Matthew Polly in `Bruce Lee: A Life’ (Simon and Schuster, London and New York, 2018) says that the actor and martial arts master was the first figure who truly brought the culture and thinking of the Chinese world into the lives of Americans, Europeans and others. I can testify that this is true. In the early 1970s, when I was just coming to consciousness generally, Bruce Lee was there – on the television, in magazines, in cartoons. At the same time, however, he was also, tragically, already gone. He had died, I knew, in Hong Kong in late 1973. I had thought this was through some terrible accident during one of the epic fights in one of this films. Of course, that wasn’t the case. But the myth was reaching me, even without looking for it, in provincial Kent around the period immediately after his death.
Polly is a martial arts enthusiast, and he writes lovingly about the unique form of combat that Lee created, and the foundations of this on a philosophical view – use of inactivity and control, like, as Lee himself famously said, water – moulding itself, giving way where it has to, but accumulating massive reserves of strength till finally, it can overthrow whatever stands in its way.
Lee died at the age of 32. The complex circumstances of his death are examined in some detail in this book. The problem was his being with his mistress at the time, rather than with his American wife Linda, and the somewhat confused attempts by her, and others, to try to conceal this. Claims that he had suffered a kind of drugs overdose were soon undermined by the fact that the drug he did use, cannabis, was not one that could be overdosed on, and the fact that in any case his symptoms were closer to suffering from heat stroke. This is the reason that Polly settles on. No doubt though, the conspiracy theorists will continue with their own fancies.
Lee was truly an icon, and if today we look at the critical need to educate and create understanding about the Chinese world and its deep, rich culture and thinking as it becomes increasingly significant in our lives, then without what he achieved in his short life we would be in an even worse position than we already are. He made Asia familiar to vast numbers of people who knew little, or nothing of it, before his work. He also overcame tremendous prejudice, showing in his slender but immensely influential oeuvre of film works that a person of Chinese heritage could be the equal, and in many ways, the superior, of others who came into conflict with them. Lee was courageously insistent in his films, when he had the ability to do so later in his career, that he would always be portrayed as the winner – and that the old stereotypes of oriental femininity, weakness, and lack of confidence would be put to rest.
Not that he carried an easy identity in Hong Kong. Hong Kong identity has been done to death by theorists, sociologists, and anthropologists, so it is amusing that Polly manages through the story of Lee to say more about the curious edginess and vulnerability of the city’s feeling about itself than most of this work put together. It was, as Polly explains, almost like a refugee camp for much of its early colonial history, with a British leadership who were largely remote and unengaged with the social and cultural life of the place, focussed as they were on maintaining the commercial prowess of the port and the finance centre they were building there. This makes the new-found zealous desire, almost a quarter of a century after the end of the colonial period by some in Britain to defend freedoms in Hong Kong they themselves never promoted except towards the very end, even more curious. What is clear in this account is that before Lee, Hong Kong was often stuck in defining itself by what it was not – in particular, not Mainland China, nor Britain. Caught like the filling in a sandwich between these two great forces, Lee’s hybridity captured well the city’s complexity – a person of Han Chinese ethnicity, yet whose great grandfather had been Dutch-Jewish, and who had spent most of his life in the US.
This placelessness that Lee had coming from his family background and his own life path meant the media during this life in the city, after an initial period of adulation, were keen to pick him apart – his aggression, his assertiveness, and, bizarrely, even his ability to grow a thick beard, as he did briefly in the 1970s. All of this was taken as proof that he was not quite the real thing. Lee himself however articulate admirably a desire for unity – for a global spirit on oneness, and for being tolerant of others. His uneasy place in the local consciousness meant that it was not until the 2000s that a statue of him was properly unveiled in the city. Before then, his mark there had been as good as invisible. It is odd there is not a proper Bruce Lee museum, commemorating his achievements, or more made of him in the city’s branding of itself. He is, as Polly states, one of the modern world’s great cultural icons, even now – and one of the very, very few one could place beside the very different alternative – the face of Mao Zedong.