5 Key Moments in ‘Ip Man 4’ That Taught Us Asian American History and Racism

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As the powerful and lightning-quick Wing Chun saga of the “Ip Man” tetralogy starring Donnie Yen reached its conclusion, the location featured in the fourth film was none other than San Francisco in the ’60s.

While the “Ip Man” films dramatized incidents that end up in confrontations, the racism depicted in “Ip Man 4” drew some influence from real-life instances where anti-Chinese sentiment ran rampant and added to the Chinese diaspora and struggle.

Screenshot from Ip Man 4 via Movie Trailers Source

Here are some of the historical instances of racism that influenced the flurries of kicks and punches within the movie:

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1. Transcontinental Railroad Workers

The movie: Mentioned briefly, some of the masters explained that they had generations of ancestors who immigrated to the U.S. as labor workers for the Transcontinental Railroad in 1864. One said that even before that, his grandfather arrived in California for the Gold Rush in 1849.

Screenshots from Ip Man 4

 

The reality: For years, the Chinese workers for the Transcontinental Railroad blasted through the toughest parts, set a world record of 10 miles of tracks in one day and lost almost 12,000 lives while working on it. Even so, they were largely discriminated against and not credited. In 2017, California finally recognized their efforts by setting May 10 as a Memorial Day.

“Chinese railroad workers Sierra Nevada” By “B&H”, illustrator; sketch by Joesph Becker (1841-1910), via Wikimedia Commons

2. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA)

The movie: Ip Man needed a letter of recommendation from the “Chinese Benevolent Association” (CBA) in San Francisco’s Chinatown for his son to study abroad in the U.S., however, he was met with resistance along the way.

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Screenshots from Ip Man 4

The reality: The CBA was based on the real-life organization, The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA). With chapters in the U.S. and Canada, the organization was originally formed to protect Chinese immigrants who settled down in the U.S. around the 1880s. Physical abuse in the San Francisco Chinatown was common, so The Six Companies and other organizations like the Tongs (organized crime syndicates) were formed to further protect the community from “racist hoodlums” and “white miners.”

San Francisco headquarters of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (a.k.a. Chinese Six Companies) located on Stockton Street. Photo via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

3. Mid-Autumn Carnival

The movie: After a duel with Tai Chi Master and Chairman of the CBA, Wan Zhong-hua, the match was postponed to the Mid-Autumn Carnival/Festival where martial arts demonstrations were made. However, the USINS, or the movie’s version of immigration officers, raided the CBA during the festival under the suspicion that they were harboring suspects of “fraudulent” identities who came to the U.S. illegally.

Screenshots from Ip Man 4

The reality: The Carnival raid scene was most likely fictional, and the San Francisco Mid-Autumn Carnival, specifically, sported an infamous reputation as many Chinese within the community thought it had little or nothing to do with Chinese culture and New Year. The Wah Ching gang attempted to burn it down in 1968, and it was a popular site for gang fights.

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The raid scene may have taken influence from a Feb. 18, 1956 persecution and investigation in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Falsified papers and the crackdown in San Francisco’s Chinatown during that time period led to high suicide rates out of fear. There were no means of accurately determining who out of the 71,040 Chinese people arriving between 1920 to 1940 were under “fictive identities,” or were suspected of being paper sons and paper daughters (Chinese people with fake documentation who immigrated illegally by claiming to be blood-related to Chinese Americans with U.S. citizenship).

“Paper son” document via Wikimedia Commons from Byron Yee and paperson.com

The federal grand jury “subpoenaed eight Chinese family (surname) associations” for immigration fraud. It created an impression that these family associations had ties with and assisted in an illegal entry, which angered the Chinese communities because it effectively “criminalized” them.

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“The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) called the subpoena a discriminatory practice.”

Despite protests, federal officers advanced in their investigations such as questioning children on playgrounds, entering shops at random, and stopping pedestrians to ask for immigration documents, according to Chiou-ling Yeh’s “Making an American festival : Chinese New Year in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

4. Bruce Lee’s Book

The movie: Wan Zhong-hua and the rest of the martial arts masters in the CBA were angered by Bruce’s book and his practice of teaching Chinese kung fu to outsiders. They thought he was arrogant for trying to be the “spokesperson” of their arts.

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Screenshots from Ip Man 4

The reality: When Bruce published his groundbreaking book, “Chinese Gung-fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense” in 1963, the Chinese kung fu masters, who were already established in San Francisco before him, did not approve. They rejected the notion of their martial arts being taught to people of non-Chinese descent, whereas Bruce had no issues throwing insults and counters at them in its pages.

Image via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

5. Long Beach International Karate Championships

The movie: Ip Man attended the “San Francisco International Karate Tournament” and saw his pupil’s demonstrations. In it, some of the white martial arts practitioners called Bruce and his students “phonies,” their art “bullsh*t,” and challenged him in an alley afterward.

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Screenshots from Ip Man 4

The reality: Bruce made waves when he participated in the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championships. He caught attention with his one-inch punch, two-finger push-ups and a scathing lecture on the rigid old ways of Chinese kung fu pedagogy.

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“One-inch punch,” photo via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

This ultimately led to the legendary fight between Bruce and Wong Jack Man. The conditions were if Bruce lost, he would cease teaching kung fu to outsiders, but if he won, he essentially earned the right to teach. Bruce was the victor, but narrowly.

According to Vice, Clara Lee, a karate instructor and tournament judge from that day, said, “Guys were practically lining up to fight Bruce Lee after his performance at Long Beach.”

A separate observer noted, “Bruce made a number of enemies that night, as well as a number of followers.”

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Screenshots from Ip Man 4

Feature Image (left) via Movie Trailers Source, (right) via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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