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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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