Native Son

7 minute read
Liam Fitzpatrick

To understand Bruce Lee’s significance to Hong Kong, you have to understand how it once felt to be Hong Kong Chinese. At the start of the 1970s, the city was still a place of overt racial, cultural and economic inequality. The administration comprised white civil servants and a cadre of obsequious locals. In wood-paneled messes, old retainers were still called “boy.” Almost all artistic production of note—from the cover versions on the radio to the overdubbed programs on TV to the copied clothes in the shop windows—was Western. And the spectacular growth of the economy—heralded by a burgeoning concrete skyline—masked the overcrowded tenements and hillside shantytowns of those excluded from the wealth. No one foresaw the runaway development that is, today, making China the world’s next superpower and Hong Kong an economic beneficiary. For the most part, life for large numbers of Chinese meant sharing a squalid room with several other people, and uncertainty over where the next meal was coming from. If ever a people cried out for a hero—not a hoary old sword fighter from dynastic legend, or the incorruptible judges of Confucian fantasy, but a flesh-and-blood, present-day hero—it was them.

With the 1971 release of Bruce Lee’s first full-length martial-arts movie, The Big Boss, they found one. Lee’s impact was immediate. Just as the streets of Lower Manhattan were filled with pumped-up, Stallone-worshipping Italians in the wake of the first Rocky, so the tenements and rooftops of Kowloon suddenly overflowed with the shadow boxing and scissor kicking of would-be kung fu stars—among them, my 6-year-old self. I remember first encountering Lee as a poster on my eldest cousin Billy’s bedroom wall. “What do you think of Lei Siu-lung?” Billy asked. (Siu-lung is Lee’s Cantonese nickname, meaning “Little Dragon.”) The answer was plain: neither I nor Billy nor anyone else had ever seen a Hong Kong man look so dandified, proud and hard, all at once.

As a Eurasian, I was all too used to hearing Caucasian classmates refer to my Chinese family members by the local pejorative “choge“—as in “Fitzpatrick, your mother’s a slanty-eyed choge.” So Lee was a marvelous harbinger of change. He was no imported idol, no hairy English footballer or tongue-lolling American lead guitarist. In fact, living less than a kilometer from my family’s apartment in Kowloon Tong, he was my homeboy. Lee went briefly to my cousin’s high school, La Salle College, and in his first competitive bout he famously defeated the reigning schools champion, a white kid from our sporting nemesis, the British military school St. George’s. The fact that Lee was Eurasian too (his mother was Chinese-German) made his aura even more luminous in my eyes. And that’s to say nothing of the natty figure he cut on the dance floor (he won the 1958 Crown Colony Cha Cha Championship).

The Hong Kong of Lee’s 1950s childhood was an impoverished, brutish place, crawling with gangs and triads. To them, an effete, mama’s boy like Lee—with his spacious family home, servants and past as a child star (he had acted in several Cantonese opera movies, through his opera singer father, Lee Hoi-chuen)—was a choice victim. The story goes that he was badly roughed up around the age of 12 or 13 and returned home, determined to learn self-defense. He chose to study the ultra-orthodox art of close fighting, wing chun, under Yip Man, one of Hong Kong’s top masters. Some of Lee’s childhood friends say Yip was reluctant to teach Lee because Lee was not pure Chinese, and that Yip instead assigned him to one of his students, Wong Shun-leung. Others dispute this; it is common in kung fu for a beginner to be taught by a high-ranking student, and Wong was one of Yip’s best. But Lee’s obsession with playing the underdog in later life hints at firsthand experience of being slighted, as Eurasians routinely were in the 1950s and 1960s, by Chinese and whites alike. In the same way, the style of martial art Lee invented, jeet kwun do (“way of the intercepting fist”), was a sharp jab at adherents of racial and cultural purity. Unlike wing chun, jeet kwun do is an audacious Eurasian mishmash of Western boxing and fencing, catch wrestling, and several of the Asian marital arts, from muay thai to judo, jujitsu and aikido.

Arguably, the Hong Kong film industry needed an internationalized player to earn it more than merely local notice. Given his ethnicity, experience playing Kato in the American TV crime series The Green Hornet, and the fight coaching he had given to big names like Steve McQueen, Lee was singled out by fate. Before him, Hong Kong movies were hopelessly parochial. Plots were borrowed wholesale from mythology and Cantonese opera, acting was labored and stylized, and production values were extremely low. In this context, the appearance of The Big Boss and two other Lee movies—Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon—was epoch shifting. The plots of these films were all variations on a theme that resonated across the region: Asian guy meets and defeats evil foreigners. But international audiences were also able to enjoy them for their whiplash pace, choreographed fight scenes and knowing humor. More important, each was underpinned by Lee’s charisma, as intense and as cocksure as that of Muhammad Ali’s, whom Lee had studied closely. In fact, Lee made kung fu movies so bankable that the Hong Kong film industry was born anew. In the wake of his breakthrough, it would transform itself from a small-town endeavor to the world’s third most prolific movie factory after Hollywood and Bollywood.

But just as suddenly as he had emerged, Lee was gone, and for the most bitterly prosaic of reasons. On a July night in 1973, Lee complained of a headache, took some painkillers, and lost consciousness. An ambulance was summoned to take him to a hospital, but the greatest martial-arts star the world has known was declared dead on arrival. As the news spread across the tenements and squatter villages, loony conspiracy theories arose—that he was assassinated in a triad feud, or dispatched by a vengeful kung fu master’s dim mak (death touch) as the penalty for revealing kung fu’s secrets to the world, and so on. No one wanted to believe the hero could be brought low by something so mundane as a painkiller. But it seems that Lee, who weighed just 58 kg, may have been abnormally sensitive to drugs because of his exceptionally low body fat. At his funeral a few days later, 25,000 people lined the streets to catch a last glimpse of his featherweight body as the open casket was taken to the Kowloon Funeral Parlour. The city had never given anyone a send-off like it, nor would it again.

The Hong Kong film industry could use another like Bruce Lee. The fluke success of latter-day martial-arts productions like Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, and the cult status awarded to John Woo’s gritty cop flicks or Wong Kar-wai’s art-house oeuvre, belie the fact that the business is in the doldrums, its products marginalized by artistically superior output from mainland China and Taiwan. Today’s martial-arts stars, like Chow or Jackie Chan, stick to a formula that’s as much slapstick comedy as it is action. None has Lee’s burning intensity nor the same inequalities to fight against.

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