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You No Mess With Lo Wang – Shadow Warrior, Racism, And Quentin Tarantino (!?)

FROM THE CREATORS OF DUKE NUKEM 3D, the box art proclaims, LO WANG IS SHADOW WARRIOR. This shadow warrior, Mr. Lo Wang, looks directly at you, sneering, a bare-chested Asian man with a slender beard, a bald head, and a sword in one hand and a severed demon head in the other. Badass! And Duke 3D was awesome. Sure, ‘Lo Wang’ is some dumb cheap pun name, but he looks kinda cool, this guy, and hell, maybe it’s worth a try. You boot the game up. Cheesy rock music with an oriental theme, our hero in 3D render jumping at the screen. HAHA, YOU NO MESS WITH LO WANG, he proclaims, an obvious white man doing a horrible Asian accent. You choose your difficulty – WHO WANTS SOME WANG, he asks. Okay. First level, SEPPUKU STATION. You’re Lo Wang, in his dojo (?). A demon guy busts in, shouting ZILLA SENDS HIS REGARDS, LO WANG. Our hero replies again YOU NO MESS WITH LO WANG, obviously a line they thought was pretty funny. And you start to feel a bit off about things. Lo Wang breaks out of the dojo, into a pretty good Build Engine recreation of a Tokyo street. Or is it Hong Kong? Or mainland China? There’s all kinds of characters on the walls, and anime posters here and there but also jokes about Chinese street food and bits of architecture from both cultures scattered about. All sort of the same. He throws shuriken at enemies and carries a katana – wait, isn’t this dude Chinese? You cut a demon in half with a sword. Again that horrible yellow-face voice: I LIKE SWORD. THAT’S A PERSONAL WEAPON. Oh, heck. LOOK, YOU COMING APART, our hero cries, fighting an enemy that’s a demon suicide bomber wearing a conical hat. The enemy’s name? ‘Coolie’. Oh, no. Lo Wang can recover health by punching wing chun training dummies. You find fortune cookies in the levels, which give out pithy advice in broken English, like ‘Man Who Buys Drowned Cat Is Paying For Wet Pussy’: ANCIENT CHINESE SECRET, Lo Wang helpfully tells you. Next level: the dojo of Lo Wang’s master, ‘Master Leep’. You find a sexy anime babe showering behind a waterfall. Lo Wang remarks: YOU WANT WASH WANG, OR WATCH WANG WASH WANG? The anime babe pulls out a machine gun and opens fire on him. You kill a giant demonic sumo wrestler boss, and his farts are lethal. In one level a background element is a menu in a Chinese restaurant – CREAM OF SUM JUNG GAI, it offers.

Yeah, Shadow Warrior is kind of a racist fever dream. Now as a game it shares a lot with the other ‘big two’ Build Engine FPSs of the 1990s – the aforementioned Duke Nukem 3D and Monolith Interactive’s Blood – in its crass humour, constant pop culture references and fast-paced FPS key-hunting gameplay. But while Duke is a pisstake of 1980s macho action movie culture and Blood a mishmash of horror references and themes, Shadow Warrior bravely takes aim at another subject ripe for parody, which is…uh, all of Asia? Lo Wang is a Chinese-Japanese ninja-kung-fu-master who moves through various references to various things from Hong Kong and Japanese movies of the eighties, the tone firmly set to the same offensive, irreverent South Park “fuck you so what” manner of nineties American pop culture. As a game it’s actually pretty good, technically impressive and well-designed compared to the less advanced Duke 3D. I can’t actually imagine anyone being majorly offended by it today, to be honest – because it would be like being offended by someone making a farting noise with their mouth. It’s one of those old things that someone, somewhere, is claiming of it “You couldn’t make this today! The PC police wouldn’t allow it!”, when that’s probably true to some extent, but only because Beavis and Butthead was over twenty years ago now.

Still though, I played it last year, and I tried it again recently and beat it, and I’ve been thinking a lot about it in the wake of the ongoing slide into ‘the Asian century’, or whatever you want to call it, and about my own perspective on things. I’m a fiction writer, you nerds know, and I write about Asia because it interests me. But as I will endlessly mention, because internet habits and a love for The Flaming Lips has cursed me with a Japanese Twitter handle, I’m also white. Like, super white. Can’t-eat-chicken-feet white. And living in China I’m reminded of my, uh, whiteness every day. So it’s a strange thing, to be Here but not From Here, to be the perpetual outsider – and it means I’m very conscious about what I write about and how exactly I write it. Shadow Warrior is an exercise in how not to depict Asia from a white perspective, of course. It’s endlessly fascinating to me in that sense; in it, you can see in it the DNA of Bruce Lee, Big Trouble In Little China, the 1980s ninja movie craze and other post-70s clumsy steps by whites into Asia; how we like to process that whole part of the world. One key aspect of this, and one key aspect of Shadow Warrior, is that Lo Wang is not exactly supposed to be negative; crass and silly and edgy, yes. But as FROM THE CREATORS OF DUKE NUKEM would indicate, Lo Wang is supposed to be a badass action hero in that same semi-ironic way as Duke. We laugh at his silly voice, but he’s a video game hero, and in that sense he is us. Compared to the absolute worst of Asian jokes – South Park’s “Shitty Wok Guy”, for instance, who can’t pronounce the name of his restaurant ‘City Wok’ correctly, haha lol get it – where the humour lies in some mean-spirited jibe at a stereotype, Lo Wang engenders sympathy inherent in the video game medium, and well, just look at him on that cover. He’s not so simply just a racist bit of cruelty, but something in its own way an attempt to do something. One way of reading this you could attempt is as a positive thing, akin to Mortal Kombat, wherein in some vague and crude fashion Lo Wang serves as a means of introduction to Asian culture for the white youth of the 1990s – after all, he might say things like JUST LIKE HIROSHIMA when he kills demons with a nuke, but he’s still, you know, killing demons with a fucking nuke, and that’s cool, and maybe someone would watch a Shaw Brothers flick after it, or something. Another and probably more accurate way of viewing it is how Lo Wang relates to much of that western-made ‘Asian’ cultural appropriation – an unconscious attempt by white creators (like me, of course) to claim the coolness of old Hong Kong movies and manga and anime for themselves.

After all, isn’t that what the appeal of Bruce Lee, the Asian-American icon, is, in a way? Much less Cantonese in ethos and style than many other greats of Hong Kong cinema, English-speaking and having spent so much time in the US, with his most famous film role, Enter the Dragon (which I will forever speak positively of and love), being a Warner co-production with all the dialogue in English and with prominent American side characters to support Lee’s taciturn, defiantly Chinese hero. Bruce Lee was adamant that kung fu was for everyone, not only for Chinese people, and his filmography represents a slow evolution into an attempt to communicate this to the American audience – to not only give Chinese culture its own confidence back, but to sell it – and of course, to sell himself – to white and non-white America both. Lee, unfortunately, died before this could be elaborated upon by any further evolution of the style laid out in Enter the Dragon, but in his fledgling filmography, from collaboration with Chuck Norris and Lalo Schifrin to Hareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Kelly, and the multinational storylines and storytelling styles of Way of/Enter the Dragon, we can see the skeleton of what his intentions were.

A major aspect of this intent was the condensation of Chinese culture into ‘cool shit’, martial arts and surface-level Buddhist/Daoist imagery and theming, that later, much lazier and to much more insulting effect, would end up visible at its most superficial in 3D Realms’ Shadow Warrior. In Enter the Dragon Lee aimed to reduce in order to communicate; the end result of this in cinema might be seen in the use of his iconic yellow jumpsuit from The Game of Death being reused in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1, a movie in which a white assassin and master katana swordswoman fights yakuza henchmen in a compendium of references to Japanese cinema from Takeshi Miike, Meiko Kaji, Takeshi Kitano etc.; a movie that has as little to do with Lee as anything but which revels in its welding-together of the tropes of “Asian cinema” as an exotic backdrop for a stylish, white-focused revenge story. In the end, Lee’s cultural influence outside of his immense role in Hong Kong cinema might be defined as these surface level tropes – yellow jumpsuit, funny Bruce Lee noises, arrogant kung fu guys who need to be taken down a peg or two (see his risible fictional role in Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood). Ultimately, Lee, despite all his work to appeal to an American and western audience, might be said to have ended up as merely a superficial ‘Asianness’ which bore no reality to what he intended to promote.

It should be noted, as I mentioned above about Shadow Warrior, that this reduction of Bruce Lee is not done out of disrespect, or intentional disrespect. Tarantino, whose fictional Lee is a posturing opportunist who Brad Pitt’s old-school macho white Hollywood stuntman beats to a pulp, is still by being put in this role being positioned as a pretty badass guy. And going by the jumpsuit in Kill Bill Tarantino would obviously count himself a fan, as likely would all those fighting game developers who keep putting Bruce Lee characters into their rosters. The same for the guys who made Shadow Warrior. People think Bruce Lee was badass, just like they were supposed (maybe) to think Lo Wang was. But this flattening of China into these badass simplicities is only different by degrees – intended by Lee as a means of transmitting Chinese philosophy and kung fu to a wider world, it eventually ended up in its most crude and blatant as Lo Wang the non-specific Asian ninja, a vast panoply of different cultures, genres, ideas and histories reduced to the slenderest of stereotypes and tools, to be deployed in the end as a mere aesthetic, rather than with any greater attention paid to underlying meaning – see Tarantino’s Kill Bill, or for a recent example 2021’s Netflix action movie Kate, story of a white assassin in Tokyo who befriends a Japanese schoolgirl who speaks perfect English, and teams up with her to fight the yakuza set against J-pop and stock Tokyo neon skylines.

This doesn’t make any of these bad stories or bad works of fiction, any more than James Clavell’s weird British upper class racial politics make his Asian Saga less of a series of exciting page-turners. There are very positive examples of this too – Gennady Tarkovsky’s Samurai Jack, the aforementioned Big Trouble in Little China, or even the rebooted Shadow Warrior video games made by Poland’s Wild Flying Hog sans (most of the) racism. All are pretty great things that deal in very superficial miscellaneous China or Japan. But it does mean you have to look at them differently, and also that, if you’re a non-Asian creative type, there might be a lesson to learn: namely that if you’re borrowing foreign visuals and narrative languages, you should feel some sense of responsibility to consider them more deeply, rather than only using them because they’re cool.

There’s another point to consider here, and that’s basically this – why do you have to use these things at all? Shadow Warrior is a pretty damn fine first-person shooter and the “kung fu parody” theming adds very little to that, and Samurai Jack didn’t really need Jack to be a samurai, did it? Would largely white-made Asian children’s fantasy epic Avatar: The Last Airbender really have suffered from being set in a European fantasy setting instead? What business is it of ours to try to do this Asian stuff respectfully and decently and correctly, when we could just do, you know, our stuff instead? I find this to be an argument that isn’t without merit, but is just as clumsy – if less rooted in the colonial and racial power-dynamics that inevitably colour Asia For Whites – as the blundering of your average white-written Asian story. Cross-cultural pollination is a very fertile ground for fiction, especially in this globalised world. A world where Star Wars didn’t crib notes from Kurosawa and dress it up like forties scifi serials, or Hideo Kojima wasn’t able to make Metal Gear Solid a clunking nineties scifi philosophy anime set and themed around American eighties action movies, or where New York-based and immensely white Thomas Pynchon, say, was kept from writing about the melancholy tragedy of the Herero genocide in his classic Gravity’s Rainbow, or Liu Cixin was unable to take such heavy influence from Asimov and other titans of the American hard scifi genre in his Three Body Problem – a world without this kind of fusion food would be a less interesting one. Samurai Jack, episodic minimalist scifi action show, didn’t need to be a conflict between Jack the lost in time Medieval samurai and the shape-shifting master of evil Aku, but the wandering-hero-with-a-sword-theme is certainly added to by that framing narrative. So what’s the harm in it, letting people play about with cultures like this?

I’m being purposefully naïve here a bit though. The harm, of course, is what I opened this article with – there is no way in hell you can read Shadow Warrior as just a “kung fu parody” when so much of its humour is in fact based not around any of the specific genre cliches of the kung fu movie genre but the simple fact that Lo Wang is a weird pervert who speaks in mockingly bad ‘Engrish’/’Chinglish’, and that all of this humour is written and conceived by whites, who have been making fun of Asians unable to properly master the ‘standard’ English language for centuries. Hideo Kojima writing the villain of his masterpiece Metal Gear Solid 2 as an American patriot leader of the ‘Sons of Liberty’ terrorist group works in a way that, say, an American writing a Japanese ultranationalist villain might not, because an American writing that character would be very likely to fall into very racial and unpleasant ‘yellow peril’ cliches which don’t have a counterpart in Japanese depictions of Americans. If a white guy writes a woman and describes how beautiful she is in excruciating and adjective-laden detail and she happens to be Chinese/Japanese, then there’s a layer of sexualisation that is made a little nastier by the history of white men objectifying Asian women. We can’t and shouldn’t overlook the dynamics of the past and of the present in shaping how cultures play with one another and the exact meaning of it when it happens.

And to return to Tarantino for a cursed moment, the foot-licker general has gotten in trouble not just for his weird Bruce Lee hateboner but also for his insistence on writing stories about black-themed exploitation, with lots of pimps, guns, gangsters and copious use of the N-word with both hard R and without, at least once delivered by characters he plays – he’s a nebbish white guy, a cinema nerd with not only no lived experience of these things but who blatantly riffs off of the movie theatre versions of them rather than researching the real deal, and has done so not only and most obviously with black American culture and history but also in Kill Bill with Japan and China, and in his World War Two movie Inglourious Basterds even manages to do this with Nazism and the Holocaust – all easy things to play with when you’re a white guy completely unaffected by any of them. Tarantino once suggested it was racist to say that white people shouldn’t be allowed to write about black people. I don’t agree with the notion that white people shouldn’t be allowed to write about black people – I do think that framing this as racism, instead of a quite reasonable concern that the next Shadow Warrior could be around the corner, is exactly the kind of overly-defensive and entitled response that embodies the (usually) Anglo-Saxon whiteness that is so intent on riding roughshod on other cultures and countries and histories in the first place.

Tarantino, in a way, embodies this – so little of his filmography is about anything personal or real, and has such scant connection to anything but the world of movies, and is in such bad taste (in very much that same nineties way as Shadow Warrior, “why are you nerds offended by this?” etc.), and manages to cover climes as diverse as World War Two France and Civil War-era America and modern Japan and nineties LA, and to say so little about them, that he is the quintessential American filmmaker, borrowing and taking and cutting together whatever he thinks is cool or interesting with the lack of regard for where it comes from that can only be afforded to a WASP living in the peak/decline of the Anglo-Saxon empire. This isn’t to say he’s bad at movies, or that I don’t enjoy his movies – but that specific tendency he embodies in fiction-making is something I feel should be something we whites try to deal with, instead of pearl-clutching because someone who wasn’t white saw our extremely superficial and indelicate take on something relating to them and didn’t, shocker of shockers, think it was as cool as we did.

Basically, I think to make sure we don’t end up in a Build Engine replica of a hundred things seen in movies before, blunderingly offensive not by malice or active hatred but simply by a purportedly race-blind commitment to lizard-brain cool shit, it’s important to do the fucking research. And that doesn’t just mean scouring Wikipedia and a stack of books on whatever period’s history like a madman – I run a lot of my writing ideas past my partner, who is Chinese and very blunt. If she thinks it sounds like a white guy’s idea of China, and not something that makes sense for China, she’ll tell me. And sometimes I’ll go with an idea anyway, and sometimes I’ll swing and I’ll miss. But I always try to pay attention to these things – not, as with Robert Downey Jr.’s black-faced method actor character in Tropic Thunder, to usurp actual non-white artists by “playing a dude who’s playing a dude”, but just to tell a good story about stuff that ultimately I’m writing about for the same shallow reason any artist creates anything, the same reason Tarantino wrote a story where a bunch of Jewish guerrillas try to murder Hitler in a movie theatre in World War Two – because I think it’s interesting. I’m not “one of the good ones” – I just think that if I ever wrote something as bad as, say, the scene in James Clavell’s Tai-pan where our hero, holding his Chinese concubine love interest May-may in his arms, muses to himself that “there was no Chinese word for the European concept of love”, then I might have to commit sudoku out of shame.

But Tai-pan – consider this also my review of that book, which I read recently – is fun. Shadow Warrior is good fun. Whatever Tarantino comes up with, damn his oily hide, is fun. There’s nothing wrong with fun. It’s also true that ‘fun’ is very easy, when you’re a wee white lad picking and choosing what parts of the world you want to learn about or play with at will. Shadow Warrior shouldn’t really be offensive now, like I said – it should stand, as well as an example of a classic FPS from the good old days of key-hunting and nuke-firing, as an example of why if you don’t do the research and pay a little bit of attention and for God’s sake remember that China and Japan are at least separate countries, then that might overshadow everything else you do, fun or not. The artist’s burden should only get heavier when they step outside of where they are, and if you’re not Thomas Pynchon that’s fine. But you don’t have to be Thomas Pynchon. Just, you know, basics.

And please please please never do this, ever:


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