Hong Kong businessman W. Wong still remembers the day in 1972 when he first heard neighborhood kids raving about a character who seemed larger than life: Bruce Lee.
Lee, an accomplished martial artist whose films sparked a worldwide kung fu craze, was one of the first Asian men to become a Hollywood superstar before his death at 32.
His influence can still be felt in Hong Kong, where he spent his childhood and later years, as fans hold exhibitions and martial arts workshops this week to mark the 50th anniversary of Lee’s death.
“Every kid needs some kind of role model, and I picked Bruce Lee,” said Wong, 54, who has run the city’s biggest fan club devoted to the star for nearly three decades.
“I had hoped my life would be like the Bruce Lee I saw: handsome, strong, with great martial arts skills and a heroic image.”
In a Wing Chun studio – a style of martial arts Lee practiced before inventing his own Jeet Kune Do method – the martial arts master is revered as something akin to a patron saint.
Studio owner Cheng Chi-ping, 69, told AFP that his cohort began their training under the shadow of Lee’s cultural influence but “we could never match his speed, strength or skill. physical”.
Lee’s appeal hasn’t diminished for the next generation, said Mic Leung, 45, who trained at the same studio and as a teenager researched Lee’s films on old videotapes .
“When we talk about the ‘god of martial arts’, we can only talk about Bruce Lee. There is no one else,” he said.
Break down barriers
Born in San Francisco in 1940, Lee grew up in Hong Kong and rose to fame as a child actor at an early age, supported by his father, who was a famous Cantonese opera singer.
At 18, he continued his studies in the United States and, over the next decade, taught martial arts and scored minor roles in Hollywood, before landing the role of Kato in the television series “The Green Hornet”.
But it wasn’t until Lee returned to Hong Kong that he landed his first leading role in the martial arts film ‘The Big Boss’, which made him a household name in Asia after its 1971 release. .
The following year saw two more box office hits – “Fist of Fury” and “The Way of the Dragon” – cementing Lee’s personality as a relentless, lightning-fast fighter.
Lee had completed filming his fourth star vehicle, “Enter the Dragon”, and was halfway through his fifth when he died on July 20, 1973, of brain swelling, attributed to an adverse reaction to painkillers.
Film scholar Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park, who taught Lee’s films at the University of Hong Kong, said Lee expressed a kind of Chinese identity that transcended national borders.
“I would call Bruce Lee a successful model of Chinese-speaking soft power with Hong Kong characteristics,” he told AFP.
In Hollywood, Lee represented a rebuke to racist stereotypes, showing that Asian men were more than just servants and villains.
The scenes where he bares his torso and flexes his muscles — what Magnan-Park called the “kung fu striptease” — were pivotal because they show how ripped bodies can belong to Asian heroes, too.
“He made Asian men look sexy, and that’s something I don’t think we talk about enough,” he said.
Preserving the legacy
Despite Lee’s enduring fame, preserving his legacy in Hong Kong has not been an easy task, fan club president Wong told AFP. Government support was intermittent at best, he said.
In 2004, fans successfully called for a bronze statue of Lee to be installed on Hong Kong’s famous waterfront, but a campaign to revitalize his former mansion could not save it from demolition in 2019.
At an exhibit at a government-run museum commemorating Lee’s life, a woman named Yip told AFP she wanted to share “a symbol of ancient Hong Kong” with her two children.
Wong, who had held a small exhibition in the Sham Shui Po district, acknowledged a decline in interest among young people, but said Lee’s philosophy still had the potential to become relevant again.
He pointed to how Hong Kong Democracy Movement protesters in 2019 cited the martial artist’s mantra – “Be water, my friend” – as a reminder to adopt flexible resistance tactics.
That discussion largely dwindled after authorities cracked down on dissent, but Wong recalls audiences at the time wondering why the young protesters were so taken with Lee.
“As long as everyone still remembers (Lee), once your interest is piqued, you’ll have a chance to rediscover him,” he said.
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