Is there a person on this whole planet who doesn’t know who Bruce Lee is? Nope. Despite being known as the “strongest man ever”, he was a lot more than that.
For too many years, Hollywood’s archetypal action hero was portrayed as a towering, masculine, no-nonsense-kind of white guy that seamlessly swept aside the ‘bad guys’ always threatening to kill innocent people or destroy the world altogether.
At the same time, these 20th-century American movies also helped to create another, far more damaging cultural misrepresentation and stereotype that saw Asian men being portrayed as servants, deviants, or as far-fetched as wily and desexualized people.
It wasn’t until the late 60s of the 20th century and the emergence of Bruce Lee – the little known American-born actor of Asian heritage – that these stereotypes were refuted and a new pop-culture was born.
Bruce Lee, who was born in San Francisco, raised in Hong Kong and spent much of his adult life in the United States, perfectly embodies and blends the two cultures, a fact that helped his career skyrocket in the span of just a few short years.
“He was constantly shuttling across the Pacific,” La Frances Hui, an associate film curator at the Museum of Modern Art, told the NY Times.
“So if we want to think about where Bruce Lee belongs, where he came into being, it is in these transits and migrations.”
Playwright David Henry Hwang – who devoted an entire play to Lee’s life – described the actor as the first Asian man to embody all of the conventional American movie markers of masculinity.
Bruce Lee’s career spanned over a period of three years, during which he starred in five action packed movies that quickly propelled him to stardom. Even today, everyone still knows who Bruce Lee is.
His carefully crafted image, the lean, muscular body, stripped to the waist, was in stark contrast with the typical portrayal of Asian man as depicted in Hollywood movies preceding his rise to stardom and acted as a powerful rejection of those diminishing roles.
“Those bodily displays made him unique: an Asian-American star whose masculinity and physical prowess were front and center, not only in the films themselves, but also on promotional posters, billboards and merchandise around the world,” wrote the NY Times in their piece dedicated to Lee’s rich legacy.
In the 1972 film “Fist of Fury” (also referred to as “The Chinese Connection”), his character is matched up against a group of more than 20 students at a martial-arts academy. They circle him before rushing in to strike, only to be stopped by a simple twitch of Lee’s hands.
You guessed it – he has to strip off his top first.
“That’s the moment when you know he’s going to start kicking ass,” said Mr Maeda, a professor at the University of Colorado who is also working on a cultural biography about the legendary actor.
Lee’s small but muscular body is often measured up against much larger, often Western, opponents, including Chuck Norris, or a Russian killer played by Robert Baker, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in “Game of Death”.
Lee is unquestionably the stand out performer among the martial-arts stars of his era, with his intense focus, the precision of his moves and the sheer fury of his fights – augmented by his signature screeching – forming the cornerstone of his enduring legacy that continues to live on and on.
“When he enters a fight,” Ms. Hui said, “he becomes kind of an animal.”
This legacy extends to his training, as he incorporated techniques from a wide range of disciplines, from Japanese karate to Chinese kung fu, building on the best of each.
“He ends up being a predecessor of mixed martial arts,” Mr Hwang said.
All in all, in a short period of time, Bruce Lee managed to become a legend that is unique and unmatched, even today. There has not been a single actor that has been compared to him and he was and still is, despite his vulnerable side, one of the greatest “honks” on the screens.