Born in San Francisco 75 years ago today, Bruce Lee rose to fame in the 1970s but died young, at the age 0f 32. His short life, in the following decades, has become an enduring element of American iconology.
Even Time Magazine, in all its arguable cultural wisdom, featured Lee as one of its top 100 Persons of the 20th Century, under the category “Heroes and Icons,” along with Muhammad Ali, Marilyn Monroe, The Kennedy’s, Rosa Parks, and Jackie Robinson. [Time]
In a current exhibit in Seattle (where Bruce Lee studied philosophy in college, met his wife Linda, and started his career as a martial arts instructor in Seattle’s Chinatown), the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience frames the importance of Lee’s life as one of breaking barriers:
“While his one-inch punch raised the bar for martial artists, his skill, hard work, and determination to break media stereotypes of Asian Pacific Americans was game-changing in advancing racial equality.”
A reviewer describes the exhibit as focusing “on how Lee broke the Charlie Chan-Fu Manchu Hollywood stereotype and persuaded mainstream America to look at Asian Americans in a more respectful light.” [Seattle Times]
American pop culture is a squishy platform for addressing social justice, but for those who grew up in the 1960s and 70s, the visceral effects of big-screen images of a Chinese American triumphing in scenes of choreographed but skillful battle against villains of all stripes were psychic means for personal development and empowerment.
Even in the kitchy American entertainment world, there are statements of identity and power to be found. Other Americans saw in Bruce Lee a similar expression of empowerment:
“For many African Americans throughout the seventies “Kung Fu Theater” was staple weekend viewing… The exploits of Bruce Lee, the one armed swordsman, the master killer and other heroes of the martial arts small screen were as welcome in most Black homes as were the exploits of Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Bill Russell. Images of Bruce Lee were at least as popular in many Black homes as were images of Martin Luther King, possibly even more so.”[Amy Abugo Ongiri, “He wanted to be just like Bruce Lee”: African Americans, Kung Fu Theater and Cultural Exchange at the Margins]
Over the years, however, Bruce Lee’s cultural legacy has started to pose some challenges, especially for younger Asian Americans. In an interview with Zak Cheney-Rice of Mic, Jennifer Fang, creator of the race and culture blog Reappropriate, says,
“both [Asian-American] men and women are disproportionately depicted as martial artists.” … “I’d love for media to depict Asian-Americans in broader and more varied ways,” Fang said, “which I think would better acknowledge the many ways people are Asian-American. I’d love to see Asian-Americans being and doing non-stereotypical things. An Asian-American action hero who can’t do martial arts. An Asian-American who maybe struggles in school.” [Zak Cheney-Rice, 7 Things About Asian-Americans You’ll Never Learn From the Mainstream Media]
What does the Millennial generation want to see? Lauren Jow, a Los Angeles journalist lists them:
“I’d like to see stories about poor Asian families, LGBT Asians, overweight Asians, Asian kids who didn’t grow up with a Tiger Mom or didn’t have a mom, Asians running for office, ditzy Asians in high school, Asians trying to date in the modern world, Asians who are lost and trying to find themselves, Asian CEOs and businesspeople, Asians who are physical and violent and not in a gangster/kung fu kind of way, Asians being eloquent and preachy and emotional — in short, Asians doing all the things we do that have nothing to do with being Asian.” [Zak Cheney-Rice, 7 Things About Asian-Americans You’ll Never Learn From the Mainstream Media]
The new generation will create new cultural icons to serve its needs. But for those who grew up watching Bruce Lee transform from being Kato, the Green Hornet’s sidekick, to his masterful performance in his last completed film “Enter the Dragon,” he was a symbol of empowerment.
Bruce Lee on TV
Bruce Lee in the movies
- TIME: Bruce Lee, by Joel Stein
- WUNC: Bruce Lee Brings Together Black and Asian-American Audiences by Shawn Wen & Frank Stasio
- ABCNews: In Bruce Lee’s Shadow: Asians Struggle to Create New Hollywood Images, by Bryan Robinson
- The Asian Reporter: Bruce Lee: A Dragon in the Emerald City, by Kate Hubbard,
- IMDB: The Green Hornet
- IMDB: Enter the Dragon
- Bruce Lee Foundation
- Seattle Magazine: #ThowbackThursday: Bruce Lee’s Seattle Days
- CBSNews: The Immortal Bruce Lee