Everybody was kung fu fighting — remember the funky disco Carl Douglas tune from 1974? That year Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon roared around the world, and Jim Kelly was busting out moves in the urban underground hit Black Belt Jones. The 1970s saw African-Americans empowering themselves, taking the martial arts into their own communities, and that electric kungfu era has no more inspiring story than that of Ron Van Clief – the Black Dragon.

Ron Van Clief – the Black Dragon

Ron Van Clief is a 5-time world karate champion who created his own system of Chinese Goju. But to many fans worldwide he’s maybe most famous for his iconic 70s hipster Hong Kong movie roles as the Black Dragon – kungfu’s first black hero on film.

“You know,” Van Clief says, remembering back to that early decade, “when I was doing film in the US the black guys were always the bad guys, the pimps — you know that exploitation period. The drug dealer. And I just did not want to do that – I wanted to be a kungfu star.”

Ron Van Clief

Ron Van Clief’s Journey

This is the story of that journey. Ron Van Clief born in Brooklyn, NY. Movies opened the door of martial arts for him as a kid, and he recalls,

“My brother and I used to sneak into the movie theaters in Chinatown when I was 10 or 11 years old. We didn’t have any money, so we’d wait until somebody comes out the door and we’d sneak in — it was great. I became addicted to kungfu.”

Ron Van Clief sought out a teacher and started training when he was 11, with Ju Jitsu master Moses Powell at the St. Johns Community Center in Brooklyn. After Powell, he went on to study with Peter Urban, and trained hard to prepare for entering the Marines. Being a Marine had long been his dream, but training in the American South would turn out to be more of a nightmare.

“I joined the Marine Corps in October 15, 1960, and I went down to North Carolina. It wasn’t very good for people of color in those days. Racism was the order of the day in the Carolinas or any place down South during those times. In 1963 I was stationed in North Carolina in Charlotte, in Kingston.

I couldn’t get the idea of not going into stores or drinking water from public faucets or going into toilets – I couldn’t really relate to that coming from Brooklyn; it was very foreign to me, but I learned quick. The first night I had a fight with a guy who did not want to sleep in the same barracks as niggers. One guy pissed on me when I was sleeping.”

Ron Van Clief

Racism Continue

The racism continued. “You know you go into a store,” he says,

“and you open the door and you see white only on the sign, no colored. I went into a restaurant and I’m waiting to be served and they’re walking past me like I’m invisible – we don’t serve niggers here. It was, wow. It was a real shock for me.”

To go into town even black soldiers had to sit in the back of the bus. Ron remembers,

“I always had a hard time sitting at the back of the bus, it really bothered me. And this is one of those days, maybe I had a hard time on the base or something, and I said, I’m not sitting in the back. And I sat 3rd row up. Needless to say, big problems, the cops came, they called the base and picked me up by the military police. They detained me. I’m waiting in my cell.

They said, ok you can go. I go outside and 20 farmer type guys with shovels confronted me, pitchforks, all of that kind of stuff. At an earlier time I gave this guy a beating, it was him and his friends. They beat me up, knocked my 4 teeth out and broke my jaw, broke 5 ribs, cracked my sternum, they broke my left arm at the elbow, and turned it around backwards and stomped on it.

I almost lost my left eye. And then they hung me. They put a rope around my neck and pulled me up into the air and…the last thing I saw was someone swinging a shovel toward my face.”

Ron Van Clief

Woke Up in the Hospital

Ron Van Clief woke up in the hospital. After 4 months in a hospital bed, and 6-8 months light duty, they sent him to Vietnam. His captain said, “We didn’t get you here but we’ll let the gooks get you.”

“I served in Vietnam 14 months, I was a gunner on a helicopter,” says Van Clief.

“I manned an M-16 machine gun. Also, I was an artillery man and I manned a 105 Howitzer. That’s a cannon that fires like 12-15 miles away. Big, high explosive rounds. I saw a lot of racism in Vietnam, a lot, more than I thought I would.

Because those same white cracker officers and NCOs from North Carolina were having black guys go out on no-return missions, you know what I mean? Search and destroy and all kinds of stuff.”

Ron Van Clief

Learning Martial Arts

When he got out of the service in 1965 Van Clief returned to New York and became a policeman for four years. He also found a new karate school.  “I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life,” he recalls, “I was really lost. The martial arts was my only escape. I knew that the martial arts, I could do my best, and it would keep me going.”

Ron started competing, and won his first world championship in the NY Coliseum in 1969, with 2 days of fighting 12 people. He dabbled in acting as an extra and doing stunts.

Ron Van Clief

“I went to an audition in 1973, it was for a Chinese company called Yan Cheh Films. Out of thousands of people who went to the audition I was selected and they gave me a 5-film deal. So I was off to Hong Kong.”

It would change his life. He stayed in Hong Kong, and made 40 films. At first he was only given stereotypical roles.

“The black guy was always the bad guy, so I’d cut my hair off, put a mustache on. It was great working over there. I had the opportunity to work with people like Jason Pai Piao, Carter Wong. We shot films in 2 weeks. And a lot of the directors, they’re former kungfu stars. So they know exactly what they want.”

Ron Van Clief

Was It Tough?

Oh yeah. And painful? Sometimes. “Jason Pai Piao kicked me in the face one time, “ Ron recalls,

“he kicked me so hard I blacked out. But I didn’t go down. I was trying to finish the scene, and the director said cut, because he knew. It was like a crescent kick, right to the side of the head. Pow.”

How did Ron Van Clief go from a kick in the head to becoming cinema’s first black kungfu hero? Look for Part 2 of Ron’s amazing martial arts odyssey link below.

Story of Ron Van Clief – First Black Kung Fu Movie Star: Part 2

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