“The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.” These words were once spoken by Bruce Lee (aka The Dragon), the most iconic martial artist in cinematic history. Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of Lee’s death, and by any estimation he certainly practiced what he preached.
His life – and tragically brief filmography – has inspired untold numbers of aspiring Western kids to take the unlikely path of training in the martial arts. Not to mention that his rise to stardom in the 1960s and early 1970s singlehandedly helped bring kung fu films into the mainstream.
Just last month a seven-foot bronze statue of Lee, nunchucks in hand, was erected in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. The monument is the first of its kind to honor The Dragon in the United States and was cast by an artist in Guangzhou, China. The placement of the statue, which has not yet been permanently ensconced in a concrete base, is appropriate. Lee once taught martial arts in Chinatown. His celebrity students included Steve McQueen and James Coburn.
While Lee (born Lee Jun Fan) was raised in Hong Kong, he was in fact born in San Francisco on November 27, 1940, while his father was touring with a Chinese opera company. As the young age of 13, he began training under now legendary kung fu master Yip Man, whose life has been the subject of a bevy of films, most recently in Grandmaster, directed by acclaimed Shanghai-born, Hong Kong-based filmmaker Wong Kar Wai.
Returning to the U.S. for college at the University of Washington, where he majored in philosophy but did not graduate, Lee began to train fellow students in the ancient art of kung fu. He also met his wife Linda during this time. The couple had two children, Shannon and Brandon (who tragically died on the film set of The Crow in 1993 at the age of 28).
After staring in his breakthrough role as Kato in the 1960s television series The Green Hornet, San Francisco-born Lee went on to act in a handful of now cult classic Hong Kong films, including The Chinese Connection, Fists of Fury, and most notable of the lot, Enter the Dragon. In addition to acting, he developed his own highly syncretic, free-flowing system of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do.
Lee’s notes and essays were compiled in a posthumously published book, the cult classic Tao of Jeet Kune Do. He was highly dedicated to individual freedom and detested formula.
“Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it,” he once said.
His attitudes toward the individual are equally libertarian: “Man, the living creature, the creating individual, is always more important than any established style or system.”
Although his freedom-infused philosophy and stature as a martial artist inspired millions around the globe, his career was tragically cut short when he died – so the official story goes – in Hong Kong at the age of 32 of cerebral edema (brain swelling) due to hypersensitivity to an ingredient in the prescription medication Equagesic.
The unlikely death for someone in peak physical condition gave rise to much speculation, ranging from Chinese Triads to an evil curse or demons haunting his Hong Kong house. The debate rages to this day – especially amongst his most diehard fans. And they are legion. His resting place has been ranked the second most significant celebrity grave site by TIME Magazine, just behind Princess Diana.
Fans are marking The Dragon’s death in Hong Kong with art gallery shows, exhibitions, and street graffiti contests. Tomorrow, “Bruce Lee: Kung Fu. Art. Life.” opens at Hong Kong Heritage Museum, where it will run for five years. Among the 600 items from his life that will be on display are his iconic yellow tracksuit and his notebook of 108 different cha cha dance steps – he was 1958 Hong Kong cha cha champ.
Yet, Lee’s most loyal fans feel this is still not enough. While Lee’s impact on the Western imagination is vast, many believe the government in Hong Kong needs to do more to fully honor the legacy of the man who may be the most universally recognized Hong Kong citizen of all time. Lawyers and scholars are teaming up with fans to try and rectify what they perceive as an imbalance.
“The Hong Kong government or the people on top of the governing body are not thinking, first of all, in terms of Hong Kong people's mindset,” Lo Wai-luk, an associate professor in Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Film, told Reuters. “They think of how to do something to please the main Chinese government.”
The implication being, as Reuters goes on to note, that Beijing may not be crazy about promoting Lee, who officials in Beijing may view as an iconoclastic symbol of rebellion and freedom.
Wong Yiu-keung, chairman of Hong Kong's Bruce Lee fan club, added: “They have always used him when promoting the city abroad but have never done anything in honor of him.”
Whether not the government agrees, one thing is certain: The Dragon lives on.