Bruce Lee: the Asian-American male hero

Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee in The Way Of The Dragon (1972), the only film Lee directed.
Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee in The Way Of The Dragon (1972), the only film Lee directed.PHOTO: TWITTER/MOMAFILM

The martial arts icon was one of the first to highlight Asian masculinity to the West

NEW YORK • Western culture has a long tradition of emasculating Asian men, from Fu Manchu to Charlie Chan to Hop Sing on Bonanza. So it was unfortunate, but not entirely surprising, to see comedian Steve Harvey making jokes at their expense this month in a TV segment, for which he later apologised.

But one of the earliest and most enduring pop-culture refutations of those stereotypes comes from Bruce Lee, who starred in just five feature films before his death in 1973.

Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, who devoted an entire play to Lee's life, said the actor was the first Asian man to manifest all of the conventional American movie markers of masculinity. "He creates a new archetype in the West," he said. "The AsianAmerican male hero."

And while that archetype looks simple, Lee's work is far more complex than it seems.

Those five starring roles, filmed in the space of three years, are as densely packed with meaning as Lee's body was with lean, fast-twitch muscle, said Ms La Frances Hui, an associate film curator at the Museum of Modern Art, who organised Eternal Bruce Lee, a week-long series of screenings that started last Friday.

When they were portrayed at all in 20th-century American movies, Asian men were often cast as servants or deviants, or as wily and desexualised, said Associate Professor Daryl Maeda of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who is working on a cultural biography of Lee.

Lee's indelible image was crafted as a rejection of those diminished roles. And the most essential aspect of that image is his body, stripped to the waist, corded and quivering with muscle. It is the centrepiece of dozens of fight scenes, which Lee choreographed himself, and is frequently revealed with slow, deliberate pageantry.

Those bodily displays made him unique: an Asian-American star whose masculinity and physical prowess were front and centre in the films and on promotional posters, billboards and merchandise around the world.

Inevitably, his shirt comes off.

The setting could be the Colosseum in Rome or an island fortress near Hong Kong. His opponent could be a towering karate champion or an army of uniformed thugs.

But sooner or later, in each of his films, viewers will get to see Lee's sculpted physique.

In the 1972 film Fist Of Fury, his character faces off against a group of more than 20 students at a martial-arts academy. They circle him, poised like dancers, before they rush in to strike - but are stopped by a simple twitch of Lee's hands. He has to strip off his top first. They wait.

"That's the moment when you know he's going to start kicking a**," Prof Maeda said.

There were practical reasons for this kind of display, of course. His bare skin, often superficially torn in battle, helped him stand out amid the hurtling bodies and identical costumes that packed the screen.

But that approach had a larger resonance, too. Lee's career was taking off around the same time that then United States president Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China, a sign of the tilting global balance of power.

"Bruce comes along at a moment when the image of China starts to change," Hwang said.

Lee, who was born in San Francisco, raised in Hong Kong and spent much of his adult life in the US, embodies a long-running flow of people and ideas in both directions between Asia and America, Prof Maeda said.

"He was constantly shuttling across the Pacific," he said. "So if we want to think about where Bruce Lee belongs, where he came into being, it is in these transits and migrations."

Lee's small body of work sends his characters around the world. He fights Italian mobsters, drug smugglers in Thailand and even Chuck Norris, the real-life karate champion turned action hero turned Internet meme.

But Lee also evokes variant meanings. In 1970s Hong Kong, Prof Maeda pointed out, viewers with a living memory of Japan's imperial incursions into China would stand up and cheer as Lee's character defeats a battery of Japanese opponents.

But viewers anywhere can see him as a more conventional underdog, a compact Asian man taking on much larger, often Western, opponents, such as Norris, or a Russian killer played by Robert Baker, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game Of Death (1972). "He has a very masculine body and, at the same time, he is not a big man," said Ms Hui.

Even among martial-arts stars of his era, Lee stands out for his intense focus, the precision of his moves and sheer fury of his fights, augmented by his signature screeching.

"When he enters a fight," Ms Hui said, "he becomes kind of an animal."

Those performances differ from real combat, of course. But generations of fans have expanded Lee's mythology to include real-life feats. You can find grainy footage of him performing two-finger push-ups for an audience at a martial arts tournament or peruse an extensive analytical literature devoted to his legendary one-inch punch.

This legacy extends to his training, which was unusual because he incorporated techniques from a variety of disciplines, from Japanese karate to Chinese gongfu, building on the best of each. "He ends up being a predecessor of mixed martial arts," Hwang said.

Most exciting for Ms Hui is the chance for audiences to watch new restorations of Lee's work in a theatre, as opposed to on TV or a mobile device. "Seeing these films on a big screen, in a communal setting, is something we haven't done for a long time," she said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2017, with the headline 'Bruce Lee: the Asian-American male hero'. Print Edition | Subscribe