Bruce Lee was a Chinese American martial arts expert and movie star best known for films including Enter The Dragon and Game Of Death. Born on November 27, 1940 in San Francisco, he was the son of Cantonese opera singer Lee Hoi-Chuen. Lee returned to Hong Kong at three months old and was raised in Kowloon, where as a child he appeared in several films. In his late teens he moved to the United States where he began teaching martial arts, eventually moving into films. Lee is widely credited with changing the perceptions of Asians in Hollywood movies, as well as founding the martial art of Jeet Kune Do. Lee died in Kowloon Tong on July 20, 1973 aged 32 from acute cerebral edema.
A bit of Bruce Lee in all of us
Keane Shum remembers the magic that was Bruce Lee, 40 years after his death in Hong Kong - his common touch was and remains his best move
A few times a year, I catch the Star Ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui and take a walk along the Kowloon waterfront. I walk past the clock tower, past the rising south face of the Cultural Centre, past the line of photograph stalls with the best views of the harbour and the fine diners inside the InterContinental. I walk past the handprints of movie stars that dot the promenade, and keep walking until a familiar bronze figure comes into focus, a lean body with limbs bent in anticipation, that seems to sway even though it is frozen.
"You cannot grasp hold of it," Bruce Lee once said, when explaining how kung fu is like water, and I feel the same way when I visit his statue, by the water. Disneyland calls itself the Happiest Place on Earth, but it's not even the happiest place in Hong Kong. This is.
This is where the lips of everyone who passes by curve into a smile, where young and old stand in front of the statue and assume their best sparring stance. This is where a mainland mother playfully instructs her son to stick his leg out straighter, where European backpackers mimic his battle screech and giggle. This is where most people, on recognising him when they come across the statue unexpectedly, can't help but do a little kung fu fighting.
The other day, I thought about how Bruce Lee was only two years older than I am now when he died, and how someone so young could have such an outsized legacy, stretching all the way from his bronze statue on the Kowloon waterfront to the one that stands, ready to strike, in a park in Bosnia.
We all have some Bruce Lee in us. To me, he is a model of immigrant Chinese success, someone I can admire for growing up here but making it in America, where he remains the only real Asian leading man we've ever had in Hollywood. To the taxi driver who drove me through Yangon and the Tibetan refugee I shared a beer with in Dharamsala - both who asked me about kung fu films before anything else - he is the scrappy underdog taking down "The Man", fighting off drug lords in Thailand and consiglieri in the Colosseum. And to the giddy Latin American mother and daughter, who asked me to take their photo as they laughed and climbed the statue railing so they could hold on to him, Bruce Lee is entertainment at its purest: he makes us happy.
There is an early screen test from 1965. Bruce Lee is 24, and he smirks with one cheek as he talks about his new baby boy, and about how "It's kind of noisy in Hong Kong, you know, around three million people there". He demonstrates a few lightning quick jabs to a stunned assistant director, his suit jacket zipping around his waist as he twists faster than the camera can record. He is cocky and charismatic, a symbol of boldness not unlike Hong Kong of the same era.
I wonder if today, 40 years since Bruce Lee died in Kowloon Tong, we in his hometown can still find some of him in ourselves, and in our city. No longer the brash and explosive roles he and Hong Kong once played, but the universal character who belongs to us all, a place where people come together, black people and white people, mainlanders and Hongkongers, just as they do at his statue.
"We will always be Muslims, Serbs or Croats," said one youth at the unveiling of the statue in Bosnia. "But one thing we all have in common is Bruce Lee."
Keane Shum is a lawyer in Hong Kong