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Three Portraits of Bruce Lee

Nearly 50 years after his death, the legend of the actor and martial artist has grown into a massive tale. In the United States, Hong Kong, and everywhere in between, he has gained renown as a polymath and icon of near-peerless popularity. But how much of Lee’s story is true? And how much does that even matter?

Jeremy Berger

1. The Dragon Has Three Heads

Near the end of Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee has ripped through his shirt, as always. His body is covered in bloody streaks in groups of threes, shredded by an enemy’s detachable Wolverine-like claw. Lee has finally cornered the villain, Han, who’s older—played by the veteran Hong Kong actor Shih Kien—and slower, but Han cleverly moves the fight into a hall of mirrors to confuse the nimble Lee. Fragmented images split Lee into several copies of himself, bouncing off each other, blurring our understanding of which Lee is real and which is merely an illusion. Han waits patiently, and strikes Lee, who flails around aimlessly at multiple reflections. When all hope seems lost, Lee remembers the words of his sifu, and looks up as if he’s heard the voice of God: “Destroy the image, and you will break the enemy.” Lee adapts, as he always does, shattering the mirrors and their illusions until only he and Han remain. He kicks Han with such force that the older fighter flies into a spear protruding from one of the mirrored walls. Lee solemnly exits in triumphant silence.

Moviegoers saw that scene for the first time on August 19, 1973, at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. The historic theater was redecorated for the debut of the film. A large sculpture of a dragon was perched above the canopy entrance, and a massive marquee of Lee wielding a pair of nunchucks invited patrons through the front doors. A crowd wrapped around the block in anticipation of Lee’s arrival on the big screen, without even really knowing who he was yet. Hollywood Boulevard was shut down to clear the path for a parade of Chinese dragon dancers in honor of the first-ever Hollywood–Hong Kong coproduction.

The movie, the last that Lee finished filming, grossed $90 million globally in its first year, and an estimated $350 million in the following decades—all against a budget of only $850,000. Enter the Dragon helped usher in a new era of kung fu films in the United States, inspiring millions of Americans to take up the martial arts. And yet the film’s star, and the catalyst for a nationwide phenomenon, was absent for the Hollywood premiere that should’ve doubled as his coronation. On July 20, 1973, a month before Enter the Dragon’s release, Lee died at the age of 32. He was in the home of his mistress, Betty Ting Pei, when he suffered an acute cerebral edema (brain swelling)—though the cause of it remained a mystery and a source for wild conspiracy theories for years.

For some, Lee’s story begins and ends with his four-film run in the early ’70s: The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon, and Enter the Dragon. But there is much more to the man than the figure he became in the years after Enter the Dragon—a legend that was born only in death.

“There tends to be three versions of Bruce Lee told,” Matthew Polly, author of the Lee biography Bruce: A Life, tells me over the phone in late June. “One is what we call ‘Saint Bruce,’ the hagiographic version in which he is something of a demigod. The second one is kind of the humanistic portrait, focusing on his successes but his flaws, and then there is the third one, which is kind of a minor strain, but it’s basically: ‘Bruce Lee is an asshole.’”

To begin to understand the monolithic figure Bruce became during and after his cruelly short lifetime, one must consider all three of these versions of Lee, and how each took on a life of its own.

2. Canonized

Bruce Lee was a superhero. Like a character fit for the comic books, he had a signature yellow-and-black costume; he would unleash distinctive cries during fight scenes as he twirled his trademark weapon, a nunchaku, with breathtaking precision. His punches flew so fast that he had to slow them down to accommodate frame rates of ’60s-era cameras. He was an infallible polymath: a fashion icon, a philosopher, a cha-cha champion, a nutritionist, a street fighter, a teacher, and a revolutionary fight choreographer. Lee was also the ultimate underdog, an actor who fought for the working class in The Big Boss, and against Western and Japanese oppressors in Fist of Fury.

“I think when someone becomes an icon, they become some sort of essential characteristic of a human being, instead of a human being itself,” Polly says. “Bruce Lee became the icon of the ‘driven badass’ who’s almost invincible—he became the God of War. In that sense, he’s a lot like Batman or Superman, and not like James Dean or some other actor.”

With his third kung fu flick, Way of the Dragon (1972), Lee began to solidify his status on-screen as a supreme force of destruction, as well as a bona fide superstar in Hong Kong as he shattered box office numbers with every film. The first Hong Kong production to be filmed in the West, Way of the Dragon featured Lee’s most worthy combat adversary in Chuck Norris. The film’s climactic fight scene, set at the Coliseum, showcases Lee’s unique blend of combat realism and human emotion, and the iconic duel between the modern-day gladiators is still one of the most legendary scenes in the genre.

After Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon, there were no more Bruce Lee films for the world to see. But that didn’t stop movie producers from meeting the demands of Lee’s new international fan base, which had quickly spread with the posthumous success of Enter the Dragon. Hong Kong producers—including Lee’s business partner at Golden Harvest films, Raymond Chow—cashed in on the global phenomenon by flooding the market with “Bruceploitation” films starring branded impersonators, from Bruce Li to Bruce Liang, who became known as “Lee-alikes.” Their acting and martial arts skills varied, and many were talented in one way or the other, but none mastered both like Lee. The Clones of Bruce Lee (1980) even stars four Lee-alikes in a story in which literal clones of Lee are spawned to save the world after his sudden death.

This new genre also included Lee’s Game of Death, an unfinished work for which Lee had filmed only a handful of scenes, including his iconic duel with his student and friend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Lee starred in only four martial arts films, but countless movies have been made in his image. He had tapped into something the world didn’t realize it needed until it was too late.

But while Lee’s screen presence cultivated its own cottage industry, fans still wanted to learn more about the man himself. After a couple of hastily written biographies were released in 1974, Linda Lee Cadwell published her first biography about her late husband, Bruce Lee: The Man I Only Knew, in 1975. But it was her second biography, The Bruce Lee Story (1989)—a revised version that smoothed out the rougher, more personal edges of the first with the help of coauthor Tom Bleecker—that would begin to transform Bruce Lee into Saint Bruce.

Caldwell’s book was the source text for the popular 1993 biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, which wastes little time attempting to turn Lee’s on-screen persona into history. Within moments of Jason Scott Lee’s first appearance, Bruce’s stand-in is backflipping and ripping open his shirt like a Chinese Johnny Bravo as he fights a group of white sailors harassing a Chinese woman at a lantern festival in 1961. Lee’s heroic act comes at a cost, though, and he is shipped off to America by his father in order to evade the police. The film culminates in a classic Hollywood tale of redemption: Lee fights the traditional Chinese martial artist Wong Jack Man in front of a council of Chinese elders for the right to train non-Chinese students. And after Lee’s dastardly opponent hits him with a cheap shot that leaves him badly injured, a climatic one-minute rematch sees Lee triumph in front of a packed crowd at Ed Parker’s International Karate Championships.

Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story paints Lee’s life in broad strokes, playing fast and loose with actual events and creating crowd-pleasing moments that showcase him as a real-life dispatcher of henchmen and a defender of the helpless. The grueling hours that Lee spent building his body through progressive workouts and dietary experimentation, and the years he spent training in the martial arts are captured only in a quick montage of Lee learning Wing Chun under his master Ip Man early in the film. (The story of Ip Man, a famed but certainly-not-superhuman martial artist, has grown into its own mythologized action-movie franchise starring Donnie Yen, and its fourth and final installment released last year featured a portrayal of Lee.)

In truth, by 1961, Lee had already left Hong Kong for America, and it wasn’t due to some heroic brawl against a group of grabby sailors. Bruce had simply been getting into trouble as a street fighter and a bit of a bully. And according to Polly’s biography, Lee’s legendary fight with Wong Jack Man took place in front of two couples of friends from each side, and Lee won in three labored, ugly minutes of combat. The biopic was not really a biopic at all.

And yet, Dragon hauled in more $63 million at the box office. The film arrived decades after Lee’s death, and it helped form an understanding of Lee’s life and legend for a new generation.

With Lee’s global profile rising so quickly (along with the fact that retaining licensing rights was not quite the common practice in the 1970s as it is today), Lee’s name and image had spread far beyond the reach of his family’s control. Cadwell’s biographies, and, in turn, Dragon, helped pull Lee’s legend back to his family. In 2002, Cadwell and her daughter Shannon also formed the Bruce Lee Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at sharing Lee’s life and vision to younger generations. When Shannon took over the responsibility of being the caretaker of the Bruce Lee estate from her mother around the turn of the millenium, she was faced with the challenge of retrieving not only licensing rights, but with preserving and shaping a massive, yet personal legacy.

“It’s a monumental task, all of this,” Shannon Lee says of her role. “The running of this ‘brand’ or ‘legacy,’ or however you want to define it, is a work in progress and always in response to what’s happening with regard to my father’s legacy, and what’s happening in the world.” When Lee died, Shannon’s mother thought the release of Enter the Dragon would spark interest in Lee for a while, but that it would ultimately fade. “But then that didn’t happen,” says Shannon.

Lee’s popularity didn’t fade after Enter the Dragon; it only grew. A number of documentaries about Lee have been released since then, often adding to the Saint Bruce mythology. Lee’s status as the ultimate badass is further cemented in popular culture by films that invoke his image, like Kill Bill.

The most recent documentary on Lee is this summer’s Be Water, an ESPN 30 for 30 directed by Vietnamese American filmmaker Bao Nguyen. While the film tracks Lee’s entire life, it’s also as much a story of the Asian American experience as it is a story about Lee himself.

“As an Asian American, my parents came over to America from a refugee camp in Hong Kong with very little connection in America and little money in their pockets,” Nguyen explains. “That parallel story of him leaving Hong Kong to America when he was young and not having that connection—I think a lot of people can see themselves in that story, and that was the main narrative that I thought we should frame his life around.”

Lee was born in San Francisco three years before the repeal of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act—a law that prevented all immigration of low-skilled Chinese laborers—and after spending the next 18 years in Hong Kong, he returned to America in 1959 with the country at war with Vietnam. His first love, Amy Sanbo, grew up in one of the internment camps established during World War II that relocated more than 110,000 Japanese Americans.

Be Water sheds rare light on dark periods of Asian American history, but by interpreting Lee’s story as an ultimately shared experience, it also sacrifices some of the nuances of Lee’s own journey. It positions Lee as a symbol, a force, and more than a man. As Danny Chau recently wrote in The Atlantic, “Be Water also traps Lee in allegory, occasionally diluting his personal narrative in favor of symbolic weight.” Quieter moments of normalcy and maturation, such as Bruce’s youthful troublemaking days picking fights with local British kids, are mentioned only in passing; the details of his death serve as little more than an epilogue. Be Water is not an exaggerated superhero origin story akin to Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, but its heavy emphasis on the racial barriers of Lee’s era, and how his films defied them, allows Lee to take the shape of a different, more real, kind of hero.

It’s tempting to fully believe in Lee-as-demigod, and to mute all the other noise. Lee traveled the world by VHS tapes; he was a superhero without a flashy alter ego like Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne—he was simply Bruce Lee. As a Chinese American who grew up in Hong Kong and raised a family in America, he was shaped by two worlds with distinct histories and ideologies with a division between them far vaster than the Pacific. Lee created a bridge between these worlds, challenging barriers and stereotypes with every step he walked. The fact that he did so in the 1960s and ’70s is hard to believe now. America was reckoning with an identity crisis as the ugly truths of its systematic racism were laid bare by the civil rights movement, as well as the ideological fission borne from the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, Hong Kong was experiencing a youth movement of its own. The British colony fought for its independence after serving as little more than a refugee camp for decades, as its population swelled, depressed, and swelled again between wars and a devastating Japanese occupation during World War II.

Lee meant something unique to both societies: He was a figure who could help heal their distinct traumas. He still is. But to serve as a balm and an inspiration, Lee was transformed and hyperbolized.

3. Asshole

Bruce Lee was difficult to work with. He was arrogant and selfish. He had a big ego and a short fuse, and was notorious for losing his temper. He antagonized filmmakers like Lo Wei, the director behind Lee’s first two Hong Kong hits, The Big Boss and Fist of Fury. Lo was a traditional Hong Kong director with an outsized ego of his own, and the two would struggle for creative control of fight scenes; on occasion, Lee would berate him in front of the crew. Like many fellow movie stars such as his friend Steve McQueen, Lee would get directors and screenwriters fired if he didn’t like them, including director Wu Chia-Hsiang, whom Lo Wei replaced in The Big Boss.

But if directors like Wu or Lo had their way, and choreographed fight scenes in traditional elaborate Cantonese-opera style, Lee’s shift toward grittier realism might have never revolutionized cinematic fight choreography. Perhaps if Lee hadn’t been an asshole, we wouldn’t have ended up with Saint Bruce, either. Did the ends always justify the means?

Lee broke down anti-Western barriers in the world of martial arts, and blended various fighting styles—Northern Shaolin kung fu, karate, judo, boxing, even fencing—to pave the way for the Gracies to become mixed martial arts sensations years later. But first, he had to tear down time-honored tradition. Lee preached about the flaws in various martial arts styles, often doing so in front of those who championed them. In America, Lee helped make a name for himself by putting on demonstrations at karate tournaments and other venues. He would break down how certain traditional martial arts were restraining and impractical, all while modeling the moves flawlessly. This is really what inspired Wong Jack Man to challenge Lee behind the closed doors of his Oakland school; he wanted to defend the honor of the traditional Chinese martial arts that Lee had offended during a demonstration at the Sun Sing Theater in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Additionally, Wong Jack Man was attempting to protect the Chinese traditions that were prohibited from being shared with outsiders, an unwritten rule that Lee chose to ignore.

When Bruce’s Wing Chun master Ip Man died in December 1972, Lee did not attend the funeral. The Hong Kong media blasted Lee for such a disgraceful sign of disrespect, and other Wing Chun disciples were quick to fuel the flame: “As the founder of Jeet Kune Do and a big movie star, perhaps it was just too inconvenient,” said one senior student. A former Wing Chun teacher of Bruce’s in the same school added: “This was definitely a breach in terms of the decorum of the martial arts world. People shouldn’t forget their ‘roots.’”

But as Polly points out in Bruce: A Life, Bruce didn’t even know Ip Man had died. Because Lee had moved to America, founded his own system of martial arts, and frequently criticized their traditional form of kung fu, the Wing Chun students purposely didn’t inform Lee of the funeral so that he would look detached and selfish. Once the news finally reached him, Lee humbly apologized to Ip Man’s family at their home on the seventh day after the funeral, a symbolic day in Chinese culture.

These kinds of stories, driven both by truth and subjective resentments, are counterweights to all of the absurd backflipping hagiography. They describe another version of Lee, one built to bring the demigod back down to earth: Bruce the Asshole.

Perhaps the most aggressive example of this particular archetype is seen in Tom Bleecker’s book Unsettled Matters. Bleecker is not exactly an unbiased narrator—he cowrote The Bruce Lee Story with Cadwell. Later, the two married, and subsequently split. Then Bleecker wrote a Lee biography of his own.

Bleecker’s 1996 biography often takes a less balanced approach when addressing Lee’s contemporaries. Lee’s disputes with famous friends like James Coburn are used to demonstrate Lee as a petulant nuisance, without bothering to show the positive impact Lee had on Coburn. Regarding that same story about Ip Man’s funeral, Bleecker appears to side with the Hong Kong press, alluding to rumors that Lee had long harbored a grudge against his old sifu as a reason for why he didn’t attend. (Polly, on the other hand, quotes Ip Man’s son, who admitted that he had tried to call Bruce to inform him of his father’s passing, but was prevented by someone from doing so.) With few interview subjects and rare evidence to support his claims, Bleecker effectively attempts to shatter some of the Bruce Lee mythology that he helped create in the first place.

When I asked Polly about his process in writing Bruce: A Life, he mentioned the challenges of determining the truth when the first-person accounts warp over time. “The advantage I had [was that] people had been interviewing a lot of these prominent Bruce Lee friends or family members since he first died,” he says. “So you can go back to the original interviews before he became an icon and compare it to what they’re saying today.”

More recently, one need look no further than Quentin Tarantino’s latest blockbuster film Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood to witness the critical style of Bruce Lee storytelling. Mike Moh, Lee’s impersonator in the film, has limited screen time, but one scene was long enough to draw the ire of Lee fans for the way it mocks him.

In the scene, Lee lectures his studio-lot audience about “true combat,” and criticizes martial arts tournaments, before claiming he’d “cripple” Cassius Clay in a fight. Cliff (Brad Pitt) patronizes Lee in turn, referring to him as a “little man with a big mouth,” before promptly launching Bruce into a car.

Lee is presented as arrogant and, ultimately, full of shit; he’s little more than an entertainer. In response to criticism of the scene, Tarantino said: “‘Who would win in a fight: Bruce Lee or Dracula?’ It’s the same question. It’s a fictional character. If I say Cliff can beat Bruce Lee up, he’s a fictional character, so he could beat Bruce Lee up.” While the movie is a work of fiction, the film’s alternate reality is rooted in historical context, and it bends Lee’s mythology so that it can be used as a world-building tool. Lee was a friend and teacher to many stars in Hollywood in that era, including Sharon Tate, and did the fight choreography for Tate’s The Wrecking Crew. Lee was also friends with Tate and celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring (another one of Bruce’s martial arts students), and was deeply affected by their murders that occurred not far from his home in Bel Air. Tarantino could easily have made him to be more than just part of an aside.

Still, Lee’s criticisms of karate tournaments, his tendency to put on kung fu demonstrations in front of crowds of white people, and perceived arrogance by observers were all derived from truths. Lee didn’t participate in karate tournaments because, as someone who hardened his fists through real fights in the streets of Kowloon as a teenager, he found the rules of point matches to be constraining and unrealistic. He would show off his skills at Hollywood parties on occasion, leaving surrounding celebrities awestruck. (At other times, he was often mistaken for a busboy.) Tarantino merges those elements into the Moh character, and yet, with context conveniently left out, he may as well have been a character as fictional as Dracula in the first place.

“I think that we’re seeing a lot of this now, where people are challenged to look at things through other people’s eyes, and through different perspectives—what it is like to walk in another’s shoes, what it is to be a human, what it is to have to work through your personal demons and your personal issues,” Shannon Lee tells me. “I don’t think anyone should be deified or made to be a progenitor of evilness; we’re all responsible for our own actions, and our peace of mind comes from within.”

Lee was not infallible, though the legend of Saint Bruce might tell you otherwise. Bruce had flaws, including a violent temper, a history of infidelity, and a pattern of spurning others on his quest for self-actualization. But fallibility is a human trait. To present Lee as just an asshole is irresponsible, but to ignore that side of him is just another means of washing away elements of the truth.

4. Prism

Bruce Lee was human. He was a massive movie star who shattered box office records in the East, and in death, his success even expanded to the West—but it took years of failure and disappointment first. Being of Eurasian descent in Hong Kong, and being a Chinese man in America, he struggled to be accepted by his two worlds for his entire life—and for much of it, he wasn’t. Like many stars who struggle with fame, he developed insecurities; he struggled to discern who his real friends were and who just wanted a piece of his success. Throughout his career, Lee was generous in finding roles for his friends and students: In Way of the Dragon alone, he gave a crucial fight scene to his friend and sparring partner, Norris (who would, of course, later become a star in his own right), and he gave three of his childhood friends roles as waiters, including Unicorn Chan, whom he also credited as an assistant fight choreographer.

But as Lee’s fame continued to grow, it seemed as if everyone was trying to profit off of him. A movie company called Xinghai Corporation once approached Unicorn with an offer to star in a film if Lee was attached with him. Lee refused, but he still spent one day on set to direct a fight sequence and also attended a presser to promote the film for his friend. Suddenly, Fist of Unicorn not only billed Lee as its director, but it even snuck in footage of him at the publicity event into the film itself. (For Unicorn’s part, according to Polly, he denied any knowledge of the company’s indiscretions, and Lee sued the producers.)

Lee’s on-screen persona would also follow him off the screen, and anyone from a stuntman to a cab driver would challenge him to a fight; Lee eventually stopped going out in public alone. He founded his own martial arts system, Jeet Kune Do, and became one of the most revered martial artists of all time—but that, too, came with a price. He loved his wife, but at the same time, throughout his marriage he regularly engaged in several, er, entanglements. When asked about bad behavior in show business, Lee once told a journalist: “Well, let me put it this way, to be honest and all that, I’m not as bad as some of them. But I’m definitely not saying I am a saint.”

To present Lee as flawless takes away much of what made Lee so unique; to tear him down and criticize him without the proper context devalues the positive contributions he made to the world. It’s important to try to balance truths. But that’s not so easy when the characters Lee played on the big screen, typically, were extensions of himself.

“We need to differentiate between the real Bruce Lee versus the reel Bruce Lee,” Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park, a professor at the University of Hong Kong who teaches about Lee, wrote to me over email. “Given the singularity of Bruce Lee the person and what he achieved cinematically, sometimes it becomes difficult to distinguish between the two.”

For those eager to learn about Lee in the pre-internet era, there was little available besides those early biographies, tabloids chock full of misinformation, and Lee’s performances. And so people began crafting their own narratives of Lee with the little information they had, making fact and myth that much harder to pull apart.

“With stars who have died too early, there is always the question of how much people project onto a person’s life,” author Jeff Chang, who is currently working on an upcoming biography on Bruce Lee, emailed me. “Since 1973, each generation has poured itself into Bruce’s cup, so to speak. So going back through the record does require sifting through conspiracy theories and the struggles over his legacy among the living.”

As one works backward in time, the information becomes more sparse and less reliable, making the task of finding the true story that more daunting. Despite the fact that it was published in 2018, 45 years after Lee’s death, The New York Times Book Review called Polly’s biography “the first noteworthy treatment of its subject.”

“The two principles I sort of had were: Could I find confirmation from someone else, and was this a story that has been told for a while, had it grown over time; and then finally, just that kind of human sense,” Polly said to me, as he described his process writing Bruce: A Life. “If I had a choice between two stories, I would go with the one that sounded more fallible and human than the one that sounded more like a superhero.”

Therein lies another challenge in separating the myth from reality: As time passes, many of those who knew Bruce in his lifetime have died as well—and those who are still here are living in a different world, attempting to remember a man whose visage has spread across the globe. In the end, it’s up to the storyteller to make the final decision about how to portray Lee.

“I don’t try to present this film as any definitive version of Bruce Lee’s life,“ Nguyen said of Be Water. “For me, it was more of a feeling: How much of the mythology is formed by these past narratives, and how much are they true memories?

“We can never really know, and there’s no definitive way to figure out whether or not how we remember someone is just in the abstract or the feeling, versus if it actually happened. I’ve learned over time that it’s not just about unpacking the myth, but understanding how memory and myth come together in the ways that we tell stories.”

Be Water certainly leans toward Saint Bruce territory by portraying Lee’s journey alongside his role as an Asian American icon. And yet the mere fact that it presents Lee from the Asian American perspective at all provides a human angle of Lee that is not often explored. Nguyen’s process relies on engaging with abstract concepts, but by demonstrating that Lee faced institutionalized racial discrimination, and that he wasn’t always the nunchuck-twirling indestructible God of War, Nguyen also shatters some of the Lee mythology.

“A lot of people imagine Bruce Lee as this successful Hollywood icon, martial arts icon, because sometimes they don’t understand the struggles and the systemic racism that existed,” he said.

Long before he donned his iconic yellow jumpsuit, Lee had to fight for lines on The Green Hornet, a role that positioned him as the silent manservant to the white hero, and one that paid him like an extra despite being the second lead. The majority of roles available to male Asian actors in that era were limited to the evil Fu Manchu villain and the subservient Charlie Chan stereotypes, or they were simply for comedic relief—and even those roles were often filled by white actors. Because Lee refused to demean himself in such ways, by the end of the ’60s, he had only one American film credit: a small role in the 1969 crime drama Marlowe, thanks in large part to its screenwriter Stirling Silliphant—a student of Lee’s—writing a part for him into the script.

As Lee’s legend has grown, it’s easy to lose sight of how young he was when he died. He left this world as a man in his early 30s, and the absence of his voice has allowed—and forced—others to try to tell his story for him.

“In the 1970s, people focused on Lee’s martial arts and the circumstances of his death, almost as a way of keeping him alive,” Chang wrote to me. “In the 1980s, Lee’s image was reset in the context of the white American reimagining of decades of war adventures in Asia—as a kind of Orientalized guru granting redemption. In the 1990s, Asian Americans reclaimed Bruce as a hero. And in the new millennium, we have had a Bruce that both reflects both the reglobalization of pop culture and a return to anti-globalist values of creativity, compassion, and community.” As much as the different versions of Bruce Lee collectively tell the story of the man he was and the legend he became, they are also a reflection of the storytellers themselves—and the world around them.

Every version of the Bruce Lee story still illustrates the multifaceted nature of the Little Dragon’s lasting legacy. Whether or not Lee deliberately sought out to be a symbol of racial justice, or the pinnacle of Asian masculinity, ultimately, is beside the point nearly 50 years after his death. Bruce was focused on his own desires to achieve success on the screen and as a martial artist, and therein lies the beauty of his humanity, as well as the transcendence of it. Lee lived for his own reasons, but now he has become a prism through which others can see the world. As with all stories, every person comes away with it with their own interpretations, and their own lessons.

Near the end of our conversation on the different renditions of her father, Shannon ended one of her responses by applying a quote from Bruce himself: “‘Accept what’s useful, to reject what’s useless, and to add what’s essentially your own’—even when it comes to Bruce Lee.”

5. Bridging Worlds

In 2005, the very first statue of Lee was unveiled to the world. But it wasn’t where you would guess: not in Los Angeles, nor in Hong Kong, but the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Lee was selected over other options like the Pope and Gandhi, chosen as the most fitting embodiment of reconciliation and unity for a young country still recovering from a bloody civil war. This anecdote is used to conclude the epilogue of Polly’s biography, as well as Chang’s recent Criterion essay, and is even included in the opening of Magnan-Park’s lecture on Lee. It’s the perfect example of how far Lee’s legend and symbolism reached in the world.

“Even today, many Asian societies are largely being defined or redefined by singularities: one dominant ethnicity, a traditional culture spanning over five thousand years, one language, etc.” Magnan-Park wrote. “This framework downplays and erases the multiplicity inherent within Asian societies across time and space. Bruce Lee, as a multiethnic individual who held multiple citizenships, cultural affiliations, and embraced nonethnic Chinese people, broke from the expected and prescribed mode of being Chinese, Asian, and Other. It is his global and universal engagement that made Bruce Lee so unique, forward thinking, and such a martial arts and cinematic maverick that to this day, no one can come close to, let alone surpass him.”

Few climb to the heights that Lee did in just 32 years on this planet. And in characterizing a person’s life, sometimes there are figures who simply transcend the boundaries of beginnings and ends; who elude the confines of traditional storytelling.

In 2020, there is no Bruce Lee analogue in Hollywood. And yet, his image, and his story, is as alive as ever. Writers, filmmakers, and directors continue to add to the canon of Lee as it becomes their time to push it forward. “I feel like his legacy is something that is connected to my journey,” says Justin Lin, director of Fast & Furious and an executive producer on Warrior, a Cinemax series based on the writings of Bruce Lee. “Anything that we can do to share that with people that are coming after us, I feel like that’s part of identity, and part of our journey just as a shared experience as a community—whether that’s being Asian American, whether that’s MMA, whether it’s movies. By now, it’s been almost 50 years, so it’s a fact: [Bruce Lee] is timeless.”

Looking back on Lee’s journey can demonstrate how much the world has changed, and yet how it sometimes seems stuck in time; how far we’ve come since the days when Lee was kicking down both bad guys and barriers, but how new challenges have us still returning to Lee for answers.

“When we think about Bruce right now—amidst a global pandemic, a pathologically race-baiting fascist presidency, and increased tensions between the U.S. and China—it is not hard to see how his life presents ways for us to work through the moment,” Chang tells me. “We see the Bruce Lee who confidently flows through chaos, and eludes any kind of containment. We work to be the Bruce who was disciplined and self-actualizing. We aspire to the Bruce who bridged worlds.”

Even in death, Bruce Lee embodies his now-famous philosophy: being formless, and shapeless like water, as his story is reformed and reshaped to fit the motives of his storytellers, and ultimately, helps fill the void of modern icons and symbols when they are needed more than ever. And while Lee may be gone, his legend will continue to be passed down for as long as the world needs it.


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