James Wing Woo was born September 26, 1922, on the property of a Standard Oil refinery in Oleum California, north of Oakland. His father had a restaurant there and lived nearby with his wife and children. The Woo family would grow to a number of eight boys (James was the second). Before it did, however, the Woos moved to China. It was 1928, and James was six. But his father had gotten involved in tong wars in the Bay Area, and, as James recalls, had “a price on his head.”
The Woos lived in Canton, the capitol of Kwantung province in the southern part of China, and, within a couple of years, James began learning Tai-Chi from a godfather and various family friends. “I was playing volleyball and I had friends who studied martial arts in the park.” He had plenty of potential mentors. In 1929, Japan invaded the northern part of China and many martial artists in Manchuria and Shanghai moved to Canton. “So I got to meet them and got interested in all of them.” By age 12, he began learning the art of fighting, Shaolin style. He also had a gym teacher who taught martial arts.
As the Japanese threatened to take Canton, the Woo family split up, some members staying as long as they could; others going to Kowloon, and the rest fleeing back to California. In 1938, James and a brother settled in San Francisco. The 16 year-old James attended school and found work as a waiter. He also found use for his martial arts education.
“One day, a guy didn’t want to pay and skipped, and I went after him. He took a swing at me. I blocked and hit him, and one of the cooks looked at me and said, ‘You trained a little bit, huh?’ I said, ‘A little bit.’ He said, ‘Let’s see you do this.’ He comes at me. I was by the sink, I go down, and he goes over the sink. Needless to say, I didn’t have that job any more.”
Despite getting into fights worthy of the movies, he was interested in neither. He continued to work as a waiter, and, in 1942, became a military man. He’d been inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech, after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, to join the Marines, but when he tried to sign up in Oakland on December 8th, 1941, he was told he’d be accepted only for mess duty. After getting into another fight with a restaurant customer, who filed charges against him, James joined the Navy, enlisting in Winslow, Arizona. He did his boot camp training in Idaho and wound up as a ship’s cook, traveling to New Guinea and the Philippines.
Once, while on shore patrol on Treasure Island near San Francisco, he was in Chinatown and, sure enough, got into a fight. “I saw this couple fighting, and I wanted to break it up, and the girl hit me. And then, later on, years later, her girlfriend says to me, ‘Come, I want you to meet my girlfriend.’ I looked at her and said, ‘I know her. She hit me!’ We started going out to dances.” The girl’s name was Eve, and they would marry in 1951.
Out of the Navy by 1945, James took on a variety of jobs, including waiting tables, working in sales, peddling everything from Rena chinaware to automobiles. In the early ‘50s, he was also a cable car conductor. Away from work, he practiced Tai Chi in local parks. Many evenings, he would visit a studio run by Lau Bin, who knew James’ father as a fellow member of the social organization, the Hop Sing Tong. James enjoyed spending time with professor Lau and his students, but preferred to work out by himself. One evening, he met a group of Kenpo Karate artists who were visiting from Los Angeles. In the summer of 1960, James, along with a group of professor Lau Bin’s students, went to Los Angeles, staying with a prominent Kenpo Karate instructor in Pasadena. “I got enticed by this teacher, who was writing a book on Chinese martial arts,” says James, who prefers not to identify the man by name. The instructor asked James if he could help him write the book.
After assuring his family of his plans, he returned to Pasadena and assisted the instructor on the book. James also began helping to teach the higher belt classes in the Pasadena gym, for free. James had never thought of himself as a teacher, but, as he reasons, “I was staying there, and I wasn’t really doing anything.” Actually, he was giving the instructor information for his book, and he was having impact in his classes. “You look at these students,” he says, “and they’re all fast and sloppy. So I slowed them down and taught them forms.”
With the book finished, James went home to San Francisco, where he learned that the Pasadena instructor had found a publisher. However, according to James, it was a bad deal, and he declined to sign the contract. “So I was going to go back to San Francisco, and all these brown belt class students, the higher-ranked students, said, ‘Don’t go back. We’ll find another place to open up, and you can teach there.’”
James decided to move south, and, in 1961, the Academy of Karate Kung Fu opened in a large storefront at 5440 Hollywood Boulevard. “All the people came,” James remembers, including students of the Pasadena instructor. His wife Eve, with whom he would have three children, stayed in San Francisco, but would join him later. In 1963, he and a partner relocated to a new gym, at 5156 Hollywood Boulevard, and his school was renamed The Chinese Martial Arts Association. In 1986 he would move to Sunset Plaza and, finally, to his current location.
In the 1970’s, with Bruce Lee and other martial artists taking kung fu fighting to the big screen, James and his most accomplished students began drawing attention from Hollywood producers and directors. James got his first role in Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite in 1975, after he’d almost tossed the director out of his studio. “One day I’m at 5156 Hollywood and I smell somebody coming in with liquor on his breath. I was ready to throw him out. Then his whole entourage came in. ‘Don’t you know who he is? That’s Sam Peckinpah.’ I didn’t know.”
James wound up playing “Tao Yi,” but notes that he never actually performed martial arts in any of the 15 roles he has had, from Killer Elite to Lethal Weapon 4 (in 1998) to a recent episode of the TV mystery series, Monk.
He has portrayed a priest, a criminal clan leader, an elder martial arts master, and “a dead Chinese man.” And he’s never taken acting lessons. “I just let it happen,” he says.