When I was growing up in the far east ... of London, the only representations of east Asian women available to this little half-Chinese kid were supine sex-doll lotus blossoms like Suzy Wong and Juicy Lucy, or dragon lady real-life horrors like Imelda Marcos and Madam Mao. Male examples were no better. Screen Chinese were largely consigned to quivering cowards or fiendish villains. Poor Bert Kwouk had to play an assortment of buffoons and bogey men such as Kato in The Pink Panther and the Japanese officer in the TV series, Tenko, but at least he was in work.
Bruce Lee's arrival on the scene altered perceptions and challenged stereotypes. A wing chun kung fu-trained martial artist and actor born in San Francisco to parents from Hong Kong, he was admired by people of all races, becoming an icon for minority ethnic groups who had a beautiful Asian hero to look up to at last. Not only men of Chinese and east Asian heritage, but also south Asian and African Caribbean men were inspired by this handsome super-talented Chinese American. His screen success gave rise to the mega-hit single "Kung-fu Fighting" and even my dad raised his head out of his political tomes for long enough to appreciate that a legend had landed.
To mark forty years since Bruce Lee's death on 20th July and to celebrate and honour his life, an exhibition has just opened in Hong Kong.
It's justly deserved. Lee was not only an outstanding practitioner of kung-fu — famous for his speed, power and grace — he was also majorly intelligent and a deep thinker. While teaching his art to Hollywood movie actors such as James Garner, James Coburn and Steve McQueen (already an expert in the Korean art of Tang Soo Do), he was developing his own martial art style, Jeet Kune Do (the way of the intercepting fist), which took the best from a range of forms from across the globe including western boxing. He backed it up with an interest in philosophy which he'd studied at the University of Washington, so it was much more than just about the best way to hit people: it was about discovery and growth of the self.
He co-starred in the television series The Green Hornet (1966-7) as the masked chauffeur, biding his time, working on his big break. George Takei who played Sulu in Star Trek recalls in his autobiography, To the Stars, how in a break between takes while making the pilot episode, he, James Doohan and Lloyd James were captivated by a young Asian man who was limbering up.
"Suddenly, he exploded in a burst of kicks and leaps and twirls that was a symphony of speed. Our chatting ceased. We stood there, stunned. Then he repeated the ballet. His movements had grace; his body, control and elegance. We were mesmsrized. Then the flash detonation of energy astounded us a second time.When the role that Lee helped devise finally came up — Kwai Chang Kane in the television series Kung Fu (1972-5) — he was considered too Chinese (some say his accent was considered too thick) and the part was given to David Carradine acting in yellowface. While Carradine's diction may have been pristine, he lacked Lee's awesome martial arts abilities. One Kung Fu studio vice president said, "If we put a yellow man up on the tube, the audience will turn the switch off in less than five minutes." This was ultimately the producers' loss — think how much that franchise would be worth now had Lee starred in it.
Just then, an assistant poked his head out from his soundstage and called. "We're ready for you on the set, now, Bruce." As we stood open-mouthed, he quietly slipped back in. It had been an incredible demonstration of what incredible feats the human body is capable of. And we had just chanced upon this extraordinary spectacle.
We later learned that the martial artist was a young actor named Bruce Lee and that he was working on a new television series that had just sold called Green Hornet.
The rejection was reminiscent of what happened to Anna May Wong in the 1930s when she lost out on what would have been the pinnacle of her career when the starring role of Olan in Pearl S Buck's Pulitzer Prize-winning blockbuster, The Good Earth (1937), was given to Louise Rainer.
Lee made a handful of legendary martial arts films, chiefly for Golden Harvest in Hong Kong: Enter the Dragon, Way of the Dragon, Game of Death, Fist of Fury, and Big Boss.
When he died in Hong Kong aged 32, on 20th July 1973, it sparked a storm of conspiracy theories. So great was the shock of his early death that many claimed he'd been murdered: that's when I learnt from my martial arts father about the existence of something called dim mak, a technique for killing with only one or two fingers applied to the right spot. (My half-brother once described seeing dad use the softened technique, where the use of three fingers dissipates the energy and only stuns, when he was in his 70s and fending off a racist assault by several thugs on the tube.) Dad said there was also a technique that resulted in major organ failure after days or weeks and that he thought this might have been used on Lee.
However, various investigatons including one by Scotland Yard concluded that he'd had an allergic reaction to a painkiller containing Equagesic, which had swollen his brain.
To double the Lee tragedy, his son, Brandon Lee, followed him into the movies, only to be shot and killed in 1993 while filming his big break in The Crow. There was no union firearms safety officer on set; the actor aimed directly at Brandon when he should have been instructed not to, and a small fragment of a bullet had remained in the gun and been overlooked. This event has spawned its own conspiracy theories and Brandon has become something of a legend himself.
No matter how some malign forces still resist, Bruce Lee broke the spell of Chinese presented as dehumanised beings unworthy of respect, love, honour and inclusion. A poet and a scholar, actor and martial artist with emphasis on the artist", he exemplified the best in humanity. Rest in peace, Bruce.