Whose Laetie are You?

Source: Extracts from Rrekgetsi Chimeloane, Whose Laetie are You? My Sowetan Boyhood (Capetown: Kwela Books, 2001), pp. 31-34

Text: The day I saw my first Bruce Lee movie – Enter the Dragon – I understood why all the boys were running around with two bits of stick loosely bound together at one end by a chain. Kung fu hit the township in a big way and almost all the boys around my age were shrieking and screeching out like Bruce Lee: now me included.

[…]

I especially admired the boys who were going for karate and kung fu lessons all over the township. Every time I asked where I could go and sign up for classes, the other boys would look at me and say, “You think karate is for sissies like you? You wouldn’t even last a minute there.” There were boys who walked all the way to the Moravian Hall in Zone Five, about half an hour’s walk through different zones and territories, for lessons, and I wished I was among them. Then I would never again be afraid of any threats or obstacles.

But in the end I stayed with the movies and admired the art of acting. The two genres that had the most impact on me, not surprisingly, were martial arts and cowboys and Indians films. With the martial arts movies, not forgetting the special effects of actors performing the impossible, of great significance to me was the idea of seeing someone fighting bare-handed and defeating a bunch of people armed with a multitude of weapons. To me this was the answer to all the bullies who constantly threatened to beat me up with one weapon or another. The Hong Kong cinema presented me, in my mind anyway, with the possibility of turning myself from victim into victor. It showed me that you did not have to be big and strong to defeat your enemies, you just had to be quick and smart. Movies like Lady Whirlwind, with Angela Mao kicking all the bad guys from one end of the screen to the other, showed me that it did not even matter whether you were a boy or a girl.

[…]

Naturally enough, as young boys we all started adopting role models from the big screen. However, when one talks of the big screen, people should not think that we had a conventional cinema. It was a township school hall a makeshift movie house that existed on weekends only. What Bra Hohle did was to cover the windows with black plastic and throw a white sheet over the blackboard. That was our movie house, and since we had no other in the vicinity, that was fine with us.

Our first and foremost role model was Bruce Lee. As little boys we went crazy over Bruce Lee. What was strange, though, was that we could never remember even one of the names of the characters he played, To us, he was always simply known as Bruce Lee. Most of the other leading actors in the martial arts movies we gave names as we saw fit. We were around Sub B and Standard One and unable to remember or even properly pronounce their names, so we gave them names that seemed to suit their particular styles.

Take John Liu, for instance – due to his powerful kicking style, we called him Mr Ma-Kick. For some reason he was the only one ever afforded the respect of being called “Mr”. I knew for a face, because of the relatives we had living in the area, that in the Mabopane/Garankuwa district, north of Pretoria, he was called Chappies, after the bubble gum. Don’t ask me why. But to the kids in those areas the name somehow must have made sense.

Those we never gave names to were identified by their association with other actors and characters from the movies. It went something like, “He is the guy who was a friend of the starring who starred in the movie Eighteen Bronze Men.” By “staring” we meant the leading actor.

[…]

Another thing: we could not read the English subtitles at that age and were, anyway, not fast enough to follow the dialogue, but afterwards we could tell you exactly what the movie was about and what each character had said to each other.

What amazed me most, still amazes me as I look back, was how a movie you had missed was related back to you with intricacy, flair and style by those who had seen it. You would be told exactly who said what to whom and would get a full demonstration of the action. A second-hand film narration went something like this:

“After the starring fought with the other man … the one who was the villain in that other bioscope I told you about …”

“Which bioscope was that?”

“The one I told you about last time, man … about that man whose dark green punch sounded like a gun from the cowboy bioscope.”

“Is it the same one who rode on a reed on top of the water and always said ‘Buddha bless you’ in the other movie we saw, when they showed us a double feature and the film burnt halfway, and we had to come back the next day and watched that other movie about Shaolin?”

“Yes, but this time he did not have that green fist. In this bioscope he could crush your skull with his bare hands …”

“Yes, I remember that one …”

You really had to know your stuff about martial arts movies to follow a narration like that, or perhaps you just had to be as young, naïve and easily excited as we were about action movies and the big screen.

Comments: Rrekgetsi Chimeloane (born 1964) is a South African writer and novelist, whose memoirs describes his childhood in the South African township of Soweto under apartheid rule. ‘Laetie’ means little brother. ‘Bioscope’ is the South African term for cinema. The films mentioned are Enter the Dragon (Hong Kong 1973), Lady Whirlwind (aka Deep Thrust) (Hong Kong 1972) and The 18 Bronzemen (Hong Kong 1978).

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