FRED HO is angry. Angry that he was made to feel like an alien -- undesirable and unattractive -- while growing up in America. Angry that in America he was singled out in the Army as one who looked like the enemy. Angry that he still sees and experiences racial prejudice and stereotyping in America in 2003. Fred Ho is angry, but he has channeled that anger into a performed art. His evening-length, live martial arts epic, "Voice of the Dragon: Once Upon a Time in Chinese America," whips into town for two performances this weekend at the Center for the Arts at George Mason University, demonstrating with flying kicks, stunning jabs and fearlessly fast simulations of hand-to-hand combat that this is not his grandfather's martial arts demonstration.
A composer and musician, Ho, who co-wrote the show with Ruth Margraff, decries the inauthentic homogenization of martial arts within American popular culture. With "Voice of the Dragon," he says, "The audience will be presented with something that's an alternative to Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, 'Charlie's Angels' and Arnold Schwarzenegger." He sees the appropriation of martial arts by these and other popular action-adventure movie stars as ongoing suffocation of authentic Chinese and Asian cultures. "One of the main stereotypes of Asian males is that we're all kung fu hacks, and that's depicted in mindless ways. We're not visible as three-dimensional human beings."
The son of a Chinese-born political scientist and professor, Ho grew up in the 1960s in Amherst, Mass., where he says he felt like an outsider. "I faced constant racial violence as a child . . . and that continued in the military when I was made into target practice because I looked like the enemy." At that time the United States was at war in Vietnam.
"I turned all that pain into power," Ho says. A one-time construction worker and a retired hand-to-hand combat specialist trained in assault techniques, he says, "I enjoyed music as a way to express the anger and turmoil inside myself. I was attracted to music that came out of the black experience; my identity was ignited by the black power and black arts movements."
Ho found he could best express his developing consciousness as an Asian American through music; his Afro Asian Music Ensemble, which plays during performances, blends these worlds, crossing boundaries to fuse jazz, traditional rhythms, popular song and Chinese opera.
"Voice of the Dragon" evolved when Ho, encouraged by a friend, realized that the best way to combat Asian stereotypes was to "reclaim that heritage and oppose the inauthentic diluted images." He continues, "When I began to incorporate martial arts with modern dance, I found that the audience responded much more to the martial arts. It has a tremendous appeal to young people. Ho believes the younger generation gets it. "Voice of the Dragon" transforms an ancient Chinese fable into a visceral, nonstop blend of action and adventure. Set in China during the Ching dynasty of the 17th century, the tale follows a young girl raised by Shaolin monks who rebels, even though she has learned ancient teachings and martial arts forms. When Gar Man, the girl, snatches the sect's secret scrolls, she must be captured. "This show challenges them with complicated political questions. It's about something other than escapism," Ho insists. The composer knows he can't overcome the negative images of mass media with one show: "All we can do on our own is continue to wage the struggle."
VOICE OF THE DRAGON: ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINESE AMERICA -- Saturday at 7 and Sunday at 2 at the Center for the Arts, George Mason University, Fairfax. 703-218-6500.