bitter Walter Buckley (Langley Kirkwood) who is helping the Chinese deal drugs, but also managing the anti-Chinese agitation to his advantage. One of the agitators, Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger), frequents The Banshee and rubs elbows with Billy O’Hara, the head of the newly formed Chinatown police force.
Richard Lee (Tom Weston-Jones) is also relatively new to San Francisco and is the last member assigned to the Chinatown police force, but he’s curiously reticent about his life in Savannah, Georgia and why he’s come to San Francisco. He’ll only say that the Civil War is still being fought in his family. Two of his brothers were at Gettysburg. Leary and O’Hara are also Civil War veterans and O’Hara also fought at Gettysburg.
While there’s doubt that the Irish assailants will be charged with murder, someone, Ah Toy, slays them in the alleyway after they leave the Irish bar, The Banshee, where they had been in the company of both Dylan Leary and O’Hara.
Season 1: Episode 2: There’s No China in the Bible
A white dock watchman takes a bribe from one tong, the Long Zii, so they can collect their opium shipment, but, in turn, betrays them to the Hop Wei. The Hop Wei trio of Young Jun (Jason Tobin), Bolo (Rich Ting) and Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) attack the Long Zii and burn the opium because this isn’t a robbery; it’s a warning. Actually, Ah Sahm has been warned to hang back because this is his first time out as a Hop Wei enforcer and Bolo and Young Jun do the killing with Young Jun showing a bit too much enthusiasm.
The murders of two Irish men near The Banshee that ended the last episode catches the attention of the police chief, and Southerner Richard Lee (Tom Weston-Jones) comes knocking at the door of Sergeant Bill O’Hara (Kieran Bew) who has five kids. Although the murders took place outside of Chinatown, Chinese assailants are suspected so the Chinatown force becomes involved in the investigation with Lee making the more astute observations and even, to the annoyance of O’Hara, taking notes and closely observing the wounds. While there, O’Hara goes into the pub and meets with Leary who paid O’Hara money to prevent Lee from testifying against Morgan and Davis. Leary wants his money back, but O’Hara has gambled it away. O’Hara swears he’ll pay Leary back, but the interest is compounding. Leary’s just happy to have a copper in his back pocket.
O’Hara and Lee also go to the dock to investigate the murders there. Lee watches as the Chinese gather their own dead because according to O’Hara, “When it comes to the Chinese, we’re not cops, we’re janitors.”
Ah Sahm and Young Jun happen to be nearby and bump into the mayor’s wife Penelope “Penny” Blake as she is waiting for her valet Jacob to procure some traditional Chinese medicine from a Chinese merchant at the edge of Chinatown. Young Jun is there to collect protection money. Penny knows what’s going on and is upset. Jacob warns her and takes her away. Ah Sahm notices that Penny has dropped her glove and follows her just in time to save her and Jacob from being beaten up by two drunken Irish men. Lee attempts to help but gets knocked down. When Ah Sahm extends his hand to help Penny up from the ground, he’s knocked out by O’Hara who sees Ah Sahm as a good scapegoat for the murders of the Irish men.
Penny attempts to defend Ah Sahm but is only successful in preventing Jacob from being arrested as well. Her words fall on deaf ears of her husband, but she later goes to visit Ah Sahm in his cell to thank him. Ah Sahm had been pretending he did not understand or speak English when he was arrested and questioned by the officers, including the more fair-minded Lee. Just when Penny turns to leave, Ah Sahm decides to speak to Penny. He understand better than Penny that his case is hopeless. The Hop Wei can’t help this “half-wit onion” either and if the police use him as a scapegoat, that will take the heat off of Chinatown for the murder of the Irish.
Penny’s father, Byron Mercer (Graham Hopkins), meets with the mayor over his steel deal. He’s bought steel on the mayor’s promise that Mercer’s company will have an exclusive contract for the city’s cable car tracks, but Walter Buckley has been causing a delay although he tells the mayor he’s just being cautious and protective of the mayor’s legacy.
Ah Toy expresses concern over something called the Chinese Exclusion Act (which will pass in 1882), but Wang Chao assures her it won’t pass because it is “bad for business.” He also believes that there will always be a Chinatown and that even a tong war is good for business. Ah Toy warns that working all the angles is dangerous, but Wang Chao replies, “America isn’t a place to live a long life; my philosophy live fast, die rich” preferably with “a duck girl riding me like a thoroughbred” in a brothel. While Ah Toy notes that Long Zii and Father Jun have always kept the peace, Wang Chao knows that Long Zii is no longer calling the shots.
Long Zii (Henry Yuk) worries about the danger of breaking the treaty with the Hop Wei by entering the opium trade, but his much younger wife Mai Ling feels opium is the future and “the longer we wait, the more powerful the Hop Wei become.” Long Zii advises, “If there’s one advantage to old age, it’s perspective. I need you to trust me,” but Long Zii can’t trust Mai Ling, who is having an affair with Li Young.
The episode ends with Li Young and Wang Chao have a discussion with the double-crossing dock watchman that ends with what the police will probably see as a suicide.
The Characters (spoilers)
Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji): The grandson of an American, he’s newly arrived from China in episode 1 and establishes himself as a guy with an attitude and some awesome martial arts skills. He’s the grandson of an American sea captain. In San Francisco, he’s quickly sold to the Hop Wei tong by Wang Chao. He comes under the tutelage of Young Jun, son of Father Jun, and rubs Hop Wei lieutenant Bolo the wrong way.
Mai Ling (Dianne Doan): She was known under another name in China, but arrived in the US two years earlier. Her husband in China was brutal but her marriage supposedly saved her brother Ah Sahm from either death or another dire fate. Currently, she is the wife of the tong leader, Long Zii, but also the lover of his lieutenant, Li Yong. She’s made a deal with the mayor’s man, Walter Buckley, who has arranged for her to become part of the opium trade.
Penelope Mercer Blake (Joanna Vanderham): The daughter of Byron Mercer (Graham Hopkins) who helped her widowed father raise her sisters, but when her father’s business began to fail, marries her father’s friend to help save her father’s company. We learn that she’s using Chinese medicine to drug her husband so she doesn’t have to have sexual relations with him, but eventually, she and Ah Sahm become lovers.
Mayor Samuel Blake (Christian McKay): The Blakes are one of the richest families in San Francisco and he was an old friend of Byron Mercer (Graham Hopkins). He frequents the brother of Ah Toy and sometimes likes a threesome with a man and a woman.
Walter Buckley (Langley Kirkwood): While he functions as the mayor’s aid, he’s really manipulating things behind the scenes both legally and illegally. Although he has all the approvals for the cable cars, he intentionally delaying to force Byron Mercer into bankruptcy, but he’s misleading the mayor who has “given his word” and received Mercer’s daughter in return. Buckley is also dealing with Mai Ling and helping her into the opium trade.
Byron Mercer (Graham Hopkins): The father of Penelope and an old friend of the mayor’s. The mayor’s promised him an exclusive contract to help build the cable car tracks, and he’s already spent money on the steel and its storage. The delays have put him in financial distress.
Bill O’Hara (Kieran New): An Irish-American police sergeant who has gambling problems, a wife and five kids. He’s the head of the new Chinatown police squad but he’s in the back pocket of the anti-Chinese agitator, Dylan Leary. He frequents the Irish pub, The Banshee.
Richard Lee (Tom Weston-Jones): Intelligent, thoughtful and honest, Lee was born and raised on a farm in Savannah, Georgia and there are questions as to why he left the South and why he doesn’t like his photo taken (Episode 4). His two older brothers died at Gettysburg. He carries a notebook and makes astute observations at crime scenes. Unlike some of the others, he doesn’t blame the Chinese for the hiring problems, and believes that the real problem is the employers. He doesn’t believe in slavery.
Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger): Leary may be partially based on anti-Chinese agitator Denis Kearney (1947-1907), but Leary is more than just a labor unionist and anti-Chinese activist, he’s also a terrorist who turns on the Irish who don’t do what he likes and he’s a loan shark. He’s loaned money to Sergeant Bill O’Hara and paid him to prevent Lee from testifying against two Irish men who were murdering Chinese men.
Hop Wei Tong:
The Hop Wei tong dress in three-piece black suits with red pocket squares. Most of them sport white shirts with Mandarin collars. Their colors are black and red.
Father Jun (Perry Yung): The leader of the Hop Wei Tong who, according to his son Young Jun, fought against the British during the Opium Wars (Battle of Shanghai). He’s brutal and after he dumps Ah Sahm during his incarceration, greets Ah Sahm back with a beating (Episode 4).
Young Jun (Jason Tobin): Self-described as the son of Hop Wei leader Father Jun and a prostitute, Young Jun is supposed to be teaching Ah Sahm how to be a tong thug. Young Jun likes whoring and his enthusiasm for killing borders on psychotic, disturbing even his fellow Hop Wei enforcer Bolo.
Bolo (Rich Ting): Bolo worked on the Utah-California railroad, but was known as the Yellow Demon then, entertaining the white overseers by fighting and killing (because he got paid double). He was bought by Father Jun and brought back to San Francisco. He doesn’t like Ah Sahm because of his attitude and smart mouth and he doesn’t like Young Jun because he’s excessively violent and perhaps even psychotic.
Long Zii Tong
The Long Zii Tong dress more traditionally with the men having their heads half-shaved and sporting a long traditional hair queue. They break the treaty with the Hop Wei by entering the opium trade, but it isn’t Long Zii who is calling the shots any more.
Long Zii (Henry Yuk): Now old and infirm, Long Zii fears what will come if the tongs begin to engage in open warfare. He sees the increasing anti-Chinese activities and political actions and warns this is a dangerous time for the Chinese. He’s being betrayed by his wife, Mai Ling, who has pushed the Long Zii into the opium trade and is also having an affair with Li Yong.
Li Yong (Joe Taslim): Li Yong has sparred with Ah Sahm but their match was a draw because it was interrupted by Mai Ling who is Ah Sahm’s sister and the wife of Long Zii as well as Li Yong’s lover. Long Zii knows that Mai Ling often consults with him, but it is not clear if he knows his wife and Li Yong are lovers. Li Yong is the only one of the Long Zii who doesn’t sport a queue, opting for a more Western short haircut.
Working all the Angles
Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng): The beautiful madame of one of San Francisco’s finest brothel. She’s based on a real person who was a brothel owner. Ah Toy shares confidences with Wang Chao and is attracted to Ah Sahm, but she’s also an assassin.
Wang Chao (Hoon Lee): Fluent in both English and Chinese, Wang Chao helps other Chinese makes deals. He’s the one who sells Ah Sahm to the Hop Wei and later brings news to the Hop Wei of his arrest. He is a confidante and frequent customer of Ah Toy’s brothel.
Jacob (Kenneth Fok): Jacob is described by Penelope Blake as her valet. He procures traditional Chinese medicine for her to drug her husband so she doesn’t have to have marital relations with him. Ah Sahm defended him and Penelope against two drunk Irish men and was almost sentence to prison as a result. The two men didn’t show up to court and the case was dismissed. He warns Ah Sahm about embarking into an affair with Penelope, but so far keeps her secret.
Duck: White people
Onion: A person who doesn’t have much worth.
The Pond: The areas outside of Chinatown or where the ducks swim.
Sticky: Have sex with as in “I’d like to get sticky with her.”
The Salt: The Pacific Ocean or maybe any ocean.
The Sandlot: A gathering spot close to City Hall