David Carradine (1936-2009) was an American actor best known for playing the lead in the television show “Kung Fu” (1972-1975) and Bill in “Kill Bill: Vol. 1″ (2003) and “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” (2004). He is a famous example of Hollywood’s racist practice of yellowface – using white actors to play Asian characters. He was found dead last week in a Bangkok hotel.
Carradine was not one bit Asian. And when he was on “Kung Fu” he knew nothing about kung fu or Eastern philosophies – that came later. He was just an actor making a living. Even the writers on the show were white Americans. The Buddhism, if that is what you call it, was watered down too.
“Kung Fu” was a new twist on the tried-and-true shoot-em-up cowboy Western: the hero was not a cowboy with a gun but a Buddhist monk who knew martial arts. Somehow he always avoids getting shot dead.
Bruce Lee came up with the idea and wanted to play the lead. Hollywood thought he looked too Asian: Asians only played supporting characters. So they gave the part to Carradine, who had played the lead in another television Western, the short-lived “Shane” (1966). They named his character Kwai Chang Caine and said his mother was Chinese and his father was white American. They made up the difference with stereotype and make-up.
White American stereotypes about Asian men were such that it was hard to make one the hero of a television show. That is still true. Yet you could not simply throw out the stereotypes either: then the hero would not seem “Asian enough” to white people.
The answer was to have a white man play the Asian hero: he would play to stereotype to “seem Asian” and yet he could go beyond the stereotype when the story required it without it seeming strange. It is why you have white samurais, like in “Shogun” (1980) and “The Last Samurai” (2003).
The show has entered the American bloodstream: my children know the phrases “young Grasshopper” and “snatch the pebble from my hand” but do not know where they come from.
“Kung Fu” showed the racism that Asians faced in America in the 1800s – while helping to strengthen it in the 1900s.
The yellowface thing still goes on. Carradine himself was still at it in 2006 when he did an ad for Yellow Book.
After “Kung Fu” Carradine appeared in over a hundred films. A few were good but most went straight to video and were beneath even his middling talents. He appeared in the 1990s remake of “Kung Fu” on TNT but his star did not rise again till one of his fans from the 1970s grew up and became a famous Hollywood director: Quentin Tarantino.
To Tarantino’s credit he did not make Carradine play an Asian in “Kill Bill”. He had read Carradine’s autobiography, “Endless Highway”, and wanted him to play himself: an offbeat white man who loved martial arts.