Skip to main content
Arts & Entertainment

HBO show looks at the gang war days of San Francisco’s Chinatown

Andrew Koji stars as Ah Sahm in Season 3 of “Warrior” on HBO Max. | Courtesy HBO Max

If you are not yet tired of hearing about San Francisco’s alleged “lawlessness,” a major television network has more to offer.

HBO Max has unveiled the third season of Warrior, a hyper-violent action drama set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 1870s. The period is depicted as full of gunfire and bloodshed between rival Chinese gangs—plus some illegal drug-dealing plots to remind you of the city’s crisis 150 years later.

Other than a popular crime TV series, the production has an extremely high-profile background—it was originally written in the early 1970s by actor and martial arts legend Bruce Lee, a native of San Francisco and a community icon who died under mysterious circumstances.

Unsurprisingly, Hollywood studios rejected his idea at that time because they didn’t believe a show with an Asian lead would sell and make profits. 

Decades later, Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee has brought the script to the screen.

“I’m really pleased to make this show for many reasons,” Lee said at a screening at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on Thursday. “But one of them is to be able to showcase my father’s creativity.”

Bruce Lee's daughter Shannon Lee speaks at a panel event after the screening of the first episode of "Warrior" Season 3 at the Asian Art Museum on Thursday. | Han Li/The Standard

Lee was joined by actor Olivia Cheng at the event, who played the powerful madam Ah Toy, a character based on a real Chinese immigrant woman in San Francisco’s history who ran a brothel.

Cheng said she learned through her research that most of the historic materials concerning Ah Toy were written by others and not by the madame herself. So Cheng had to immerse herself in the script, imagining details of the brothel owner’s incredible life story. In one scene where she had to flip a table and start a fight, Cheng says she finally understood: “This is Ah Toy.”

Andrew Koji as Ah Sahm, left, Joe Taslim as Li Yong, right, star in “Warrior” Season 3 on HBO Max. | Courtesy HBO Max

The first two seasons of the series were produced by Cinemax and later HBO Max picked up the sequel, which was filmed in Cape Town, South Africa.

Warrior tells the story of Ah Sahm, a kung fu master from China who came to San Francisco in search of his sister. He was drafted by one of the gangs, also called tongs (堂口), mutual protection organizations formed by early Chinese immigrants at a time of harsh discrimination.

The show also highlights the widespread racism Chinese Americans faced in those days. Political plots involve a long-ago San Francisco mayor, members of the Board of Supervisors, police leaders and Irish immigrant laborers as they work to exclude or suppress Chinese immigrants.

Andrew Koji plays Ah Sahm in "Warrior" on HBO Max. | Courtesy HBO Max

There has been no shortage of Asian American stories onscreen in recent years, but Warrior represents a pioneering concept, showcasing the community’s history through the lens of Asian Americans themselves.

Justin Hoover, the executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America, praised Bruce Lee’s trailblazing ideas.

“One of the main points was his unrelenting unwillingness to be subjected to stereotypes,” Hoover said at a panel after the screening. “That paved the way for this show.”