Why does Hong Kong treat Bruce Lee like an outcast and refuse to honour its greatest son?
Yonden Lhatoo says it makes no sense that Hong Kong will try anything to bring in tourist dollars except capitalise on its biggest brand name
A story this newspaper published last week about martial arts icon Bruce Lee got me thinking again about a question that has bothered me for many years: why does Hong Kong shun its most famous son?
The story featured a dedicated fan from San Francisco with an extensive collection of Bruce Lee memorabilia, some of which he has lent to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. Jeff Chinn spoke of how his idol made it “cool” to be Chinese while growing up in a climate of racial discrimination in the 1970s.
Thank you for reminding us, Jeff Chinn. And let me extend the tribute by declaring that it’s not just Chinese people who owe a debt of gratitude to the late kung fu legend. Bruce Lee changed the derogatory perception in the West that Asians were mostly a faceless mob of timid little people to be pitied or pushed around. He gave us respect.
He was a cultural phenomenon who took on a Hollywood film industry that used yellow-face portrayals of Asians – remember John Wayne as Genghis Khan with his eyes taped back to look more “Oriental” in The Conqueror?
Cinema-goers brought up on a diet of racist stereotypes such as Dr Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan didn’t know what hit them when Lee kicked and punched his way onto the scene. He gave us “face” – dignity and pride in the social context that Asian people understand so well.
And look at us in Hong Kong, still unwilling to pay official tribute to our biggest hero. We can’t even name a road after him – Arbuthnot, Cadogan, Gutzlaff, Lambeth, pick any name except that of the most recognisable and idolised Hongkonger ever.
A long overdue move to convert his home in Kowloon Tong into a commemorative museum flopped, even after its owner offered to donate it to the government.
And don’t mention the statue on the Avenue of Stars – an initiative by dedicated fans, not allergic officials. One of the most prominently displayed statues in this city is the figure in Central’s Statue Square. Does anyone even know whose likeness it is? I just found out today, only because I had to look it up for this column: Sir Thomas Jackson, an early HSBC banker. How many people know or care about him, compared with Bruce Lee? I rest my case.
So why does the government continue to treat Lee as persona non grata? Over the years I’ve asked quite a few senior officials in this administration as well as previous ones about this unspoken taboo and drawn either a blank or an unconvincing denial.
Bruce Lee experts and fans I’ve spoken to can only think of the shady circumstances surrounding his death at the home of a mistress in 1973 as the reason for the stigma. Was he poisoned? Were triad gangsters involved? What does it matter? How does it belittle his monumental achievements?
Well-known local musician, entertainment veteran and Bruce Lee fan Anders Nelsson told me it shows how unreasonable the government’s “conservative mindset” can be. He agreed with me that it’s ridiculous for something like this to hold us back in this day and age when Hong Kong is looking for ideas to attract more tourists. We talk about “Brand Hong Kong” but ignore the biggest brand name this city could capitalise on.
Nelsson recalled how former governor Chris Patten had been quite receptive to his suggestion in 1994 that the road to Hong Kong’s airport should be named after Bruce Lee, calling it a “jolly good idea”. The powers that be settled for the highly imaginative “Airport Road” instead.
If it were up to me, I would re-name our airport after Bruce Lee, with a gigantic sign reading “Enter the Dragon” in the arrival hall. You want to impress visitors? Show them who’s The Big Boss.