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

Just as the material evidence is scant, so personal accounts of Lee's life tend to be contradictory and unreliable. It is universally agreed that he was "very complex," but there is little to explain what made him what he was. He had a childhood free of trauma and discomfort. His father was Lee Hoi-chuen, a successful actor and Cantonese opera performer. His Eurasian mother Grace was the niece of Sir Robert Ho-tung, a wealthy philanthropist and Hong Kong's first knight of the realm.

"We had what I would call a very traditional Chinese upbringing," explains Bruce's brother Robert, eight years his junior.

"My father was away a lot of the time, but he ruled the house. He was very strict. You didn't mess around with him, you respected him. If we were bad he would punish us, but always verbally -- I don't think he ever hit us," Robert said.

Bruce was born in San Francisco in 1940, but the family moved to Hong Kong a year later, to a comfortable apartment on Kowloon's Nathan Road, with two maids and a chauffeur. At that time, Nathan Road was a quiet, tree-lined residential street; today it is the main artery through one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, and the Lee home has been replaced by a generic shopping mall. Baby Bruce would have had little memory of Japan's wartime occupation of Hong Kong. By the time he was a teenager the only real enemies were rival gangs and the comical short-sleeved British police who kept the territory relatively gun-free.

Much has been made of Lee's hell-raising youth on the mean streets of Kowloon, but it was more Guys and Dolls than Crips and Bloods (US gangs based in Los Angeles), according to Robert. After all, he was also mastering the cha-cha, and he had been acting in local films since he was six years old, sometimes alongside his father.

Bruce's initiation into the world of martial arts was hardly mythical either, Robert recalls: "He was always a flashy dresser and some of the boys at school used to tease him for it; you know, being a rich kid. One time after school I remember him coming back, his clothes and hair in a mess. The other boys had waited outside for him and roughed him up. So Bruce thought he had better learn to defend himself. Being very scientific, he decided to learn wing chun, which was best for close-fighting situations."

Lee trained under wing chun master Yip Man, but was never afraid to test his skills on strangers in the street or with rival martial-arts schools on Kowloon rooftops. His trouble-making necessitated several changes of school, and supposedly hastened his departure for America in 1959. The last of his schools, Catholic-run St Francis Xavier's College, is still there; a weathered 1950s building.

Students can still recount an apocryphal playground story of Lee kicking an apple, William Tell-style, off the head of an obliging brother.

A stone's throw from the school is the final and best-preserved destination on the Bruce Lee trail, the Kowloon Funeral Parlour. It's safe to say Lee's funeral was the Hong Kong equivalent of Princess Diana's. Some 25,000 people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of Lee's open casket.

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