“Sorry, Son … your hero Bruce Lee has died,” my father told me 45 years plus one day ago (what to do, no Internet in 1973 – we had to rely on the newspapers), after rousing the 12-year-old me from sleep.
Blinking drowsiness and disbelief from my eyes, I read the words in the newspaper he handed to me, but could not accept them.
We had already had that father-son talk about death when my maternal grandmother passed away three years earlier, so he just sat with me a while – another memory that reminds me how much I miss his comforting presence.
But for that moment, I could only think of the Little Dragon, Bruce Lee – gone too soon from a world that was just beginning to celebrate his achievements.
He had taught a blind man to overcome a bully, stood back and allowed a vainglorious tycoon to take all the credit for their shared heroism (a truth acknowledged only in his own homeland of Hong Kong), fought against oppressive crime lords and occupying forces, and thrilled moviegoers across continents with his exploits.
When he flew into in action, he was unparalleled, elevating the violence of his craft to nothing less than visual poetry.
In the buildup to those moments, he was often a seething cauldron of barely repressed fury, one raw emotion after another flickering across his steely features.
He impressed the haughty movie studios of the West in ways that changed the way the world perceived not just him but others from the East.
And his philosophy – which I could not yet appreciate at the time – would influence the world in subtle ways where Lee’s larger-than-life exploits amazed and enthralled it in a more overt manner.
My first glimpse of Lee, when I was just 10, changed a young life. For all its hammy scripting and excesses, The Big Boss made me fall in love with martial arts movies, to such a degree that even now, I have to watch at least one kung fu movie every Chinese New Year Eve.
I voraciously consumed everything in the way of Hong Kong movies at the time, taking the good with the bad – but nothing came close to his capability and achievements.
I tried to emulate the actions, at least as well as an asthmatic child not used to physical exertion could – equipped with plastic nunchaku bound together with raffia string (the cheap plastic “chain” that came with the toy broke on the first swing) – and often to my own chagrin. Thank goodness they didn’t have smartphones back then.
I also watched with amusement as a string of imitators tried to cash in on Lee’s success and failed miserably. They seemed to mushroom after the star’s passing, adopting laughably silly variations of his name to fool the world – as if anyone with an intellect higher than a toadstool’s would fall for it.
OK, so maybe some of them did it as a tribute of sorts, but try telling that to a 12-year-old. These cash-in/homage attempts petered out over the ensuing years, which saw multitudes continue to savour Lee’s limited but amazing legacy.
At the same time, many also benefitted from the numerous doors that he opened, especially to Asian performers in international markets.
As I grew older, I realised that Lee was not the perfect superstar I had imagined him to be. Controversy dogged not only the years before the world at large knew of him, but surrounded his untimely death as well (much of the latter was eventually explained away, but not to the total satisfaction of conspiracy theorists).
Yet, much of that controversy came from his drive to achieve such perfection of physicality that it would jump boundaries and become an expression of the will and self.
By many accounts, he often forsook humility for the fluidity necessary to adapt to ever-changing circumstances – embodying his own advice to “be like water”, although perhaps it was that very drive and ambition that ultimately laid him low.
Admirers and scholars alike have continued to ponder: how much more could he have achieved with more years, given what an impact he had in such a brief time?
Perhaps we may better celebrate his legacy by asking: how can the example of his life – the good and bad considered together – guide us in our own?
Like the Little Dragon once famously told an initiate on-screen: “It is like a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will lose sight of all that heavenly glory.”
Or: consider the lesson, not so much the teacher. And besides my fondness for martial arts flicks (many of which emphasise this same point), this is the other way in which Bruce Lee changed my life.
It is part of our nature to seek to excel, whatever our chosen fields of endeavour may be, and he inspired many to do this.
I’d like to think that the brief, dazzling light of his life has helped to keep that fire burning within the millions of souls he touched, against a cruel world’s best efforts to put it out.
Influence of the Dragon
Did you know about these Bruce Lee-inspired people and things?
The “Afghan Bruce Lee” has patterned himself after the late martial arts master and has dedicated his life to, well, being like Bruce.
They Call Me Bruce?
A 1982 comedy about a happy-go-lucky Korean whose life gets complicated because people keep confusing him with Bruce Lee. Silly, likeable fluff.
A Fistul Of Yen
A segment in the John Landis-Zucker Brothers’ 1977 spoof flick Kentucky Fried Movie, starring Evan Kim as Loo – the hero in an Enter The Dragon parody. It’s like a filmed MAD Magazine movie satire!
Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu
Marvel Comics’ early 1970s effort to cash in on the martial arts craze triggered by Lee and also the success of the David Carradine TV show Kung Fu. Shang-Chi, a son of the pulp villain Fu Manchu, was created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin (that Thanos creator). When artist Paul Gulacy took over the art chores, he patterned Shang-Chi’s appearance after Lee.
Danny Chan Kwok-Kwan
This Hong Kong actor/choreographer/rocker is known for his resemblance to Lee, and has parlayed it into several notable appearances: the Game-Of-Death-yellow-tracksuit-wearing goalie in Steven Chow’s Shaolin Soccer; acting as Lee himself in the biographical 2008 TV show The Legend Of Bruce Lee; and as Lee again in Ip Man 3.