Bruce Lee turns 75: Hong Kong’s most famous son, and a legacy that won’t die
A pioneer bringing Chinese culture to the world, a man who changed cinema forever, and an inspiration to people from Snoop Dogg to Hilmalayan villagers to Ultimate Fighting Championship competitors would have turned 75 this week. What do we owe to the influence of Bruce Lee?
You could tell there was something special about Bruce Lee the first time the camera caught his eye.
Look back at him there now in 1950, in scratchy black and white, at 10 years old playing the plucky orphan in the Feng Feng-directed The Kid, and you can sense immediately that right in front of you is a star in the making.
The young Lee followed that role up with a string of competent turns across all genres but nothing could really prepare the Hong Kong cinema industry - or the world - for the man who would emerge when he returned from the United States in the mid-1960s.
Lee hit the city - and the big screen - like a force of nature and the shockwaves are still being felt to this day. There’s never been anything quite like him, and chances are there never will be again.
Tragically cut down by a cerebral edema on July 20, 1973 at the age of 32, Bruce Lee remains the most instantly recognizable son the city had ever produced. Fans around the world today are preparing to mark what would have been the Lee’s 75th birthday, and to reflect on the man and his legacy.
Rex Tso Sing-yu knows a lot about the latter. Hong Kong’s only professional boxer is expected to fight for the city’s first world title in the new year and likes to tell a story that sums up how the world still thinks about Lee after all these years.
“Whenever I fought abroad as an amateur, people would ask me where I’m from,” says Tso. “I would tell them ‘Hong Kong’, and they’d always say, ‘Ah, Bruce Lee!’, and they’d make a signature Bruce Lee move.”
After being sent to the US in 1959 for school (and, rumours have it, for his own safety), Lee returned home to Hong Kong in the mid-1960s both embittered and emboldened. While he was there he’d seen his efforts to break into the mainstream - to make himself a star - thwarted, most famously by the people at Warner Brothers, who apparently listened intently to the idea he had for a story about a wandering martial artist, and then decided to make the TV series Kung Fu and give the non-martial artist David Carradine the lead role.
Lee vowed to never see his aspirations defeated again and the films he made on his return to Hong Kong - The Big Boss (1971), Fists of Fury (1972), The Way of the Dragon (1972) during his lifetime, Enter the Dragon (1973) and Game of Death (1978) after he had passed away - were box office smashes at home and, incredibly, abroad.
Producer Andre Morgan joined Golden Harvest in the 1970s and soon found himself working with Lee on the likes of The Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon. He looks at Lee’s legacy from the unique position of one who saw his initial impact, and all that has followed.
“The legacy has multiple parts,” he says. “There was that legacy as a pathfinder, the first Chinese star to become an international superstar. He became inspirational to the next generation and beyond - the Jackie Chans, the John Woos, the Peter Chan Ho-Suns - because somebody had shown what could be done, how you could get there from here. And his path became the path of the Hong Kong film industry, and the Chinese film industry, as we see them today with co-productions with Hollywood.
“He legitimized Chinese and Asian martial arts to the world, he changed the definition of fight sequences in film, he opened doors to cultures that went beyond fortune cookies and cheongsams and rickshaws, and he opened minds to philosophy, to a different way of thinking. Not bad for one man is it?”
Lee’s legacy here in Hong Kong seems as tangled up in issues of identity as the city currently is today. There’s a statue on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, a five-year exhibition at the Heritage Museum, but they were both a long time coming and visitors often ask why there is no more. His fans here do the same. The debates over just why he never seems to have been fully embraced - or celebrated - since his death would fill any number of dissertations.
The irony there is that Bruce Lee was a man who broke down barriers in terms of who you were and where you came from.
“What shouldn’t be underestimated with Bruce Lee is the effect he had - still has - on ethnic minorities around the world,” says Morgan. “Everyone from Snoop Dogg to villagers in the Himalayas has said this to me. A non-white hero was a first and opened doors for people of all races - not just Chinese. It was that case of ‘if he can do it I can do it.’
“Finally I think there’s the fact that he showed young people - everyone really - that if you go out there and you do good work and you’re honest about what you are doing, if you make your mark, if you follow your vision, then can reach your goals.
Alberto Mina is the only Hong Kong fighter plying his trade in the pinnacle of mixed martial arts - the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The fighter, who is preparing for a bout in Seoul on Saturday night, is among the many who believe if there was no Bruce Lee, his sport would simply not exist.
READ MORE: Bruce Lee, a global hero who epitomised Hong Kong’s strengths - it’s just a pity the city could not preserve his former home
“Bruce Lee was the first inspiration I had, he made me get into martial arts,” says the Brazilian-born Mina. “Every little kid dreams of being Bruce Lee and it has been a great privilege for me to live in Hong Kong and to see his history close up.”
Tso meanwhile grew up watching Lee’s films, learning about his life, and in some degree of awe about what the man achieved.
“Bruce Lee was great man, not only because of his outstanding kung fu skills and extraordinary fitness, but also because he brought introduced Chinese kung fu and culture to the world,” says Tso. “That’s an achievement I’ll never be able to match. But something else he did was that he made Chinese people around the world proud. That’s something I hope to achieve. I also hope to put Hong Kong on the map in the boxing world – and Bruce Lee is my inspiration and role model.”