Hip hop's tie-in to Bruce Lee
Illustrations of Hong Kong's film icon are on display at an art exhibition in New York, a city where rappers can truly relate to his fights against 'the man', writes Ben Sin
July marks the 40th anniversary of the death of perhaps the most famous Hongkonger ever: Bruce Lee. While his influence on this city, its people and cinema, as well as the global martial arts scene is widely recognised - the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, for example, will host a Lee exhibition from July 20 - perhaps lesser known is how the martial arts icon served as an inspiration to early hip-hop culture. That's what an ongoing art exhibition in New York City sets out to explore.
Featuring 12 graffiti-styled illustrations of Lee, "Kung Fu Wildstyle" debuted in Hong Kong last autumn, then made its way to Shanghai to start the year, and is now on exhibit at Lincoln Centre in New York until July 15.
As far as graffiti street cred goes, it'd be hard to top this: the dozen pieces on display were illustrated by Fred Brathwaite, aka Fab Five Freddy, and Chan Kwong-yan, aka MC Yan.
Brathwaite was among the first graffiti artists in New York in the 1970s, a time when what would eventually become the global phenomenon known as hip hop - graffiti, beatboxes, rapping and breakdancing - was merely an obscure subculture in the streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx. Chan is a founding member and chief lyricist of Hong Kong's first rap group, LMF, as well as a major local street artist in the mid-'90s.
Producer of the documentary, Wild Style, and host of the seminal hip-hop television show Yo! MTV Raps - Brathwaite says Lee's emergence in the '70s was an inspiration for him and a generation of black youths in the poor neighbourhoods of Brooklyn.
"New York City in the '60s and '70s was a time of civil unrest, when poor black kids such as myself were not given a lot of opportunities," Brathwaite says. "So to see Bruce Lee, this minority, stand up against 'the man' was an inspiration."
Brathwaite adds that, to kids in urban communities, Lee was a symbol of a minority who fought against oppression.
Chan - who showed up to a soccer match in the 2009 East Asian Games with a "Sick Men of Asia" sign, a nod to that infamous racially charged scene in Fist of Fury - agrees. He acknowledges the longstanding marriage between hip hop and Lee.
"Because Bruce Lee had so much swag, black musicians related to him," he says. "Carl Douglas released that disco song Kung Fu Fighting in the early '80s, and look at [rap group] Wu-Tang Clan. Their whole shtick was inspired by Hong Kong martial arts cinema."
Brathwaite says he basically had two hobbies in the '70s: art and Lee. He'd ride the subway to Manhattan every weekend to visit art museums during the day, then head to Times Square at night to watch Lee's films.
"Everything about Lee just resonated with us at the time," says Brathwaite, who cites Fist of Fury as his favourite Lee film. "Lee's martial arts style was all about free-flowing movements - to make himself like water - and that free-flowing aspect was basically what started rapping."
Chan and Brathwaite first met in a Skype video chat last year through Sean Dinsmore, a New York native now living in Hong Kong as an event organiser. "I met Yan, and we hit it off right away over our love of hip hop," says Dinsmore. "Yan mentioned he's a big fan of the Wild Style documentary, and I told him I knew the guy who produced it."
It didn't take long in that first video chat for both guys to realise their mutual love of Lee.
"We started talking about doing something together," says Chan. "Since we're both artists and both huge fans of Bruce."
Each artist started with five portraits of Lee (they each added one more piece this year), expressed in their own styles: Chan drew influences from Chinese calligraphy, and Brathwaite illustrated detailed portraits of Lee over graffiti style backdrops. Chan did most of his work with a brush; Brathwaite turned to digital technology.
"How I work on canvas now is similar to today's hip-hop music: it's created digitally," says Brathwaite. "I approached this series like I'm going to do a remix of Bruce Lee, using his likeness, combined with some of my old school graffiti."
With help from fellow music promoter Shelly Pecot, Dinsmore secured sponsorship from Adidas, and "Kung Fu Wildstyle" debuted in a tiny pop-up space on the trendy Po Hing Fong Street in Sheung Wan in October. With a DJ and a crowd of hipsters loitering on the streets, that night became a block party.
This time in New York, the exhibition will resemble a legitimate art exhibition, as it is part of a larger Lee tribute at the New York Asian Film Festival, which also includes a screening of Enter the Dragon.
For the organisers of the film festival - all of whom cite Hong Kong films as their first love in Asian cinema - the opportunity to work with fellow Lee fans was welcome.
"This year marks the 40th anniversary of Enter the Dragon, so we were planning on screening the movie, anyway," says Goran Topalovic, the festival's executive director, who was introduced to Dinsmore through Nat Olson, one of the festival's founders who now lives in Hong Kong and runs the blog "Hong Kong Hustle".
Dinsmore recalls scrambling to make the collaboration work.
"They contacted me at the last minute. We only had a few weeks to work everything out," he says. "But being a native New Yorker, it means a lot to me to see this show in not just New York City, but legendary Lincoln Centre."
On opening night on Sunday, Brathwaite and Chan moderated a panel discussion of Lee after a packed screening of Enter the Dragon. Brathwaite said Lee is "up there with Elvis as an icon" while Chan said Lee is "the pride of all Hong Kong". The diverse crowd roared with approval.
"About time the [Hong Kong] government unveiled an official Bruce Lee museum exhibition, it only took those guys a few decades to realise his impact," Chan says.
Like his idol, Chan is still fighting "the man".