Wednesday, July 20, 2005
Bruce Lee, R.I.P. : A Hong Kong Boy?
Today marks the 32nd anniversary of screen legend Bruce Lee's tragic death. Lee had met with his co-star (and some allege, his lover) Betty Ting Pei and Golden Harvest producer Raymond Chow at Pei's apartment. After the meeting, Chow left for dinner, but Bruce stayed - he soon after complained of a massive headache and retired to bed. An ambulance was summoned, but by the time he reached hospital he had died of cerebral edema, or swelling of the brain. He was only 32 years old.
Some say it was drugs; others say it wasn't. As you can see from the picture to the left, the muscle-bound Lee only had 1% body fat, and weighed only 128 pounds, making him extremely vulnerable to the effects of drugs. Others blame bad feng shui - two weeks before his death, a huge typhoon ripped off a feng-shui mirror used to deflect bad luck away from the apartment he kept with his wife, Linda Emery (he'd met her at the University of Washington, where he was a philosophy major).
In any case, what is indisputable is that Bruce Lee became a legend and spawned an entire genre of martial-arts, 'kung-fu' movies to the world. Jackie Chan, van Damme and Chuck Norris all owe their careers to him. Of course, Hong Kong had had a huge movie industry with the Shaw Studios producing 40 films a year during the 1960s. But these were generally low-budget products for a Chinese audience. Bruce had brought the Hong Kong movie to the world. Many people still associate Hong Kong with Bruce Lee.
Which is the interesting thing. Bruce actually was born in San Francisco to a Hong Kong Chinese father and a Chinese-German mother; they were touring (presumably only the father!) the West Coast as part of a Chinese opera troupe. Bruce featured in his first film aged three months. Ironically, this macho icon was supposed to be a baby girl!
He later came back to Hong Kong, and quickly learned how to speak not only Cantonese, but also English, Mandarin and Japanese. He grew up knowing he was different from other children, a bit of a loner, and although quite good at school, often got into fights. He learned the Wing Chun style of martial arts from the Yip Man school. His parents, worried about his fighting, sent him to the US to complete his education. So he actually spent his high school years in the US, as well as his time in college studying philosophy. He also taught martial arts to a variety of stars, like Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, Steve McQueen and James Coburn. That was probably his ticket to fame, because he later landed a part as Kato on the TV series, Green Hornet. The TV show eventually folded though, because Kato became more popular than the main character!
It was only after he had achieved stardom in the US that he was sought out in Hong Kong. And this is my question - can Hong Kong's movie industry truly claim him as their creation? Granted, Golden Harvest produced the movies that made him a universally known figure. But one wonders if he could have ever 'made it' if he'd stayed in Hong Kong. The city's entertainment industry does not take many risks and sticks to tried (or should I say 'tired') and true formulas. I actually don't think Hong Kong alone could have made him a star.
But he took his own path, and many of us still love him for it. On our Tsim Sha Tsui walk, during which we talk about Hong Kong's movie business (by the Avenue of Stars), we have a theory as to why so many here still lionize him to this day. It was because before Bruce, Hollywood portrayed Chinese as servile, spineless yes-men (that arguably continued for some time). But Bruce was a demigod, and the main attraction. He was a symbol for millions of Chinese (and other Asians) that could stand up to the West, and not be the worse for it.
We are sorry, Bruce Lee, that you had to sacrifice your health to entertain us. But thank you for the memories. And like it or not, this town will claim you as one of our own.