Sat, Jul 19, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Is Bruce Lee still a legend in Hong Kong?

The city's most famous son had a lot more than just kung fu and almost single-handedly put the Hong Kong film industry on the global map, but attempts to commemorate him have not been going well

By Steve Rose  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

As movie pilgrimage sites go, the Romance Hotel, on Cumberland Road in Hong Kong's Kowloon Tong district, is not a tourist-friendly destination. To get past the Sikh doorman, you will need to be sober, over 18, fluent in Cantonese, and accompanied by a member of the opposite sex.

This two-storey villa was once the home of kung-fu superstar Bruce Lee, but exactly 30 years after his death, you could hardly describe it as a shrine. What used to be a light, spacious interior, furnished with Emmanuelle-style wicker chairs and Arco lamps, is now a warren of cramped rooms, each equipped with hot and cold flasks of water, a TV playing Chinese porn, a 1970s-style double bed with a radio built into the velour headboard and a roll of toilet paper considerately placed by the bedside. Lee's Japanese garden out front is now a concrete car park, complete with a movable screen to conceal visitors' license plates.

The good news is that rooms are available at the reduced rate of HK$200 for three hours. In the wake of Hong Kong's crippling SARS epidemic, the Romance Hotel is doing its bit to revive the tourist industry.

Lee didn't die here but at the nearby apartment of his friend and possible mistress Betty Ting Pei, who infamously provided the medication when he complained of a headache on July 20 1973. He lay down for a nap at about 7.30pm and two hours later Betty couldn't wake him. Doctors were called and when they failed to revive him, he was rushed to Queen Elizabeth hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Cumberland Road, though, was Lee's office, gymnasium and family home. He called it the Crane's Nest, and by Hong Kong standards, it was palatial. Lee would jog around the respectable neighborhood at six every morning, then work out in the back garden or in his purpose-built gym. Upstairs was his study, with its extensive library of books on martial arts, philosophy, ballet and positive thinking, all with notes in the margins and passages underlined. Not to mention his state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment, on which he would watch any fight material he could obtain, from children's martial arts competitions to Muhammad Ali matches, which he studied with a mirror so that he could imitate Ali's left-leading moves.

Lee may be one of the most famous Chinese people who ever lived, the figurehead of an enduring martial-arts cult, and the man Hong Kong's film industry has to thank for its now global reach, yet his memory has not been well preserved. In fact, as Hong Kong has built and rebuilt itself into a first-world city, any trace of Lee is rapidly being eradicated.

Of course, the dwindling physical evidence only enhances the legend of Bruce Lee. And in the modern pantheon of prematurely dead celebrities, his myth is one of the best. Like James Dean, he left a slim body of work and a good-looking corpse. Like the late US president John Kennedy, his death is as unexplained as it was unexpected. Like Elvis Presley, he's still believed to be alive. But Dean didn't direct his own films; JFK didn't write volumes of pop-oriental wisdom, and Elvis, for all his karate skills, never had a one-inch punch. Even the conspiracy theories about Lee's death -- extreme reaction to a painkiller, overdose of cannabis, revenge killing by Triads or Shaolin monks -- not to mention the similarly tragic death of his son, Brandon -- feed into some superhuman fantasy. The perfected warrior who just had to have an Achilles heel. How often do ordinary mortals die of aspirin?

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