The Barefoot Cowboy

by Lewis Manalo

David Carradine 1936-2009

When I was a kid I thought that David Carradine really was half Chinese.

He played all kinds of roles, but he’ll always be known for Kwai Chang Caine, the halfie Shaolin monk who grew his hair long and walked the earth, kicking up the sand of the Old West. What makes the Kung Fu TV series so funny these days is how damn sincere it is with all its Orientalism and Old West nostalgia, dissolving between the diffusion-lensed flashbacks of blind monk Master Po in Shaolin Temple and the simple backlot barrooms overflowing with six-gun-toting cowpoke.

I have memories of wood-paneled Saturday afternoons spent splayed out on the shag rug with my brother drinking New Coke and watching Kung Fu reruns back to back with Kung Fu Theater, a local channel’s weekly outpouring of martial arts movie classics, like The Five Deadly Venoms and The Executioners of Death, and some not so classics, like The Clones of Bruce Lee.

What David Carradine brought into the mix of afternoon chop-socky heroes was something unique because his machismo was halfie, like his character. He had all the honor-inspired bloodlust and all the empty hand skills of a kung-fu hero, but he also had a bit of that swagger and that way with the ladies that came with being a cowboy. John Wayne never seemed to learn more than one punch, but Caine could throw down with cowhands, Apaches, and Ming assassins, sometimes all at once. And how often did Gordon Lui or Bruce Lee get any cinematic poontang? Caine got him some booty in that TV series, even a love child played by Brandon Lee.

In a genre where white guys have never been a great fit (Chuck Norris is another universe unto himself) and a country where media has traditionally either desexualized Asian males (take your pick of any Chinese star who’s tried out Hollywood in the last ten years) or turned them into sexual deviants (Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, anyone?) David Carradine fleshed out a hero from between two worlds, a counter-culture bad-ass who could’ve strutted through Easy Rider just as soon as trade blows with the Master Killer.

We miss David Carradine because he was something unique in the cinematic landscape, and with all these new, young “stars” looking like they fell out of the same Old Navy catalog, something unique is missed now more than ever.

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