I couldn’t resist seeing the latest incarnation of The Karate Kid starring the progeny of Will Smith and Jada Pickett Smith, Jaden Smith, and China’s Number One Internationally Recognized Action Hero Jackie Chan.
But I wonder why it was called The Karate Kid? Did the film’s producers really worry that people wouldn’t go to see the film if there was no brand recognition? Didn’t they think that the adorable Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, and a theme song by every tween’s favourite Canadian Heartthrob Justin Bieber would be enough to get people to the box office? Unlike when the original Karate Kid starring Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio came out in 1984, your average North American knows a thing or two about Asian Martial Arts. For example, your average North American viewer knows that what Jackie Chan ends up teaching Jaden Smith isn’t karate, it’s kung-fu. So why not call the film The Kung-Fu Kid? Actually, the film is called The Kung Fu Kid in the People’s Republic of China!
The film begins with Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) preparing to leave his apartment with his mother (Taraji Henson). We learn that his father is dead and his mother has been transferred to Beijing, China by the Auto Factory she works for. Dre isn’t happy to leave his Black neighbourhood in Detroit for China, where he thinks everything is old.
There is a great scene on the plane ride to China when Dre’s mom forces him to greet a fellow passenger who looks East Asian in Mandarin Chinese. The passenger replies in perfect American English that he comes from Detroit.
On his first day in Beijing, Dre has to go looking for his new apartment’s handyman, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) because the hot water isn’t working (it actually is working, it’s just not automatic due to an energy-saving switch). Dre’s first meeting with Mr. Han doesn’t go well as Mr. Han ignores him and instead picks up a dead fly with his chopsticks and then continues to eat noodles with said chopsticks-Gross.
Dre is befriended by another expat White kid who takes him to the local park to play Basketball with the local Chinese kids. Dre isn’t good at Basketball (Way to Challenge Black Stereotypes!). Instead, he decides to chat up an adorable Chinese girl named Mai Ying who is sitting on a park bench practicing her violin. She immediately takes a liking to him and asks to touch his hair (Oh, the universal request when anyone not used to Black people meets a Black person-They want to touch our hair!!!) But Cheng, whose family I close to Mei Ying’s family, doesn’t take Dre’s fraternizing with Mei Ying well. There is really no reason for this kid’s beef with Dre given other than that maybe he himself has a crush on Mei Ying but that’s not developed. Cheng and his friends continue to bully Dre at school and terrorize him whenever they see him.
After rescuing Dre from a brutal attack by Cheng and his gang, Mr. Han decides to help Dre by approaching the boys’ Kung-Fu teacher. Mr. Han believes that any genuine Kung-Fu teacher would be horrified to learn that his students were starting fights and ganging up on defenseless kids. But after watching the boys’ Kung-Fu teacher, Master Li, in action, it becomes clear that he won’t be of any help because his whole predatory “no mercy” approach to teaching Kung-Fu is actually why his students are such bullies. In order to get himself and Dre out of Master Li’s class without getting themselves beaten up, Mr. Han promises to register Dre in the upcoming Kung-Fu Tournament. In return, Master Li forbids his students from attacking Dre, until the tournament. Mr. Han then promises to teach Dre Kung-Fu.
Jackie Chan is a really fun actor to watch and early on in the film we are intrigued by the quiet and slovenly maintenance man who seems to know Kung-Fu so well but is so sad. What’s his story? We will learn that Mr. Han comes from a remote Chinese village in the Wudang Mountains where the teaching of the ancient art of Kung-Fu goes way back and people can harness their chi to manipulate cobras-Say What? Hopefully, people watching this film will know that this is a “fantasy” aspect of the film. Far too often, North American films about the Chinese and Martial Arts tend to not differentiate well between fantasy and reality, The Karate Kid (2010) is unfortunately no exception. Kung-Fu is mixed up with “magic” as is practical Chinese Medicine which Mr. Han uses to heal Dre’s wounds twice in the film, the second time with totally unrealistic results. More on the side of realism, we learn that Mr. Han has a drinking problem and lost his wife and child in a car accident in which he was the driver. Having the Mr. Han character be a broken man who ends up finding himself again through his mentorship of the fatherless Dre brings the story to a level higher than a just a vehicle to make Jaden Smith a big star (remember this film is co-produced by his parents!).
Dre’s relationship with Mei Ying is sweet to watch and as a product of a mixed race relationship myself I always love to see young mixed race love on screen (and Black/Asian hook ups are too few and far between in films for youth audiences) but this romance is a bit troubling considering their ages (Dre is supposed to be 12). Am I a prude to be freaked out by 12 year olds kissing and doing sexy dances to a Chinese Dance Dance Revolution version of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face? I think not and Simon Abrams from Slant Magazine agrees with me.
Needless to say, Dre ends up winning the tournament, overcoming a deliberate injury to his leg through the miracles of Mr. Han’s Chinese Medicine. Cheng is beaten by Dre but instead of being a sore loser ends up pledging his allegiance to Mr. Han and is soon followed by other students of Master Li. And all is right with the world.
All in all it was a pretty entertaining film, although I really do feel an opportunity was missed to do a remake of the song “Everybody was Kung-Fu Fighting” to go along with the film.
The Karate Kid (2010) and The Karate Kid (1984)
Watching The Karate Kid (2010) helped me to really appreciate The Karate Kid (1984).
The differences between the films point to the superiority of the original film’s message.
A Fatherless Boy Moves to a New Town
Karate Kid (2010) Dre, an African American 12 year old, moves from Detroit, Michigan to Beijing, China with his mother.
Karate Kid (1984) Daniel, an Italian American high school senior, moves from Newark, New Jersey to Los Angeles, California with his mother
The Fatherless Boy Gets Beaten Up by Really Mean Guys
Karate Kid (2010) Dre becomes a target of Cheng and his kung fu student friends because he befriends Mei Ying, who Cheng knows but isn’t romantically involved with and doesn’t seem to have any romantic interest in.
Karate Kid (1984) Daniel becomes a target of a karate student after coming on to his girlfriend.
The Asian Maintenance Man Comes to the Rescue
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han, the Chinese maintenance man at Dre’s apartment, rescues Dre when he is attacked by Cheng and his friends.
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi, the Okinawan maintenance man at Daniel’s apartment, rescues Daniel when he is attacked by the Karate student whose girlfriend he came on to.
The Asian Maintenance Man Tries to Enlist the Help of the Bullies Martial Arts Teacher
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han takes Dre to the Kung Fu School where Cheng and his friends are students. Mr. Han believes that any true Kung Fu Teacher would not stand for his students bullying a defenseless person. But Mr. Han realizes that Master Li is himself a bully who is teaching his students to have no mercy. No reason is given for why Master Li is such a nasty dude. In order to get out of the Kung Fu school in one piece, Mr. Han agrees to register Dre in the upcoming Kung Fu tournament. Master Li promises to make his students leave Dre alone in the meantime. Mr. Han promises to teach Dre kung fu.
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel to the Karate dojo where his bullies are students. Mr. Miyagi believes that any true Karate teacher would not stand for his students bullying a defenseless person. But Mr. Miyagi realizes that the teacher at the Karate dojo, an ex-Special Forces Vietnam Veteran, is himself a bully who is teaching his students to have no mercy. Being that the teacher is an ex-Special Forces Vietnam Veteran and generally speaking American sentiment in the 1980s was that the Vietnam War was totally unnecessary and brutal, his military background goes to explain why he’s such a nasty guy. In order to get out of the Karate dojo in one piece, Mr. Miyagi agrees to register Daniel in the upcoming Karate tournament. The teacher of the Karate dojo promises to make his students leave Daniel alone in the meantime. Mr. Miyagi promises to teach Daniel karate.
Simple Chores Equal Mad Martial Arts Skills
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han makes Dre repeat the steps of putting his coat on, taking it off, and hanging it up over several days. This frustrates Dre because he doesn’t see how this has anything to do with kung fu. But one of the things we know about Dre from the beginning is that he always leaves his coat on the floor, much to his mother’s chagrin, so it’s probably for the best that he gets in the habit of hanging his coat up. Mr. Han finally reveals to Dre that that movements involved in picking up his coat, putting it on, and hanging it up are key kung fu defensive and strike techniques.
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi makes Daniel do household chores, like waxing a car (the now classic “Wax on, Wax off!”). This frustrates Daniel because he doesn’t see how this has anything to do with karate. Mr. Han finally reveals to Daniel that that movements involved in picking up his coat, putting it on, and hanging it up are key karate defensive techniques.
The Teacher and the Origins of the Martial Art
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han takes Dre to his village in the WuDang Mountains and visits an ancient Kung Fu monastery where Dre gets to drink mystical Kung Fu-powering giving water and watch a woman manipulate a cobra by harnessing her chi. Ya right….
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel about karate’s origins in Okinawa, a island of Japan where Mr. Miyagi comes from….a lot more realistic.
Why the Teacher is so Sad
Karate Kid (2010) Dre discovers that Mr. Han lost his family in a car accident. While arguing with his wife, Mr. Han lost control of the car and it crashed killing his wife and young son. This is why Mr. Han is so depressed and withdrawn.
Karate Kid (1984) Daniel discovers that Mr. Miyagi lost his wife in childbirth while she was interned by the American government in an internment camp during World War II. Mr. Miyagi was away fighting the Germans in the American Army in an attempt to prove his loyalty to the United States. Mr. Miyagi’s tragedy opens Daniel’s eyes to a shameful part of American history, the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II. In this way, The Karate Kid is not only a film about an underdog who overcomes through martial arts. It’s an attempt at honouring the history and heritage of Japanese Americans, a community which has been an underdog in the United States. Japanese American actor Pat Morita was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Mr. Miyagi.
The Karate Kid (2010) and racism against Blacks in China
I found it problematic that the film never broaches the issue of Chinese anti-Black racism. Frankly, racism seems to be a better reason behind Cheng’s animosity towards Dre than the total lack of a good reason the film provides us.
There are two common Chinese racial slurs for Black people: Black Devil (hei gui) and Black Chimpazee (hei xingxing). I have the misfortune of being called both in my life time. I’ve even experienced not being allowed to visit some of my Chinese friends’ homes because I was a Black person. Although the awareness of difference between Chinese and Blacks doesn’t go beyond curiosity about hair in the film it is a serious problem in real life, no matter how many sequels to Rush Hour Jackie Chan might make with Chris Tucker.
While watching the film, I wondered what Dre’s mom was going to do about her hair while in China (that weave could only last for so long!). If you are Black and in China there is hope…African Hair Salons. There are actually a lot of Africans in China, particularly in Guangzhou. The area where they live is often referred to as “Chocolate City“. Some have come as students, others as small-scale entrepreneurs. Even Barack Obama’s half brother lives in China and recently wrote a novel entitled Nairobi to Shenzhen.
But being present doesn’t mean being liked…actually it often leads to the opposite. The most violent outbreak of Chinese anti-Black racism was the infamous Nanjing anti-African protests which were ironically the lead up to 1989 the Tiananmen Square Demonstrations for Human Rights.
The Nanjing Anti-African Riots began on December 24, 1988. According to the Wikipedia Page for The Nanjing Anti-African Protests:
On December 24, 1988 two male African students were entering their campus at Hehai University in Nanjing with two Chinese women. The occasion was a Christmas Eve party. A quarrel between one of the Africans and a Chinese security guard, who had suspected that the women the African students tried to bring into the campus were prostitutes and refused their entry, led to a brawl between the African and Chinese students on the campus which lasted till the morning, leaving 13 students injured. 300 Chinese students, spurred by false rumors that a Chinese man had been killed by the Africans, broke into and set about destroying the Africans’ dormitories, shouting slogans such as “Kill the black devils!” After the police had dispersed the Chinese students, many Africans fled to the railway station in order to gain safety at various African embassies in Beijing. The authorities prevented the Africans from boarding the trains so as to question those involved in the brawl. Soon their numbers increased to 140, as other African and non-African foreign students, fearing violence, arrived at the station asking to be allowed to go to Beijing.
By this time, Chinese students from HoHai University had joined up with students from other Nanjing universities to make up a 3000-strong demonstration that called on government officials to prosecute the African students and reform the system which gave foreigners more rights than the Chinese. On the evening of December 26, the marchers converged on the railway station while holding banners calling for human rights and political reform. Chinese police managed to isolate the non-Chinese students from the marchers and moved them to a military guest house outside Nanjing. The protests were declared illegal, and riot police were brought in from surrounding provinces to pacify the demonstrators, which took several more days.
The course of the Nanjing protests went from anti-African sentiment to banners proclaiming Human Rights. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 came 4 months after the anti-African protests in Nanjing and some elements of the Nanjing protests were still evident, such as banners proclaiming “Stop Taking Advantage of Chinese Women”.
Mira Sorvino, who starred opposite China’s other Internationally Recognized Action Hero, Chow Yun Phat in The Replacement Killers, studied Mandarin and for her Honours Thesis at Harvard wrote “Anti-Africanism in China: An Investigation into Chinese Attitudes towards Black Students in the People’s Republic of China” which won the Harvard Hoopes Prize.
The Karate Kid (2010) Website
The Nanjing Anti-African Protests Wikipedia Page
Big trouble in China’s Chocolate City, August 1 2009, The Toronto Star
Beijing police round up and beat African expats The Guardian Sept. 26 2007
China Racial Unrest Moves to Beijing: Students Protest Alleged Attack on Woman by African, January 3, 1989, Associated Press
Ignorance is the Enemy of Love by Faarax M. J. Cawl
Translated by B. W. Andrzejewski
Published by Zed Press, 1982
Ignorance is the Enemy of Love by Faarax M. J. Cawl is considered the first literary publication in the Somali language, which had no official orthography until 1972. The novel, whose Somali title is Aqoondarro waa u nacab jacayl, was published by the Somali Ministry of Culture and Higher Education in 1974. The translation into English is by Russian linguist B.W. Andrzejewski and was commissioned by UNESCO. Unfortunately, the English translation of the novel is currently out of print.
The author of the novel, Faarax Cawl, was born in Laskory in the Sanag Region of Somalia in 1937. In 1958, the British withdrew a scholarship awarded to him for study in the UK because he had taken part in a play, written by an Arab author, which they regarded as seditious. According to B. W. Andrzejewski’s introduction to the novel, Cawl joined the Somali Police Force in 1964 and in 1979 was seconded to the National Transport Agency ad became its General Manager. In 1978 he wrote a second novel entitled The Shackles of Colonialism. In 1991, he, along with several members of his family, were killed during the Somali Civil War.
The British would have found Ignorance is the Enemy of Love even more seditious as it follows the ill-fated love story of Calimaax, a dervish with the Muslim Brotherhood of Sayid Maxamed Cabdulle Xasan (1856-1921), often referred to by the British as the Mad Mullah, who fights against the British colonizers of Somalia. While traveling from Aden back to Somalia, Calimaax’s ship ends up sinking and he saves a young Somali girl named Cawrala, herself returning from Aden where she has been studying the Koran.
Cawrala falls in love with Calimaax although she has already been promised to a rich and elderly man by her father. The character of Cawrala is a classic example of the strength and spiritedness of Somali women. She is a poet who does not wait for signs of Calimaax’s affection but instead writes a poem to him herself declaring her love. Unfortunately, Calimaax can neither read nor write. Not knowing that Cawrala’s note is a love poem, he asks his brother-in-law to read it, thus insulting his wife’s relatives unintentionally. This incident inspires Calimaax to learn how to read and write. As he says:
It is now clear to me that not being able to read and write is a matter of great ignorance, in which stupidity and disgrace are combined. I’ve seen today that ignorance is like a moonless night, like the darkness which screens off from you the world and the light of day-there’s no doubt that whatever a man’s inborn abilities may be, whatever his manly qualities, if he is ignorant his true manhood is flawed and incomplete, as I witnessed in this incident today, when I brought trouble and disgrace on myself and made a fool of myself in front of my wife’s relatives (p. 35-36)
It is Calimaax’s ignorance of reading that is “the enemy of love” referred to in the title.
Cawrala’s poem causes Calimaax to fall in love with her but before he can return to her he is injured in battle and left for dead. Cawrala is forced to marry against her will and dies of grief. Calimaax sums up their tragic love story as follows:
You sent to me at Taleex a precious letter of love-you know this well-and there was nothing in its sweet art and wisdom nor in its mode of expression that could have been ignored or rejected. It created in me a love, ardour and affection that I had not felt for you before. But it was my ill fortune, Cawrala, that because of my ignorance I could not read your letter, and instead I handed it to my new neighbours, who did not want us two to come together. The discovery of my secret led to my being hurried away to a remote part of the eastern region, so that I would be kept far away from Xiis, where you lived. There in the east I played my part in a noteworthy way in the Dervish offensive against the British, but before I could reach the coast and seize some of their ships I was wounded and left for dead. For a long time I could not deliver myself from that empty, deserted place, where for sustenance I had only the berries and leaves which grow on the Cal mountains. I had beasts of prey for company-all of them-and one night the accursed leopard attacked me, tearing a wound in my flesh, when I already had a broken thigh and was holding on to life only by God’s mercy. Nevertheless, in spite of all I had to go through, God rescued me from all the troubles that had come upon me. What I am trying to tell you is that my delay in coming to you was caused by all this-that this is why I did not get to you in time before you were taken to the wedding against your will. O Cawrala, how bitter I feel, how deeply sorrowful I am, how stricken with impotent anger from which I get no respite, that you had to die because of your love for me! (p. 82)
This story is considered to be true and contains poems that Somali oral tradition considered to have been originally composed by Calimaax and Cawrala. Faarax Cawl’s weaving of Somali poetry into the novel form connects this modern, “Western” literary form with the deep-rooted oral traditions of the Somali people.
Faarax Cawl also uses this novel to promote the reformist aims of the Somali Government at the time, particularly in their promotion of literacy and women’s rights. Calimaax suffers great embarrassment because he can’t read and write despite his skill as a fighter. Cawrala is a gifted poet and free spirit whose love and life is ruined by the greed of her family who wish to marry her off for profit to a man who is believed to have beaten her sister, causing her death.
Excerpt from the novel:
About Richard Burton’s attempt to deceive the Somalis
Now among the passengers was a learned cleric, Sheikh Araye Ceelaabe, who was born in Seylac and still lived there; he had been on a short visit to Aden. He it was who had exposed the man who, some time between 1854 and 1860, had been sent by the British government on a reconnoitering mission to explore the Somali territories. This man’s true name was Richard Burton, but he told the Somali people that he was Sheikh Cabdalla, and disguised himself so that they would not know that he was a swindler whose intentions towards the Somali people and their land were robbery and oppression. This British infidel was in truth well acquainted with the Muslim faith and the Arabic language, and sometimes led the prayers in the mosques of the town of Seylac. It seems that most of the time he wore a long robe such as clerics wear, and he never moved very far from the places frequented by learned clerics and students, so that no one else could find him out or even notice him. But one day it happened that Sheikh Araye came upon this Briton when he had gone to relieve himself on open ground, and the Sheikh, hiding behind a tree, saw clearly that the man who was thought to be a sheikh had not been circumcised and that on his body there was the visible mark of being an infidel. Sheikh Araye proclaimed the news loudly and informed the whole town that the apparent sheikh who was staying among them was a hypocrite and then this disguised Briton was driven from Seylac. He went to Harar, whish is also in Somali territory and inhabited by Muslims but was eventually driven from there as well. (p. 15-16)
Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayid Mahammad ‘Abdille Hasan by Said Samatar (History)
Remembering B. W. Andrzejewski: Poland’s Somali Genius by Said Samatar (Article available online)
Culture-Bound Tropes in Somali Poetry by B. W. Andrzejewski (Academic essay available online)