The martial arts king passed away 43 years ago at the age of 32
27 November 2016: Today would have been Bruce Lee’s 76th birthday.
Bruce Lee was and still is a hero to the East Asian community. Beyond his incredible martial art skills and wise philosophy, Bruce Lee should be remembered for the gleaming legacy he leaves behind on screen that richly showcases the capabilities of East Asian talent.
Lee passed away many years before I was born but yet, East Asian representation was sparse during my youth. My earliest memory of East Asian culture being represented on British television was Hong Kong Phooey, a cartoon depicting the adventures of an undercover pooch janitor with laughably clumsy kung fu skills. It was an incredibly silly slapstick cartoon, that on reflection, was considerably degrading to Chinese culture, but hey, it made me laugh as a child.
Next on the roster of East Asians on screen was everyone’s favourite kung fu comedian, Jackie Chan. As a youngster, I was a big Chan fan and still am. Even his early questionable films such as Who Am I? and Rumble In The Bronx still stand the test of time with me. However, the appeal of Chan and Hong Kong Phooey (I’m not seriously saying Hong Kong Phooey is an accurate measure of East Asian representation, it was just my frame of reference as a child) lay in their comedic value. It was the hilarity of Asian culture that drew attention.
I remember thinking as a child that East Asian culture was just ‘funny’ to the west and had no weighty substance to it. Oddly, I didn’t take too much offense to it nor did I dwell on it too much. However, I did ask my father whether all Asian actors fulfilled this stereotype. My father drew my attention to his Bruce Lee VHS collection and beginning with the Big Boss, we sat down and watched Lee’s biggest five films back to back.
My mind was blown. Not only was Bruce Lee an incredible martial artist that made Jackie Chan, Jet Li and that guy from Martial Law all look inferior, but bloody hell was he incredibly cool. He was even cooler than James Bond – Lee was smoother, stealthier and that yellow jumpsuit trumps Bond’s tuxedo any day. For the first time, I felt that East Asian culture was not being laughed at and was taken seriously. Bruce Lee made East Asian culture inspiring on screen and even the white guys wanted to be him on screen. No one could beat up Jackie Chan in his films, but equally, none of them aspired to be him. When watching Bond films, you wished you were as cool as 007 and when watching Bruce Lee films, you wished you were as cool as the Little Phoenix.
For me, this is why Bruce Lee was so important. To date, East Asians still have a hard time trying to be cool on screen. Ken Jeong’s role in the Hangover was hilarious but certainly, no one would aspire to be Mr Chow. Perhaps the closest ‘cool’ Asian we have on screen is Sung Kang’s Han character from the Fast And The Furious franchise, but even he can’t pull it off as effortlessly as Lee did.
Yes, Lee must be remembered for his influential skills as a martial artist and way-of-life philosopher, but for me, he must be remembered because he is the epitome of coolness, and the East Asian community is in dire need of that.