I have a confession to make. In spite of being relatively well-rounded in other areas of nerdom (video game RPGs, tabletop games, anime and manga, sci-fi and fantasy novels, and 80s movies), there is one area in which I have fallen resoundingly flat. I hope my friends will still speak to me after reading this.
I know next to nothing about martial arts movies. There, I said it.
I have seen some martial arts flicks—mainly those that made a splash in the U.S., like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. Like many children of the 80s, I watched Big Trouble in Little China and The Karate Kid, but didn’t know what inspired them. I really admire the films of Akira Kurosawa, but would have a hard time placing them within the spectrum of martial arts movies. Up until a couple of weeks ago, Bruce Lee was just a name to me. Oh, and I had heard that he was a snappy dresser and that he lived in Seattle.
It’s not that I wasn’t interested in martial arts movies; it’s just that I didn’t know where to start. The selection was too big. I got overwhelmed.
Fortunately for me, I’m very comfortable in museums, and there’s an exhibition about Bruce Lee showing nearby in Seattle. At last, my entry point into the world of martial arts films!
I decided to prepare for the exhibit by watching some of Bruce Lee’s movies, so I turned to my father-in-law (an avid Bruce Lee fan and 5th degree black belt in Ryu-te Okinawan Karate) for recommendations. Per his suggestion, I watched The Big Boss (1971) and Enter the Dragon (1973). Not only did I revel in the blatantly 70s flair, creative scene transitions, and marvelous fight sequences, but I also became entranced by Bruce Lee’s eyebrows (swoony!). I saw bits and pieces of these movies in a lot of other media I’ve consumed, from Naruto to Mortal Kombat, and I began to understand the wide ripples generated by Lee’s films.
During The Big Boss, I jotted some notes to myself, ranging from “His stance! So firm!” to “Best ‘thought’ voiceover EVER” to “Bruce Lee freed the birds!” Honestly, I was sold when Bruce’s character went from a supremely quiet, aloof hottie (ahh, the mysterious silent type!) to badass protagonist (knock me over with a feather!)—all in the space of one epic brawl. The necklace upon which he made an oath of nonviolence is literally ripped from his neck during a fight and he just snaps like a cold berserker. All of the emotion and pent up rage floods his body and he becomes a whirlwind of smackdown. Pure eye candy.
Aside from the mirror room fight scene (that was just amazing, and I’m sure it’s been quoted about a million times), my favorite scene in Enter the Dragon is right near the beginning. In these quiet few minutes, Bruce Lee’s character explains his thoughts about fighting: “A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready, not thinking but not dreaming, ready for whatever may come.” The delivery is so thoughtful, so matter-of-fact, that I immediately felt I understood the course of the entire movie. Enter the Dragon wasn’t just about amazing fight sequences, physical feats, and hero versus villain; it was also about breaking illusions—both those held by others and those held by yourself. This was a movie, and an actor, I could get behind. Little did I know at the time that I would come across those words again.
Thus armed with at least a bit of context, I arrived at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (called simply The Wing for short) on a fine Friday morning. The Wing is not a sprawling museum; it’s located in a historic building in Seattle’s International District. Although small in footprint, the exhibitions are packed with objects, images, and information, and the one I had come to see—“Do You Know Bruce?”—was no exception.
There are plenty of accounts of Bruce Lee’s life available online, so while I was glad to be able to piece together the story of his life from the exhibition, that wasn’t the most valuable part. Instead, what I found the most masterful was that the exhibition brought Bruce Lee out of the realm of untouchable legend and into the realm of real human person. By the time I walked out of the exhibit, I actually felt like I knew Bruce Lee. It’s an odd sensation, particularly given that I hadn’t paid him much mind at all in the past.
Sure, the exhibition showcases enough rare memorabilia—including an awesome passageway covered wall-to-wall-to-ceiling with magazine covers featuring Bruce—to remind the viewer that he was a Big Time Star and to tickle the hearts of any collectors out there. However, it also displays letters, notes, academic papers, photos, and poetry. It highlights Bruce’s interactions with his friends, loved ones, and community. It pulls upon the accounts of those who knew and interacted with him, reminding viewers that this international superstar’s roots are not so very different from anyone else’s.
Attendees learn that Bruce waited tables at Ruby Chow’s restaurant, got into snowball fights, gave lectures on philosophy at a local high school, and taught gung fu in basements and parking lots. His playful confidence is shown in the anecdote about how he asked his later wife out on their first date while demonstrating a self-defense move by throwing her to the ground and falling atop her.
In addition, the Wing’s exhibition also drew lines of connection directly from Bruce to people in Seattle. Everyone seemed to know him (except for me, of course, but I was there to change that). Tiffanie Lam, Marketing Associate at the Wing, gave me a short tour of “Do You Know Bruce?” and described the crowds of people who attended the opening, some of whom had come a very long way and many of whom had personal stories of having met Bruce. One man, she said, had been a just a kid when Bruce worked at Ruby Chow’s, and he recalled Bruce jumping on tables and swinging from chandeliers. Even if they didn’t know him, people certainly had opinions about him. Tiffanie reminisced about her mother’s reaction to Bruce, “My mother said he was very strange for a Chinese man—too philosophical… I made fun of [her] since China has famous philosophers like Sun Tzu or Confucius, but she was adamant that Bruce Lee was strange to her.”
Tiffanie’s mother was probably not the only one to think he was strange, as Bruce was known for busting through stereotypes. Although born in the U.S. and therefore an American citizen, Bruce was raised in Hong Kong. He began advocating for himself at a young age; although he wanted to learn martial arts, many teachers refused to teach him because his mother wasn’t fully Chinese. Fortunately for all of us, Master Yip Man agreed to teach him in his Wing Chun style of gung fu.
“To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities.” –Bruce Lee, as shown in “Do You Know Bruce?”
When sent to the U.S. at the age of 18, Bruce had the typical immigrant experience in spite of his citizenship. He arrived in San Francisco, then settled into the Chinese community within Seattle and for a time called the city’s Chinatown home; in fact, if you lean to the side and peek out the window around the displays, you can see one of the places Bruce stayed, right across the street from the museum. Notes from the classes Bruce took to improve his English are on display, as is the menu from Ruby Chow’s, the restaurant where he first worked in Seattle.
Bruce Lee continued to stand up to cultural stereotypes throughout his life, such as when he married Linda Emery (later Linda Lee Cadwell). Once Bruce made it to Hollywood after portraying Kato in “The Green Hornet” television series, his interracial marriage made waves. Almost an entire display wall in the exhibit is taken up with magazine and newspaper clippings with headlines such as “Never Told Secrets of his Interracial Marriage!” “Why his wife Submits to him!” “How his Kung Fu training makes him a better lover…” In Hollywood, Bruce regularly refused stereotypical, demeaning roles that portrayed the Asian male as weak or wicked. When he couldn’t get cast as a lead in Hollywood, he left for the Hong Kong film scene—and so began the string of films he is most known for, starting with The Big Boss and concluding with Enter the Dragon. (My father-in-law definitely recommended the right movies!)
The Wing’s emphasis on the community surrounding (and generated by) Bruce Lee is no surprise given the focus of the museum. The Wing has a community process through which it solicits ideas for and feedback on potential exhibitions, and so it focuses on artwork and social movements that are occurring now or have arisen from the experiences of Asian Pacific Americans. In other words, don’t expect galleries full of Asian antiquities. It tells American stories, and that may include articles of cultural heritage, but the focus is on the lives of contemporary individuals rather than ancient history.
The museum reinforces this community emphasis in ways both obvious and subtle. For one, it offers walking tours—and eating tours, yes, omg, yum—of the area, which I highly recommend. The “Touch of Chinatown” tour that I took may not have focused directly upon Bruce Lee, but I learned a lot about the community that he was a part of during his time in Seattle. The Wing also, quite deliberately, does not host a café. Rather, they provide recommendations for visitors to dine at neighborhood restaurants, thereby supporting the businesses directly around them.
“Do You Know Bruce?” both opens and closes with a memorial. At the start, a selection of goods that have been left at Bruce Lee’s grave—prayer beads, flowers, notes, fruit, and more—are displayed below a video. The video, filmed on the anniversary of Bruce’s death on July 20, 2014, shows interviews with pilgrims to the grave site. The video is short, but in that time it shows interviews with people from across the globe, from Seattle to England to Khazakstan.
At the end of the exhibition, there is a small room with a bench and a video. In the video, Bruce Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Cadwell, speaks of Bruce’s death and why he is buried in Seattle. On the two walls of the room perpendicular to the video are rows of blue and green paper slips. On each slip are words of thanks and praise for Bruce Lee recorded by visitors. I read through a number of them, touched both by the words and the apparent range of ages and heritages. One person wrote, “Because of you, I am me,” and another identified himself as a Native American man who grew up watching Bruce Lee’s movies and was grateful to be able to bring his son to this exhibition. Many others spoke of hope, strength, and inspiration given to them by Bruce.
These cascades of words paying tribute to one man’s life and legacy made quite the impact on me. I found it simultaneously hopeful and inspiring and humbling. In the recording, Linda says of her former husband, “He was a person who brought people together.” Even if I were to judge wholly on the basis of “Do You Know Bruce?” I could see that, but even the largest exhibition could not capture the extent of his influence upon people around the globe—a quick internet search will show you that.
“Not being tense but ready, not thinking but not dreaming, not being set but flexible—It is being ‘wholly’ and quietly ‘alive,’ aware and alert, ready for whatever may come.” –Bruce Lee, from sample writings of his developing beliefs exhibited in “Do You Know Bruce?”
A few days after viewing The Wing’s exhibition, I visited Bruce’s grave site in Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery. He’s buried next to his son, Brandon Lee, who died at the age of twenty-eight while on the set of The Crow. It was a beautiful early spring Tuesday in Seattle, and large groups of sakura trees were blooming in the cemetery. Although I expected to find some mementos left behind at the grave site, I was amazed at the amount of objects and people present. When my friend and I arrived, there was a group paying their respects ahead of us and by the time we had finished paying our own respects, there was a queue of three carloads of people waiting. When I walked to the management office, I discovered they had a guest book. Two pages were taken up with those who had visited—and bothered to sign in—over the past two weeks. That’s love, respect, devotion, thanks.
Today, I’m proud to say that I can count myself among the legions of Bruce Lee fans. I will watch for echoes of him in Seattle and tributes to him in media from around the globe. After witnessing the positive effect this one person had on so many, I can’t help but feel admiration and gratitude—and perhaps a smidgen of devotion as well. I do think the world is a better place thanks to Bruce Lee.
So, what martial arts movie shall I watch next?
Psst: if you’re in a similar quandary regarding martial arts flicks, have no fear! WWAC writers are here to help you. Watch our site for an upcoming series on our favorite martial arts movies!
Editorial note: the original version of this article, published 4/2/2015, incorrectly identified Bruce Lee in an image that has since been replaced.