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.
ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE
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?
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.
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.
"I think he changed Chinese people's perception of themselves," says Jon Benn, who played the evil boss in Way of the Dragon and remained friends with Lee. "At that time I think the west still looked on Chinese as `chinks'; only good for laundry and take-outs.
"The fact that he was just a little guy -- 66.7kg, 1.68m -- and could take on the biggest gweilo [Cantonese slang for foreigner] and knock the hell out of him. Chinese people thought: `Hey! Maybe I could do that!'"
Take Lee out of these films and you're left with three pulp kung-fu movies. He had been acting and fighting on screen all his life, and with his added Hollywood experience, he knew how to capture his own skills to the best advantage: by placing himself squarely at the centre of the frame and switching between long uninterrupted sequences and Sergio Leone-style close-ups. Not even bad dubbing could diminish his international impact.
Lee's next project, Game of Death, was to be a more philosophical movie, but he interrupted it for the Hollywood/Hong Kong co-production Enter the Dragon. It is the most popular and polished of Lee's films, but was not a hit in Hong Kong. Condescendingly, Warner Bros still didn't trust Lee to carry the movie, and recruited two other "good guys", blaxploitation star Jim Kelly and B-movie actor John Saxon. On an outlay of about US$850,000, Enter the Dragon grossed an estimated US$90 million worldwide. Lee died shortly before it was released.
One thing Lee would still recognize on Nathan Road are the fake-Rolex salesmen, who are still to be found surreptitiously approaching tourists. They're a vestige of Hong Kong's reign as the world capital of counterfeiting, before China overtook it. The film industry of the 1970s held a similar disregard for intellectual property rights, and the Bruce Lee brand was practically copyright-free. Scores of imitation Lee films were rushed out, with titles like Re-Enter the Dragon, Enter Another Dragon, Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger, or even Bruce Lee Fights Back From the Grave. Leading them were martial artists named Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Liang, Bruce Leung, Dragon Lee -- usually sporting Lee's trademark bob haircut, yellow tracksuit and plastic sunglasses.
"Everyone was looking for a Bruce Lee replacement, but we knew we'd never find one," says Raymond Chow. "You could find someone who was a good fighter or a better actor, or even more handsome, but that's not Bruce Lee. You'll never match his dedication, his loyalty to his profession, his charisma. Bruce had a lot more than just kung-fu."
In the rush to fill the Lee-shaped vacuum, though, Chow's Golden Harvest was more active than most. As well as pale imitators, it rushed out two Lee documentaries, and, in 1978, the much-maligned Game of Death. Keenly anticipated as the last genuine Bruce Lee film, it proved to be a clumsy combination of original Lee material, footage of his funeral and a laughable succession of body doubles.
The following year, the company released something called Game of Death 2, cobbled together from outtakes of Enter the Dragon.
In its efforts to exploit Lee, though, Golden Harvest at least groomed the next generation of action stars, who have taken Hong Kong cinema even further. Jackie Chan and Sammo "Martial Law" Hung both had bit parts in Enter the Dragon, and were clumsily forced into the Lee mould in films like New Fist of Fury and Enter the Fat Dragon.
One of Chan and Hung's first Golden Harvest projects, 1976's Hand of Death, was directed by John Woo, the man who went on to redefine Hong Kong and Hollywood action cinema. Mainland export Jet Li also got his first break thanks to Golden Harvest.
Hong Kong's fight choreographers have fared equally well, to the extent that it is practically impossible to contemplate making a Hollywood action movie without them. Charlie's Angels, X-Men, Daredevil, Blade II, Bulletproof Monk and even Scooby-Doo have all benefited from the Hong Kong touch. Most successful of all is Yuen Woo-ping, who has become a celebrity in his own right after working on the Matrix movies and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His latest project is Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, which stars Uma Thurman in a very familiar yellow tracksuit.
Meanwhile, back in Hong Kong, attempts to commemorate Bruce Lee have not been going well. The government is investing more than HK$22 billion to build a new Disneyland, but the only visible monument to Lee is the waxwork in the local Madame Tussaud's. Fan groups have campaigned for a Lee memorial gallery and their proposal was approved by the local urban council in 1999 (despite one politician's objection that Lee's personal life was not respectable enough). The gallery was to be ready for the 60th anniversary of Lee's birth, in 2000, but the urban council was disbanded under China's political restructuring at the beginning of that year.
"I don't think it will ever happen," says W. Wong, chairman of the Bruce Lee Club. "It shows how short-sighted they are. Bruce Lee is one of Hong Kong's greatest public assets who has become a superstar all over the world. But instead they are building a Disneyland!"
The club runs a small Bruce Lee shop in a mall a few hundred yards from Lee's childhood home, and has more than 300 members, including local film stars. They are holding a 10-day exhibition at Hong Kong's arts centre to mark the 30th anniversary of his death, but their pleas to the government to buy the Romance Hotel and turn it into a museum have been fruitless.
Jon Benn, the boss in Enter the Dragon, milked his 15 minutes of fame by opening the Bruce Lee Cafe in the 1990s, with other non-Chinese investors. It was situated in the Mid-Levels, a primarily expatriate residential district, and was furnished with Benn's collection of Lee memorabilia.
"We had visitors from all over the world," he says, "mostly Japanese. Every day I'd have at least four or five little sweeties wanting to have their picture taken with me."
Benn tried to open another branch in Kowloon, and to persuade local fan groups to have their meetings in the cafe, but eventually it closed down. Benn moved to Shanghai, where he now runs a retirement home and crematorium.
"It seems like everybody in the world except people in Hong Kong is interested in Bruce Lee," he says.
The good news for Lee pilgrims is that a Bruce Lee museum now exists. The bad news is that it is in Shunde, an industrial port in southern China, a two-hour boat ride from Hong Kong. Shunde's only claim to fame was as "the kingdom of household electric appliances" until an enterprising local fan, Wang Dechau, discovered that Lee's father and grandfather were born there. Bruce visited the town once, when he was five. His films were strictly forbidden in China in the 1970s, possibly because he was a credible threat to Mao's own celebrity, but last year the provincial government gave Wang funds to open a museum of Shunde's famous "son."
"It's basically an old-fashioned tea house," says W. Wong. "They did it up and put in a little gallery, so now you can view Bruce Lee photos and taste some tea as well. From this you can see the Chinese people are very enterprising. They've made good use of the very small connection they had, but the Hong Kong government? Come on! So stupid!"
The SARS fiasco has, however, prompted a government rethink of its tourist strategy, which has resulted in plans for an Avenue of Stars, modelled on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. If the Lee legacy has gone anywhere, though, it is not Hong Kong or China but the US. Lee was, after all, an American citizen. He was born there and is buried there. Most of his martial-arts disciples teach there and most of his relatives live there, including his widow, Linda, and his daughter, Shannon. They help run the Bruce Lee Foundation, an educational charity, and will both be remembering Bruce at "the world's first-ever Bruce Lee convention" this weekend in California, alongside jeet kune do practitioners and unrelated convention veterans such as Bond girl Gloria Hendry and Lorenzo Lamas, star of Renegade.
Robert Lee believes that if Bruce had lived, he would have moved back to the US. "He knew that Hong Kong had done him good, but it was also getting him down. With his training regime and his writing and directing, he was always tired and he complained he never had time for himself. He was mobbed every time he went out. I don't think he could have taken it much longer."
Lee was already mulling over offers from Hollywood at the time of his death. There was even talk of him making a movie with Elvis. To return to the country that slighted him as a fully fledged film star would have been sweet revenge, but he could have blown it. Around the time of his death, he was reported to be paranoid, dictatorial, obsessed with his celebrity and his physique. Whether it was luck or design, he died a martyr rather than a tyrant, just like the ending of Fist of Fury -- freeze-framed in a flying drop-kick into a crowd of foreigners.
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