Written by Juliana Liu, BBC News, Hong Kong
Bruce Lee’s daughter has visited the major new exhibition dedicated to her father, as Juliana Liu reports
The world knows him as Bruce Lee, the cool and cocksure Chinese-American martial artist who unexpectedly burst into global cinematic consciousness in the early 1970s.
He starred in only five feature films as an adult, and only three of them were released before his early death in Hong Kong at the age of 32.
But fascination with his life, philosophy and legacy remains, crossing the barriers of age and nationality.
Starting on Saturday, Hong Kong will mark the 40th anniversary of Lee’s death by opening a five-year exhibition at the Heritage Museum celebrating the achievements of the city’s biggest star.
“I think that actually the reason we are still talking about Bruce Lee today, and not in a nostalgic way but in a relevant way, is because of the depth of his experience and his philosophy and the authenticity of his life,” said Shannon Lee, his only daughter.
“If he just performed well in a few action films, without all that underneath it, then I don’t think we would continue to be as relevant and inspiring today.”
‘Strong and playful’
Ms Lee is head of the US-based Bruce Lee Foundation, which has lent hundreds of items to the exhibition.
Juliana Liu goes to visit a gym where they practice Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do
Among the 600 items on display are the famous yellow track suit Bruce Lee wore in the film Game of Death, his poetry written in English, family photos and a notebook containing the award-winning cha cha dancer’s routines.
“My memories are very much like glimpses. What I remember most is the feeling of him. I remember this amazingly safe and strong and playful and loving energy that he had. I can still feel it, you know?”
Her father was born in San Francisco in 1940, the year of the dragon, to parents visiting from Hong Kong.
The family returned to the then British colony when baby Bruce was only a few months old.
He became a child actor who excelled in the physical arts, including the wing chun style of kung fu and Latin dance.
But he was not considered academically talented, so he was sent back to the US after he turned 18.
During university, Bruce Lee taught Chinese martial arts. He married one of his students, Linda.
The young family moved to California, where Bruce eventually landed a TV series, the Green Hornet.
‘Charismatic and sexy’
After limited success and significant disappointment as an Asian man fighting for roles in Hollywood, Lee decided to return to Hong Kong.
The struggling actor’s first film as an adult, The Big Boss, was a surprise hit across Asia. Bruce Lee mania was born.
Jeff Yang, a Chinese-American author who has written extensively about Hong Kong cinema, believes Lee was a transformative figure for Chinese and Asian men in particular.
“He demonstrated to non-Asians that Asian men could be strong, charismatic and sexy. That they could own the screen and command box office dollars and the cultural spotlight,” he said.
“And while it’s taken decades longer for others to be given the same opportunity, there isn’t an Asian or Asian American actor today who doesn’t acknowledge the debt they have to Lee for opening people’s minds to the potential of Asian men.”
‘Empty your mind’
Lewis Luk, a long-time practitioner of the mixed martial arts style that Bruce Lee developed, agrees, saying the actor won international respect for Chinese people with his courage, flair and physical strength.
“He was a rebel. He combined the East and the West in martial arts instead of following classical forms, and he won respect for Chinese people around the world,” he said.
The middle-aged lawyer is one of the instructors at a gym in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui neighbourhood, which was once one of the actor’s former residences.
A group of martial artists practices Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do, which roughly translates as the way of the intercepting fist, there twice a week.
Two of the younger practitioners, Adrian Li and Davide Silipo, describe themselves as Lee fanatics. They have tattooed their idol’s sayings onto their bodies.
To them, Lee was a teacher of life who emphasised the importance of self-reliance and adaptability.
They try to incorporate one of Lee’s popular sayings in their practice: “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless like water. Now, if you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. You put it in a teapot and it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or creep or drip or crash. Be water, my friend.”
Such is the devotion the actor continues to inspire that fans in the city are asking why the government has failed to establish a permanent museum dedicated to his memory.
“Bruce Lee transcends nationality, gender, ethnicity, religion and cultural differences,” said Hew Kuan Yau, a Malaysian and committee member of Hong Kong’s Bruce Lee Club.
“I don’t know why the government doesn’t fully recognise his contributions to Hong Kong and the world. Maybe they have some mental block because he was a fighter and not just a scholar.”
A businessman who owns the Lee family’s former home in the Kowloon Tong district offered in 2008 to donate the space in order to set up a permanent memorial hall.
But he and the government were unable to agree on the terms of the deal. The talks broke down two years ago and the exhibit at the Heritage Museum was devised.
The businessman, Yu Panglin, has been quoted as saying he planned to sell the property for $23m (£15m).
So instead of a permanent museum, fans can visit Bruce Lee’s statue on the Avenue of the Stars and the Bruce Lee Club house, both in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighbourhood, a new painting exhibition at an art gallery in the Wanchai area and the Heritage Museum in the New Territories.