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Movies like "Hitman the Cobra" are the reason why a website like Nanarland exists. In addition to our interviews with director Godfrey Ho, lead actor Richard Harrison and lead villain Mike Abbott, we have also interviewed Nathan Mutanda Chukueke, another actor from "Hitman the Cobra" who played the character "Blackie", one of Mike Abbott's henchmen. Nathan Chukueke was born on the 5th of August 1959, grew up in Brooklyn, and has been for many years an important member of the Northern Shaolin 7 Star Pray Mantis Association, based in New York. Nathan went to Hong Kong and Japan many times between 1984 and 1991 and, as the South-East Asian film industry offered some opportunities for Westerners, found himself working on the sets of some colourful features. Contacted by Nanarland's Spanish friend Jesus Manuel Perez Molina, Nathan kindly took the time to share some of his memories with us.
Interview conducted by John Nada in July 2009.
To start with, could you tell us a bit about you and your life before you went to Asia?
I worked doing construction with a friend, Carden Taft, in New York City. I had also just finished paralegal school and was doing a little temp work. My practiced in 7 star mantis with my kung fu brothers took up a lot of my free time. My mother was a social worker. I stayed at her apartment when I did not have my own. My life was in general in flux, but good overall. In addition to my Gung fu practice, I also went to some acting and dance class (Jo Jo Smith) on a regular basis in Manhattan.
Nathan Chukueke posing with Chinese crew members on the set of "My Name ain't Suzie", a 1986 Shaw Brothers production which was a kind of Chinese answer to the American film called "The World of Suzie Wong"...
What led you to move to Hong Kong, and how did you then entered the movie world?
I went to Hong Kong to see it. But to also learn a particular weapons form, the Gan: it's like a cone shaped sword. I learned it from Lee Kam Wing who was my main teacher's younger classmate. My Chiu Leun did not like the idea of me learning from his younger classmate, but later forgave me for that transgression. Chiu Leun even went on to try and make the communications stronger between the various sects under our grandmaster Chiu Chi Man.
Chung King Mansions in the 80's.
When I got to Hong Kong for the first time, back in 1984 or 85, I stayed in a mid level hotel, until I realized Kowloon side and Chung King Mansions on 2nd block Nathan road was much cheaper and better for social networking, we called it "hanging up" back then. Hong Kong movie agents, casting directors, and other travelers would come to the Garden hostel, looking for extras, young girls mostly. One of the times they found me. They needed a black sailor for some club scene on Hong Kong Island.
After doing that type of work as an extra, I let it be known I did martial arts, but most of the roles I got consisted in shooting guns in some war, gang, or bodyguard scene. You have to understand I was in Hong Kong in and on over five times in maybe seven years.
During the 80's, it seems there were good opportunities for White or Black Westerners to appear in movies in HK and in other Asian countries, which film industries were then flourishing. How many films have you been working on?
I don't even remember how many movies I was in, actually. As an extra maybe eight. Then as a so called action actor perhaps I was in five. All of these movies were done over a span of seven years at least. There was a lot of work at first, it was easy to get, but each time I came back to Hong Kong it got harder and required more searching around.
At one time I got an agent who was a Hung Gar teacher and movie actor himself. Good gung fu but so so agent. His name was Chiu Chi Ling, he was that actor in the funny parody kung fu movie where the guy gets hit into the sky then hit the toad style guy with a big hand print strike from the sky. While my agent was the Hung gar who played his role a little gay I think, funny stuff.
Chiu Chi Ling in Stephen Chow's "Kung Fu Hustle".
Anyway, as work got harder to get in Hong Kong, I decided to train more over the next few trips and not hang out so much, so I joined Eddie Maher's gym. That gym was popular with a lot of us action actors, from both the East and the West. Bolo Yeung from "Enter the Dragon" went there, he is not a friendly guy at first, but serious about his training. Donnie Yen from Boston went there also, and some guys from Jacky Chan's stunt team sometimes. Eddy was one really cool guy for the record. That gym had a workout area where some friendly sparing went on at times, but mostly stunt practice. The gym was also on Kowloon side, so it was easy to get to practice. I also found work by training and hanging out afterward with those guys.
Eddie Maher, an HK actor from Macau of Chinese and Portuguese descent, remained an undefeated full contact champion for nearly 10 years. His gym center in Energy Plaza was famous indeed, and used in several films, such as "Magic Cop" or "Skinny Tiger Fatty Dragon" for instance. Among other famous people who used to train there, we could mention the names of Cynthia Rothrock, Michelle Yeoh, Sammo Hung, Dick Wei...
My best conversations there at the gym were with Jeffrey Falcon, an interesting action actor who knows a lot about Northern Mantis, outside of his vast modern Wu Shu knowledge (in fact he was a very dynamic gung fu player, with LOTS of skills beyond the Wu Shu that he was known for doing). He spoke Chinese mandarin very well, and was one of the few that got accepted by the film companies directly. Some people did not get along with him, but I thought he was OK. He was out of my league in terms of getting movie roles, so I never got to work with him on any productions. I guess Jeff, Donnie, Anthony and Bruce Fontaine were in the A league and I was in the minors in terms of movie martial performance skills.
Jeffrey Falcon in "Prince of the Sun", co-starring Cynthia Rothrock.
You notably worked with director Godfrey Ho and producer Joseph Lai (IFD) on at least one film, entitled "Hitman the Cobra". What are your memories of this movie and of Godfrey Ho? Would you have any anecdotes from the shooting, about the working methods for instance? How much did you got paid on that film?
I don't really remember much about Godfrey Ho to think of it. He seemed like a nice enough guy. In fact I don't remember much about that movie other than it was a hell of a lot of fun. I think they took us out in an area known as the New Territories, which is sort of like going to some hot country back woods area in New York state. It was like playing soldiers, but serious. All I had to do to get into character was remember my days in the old neighbourhood in Brooklyn. Heck shooting gun and not getting in trouble.
We did not get paid much at all, really, because on that movie we were not getting paid as actors, but as extras. We got paid in Hong Kong dollars cash, and I'm pretty sure it was less than one hundred US dollars a day, so the money did not last long, but it helped with paying for one's bed in the hostel. Hell, I had fun, it was a safer way to make money other than some of the other things we could do for money...
"Blackie" (Nathan Chukueke) and his evil mates in "Hitman the Cobra", this time in a place known as Devil's peak, which is located in a hill in Yau Tong district. This place was used in many IFD / Filmark productions, such as "Black Ninja" or "Ninja Terminator".
On Hitman the Cobra, there were also an American actor (the lead good guy) named Richard Harrison and an Englishman who's name was Mike Abbott (the main villain). Do you remember them?
I don't remember them by name but if I were to meet them again, I am sure some of them would come back.
On those IFD & Filmark productions, Westerners were usually employed to make the film look like an American made production. Most of the Western faces you see in these films were tourists, students or backpackers from Chungking Mansion with no experience in acting or fighting. It seems you, at least, had some genuine experience in martial arts...
I have been doing Southern then Northern styles of gung fu off and on, since maybe 1974. I started in karate with notable Claude Battle and William Oliver in a community centre on my block in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
I have had many teachers since then (Sifu Chan of Hung Kuen, Dickson Lee of long fist, Sifu Su of Northern Mantis, Sifu Chan Tai San of Lama, Sifu Chiu Leun of 7 Star Mantis, my main teacher then, a little with Lee Kam Wing in HK, of the same system, not to mention lots of stuff from gung fu brothers and other gung fu artists in Hong Kong and New York), but 7 star mantis is my main style these days. I have never been famous, just another name in the crowd. My friends and I are known for martial research if anything really. I help maintain my last teacher's organization. Our website is www.chiuleun.com.
Nathan Chukueke (on top left) and his pals from the New York-based Northern Shaolin 7 Star Pray Mantis Association.
In 1988 you appeared in "Bloodsport". What are your memories of this shooting and of Jean-Claude Van Damme?
That movie is the only one I wish I got some royalties for doing. The movie shooting was OK. I am glad I had many movies before that one. I took some patience dealing with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Let's just say not everyone had my patience. Those that did not show enough patience were not going to get paid. I think Bolo Yeung would agree with that statement.
Bolo Yeung facing Jean-Claude Van Damme in "Bloodsport".
In "Bloodsport", there were also people like Bruce Stallion alias Paulo Tocha, Geoffrey Brown, Wayne Archer or Omoade Falade alias Eric Neff, a martial artist of Nigerian origin. Just like you, all of them had previously appeared in films produced by IFD (Joseph Lai & Godfrey Ho) and/or Filmark (Tomas Tang). Did you know them?
I don't remember all of them but I do remember Eric Neff was a great guy to work with, on and off the set. Down to earth person, not like some of the other action actors who actually start believing they were the characters they played on the screen, off the set in daily life, 24 hours of the day.
Omoade Falade alias Eric Neff, in Filmark's "Silver Dragon Ninja".
In 1990, you also had a small part in "Dragon from Russia", directed by Clarence Fok and starring Samuel Hui and Maggie Cheung. Could you tell us a bit more about it?
I found out about that movie from other actors. I think it may have been Anthony Houk, from San Francisco, California. He lived in the same area as me. Very cool actor and solid friend from the West coast: highly underrated I should add. He was really a good fighter off and on the screen, and had some good fight scenes in "Dragon from Russia".
Anthony Hook, cast in the part of a Russian assassin in "Dragon from Russia".
They took their sweet time getting that movie together. The part I was in was shot in Macau near HK. A very nice and friendly place compared to HK. Shooting in a grave yard, which was a bit strange, then even stranger when you learn they move the bodies every few years to make room for more, really. That movie had the friendliest support staff. When I mentioned it to them, they said they were Taoist and that it was how they behave.
Among all these Western guys who could be seen in HK films, you told us you also met "Kung Fu John" alias John Ladalski. How do you remember him?
John Ladalski was the grandfather of all foreign action actors: period. He had class and knew his stuff. He was Jeet Kune Do person. Not many know, but he knew lots of Chinese and Western philosophy. He was the guy that introduced me to the inner Hong Kong movie scene. He had some problems with some of the young bloods come up unfortunately.
John Ladalski, "mentor, friend and drinking buddy".
Some "gweilo" actors ("foreign devils" in Cantonese, that is to say "White westerners") told us Chinese crew members or people were not always very friendly with foreigners. How was it to be a "huggwai" (Black guy) in HK? What about Japan?
My time in Hong Kong was not my first with Chinese people. I grew up hanging around Chinatown in New York and still do now. With my little bit of Chinese and understanding of their culture it was alright. I never expected much like some of the Western guys in terms of respect.
I used to tell other actors from the West, who were White, now you know how I feel back in New York. Then again I also knew you got to politely tell people to cut the crap out, when they are calling you a Black devil or just correct them without yelling. Then I never pissed anyone off by going after the local Chinese ladies, back then that was just not professional and crazy. I also hang out drinking with some of the more street Chinese locals so no one messed with me overall.
The Japanese couldn't care less as long as you were not going out with someone from the royal family, besides there are all those western military people. I will say in both countries if you don't watch yourself: the little few hundred or thousand you make on a movie or TV gigs will be lost to the agents, because you are a foreigner.
It's funny to see Jacky Chan and other Hong Kong stars making nice, nice with big named Black actors over the last decade, marketing, marketing, and more marketing. The Africans and I are finally out of picture I think anyway. Considering the type of roles we played perhaps it's for the best. I had little to say in what roles I played other than to refuse working on a project, which happened from time to time. Me no play bushman.
Of course, the need for Black actors in anything other than a minor role was limited in the 1980s, in Asia in general. I should say it was better in Japan for work and socializing, but freaking expensive. The only problem in Japan was a load of Africans guys trying to get casting agents believe they were from the hood back in L.A. or New York. This could have been OK, if they knew something about the place they were pretending to be from at all. Once there was this guy chatting up this cute Japanese girl one night in Roppongi. Her friend asks me if that African guy is really from New York at all? So I strike up a little conversation with this dude, then find he doesn't even know the "G" subway train does not go to Manhattan. I did not tell him he was full of it, but did tell the girl to watch out for her friend.
Anyway, the same misrepresentation stuff would happen with people saying they knew a particular martial arts style to a talent agent or casting director for martial arts movie auditions. They would usually look like a fool later, when asked to show something of what they were supposed to have known. Lots of fights between some of the younger western action actors in later years were over conflict stemming what makes one skilled in particular fighting system. These guys would fight: in the back streets and roof tops of Hong Kong's Kowloon district, down near the beginning of Nathan road. That happened sometimes in the competitive Hong Kong movie casting. I mean we are talking often about guys from the streets of America's and Europe's big urban cities, not trained diplomats. That's why the Eddy's gym was important. People could at least get an idea of where others were at in their skill set.
Nathan Chukueke posing in the Shaw Brothers studios.
Because I went to Hong Kong to practice Gung fu, not do movies, people looked at me differently and did not have such issues overall. Then, because I taught dance, worked in a bar here and there, I was friends with many young Western travelers. Knowing me made the social life for some of the guys easier. I did not spend as much time in the gym as they did. Another reason I never got into street fight was I was usually too busy drinking with the locals in Wan Chai, maybe the Fringe club, or hanging out at "The Four Sisters" bar on Minden road on Kowloon. This was usually after all the tourists ran home. At The Four Sisters, usually all that was left were the hostesses having a night cap and few street business men of the evening wanting to talk about the latest western boxing matches when I was there. No place for a proper "A" league movie martial artist to be, when they had to get up early to go to Eddy's gym. As seedy as they were, my back alley socializations in Hong Kong kept me out of lots of problems, I must admit. From the New York streets to the Hong Kong ones, oh well.
It seems you also participated in a film in the USA in 1985 called "The Last Dragon". Could you tell us more about it?
My friend Shawn Dawson, from famous Jean-Michel Basquiat SAMO graffiti team with also Al Diaz, told me about that audition, which was mentioned on the radio. Shawn told me the night before, while I was in the middle of some drinking beers with friends in the east village of New York City. He said the try outs were in the morning. I thanked him, went home, got some sleep and went to the audition. The audition was at a night club early in the morning. I was glad I got there really early, as long lines formed later. My old karate teacher William Oliver was auditioning too. I don't know how much acting experience he had, but the karate form he did was nice. I did a kung fu set, I think it was hung keun form maybe.
You don't see me in the actual movie; I was just another well paid extra (union scale I think). Those other extras were some really tough street guys. One bored guy spent his free time throwing nails into the freaking waiting areas walls. Another guy spent part of two days on the set, baloney scene, playing with a switch blade. I'm surprised he did not cut is fingers off with that thing.
What are your best and your worst memories as an actor or an extra?
Worst memory is getting ripped off on pay. Meeting Shek Kin, the "Enter the Dragon" guy, was nice. It was on the set of a movie called "Midnight Angel". There were also two special women in that film.
German kicker Christine Duhler.
One was a blonde German martial artist named Christine Duhler - I remember we had the same agent, Hung gar master and actor Chiu Chi Ling. The other one was a famous Japanese stunt woman and actress named Dai Do [Nanarland: more widely known as Yukari Ôshima].
Yukari Ôshima, of Chinese and Japanese descent, remains a popular icon of the "Girls With Guns" sub-genre in the 90's Hong Kong film industry. She also did action films in the Philippines under the name of Cynthia Luster.
With the hindsight, what look do you take at your work in the film industry? Did you ever have a keen interest in it?
I would do it again, but would train a lot more and learn more spoken Chinese. You see, in the early movies, no martial arts were needed. Later I needed to work on my control/sharpness of kicks, hand strikes, and throws. Then reaction/timing response to blows was important. I guess if I had worked harder, I could have done better. I would love to see someone do a movie about us and our experiences.
I was in Hong Kong many times and did lots more than the movies. For example, I worked in upscale bars were expatriate went to a lot. There were arts events and networking at the Fringe Club on Hong Kong side, where performing artists presented their work. I even got to meet famous people other than movie stars like Andrew John Ridgeley and the backup Band for Wham on their China tour when they stayed in Hong Kong. The bodyguards for Wham were interesting guys. Deon Estus, the band's bassist, was my main contact and a very righteous brother. We all met after a local club had closed and they wanted to find another place to have a drink. Good times.
That was special time in my life, before the heavy use of cell phones, we had pagers. I got to meet new people all the time. The air in Hong Kong was not too bad, nor the social climate for travelers. Now I hear it's not so easy. Because of Facebook and the Internet in general, it's getting easier to connect with some of those people. Having had those experiences, good and bad, has enriched my life.
What have you been doing since, and what is your occupation now?
I have worked as a stagehand in New York for years when I was younger, mostly lighting. Sometimes I worked at rental company building multi bundles of 2 and 4 AWG cable, then cleaning lighting units. Then works off Broadway a lot as stagehand. Did not do much grip or gaffer work. I did a little camera rental work with a DSR 500 I bought from some of the money from when mom died. My father died also and I never got to meet him. I did contact some half sisters and brother by way of Facebook. Social networking, what a trip. I am a special education teacher in high school setting for now. I also do some computer network work and am trying to do some creative writing.
Nathan in "Boulevard Warriors", a 2013 documentary directed by Rene Carson.