Bruce Lee's Enduring Appeal

Jun 01, 2009
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Gongfu fans still can’t get enough of Bruce Lee whose legend grows with help from David Bowie, David Henry Hwang and Wu Ziniu. 

Picked over Gandhi and Pope John Paul II as a symbol of solidarity, a statue of Bruce Lee was erected last November in Mostar, a southern city of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Life-sized (5 ft 7 inch, 168 cm) and in shining bronze, the legendary martial artist and movie superstar stood tall in Central Park, just off the front line where Bosnian Croats and Muslims had killed each other indiscriminately for three bloody years from 1992 to 1995. A decade after the United Nations imposed a ceasefire, Mostar’s ethnic groups remain deeply divided. Its city fathers hoped that the presence of Bruce Lee would help to lend stability to the uneasy peace. The statue was put up with the help of China and Germany, whose ambassadors were present at its unveiling.

Too far-fetched to have Bruce Lee, dead these 33 years, to do peacekeeping duty in a war-torn East European country he had never visited? Not to the Bosnians. Bruce Lee movies are popular in Mostar. Its people remain impressed by his fighting skill and his determination to triumph against all odds. Admiration of Bruce Lee is one of few things shared by the Croats and Muslims.

Bosnians are hardly alone in their Bruce Lee craze. The man may have died in 1973, but his legacy lives on. In the first years of the 21th century, the Cult of the Dragon—so called as Bruce Lee’s screen name was Hsiao Lung (Little Dragon)—is bigger than before. Bruce Lee has become an icon that transcends cultural and national boundaries. Like Elvis, Mohamad Ali, Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara, he has followers all over the world. Like the people in Mostar, they have taken him as one of their own. The fact that he is Chinese is as immaterial to his admirers as that Ali and Elvis are American, Mandela is South African and Che is Cuban.

Bruce Lee stamps have been issued by three African countries —Gambia, Tanzania and the Central African Republic— and by tiny Antigua-Barbuda, a Caribbean tax and online gambling haven with a population of 64,000. In 2002, the government of Myanmar sent out a stern warning that a set of Bruce Lee stamps bearing the words ‘Union of Myanmar’ was a fake. It immediately became a collector’s item.

Bruce Lee T-shirts, mugs and key chains are on sale everywhere. So is the weapon called the nanchuku (two short sticks connected by a length of chain), which he made famous in his movies. (The Mostar statue carries a nanchuku in its right hand). Books and magazines on Bruce Lee proliferate, enough to fill up an entire aisle of a large bookstore. Amazon alone has 441 Bruce Lee titles on offer.

The Japanese put Bruce Lee in manga (comics) and anime (cartoons). Microsoft digitized him into its X-Box games. Madam Tussaud’s cast him in wax and put him on display in its museum in Shanghai. The Bruce Lee Club of Hong Kong, one of the many in the world, raised US$150,000 and put up a statue, also in bronze but much larger at 2.5 m, facing Victoria Harbour. It was crafted by Cao Chongen, known throughout China as “Deng Xiaoping’s sculptor”. The statue was unveiled a day after the one in Mostar, on November 27, 2005. It would have been Bruce Lee’s 65th birthday. Robert, his younger brother, a musician and businessman, did the unveiling.

(Bruce Lee, who has German blood from his mother’s side of the family, was related to the illustrious Hotung clan in Hong Kong and Stanley Ho, the casino king of Macau. But his mother was estranged from her family and he never acknowledged them. Bruce Lee’s American widow, Linda Emery, has remarried. His son Brandon, also a martial arts actor, died in 1993 at the age 28 after being shot with a ‘prop’ gun while shooting the ‘cursed’ movie, The Crow. His daughter Shannon, an actress and musician, lives in California, is married and runs the Bruce Lee Foundation to promote martial arts. Bruce Lee is buried in Seattle, where he met Linda while studying philosophy at the University of Washington.

In America, a Bruce Lee musical is winding its way to a Broadway opening in 2008. Variety, the indispensable gossip rag of the entertainment trade, says a trio of heavyweights are working on it: the ever youthful David Bowie will write the score, David Henry Hwang, the Chinese-American award winning playwright (M Butterfly) will do the script and Matthew Warchus, last seen on Broadway directing the Lord of the Rings musical, will be its director.

Over in China, the Bruce Lee industry is thriving. There are Bruce Lee stamps, Bruce Lee books and magazines, Bruce Lee photographs and various Bruce Lee weaponry (all illegal but easily obtainable.) There is even a Bruce Lee museum, set up in 2002 in his ancestral home of Shunde in the Guangdong province, never mind that Bruce Lee visited the place only once, when he was five.

This year, Beijing put the official stamp of approval on one of its proudest sons. China’s rulers have given permission to the state-owned China International Television Corporation to fund a 40-episode TV drama on Bruce Lee. It will be directed by Wu Ziniu, whose 1986 war film, Evening Bell, won the Special Jury Award at the Berlin Film Festival. The drama will be aired in 2008, to coincide with China hosting the Olympics. CITC also intends to market the series to overseas buyers, the first time it has ever done so.

In virtual reality, Bruce Lee is every bit as popular as he is in the real world, perhaps even more so. Unencumbered by space and distance, Internet shrines of the master have mushroomed to uncounted numbers. Some are simply fan sites where his admirers gather. One of them, Bruce Lee Café Plus of South Korea, has attracted 18,000 members since it was set up in 2004.

There are many ‘specialty sites’ focusing on just one aspect of Bruce Lee’s life or his art. Some are dedicated to examining his quotes. (A famous Bruce Lee quote sounds like it comes straight out of the pages of Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling self-help book, Blink. It goes like this: “Don’t think, feel. It’s like pointing a finger away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all the heavenly glory.” Could Gladwell be a Bruce Lee fan?)