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Year of the Dragon: Poetry for Equality

How a spoken-word poet channels Bruce Lee to break through racial barriers.

March 1, 2017

“Remember the way you splintered their weapons, like a sawmill of timber, burning their wood into a blazing inferno?” recites Troy Osaki, a local spoken-word poet and educator. “Man, Enter the Dragon is the greatest martial arts film of all time!”

The winner of the 2012 Youth Speaks Seattle and the 2015 Rain City Poetry Slam, Osaki has twice represented Seattle at the National Poetry Slam. He is a fourth-fifth generation Filipino-Japanese American, born to a mother of Filipino descent and a father of Japanese descent. He currently studies law at Seattle University. 

His poem, Year of the Dragon, was made into a short film which recently played at the opening night of the 2017 Seattle Asian American Film Festival. Onscreen, Osaki recites his poem about the lesser-known struggles of Bruce Lee, who was exploited by the American film industry. He recites against the iconic backdrop of Canton Alley in Seattle’s International District, home to Donnie Chin’s memorial.

Director Quinn Russell Brown first met Osaki after he performed at an annual fundraiser for the Asian American Pacific Labor Alliance in early 2016, appearing amidst dancing and Taiko drums.

“He performed Year of the Dragon and I thought, ‘Wow! I’ve never seen anyone do spoken word like that,’” remarks Brown. “I’ve always liked poetry, but I’ve never gotten into spoken word.”

He soon reached out to Osaki about turning his performance into a short video, bringing in Aaron Middleton, a friend that Brown met while attending UW Bothell. The three set about bringing the project to life and pushed themselves to finish by the deadline of a filmed poetry contest in which Osaki hoped to participate.

What started out as a simple short ended up being screened at several film festivals. The trio credits its success to Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, who promoted the video on the official Bruce Lee Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram after Osaki tagged her in a post.

“That’s when we started realizing that maybe this could have a home in film festivals,” says Brown.

The film was produced in Canton Alley of the International District. Photo credit: Jordan Faralan

Despite the success of the piece, Osaki didn’t always aspire to be a poet.

“I wrote what I thought were lyrics when I was younger,” he laughs. “I really wanted to be a musician, specifically, like a rock star going on tour.”

Listening to Blink-182, the young Osaki wrote plenty of song lyrics — not thinking of them as poetry at the time. It wasn’t until his sophomore year of high school that a spoken word poetry workshop sparked his interest. He soon became hooked.

The workshop’s poetry facilitator is now one of Osaki’s mentors, introducing him to writing circles, open mics and competitive poetry slams. He says the workshop came at a pivotal point in his life, fueling his passion.

“I think a lot was going on,” he explained. “A classmate of mine was shot and killed on campus. I started learning that poetry can be used as a tool to reflect and to — hopefully, at some point — shift culture and change people’s hearts and minds.”

Osaki grew up watching Lee’s movies and hearing stories about the renowned figure from members of his family. His family members trained with one of Lee’s senior students, Taky Kimura, and Osaki began training as well, all the while looking up to other martial artists.

“I feel like Bruce Lee is also a symbol of pushing back against the dominant narrative of Asian-American folks,” he says. “Because, in my experience, Asian-American folks are expected to be quiet and passive and — historically — easily exploitable.”

“There’s a long history of the U.S. exploiting a lot of Asian American folks for things like cheap labor or to pit people against each other, specifically people of color, and to use the model minority to divide. Bruce Lee was someone I looked up to, to remind myself that there are folks that are fighting back both figuratively and literally.”

He describes the film’s impact on his life as having two sides.

Online, the film has reached people all over the globe. People from Asia as well as Syria have contacted Osaki to tell him that they relate with the poem’s message, feeling misrepresented as minorities in film and other media. Conversely, on the day the video was posted online, Osaki encountered an older Caucasian gentleman on the street who told him that he didn’t know Osaki could speak English. It was a reality check for him, telling him that barriers still existed.

Quinn, Osaki and Middleton are now filming a performance of Osaki’s poem Fishhooks, which was the other poem he performed on the night he met Brown.

“To a lot of folks, I’m expected to be a certain way because I’m visibly Asian,” says Osaki. “This film is like a nice reminder, for me, to remember that I don’t have to be that mold and I can strike back, like Bruce Lee.”


Aly Chu

Aly Chu is a production intern at KCTS 9 and a freshman at the University of Washington. Currently a contributor at the UW’s newspaper, The Daily, she enjoys visual storytelling and hopes to major in communications. In her free time, she works as an illustrator and creates webcomics.

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