Hip-Hop and Kung Fu Collide in Pop Culture at HoMA’s Shaw Brother Retrospective
The Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre hosts the Shaw Brothers Retrospective, a screening of 30 recently restored films, now through November 2.
Editor’s Note: Through our partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art, HONOLULU Magazine publishes a monthly blog written by the museum’s staff.
Saying Shaw Brothers was prolific would be an understatement. Between 1951 and 1997, the foreign film studio produced more than 1,000 films and is known for popularizing the kung fu genre.
Doris Duke Theatre director Taylour Chang says she knew the museum had to host a retrospective when she and her team learned the American Film Genre Archive had teamed up with the Shaw Brothers Studio to restore some of its films for theatrical distribution.
“We tend to forget how much the Shaw Brothers influenced and continues to influence pop culture,” says Chang. “We also tend to forget how much of an influence these films had in Hawai‘i. These films had a special impact on many generations of local moviegoers: Many people have fond memories of watching Shaw Brothers films in the old movie theaters like the Liberty Theater, Princess Theater, King Theater and the American Theatre, to name just a few.
“Stars like David Chiang, Ti Lung, Cheng Pei-pei, Alexander Fu Sheng, Lo Lieh and Gordon Liu are names people seldom recognize today, but they were so iconic in these films and were rare role models not just for Asian-American audiences but also for many underrepresented communities.”
PHOTOS: COURTESY OF CELESTIAL PICTURES LTD.
Some of the people who were influenced by the Shaw Brothers? Hip-hop artists—most prominently, the Wu-Tang Clan.
Hailing from New York City, the Wu-Tang Clan—RZA, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa—were influenced by the Shaw Brothers on a profound level, as RZA put it to The New York Times. Sometimes it was as literal as kung fu samples and references in lyrics (i.e., “If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous”). In fact, their debut album, which came out in 1993, was entitled Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Sometimes it was less literal, like the way kung fu values were snuck into the Wu-Tang Clan’s mythology, according to The Wu-Tang Manual. Written by RZA, it reads, “When we applied the spirit of kung fu to our lyrics, we became the Wu-Tang.”
At age 12, Wu-Tang’s RZA, née Robert Driggs, first saw the Shaw Brothers’ The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. At the time, kung fu films were cheap and accessible in theaters, as well as commonly shown on television. (By 2016, he estimated that he’s seen it more than 300 times and even performed a live score for the movie.) Around this time, hip-hop was just picking up speed as a musical genre and movement, too.
“Would there have been this sort of infusion of martial arts philosophy in hip-hop practice without Wu-Tang? I don’t know,” says Keith Cross, a Los Angeles native who works with the Honolulu Museum of Art for Soundshop, a hip-hop music education workshop for local high school students. Cross, also an assistant professor of multilingual and multicultural education at the University of Hawai‘i, will be a panelist discussing this very topic at the theater’s Science on Screen screening of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin on Oct. 13. “It sort of had this impact in terms of how certain hip-hop artists see hip-hop practice in some ways like martial arts practice.”
By that, Cross means discipline, mastery and, on the other hand, apprenticeship and growing into your own style. “Secondhand (through the Wu-Tang Clan), these movies influenced hip-hop ideology,” adds Cross.
Most importantly, there’s another theme in Shaw Brothers films—and kung fu films in general—that highly resonates with the hip-hop community. “This idea that you can be the low person, the underprivileged or the person who’s been stomped on and you can go and train really, really hard and come back and redeem yourself, redeem your community,” Cross says. “You think about where hip-hop comes from. It comes from communities that were essentially the byproduct of an oppressive system.”
That can be seen through the movie The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, in which Gordon Liu trains with monks to take down the oppressive Manchu reign. This kind of story featuring a young nonwhite hero amid a struggle followed by successful liberation with the help of some blood, sweat and tears was something a young RZA and underserved black communities hadn’t seen previously in the media.
“In hip-hop, they definitely came out of [a movement] of those who saw that their future was really in their own hands because they couldn’t depend on the social systems that were in place,” Cross continues. “They couldn’t depend on those social structures to help them so they had to help themselves.”
Wu-Tang’s infusion of kung fu motifs was not only well received, it went worldwide—and those elements continue to be entangled in today’s hip-hop landscape. Just look at Kendrick Lamar’s Kung Fu Kenny, named after Don Cheadle in Rush Hour 2; the Shaolin Fantastic character in Netflix’s The Get Down, who leaps around the screen like a Bronx kung fu warrior; and Wu-Tang’s Raekwon’s 2009 “House of Flying Daggers” music video, which was influenced by the eponymous kung fu movie.
In one sense, maybe the connection is more obvious than we think. After all, hip-hop is, as Cross puts it, “linguistic martial arts.”
The Shaw Brothers Retrospective is Oct. 5 through Nov. 2 at the Doris Duke Theatre, 901 Kīna‘u St. Tickets are $12; $10 for museum members. honolulumuseum.org