CHINESE FU SERVED HERETHE BRUCE LEE OF TAIWAN STILL WOKS TALL--AT A TEMPE EATERY
Using a long-handled ladle, the chef flicks oil, seasonings, vegetables and meat into the metal pan. Flames leap up around the wok's sides and lick the stove's exhaust hood. Seconds later, an order of Kung Pao Chicken is steaming toward the dining room. As the restaurant's only food preparer, chef Charlie Win doesn't get days off. When he takes his gloves off, his hands are red and blistered from the wok's hot metal handle. His only break during a typical fourteen-hour shift comes at midafternoon, when the restaurant closes for two hours. It beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, which was an earlier resume entry for Chiang-Long Wen. Under that name, this 45-year-old mild-mannered Tempe chef once was the Bruce Lee of Taiwan.
In the early Seventies, Chiang-Long Wen starred in such slapdash, martial-arts mini-epics as Duel at Forest, Deadly Fists Kung Fu, and Triangular Duel. In Iron Man, the film that established him as a major player in
the wacky Taiwanese chop-socky film business, Wen portrayed, of all things, a chief cook at a Chinese restaurant. Wen's character in that one
provoked into action only after a gang of Japanese judo bullies came into the restaurant and hassled a waitress.
Later, Wen moved to Dallas, changed his name and entered the restaurant business for real. Six months ago, he opened China Win and gave Tempe yet another strip-center Chinese restaurant. The location (northeast corner, Southern and McClintock) isn't so great--you can't see the entrance from the street--and business has been slow.
No problem, Charlie Win says. He'll work long hours for no money until he succeeds, and put his family and friends to work, too. This time, it's the Asian-immigrant-success-story script. "I work in Chinese restaurants for years," Win says, groping for the right English words. "Every time I help friend open restaurant, always make money."
Since this is Tempe and not Taipei, real life and not Iron Man, Charlie Win (in deck shoes, slacks, long apron and golf visor) and not Chiang-Long Wen (a shirtless airborne hellcat in black pajama bottoms and slippers), there is little chance that a gang of judo bullies will burst into China Win and start roughing people up.
But on the outside chance that there are any judo bullies reading this, some friendly advice: Before you start throwing one another around the China Win, get something to eat first. The food in this large, lovely, comfortable place is great. THE KUNG FU FILM BOOM reached a commercial peak in 1973, with the release of Enter the Dragon, starring the ultracharismatic Bruce Lee. The international demand for the ultrafrantic, ultraviolent movies at the time of Lee's breakout fueled an incredible explosion of production, and by the mid-Seventies hundreds of film companies specializing in kung fu fighting were operating all over Asia. Typically, the movies were cranked out at great speed on minuscule budgets. "The way they did cartoons at Warner Bros. in the Thirties and Forties is the way they did kung fu movies in the Sixties and Seventies," says Rick Meyers, author of Martial Arts Movies: From Bruce Lee to the Ninjas and film columnist for Inside Kung Fu magazine. "Each company had a group of movies filming constantly, quite possibly 24 hours a day, with actors running from one set to the next."
Usually, there was no time even for scripts. Directors created and staged action one day at a time. All dialogue--mostly shrieks, squeaks, grunts and cracks (the sounds of bones breaking)--was dubbed in later. "They made films the way Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin used to make films: Show up and be inspired," says Meyers. "It was a real test." Hong Kong was (and still is) the industry's capital city, and its movies were (are) seen around the world. A smaller, parallel industry operated in Taiwan, but those movies rarely circulated outside that domestic market. According to Meyers, Taiwanese kung fu movies typically are poorly executed imitations of Hong Kong's finest,
notable only for their cheesy, wildly unlikely special effects. (It's not unusual to see combatants leap from the ground to a rooftop.)
"They are incredibly, staggeringly cheap and uninspired movies," says Meyers, adding that none of his 1,000-plus kung fu collection at his Westport, Connecticut, home comes from Taiwan. "You have a small country of very voracious filmgoers supplied by a small group of very voracious filmmakers. It very rapidly becomes repetitious and redundant. You do not see this stuff at film festivals."
Meyers, who describes himself as one of America's leading authorities on kung fu movies, has never heard of Chiang-Long Wen.
AT LUNCH AND DINNER, Helen Win works the dining room at China Win seating customers, taking orders and pouring tea. During a recent afternoon break, Helen sits at a table at the front of the restaurant and helps her brother tell his life story. Charlie Win's English is better than he thinks it is, but he frequently comes across an answer he can articulate only in Chinese. Helen fills in the blanks.
"When he was young, he's very good-looking," Helen says, starting at the beginning. Charlie had been studying kung fu for about five years when he signed his first movie deal. "His body, his look very good, and he also know a little bit kung fu. They ask him to join the movie and then he went to the movie academy for training in Taiwan."
The young actors, chosen for their looks and all-around athleticism but not necessarily for their mastery of fighting arts, received training in how to fight on film. "It's about the motion and how you be a good actress, actor," says Helen of the school. "He practice kung fu already, so his body very good for kung fu actor."
Once he started actually making movies, Charlie Win was a big hit. In all, he starred in more than seventy films during his short career, usually playing the hero. During one particularly grueling stretch, Win made seven movies in ninety days, jumping from set to set for up to twenty hours a day. He says now that he slept only ten full nights during that three-month burst of activity.
Amazingly, during the golden age of kung fu movies, Taiwanese actors performed all their own stunts. Because of time and budget constraints, little consideration was given to safety. "In Taiwan, we make the kung fu movie very dangerous," Charlie says. "It's not like American. We do everything for myself. Hurt on whole body."
Win's hard work on movie sets around Asia--he also did location work in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Shanghai--paid off only in modest ways. The Taiwanese moviemakers paid their stars by the job, and since royalties were never a consideration, the actors didn't build great fortunes. "The Taiwan movie industry not like here, so protected by unions and everything," says Helen. "Taiwan they sign a contract. After the film run, you don't get any money. They pay you for making movie, that's it.
"Movie actor or actress living normal life there. The lifestyle is very normal. Buy a car. Most important thing, buy a car."
After just a few years of kung fu stardom, Charlie got out. Trying to explain his exit today, all he can say is, "I'm tired." Helen adds that it was more than just the grind that drove her brother into retirement. Ongoing pressure from real-life gangsters played a part in it, too. "In that movie industry, it very black, dark," she says. "People will blackmail him, say, `I want this much for protection, I want that much.' They have a lot of Mafia people. After he was famous, they say, `I will protect you if you pay me this.' So after that he got tired of it."
"I LIKE EAT," says Charlie. His plan all along had been to turn his love of cooking, just a hobby during his salad days as a kung fu idol, into a way of life. "He always like to eat and cook," Helen says. "He travel to other countries for the movies, so when he saw something different, he would like to learn and come home and cook for everybody. When he decide to quit the movie career, it's good idea to get into the restaurant business." Chiang-Long Wen left Taiwan a movie star, the toast of Taipei. Charlie Win entered America as a busboy, the dish stacker of Dallas.
"I don't mind," he says of the self-demotion. "Because when I come to here, I think I'm like a baby. I have to learn everything. Not movie star again. That was in Taiwan. That before. So I come like just newborn baby. I learn everything."
Charlie worked his way up to chef jobs at various restaurants, including several around Phoenix. He eventually opened China Win with money saved up by his family, many members of which also had worked in local restaurants (sister Rene helps Helen at China Win). The nuclear-family nature of his staff allows Charlie to keep operating even when revenue gets scarce. During slow times, he doesn't take any pay for himself.
"I don't need money," he says. "My family come here and say, `How about open restaurant?' I said, `If you think it's easy, it's not easy.'"
HELEN WIN SAYS her brother was a pretty big star and would sometimes have to disguise himself in public to avoid being mobbed by adoring fans. Still, Charlie didn't get much in the way of material rewards from his time as Taiwan's Bruce Lee.
At China Win, not much is made of the proprietor's movie career. The only visible evidence is a fierce portrait of the former hero, the one used on the flier for Iron Man, displayed on the wall behind the cash register. That and Charlie's biceps, with which he probably could bend pipe. (The chef supplements his daylong workout at the wok by exercising on his own every morning.)
Even these days, however, it's not impossible to see Chiang-Long Wen in action. "Sometime," says Helen, "we watch the kung fu movie on television and say, `Oh, that's him.'"
In the dining room, only the best customers get to learn anything about the chef's past life. If asked, the shy Charlie Win will bring out a briefcase full of garish movie fliers and newspaper ads. One of his favorites is a glossy publicity photo from Iron Man--the one in which the angry young Chiang-Long Wen wears a chef's hat.
Sitting at the front booth of his new restaurant, surrounded by his sisters and leafing through the printed reminders of his days as a screen idol, Charlie Win brightens. In a typical day, there's not much room for nostalgia.
Was being the poor man's Bruce Lee any fun? Did Charlie enjoy it? "I guess so," he says, shrugging. A customer walks in and sits down at a nearby table. Charlie eyes the man, a regular customer. Does Charlie Win ever miss being Chiang-Long Wen? "A little bit," he says, smiling, looking back toward the kitchen doors. "But sometime I almost forget."
In Iron Man, he portrayed, of all things, a chief cook at a Chinese restaurant.
Before you start throwing one another around the China Win, get something to eat first.
"You have a small country of very voracious filmgoers supplied by a small group of very voracious filmmakers."
"His body, his look very good, and he also know a little bit kung fu."
"In Taiwan, we make the kung fu movie very dangerous. Hurt on whole body."
"After he was famous, they say, `I will protect you if you pay me this.' So after that he got tired of it."
"When I come to here, I think I'm like a baby. I have to learn everything. Not movie star again. That was in Taiwan. That before.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.