Last week we told the part one of Ron Van Clief becoming the world’s first black kungfu movie star. From his harrowing days being lynched as a Marine in the 1960s American South, to his chance audition in New York for a low budget Hong Kong film company. He arrived in Hong Kong in 1973 playing the bad guy, but after some hard knocks, he would become the hero.
Hong Kong in the 1970s was a virtual factory of low budget action martial arts films. Kung Fu flicks ranged from Shaolin period pieces to urban gangster dramas with plenty of drugs, prostitutes, and dirty cops. They could be made in a few weeks, and audiences were hungry for more. When Ron Van Clief arrived on the scene, Hong Kong producers were savvy to a growing American underground movie trend.
Bruce Lee’s most famous film, Enter the Dragon, featured the black actor and former karate champion Jim Kelly. His performance was a springboard for the low-budget 70s black martial arts action genre that came to be popularly known as “Blaxploitation” cinema.
In the 70’s, emerging from the Civil Rights era and the Black Pride movement, African Americans identified with the Chinese underdog protagonist. And the struggle inherent in kungfu movies was a symbol of liberation and freedom.
In both Hong Kong kungfu cinema and “Blaxploitation” movies, you can find heroes fighting the more powerful corrupt establishment. Look at the Shaolin Temple’s struggle against the oppressive Qing dynasty, or Bruce Lee breaking the sign on the park gate that reads:
This subtext connected with an African-American generation that was also fighting the establishment in a different, familiar way.
Urban black culture also played a crucial role in the new American martial arts movie scene. After Shaft (1971), filmmakers quickly capitalized on the success of Bruce Lee and the explosive popularity of kungfu movies. Jim Kelly became major player for a new American black martial arts film sub-genre by starring in Black Belt Jones and Black Samurai.
Blaxploitation cinema expressed some of the anger of the black community, and a new empowerment. It was fun, funky and particularly in its martial arts incarnations full of high-kicking action. The commercial potential of this new kind of film could not helped but be noticed in Hong Kong.
Ron Van Clief had paid his dues with a few cracked ribs and concussions. He made a name for himself in the Hong Kong low budget kungfu movie world. And then he got his break. “They needed a hero black guy, finally,” he says.
He had finally made it, and he was a star.
Hong Kong was thousands of miles away from America — literally and emotionally for the newly-coined Black Dragon. “In Hong Kong,” he says,
“even though you’re Hak Gwai, if they respected your work, you were very well respected. I didn’t ever feel any of the stuff I felt in America, that’s why I stayed there 10 years. I was never called a nigger, or any of that stuff, though ‘Hak Gwai’ is black ghost anyway.”
During those ten years Ron Van Clief learned Cantonese, studied Wing Chun with Hong Kong master Leung Ting, and made dozens of movies. Today, the Black Dragon calls Hawaii his home, where he continues to train daily and is bringing up his youngest son, Kai.
Still remembered by a generation as a 70s film star, in the martial arts world Van Clief’s career never waned. After being a disciple of Moses Powell, Peter Urban, Frank Ruiz, and Leung Ting, he founded the system of Chinese Goju in the early 1970s, and oversees dozens of Ron Van Clief schools around the globe.
He fought a valiant battle against Royce Gracie in the 4th Ultimate Fighting Championships in 1994 at the age of 51. Though he was defeated, and he has published a book The Black Heroes of the Martial Arts. He is the subject of a new comic book, and has written a novel about his life experiences called The Hanged Man.
Most of all, he continues to inspire fans and students from all generations. Some may call it the return of the Black Dragon, but in fact, he never left.