The Karate Kid Re-make Banking on America’s Ignorance

“Man should not follow money. Money should follow man”
– Supreme Grandmaster Dr. Joo Bang Lee, Hwa Rang Do Founder

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I have had the privilege of being able to travel to many countries throughout the globe. Each country I have been to all had the similar martial arts history. Judo was first introduced along with Jiujitsu, and then came Karate, which was the byproduct of Japanese imperialistic regime during the early 1900s and lasted until the end of WWII. Then came along Kungfu as well as Tae Kwon Do in the 70’s.

In America during 1970’s, due to the TV series, “Kung Fu” and Bruce Lee’s films, Kung Fu became very popular. Asian culture was new to America and was slowly being accepted through the popularity of martial arts. I came to America in 1974 and I grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods. The Asian ethnic communities were small and scarce. The majority of Caucasians could not identify the different Asian races and we were all clumped together as either “chinks” (Chinese) or “nips” (Japanese). Then of course the “gooks” during the Vietnam war. And, these terms were not used exclusively for each race; rather it was used interchangeably to describe any Asians.

Martial art was relatively a new thing in America and the only terms that the public was familiar with was Judo, Karate, and Kung Fu. So, many of the Korean martial arts had to refer themselves as “Korean Karate” and since we were both soft/circular and hard/linear, we called ourselves “Karate/Kungfu.” The term martial arts was rarely used. Even the Yellow Pages had all the different martial arts listed under the heading of “Judo.” It was not until the 80s did they change it to the appropriate heading of “Martial Art.” Many people back then mistakenly thought we were a Chinese restaurant with the name “Hwa Rang Do,” and we are still mistaken occasionally. As we tried to find our identity and place as a unique form of martial art within the new country and culture, so was I searching to find my identity, my source of empowerment.

I lived through these prejudiced times, growing up in Orange County and let me tell you, it was not pleasant. I was reminded daily that I was different and ridiculed for something that I could not change even if I wanted to. I remember as a freshman in high school, the kids all thought that I was Hawaiian as I had a beach bleached long hair from surfing. This was accepted as cool and really the only way for me to make friends, especially girlfriends. Of course the other part was because I could fight.

I remember my father carefully explaining the social/cultural differences and adamantly reminding us not to do anything to offend the white people. In Korea, we make noise while we eat. It shows how much you are enjoying your food and it’s well received. However, he told us never to make loud noises when we are eating and chewing our food. We could not eat our primary staple diet of “kimchee” in the morning or for lunch and only for dinner, because the garlic smell was offensive to the white people. What’s even stranger now is that when I visit Korea, although I am aware of the Korean eating etiquette I am also offended and bothered by the noises people make while they are eating and chewing. I guess after 35 years I am no longer Korean, but Korean American.

There are many other stories of racial discrimination, but I am not here to bash the Caucasian people for their ignorance as they were the majority and this kind of mal-treatment towards minority racial groups happens all over the world. However, I am here to bring to people’s attention the regression of our social evolution and that we are not living in a third world totalitarian nation, but a democratic nation of the most eclectic ethnic mix all seeking the ideal of FREEDOM!

We are not in the 70s or the 80s. This is the 21st century with advanced technology bringing everyone together as a global community. This is also the decade of “Political Correctness” (PC). I remember there was a big stink a while back about Asians not wanting to be called “Oriental” as that describes rugs and inanimate objects, not people. So, Asians rallied to be called “Asians”, not “Orientals.”

Then, the highly popular brand of clothing, Abercrombie & Finch, came out with a line of t-shirts making fun of Chinese stereotypes. Shirts that have slogans across the front in big bold letters, “Two Wongs Don’t Make Write.” What made them even consider this as an option as one of their biggest markets were Asians? Soon after, the Asian community rose up against the Abercrombie & Finch and they terminated the line. I wondered even in this PC era, how could such a thing happen from such a large corporation with so many levels of approval before it finally gets to the mass market. It was unbelievable!

Traditionally, Asians have remained quiet, as we are most conscious of offending others. As a product of assimilation, many Koreans today cannot speak or write Korean as their parents made them learn English as quickly as possible when they were children and did not reinforce learning the Korean language. I think we are out of the dark ages and into the light of global communication and no race should need to hide their culture, their way of life in fear of ridicule and discrimination. We as Asian Americans have paid our price to be Americans from working the railroads, to the sugar cane fields of Hawaii, to becoming one of the most educated and economically strong ethnic groups in America.

We must evolve, progress, grow and change together for the better. We must elevate ourselves out of racial tolerance to respecting racial differences. In my opinion, we can only achieve unity and racial harmony when we are able to respect each other’s differences and not deny one’s identity, source of empowerment. It is due to our individual and racial differences that make living as a global community so exciting, enjoyable and at times challenging.

Then, how can we allow “Hollywood” to set us back in our quest to find and empower ourselves through understanding our individual racial identity? It’s understandable that in the 60’s and 70’s, during the height of racial ignorance that our parents and grandparents did whatever they could to survive. However, there’s no excuse for us today to call something that’s Japanese as Chinese or vice-versa. If you called something German as French or Scottish as Irish, they would be screaming in protest, but why do we just sit and watch as they are clearly mislabeling the new remake of “The Karate Kid.”


The Karate Kid? – Looks Like Kung Fu (courtesy of eonline.com)

What’s even more appalling is that Jackie Chan, who is one of the most beloved, well-recognized Chinese martial arts actor/producer with the greatest wealth and influence is sitting idly, while “Hollywood” just clumps all of us Asians together once again as “chinks” or “nips.” His defense when asked about it, was that when he was making the movie, he didn’t know what it was going to be called and that it was referred to as the ‘Kung Fu Kid’ during production, shrugging his shoulders and hoping not to offend his bosses. (1) (2) (3)

It is imperative that we as Asian Americans as well as any ethnic group support each other in destroying racial ignorance and educate the people to respect our differences. We are not talking about Jackie Chan as an actor, playing another ethnicity. As actors one should be able to play other ethnic roles as long as they do it justice, maintaining the roles ethnic integrity. This is clearly calling something Chinese as Japanese. It should be called “The Kung Fu Kid.”

Jerry Weintraub, who was the producer of the original ‘Karate Kid’ and co-producer on this re-make along with Will Smith’s company, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal admitted that this issue was discussed.

Will Smith had concerns and asked him about possibly calling the film, “The Kung Fu Kid”. Mr. Weintraub’s response, with zero sensitivity or respect to Japanese or Chinese culture and identity simply replied, “I’m not going to do it. This is like changing Pepsi-Cola to Dookie-Cola. Why would you lose a brand like ‘The Karate Kid’? It’s a BRAND. In China it will be called the Kung Fu Kid, but in America it will be called ‘The Karate Kid’.” (4)

Karate, an art and cultural treasure to the Japanese, in America has been claimed as a “brand” to be misrepresented for the purposes of marketing and profit. Every single martial arts studio in America (except for mine) has been convinced to herd children into special screenings of the new ‘Karate Kid’, use their kids as recruiters and have them bring their friends to these screenings. This creates a new batch of fresh leads for the studio owners to recruit from, perpetuates ignorance into the next generation and inflates the profits of the production companies through the strengthening of a money-making “brand”, at the expense of our cultural identities.

There’s nothing wrong with making money or a savvy marketing campaign, but why can’t we respect each other’s race and culture? It’s a remake and they are banking on the success of the original “Karate Kid,” which I feel is something the industry really needs amidst the popularity of MMA and no-holds-barred fighting that’s become so prevalent. We need this, if it’s anything like the original. But, not like this….

I argued that no kid today remembers the original “Karate Kid.” They are more familiar with “The Kung Fu Panda” and should use Kung Fu. Ah, then the reply was that our generation who do remember are the parents and they are the ones who will take their kids to see it. Wow, marketing genius!

It’s all for money that we as Asians once again take it. I have even heard from other Asians who have said that they don’t care whether they mislabeled or not as long as more Asian culture, stuff, things are exposed to the masses. No matter how much money it should never overrule integrity and honor and this is the cornerstone of what Martial Art is. Wrong is wrong and yes two wrongs don’t make right!

I propose that we boycott this movie and deliver a loud message to “Hollywood” and to Jackie Chan, that we as Asians are not going to allow disrespect to our cultural identities and that we may be quiet, but when we roar it will be ferocious. Even in our greetings we are humble and not entitled. As the western greeting is a handshake, extending the right hand to show that there’s no weapon to kill you and our eastern greeting is the bowing of the head to show humility, looking down as to say please don’t behead me as I take my eyes off of you. It’s time we stand up for our beliefs and gain the respect we deserve and although we may be humble, we are not stupid.

  1. http://news.softpedia.com/news/Columbia-Pictures-Changes-the-Name-of-Karate-Kid-Remake-108132.shtml
  2. http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2010/04/02/the-karate-kid-or-the-kung-fu-kid-fans-debate-the-title-of-new-jackie-chanjaden-smith-movie/
  3. http://moviesblog.mtv.com/2010/01/07/jackie-chan-unsure-of-karate-kid-remake-title-reveals-fate-of-wax-on-wax-off-the-crane-kick/
  4. http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2010/04/10/jerry-weintraub-discusses-new-memoir-karate-kid-naming-controversy/

Grandmaster Taejoon Lee

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