How Bruce Lee changed the world for Asian men

Today, Bruce Lee would have been 80 years old. Two fans have set out to pay tribute to him via one of his greatest legacies: an international network of grassroots dojos

Today, Bruce Lee would have been 80 years old. Two fans have set out to pay tribute to him via one of his greatest legacies: an international network of grassroots dojos.

The VHS tape started and the credits rolled with the epic Lalo Schifrin soundtrack and I was immediately drawn into Enter The Dragon. As an eight-year-old in 1978, this was my first experience of Bruce Lee. I had seen the poster, Lee holding nunchucks aloft with Jim Kelly and John Saxon in the background. But to see him in action, close up, I was in awe.

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Asians – or “Orientals”, as they were known in the 1970s – on screen. They played the stereotypes – the subordinate, fool or villain – seducing us with their Eastern philosophies and hocus-pocus religions. But even this was a breakthrough, as often such roles would be played (badly) by white actors. Remember Mickey Rooney shouting “Miss Golightly” in Breakfast At Tiffany’s?

Bruce Lee changed all of this. Here was an Asian hero, using his mind and fists to defeat the bad guy. He was like no other, handsome and in full command of the screen. There was no way Bruce Lee was going to be the sidekick or fool.

Being Indian and growing up in Streatham was tough, with racism and the far right at their height in late 1970s London. We seemed to be at the centre of this ridicule. Just getting to school every day was an obstacle course of verbal and physical abuse. Bruce Lee allowed me to feel proud. I didn’t need to hide any more.

Then there were his moves: his unique style, loose and free, body and mind as one. Perhaps being a dance champion – cha cha to be precise – gave him grace and flow. When kung fu films emerged in the 1970s, the fight scenes were staged and rigid and stunt men always stepped in for the lead. Not Lee. He did everything himself, from the one-inch punch to the famous scream. Whaaaaa!

From Beijing to the Bronx, from the playground to the streets, everyone wanted to be Bruce, mimicking his mannerisms and style. A star was born and kung fu had a new godfather. In New York City the b-boys and girls flocked to 42nd Street, where they would catch cheap double bills of this new film genre and soon the kung fu look made its way to the street, with karate robes, cuffed trousers and headbands.

All those moves witnessed on celluloid soon showed up on the blocks in a new dance phenomenon: breakdancing. Hip hop drew inspiration from kung fu films – the aesthetics, the acrobatics, the philosophy and a new type of hero. Such was Lee’s impact on culture and society, but above all he was cool. He hung out with and trained the stars of the day: basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, actors Dean Martin, James Garner, Lee Marvin, James Coburn, former Bond George Lazenby and, of course, Steve McQueen.

Today, his DNA still flows through everything, from fashion to dance, film to politics. Like his millions of fans I was captivated and the more I learnt about Lee the more I loved him. He was a passionate champion of equality and believed that martial arts should be open to anyone who wanted to learn. He even fought for it: after the establishment told him he couldn’t teach non-Chinese students he took up the challenge and won, opening several schools.

He understood racism and segregation and knew there was no place for it in martial arts. This philosophy extended outside of the dojo and through his life Lee challenged stereotypes and prejudice. He was a hero onscreen and off, a beacon of hope to so many around the world.

Today – 27 November 2020 – would have been Lee’s 80th birthday and I want to celebrate him. Lee’s most famous quote, “Be water, my friend,” captures the essence of his philosophy, to be adaptable and formless like water, not trapped in a mindset or situation. Not a bad metaphor for living through a pandemic.

I spoke to the artist and filmmaker Hetain Patel, a fellow Bruce Lee disciple who even shares the same birthday as Lee. For Patel, Lee had been a lifeline. “I couldn’t imagine surviving my childhood without Bruce Lee,” he told me. “He made me feel that a skinny Asian-heritage kid like me could be powerful. He made me feel like I mattered.”

Together we came up with the idea for a film, The Martial Artist, a way to celebrate Lee’s “living legacy”, through the global community of grassroots martial arts schools, or dojos. You can go anywhere in the world and you’ll find a dojo. That’s powerful. With Covid-19 still hanging over us, though, we’d set ourselves a big challenge, as so many dojos have had to close. But just like water, they found a way – socially distanced and wearing masks they got out their phones and pressed record. Soon, schools from Bermuda, China, Finland, France, Hong Kong, Mauritius, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, the UK and the US had responded to the call.

The Martial Artist is a love letter to Bruce Lee, a film made by his fans. A montage that reveals the breadth and diversity of the martial arts community. There’s been so much debate about statues lately, questioning who gets to decide our heroes and also which stories and legacies are missing. The Martial Artist is a different kind of memorial, a celebration of a living legacy.

Bruce Lee changed the game. Asian star and godfather of kung fu movies, Lee was an actor, style icon, leader, philosopher and teacher who put martial arts on the world stage. He wanted to change the perception of both Chinese and Asian culture – and he did. Happy birthday, Bruce Lee.


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