Rare family photos reveal Bruce Lee’s inner life, discipline, and distaste for racial stereotypes
The cult of celebrity is merciless. A hungry public eats up gossip and dubious exposés purporting to reveal the real lives of Hollywood’s A-list, eager to tear down the icons they idolize. Most stars have a short time in the lights before popular appeal wanes, but a few continue to inspire generations of fans after they’re gone.
Bruce Lee is a legend, and, as with all legends, the truth behind his public persona is hotly contested. Since 2014, the Wing Luke Museum, in Seattle, has been peeling back the veneer of pop culture mythology to reveal the private life and inner workings of the martial arts master and groundbreaking actor through a series of exhibitions.
Achieving fame and success on both the soundstage and the mat required a single-minded determination tempered by strict discipline. At the brink of his Hollywood career, the already accomplished martial artist upended his fighting techniques, replacing the rigidity of traditional styles with his own highly adaptive Jeet Kune Do. Lee overhauled his training regimen with weight lifting, endurance training, stretching, and elements of boxing. If he couldn’t find equipment to suit his needs, he improvised or made his own.
Lee valued a balance of mind and body, devising a strict schedule to nurture both: four and a half hours of physical training; six hours of contemplation, reading, and writing; the rest dedicated to his family and friends. In public he was brash, cocky, and self-aggrandizing. At home he was engrossed in books on health and nutrition, political and spiritual philosophy, and fitness and martial arts. He kept a detailed journal, wrote poetry and letters, doted on his kids, and loved beef stir-fried in oyster sauce.
Inthe spring of 1959, an 18-year-old Lee landed in Seattle, after spending most of his life in the crowded streets of Hong Kong during the tumultuous Japanese occupation and the end of China’s civil war. Upon arrival in the Pacific Northwest, he lived in a back room of the Chinese restaurant where he waited tables, but Lee wasn’t content with the traditional role most immigrants took.
“Bruce Lee was an innovator, and we think it’s interesting that Seattle, which has become a breeding ground for innovation and entrepreneurs, also played a big role in shaping Bruce Lee,” the museum’s Margaret Su tells Timeline.
One innovative thing about Lee was his complete disregard for racial barriers. His Eurasian heritage caught him flak from peers back in Hong Kong. In America he opened his martial arts studio to anyone who wanted to learn. Lee’s first student in Seattle was Jesse Glover, a black friend. Outside the studio, he courted Linda Emery, a white woman, with whom he would have two kids.
The greatest impact Lee had on race was his commitment to being himself in front of the cameras. On September 9, 1966, American TV viewers were introduced to Lee’s character Kato, the crime-fighting partner to the eponymous character in the The Green Hornet. Kids ate up the kung fu action, but the deeper appeal for Asian Americans was seeing Lee not “acting” Asian. Behind the scenes, Lee pushed for more screen time and dialogue, refusing to be portrayed as subservient to his co-star. After the series’s one and only season, Lee picked up bit parts and choreographed fight scenes, but his story pitches and movie concepts were rebuffed. When studio executives made it plain that they felt the country wasn’t ready for an Asian leading man with a Chinese accent, Lee returned to Hong Kong to kick-start a movie career that didn’t require him to sell people on his race, and that studios would let him write and direct.
“I think what gets forgotten sometimes is the social climate in the U.S. during that time; having an Asian American male play a lead hero role in a film was absolutely unheard of,” says Su. “Hollywood wanted to pigeonhole him into roles of the obedient servant or the evil Fu Manchu, but Bruce Lee refused to do that. He refused to compromise on his intention to be seen and treated as a person, not a stereotype.”
Warner Brothers, which had cast David Carradine over Lee in its TV show Kung Fu, became the first major studio to back a martial arts movie, with Lee’s Enter the Dragon. Bruce Lee never saw it in the theater; six days before it opened, he died of cerebral edema on July 20, 1973, at the age of 32.
Today, his Seattle grave continues to draw visitors almost half a century after his death. For A Dragon Lives Here, the fourth installment of its exhibition series, the Wing Luke will focus on the connection between Lee and the city and their influence on one another.
“There is so much that people can learn from Bruce Lee’s story, aside from his mastery of martial arts,” says Su. “The newcomer dream and struggles; history and discrimination; personal inspiration. Bruce Lee believed in people expressing themselves authentically and reaching their potential. For him, that took the form of martial arts, but he didn’t want people to copy him. He wanted them to find their own way, whatever that may be. From the exhibitions, we hope people leave knowing that one person can make a difference and that by living life as your truest self, that one person can be each of us.”
A Dragon Lives Here opens March 10 and runs through 2019 at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle.
https://timeline.com/family-photos-bruc ... 4661891a9c
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