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

Lee's 12 years in the US, from the age of 18 to 30 are relatively well-documented: philosophy studies at Washington University; marriage to Seattle girl Linda; development of his own martial art jeet kune do ("the way of the intercepting fist"); and his first frustrating television parts in the xenophobic American industry.

After being spotted at a karate competition in 1964, he was groomed for a spin-off from the Charlie Chan series called Number One Son.

That fell through, but he landed the role of Kato in crime series The Green Hornet. Its creator, George Trendle, also wrote The Lone Ranger, and Lee's part was a variation on Tonto: ethnic sidekick to the Caucasian hero.

Lee's weekly burst of kung fu turned some heads, and he was soon teaching the likes of Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Roman Polanski, but that didn't help him up the Hollywood casting ladder. The final insult was the oriental-western series Kung Fu, which Lee had co-developed with the intention of playing the lead. But his chance to be forever associated with the word "grasshopper" was lost to the more ethnically palatable David Carradine.

Incensed and disillusioned, Lee started looking back to Asia, where producer Raymond Chow was coincidentally leaving Shaw Brothers, Hong Kong's only major film studio, to set up his rival operation, Golden Harvest.

"I first saw Bruce doing a television interview here in Hong Kong in 1970," says Chow. "He was demonstrating his skills, breaking wooden boards in the studio, but what impressed me was his sheer presence. It just came through the screen. I tried to find him the next day but he'd already returned to San Francisco. Eventually, though, I managed to get in touch with him and he finally agreed to come back and make pictures with us."

Lee's first three movies for Golden Harvest, The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and Way of the Dragon, made him a superstar within two years. Each of them broke Hong Kong box-office records, but more crucially, they were the first Asian films to make an impact in American and European markets. The theme of all three films is basically the same: Lee innocently strolls into town, sees his fellow Chinese being humiliated, and, when he can restrain himself no longer, opens a huge can of whup-ass on the foreign oppressors.

Essentially, Lee reappropriated his Chineseness, drawing on his immigrant experiences at the same time, presenting local audiences with a version of Chinese masculinity that could take on the world.

In Fist of Fury, for example, Lee returns to 1930s Shanghai to find that the occupying Japanese have killed his master and humiliated his martial-arts school with a plaque labelling China "the sick man of east Asia." Lee, of course, makes them eat their words. A sign outside the city park saying "No Dogs and Chinese" is similarly annihilated, and the film ends with Lee leaping at the foreign crowd and martyring himself in a hail of bullets. In Way of the Dragon, Lee's character (named Tang Lung, literally "Chinese Dragon") visits Rome, where he vanquishes a Japanese fighter and two Americans, including future action star Chuck Norris. Lee literally tears a strip off Norris, ripping out a handful of his chest hair as they fight to the death in the Colosseum.

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