This article is the second part in the “East Asian Representation in Mainstream American Cinema & Television from 1970-2013” series. Part one (“Introduction”) can be found here.
Through his film roles, Bruce Lee is seen as a symbol of national pride and Asian defiance against colonialism and white oppression. Lee’s characters and his own life experiences mirror that of a man who is “caught up in the dislocating limbo between two worlds” [Ford, 58.] – one of the East and one of the West. Whether he is a Chinese country boy lost in a big Western city in The Way of The Dragon or the more worldly and modern Chinese man in Enter The Dragon, Lee establishes himself in a niche which has never been explored before in the cinematic world – that of an Asian man trying to assert a racial presence in a white-dominated society. To understand Lee’s determination to carve out such a strong on-screen identity, one must study Lee’s own life, especially his childhood in the hostile streets of Hong Kong and his time in the United States. Bruce Lee’s early years were largely influenced by the Japanese’s occupation of Hong Kong; his mother recalled stories of the young Bruce raising his fist to the Japanese zeroes flying overhead. Likewise, anti-colonial sentiments against the British were equally as strong. As a student, Bruce was frequently involved in fights with British pupils from the nearby King George V school [Thomas, 12.].
In his biography of Lee, author Bruce Thomas describes the 1950s Hong Kong of Bruce’s childhood as “a place suffering from high unemployment, a depressed economy, over crowding, homelessness and from people simply taking advantage of each other” [Thomas, 13.]. In such conditions, Bruce was a young delinquent whose pride did not allow him to take things lying down. This passion for the underdog and for the disadvantaged would carry on into his adult life and would affect his later choices, both in films and in his personal life. One outlet was the Kung Fu lessons he took with the famous master, Yip Man. Yip Man was – at the time – almost the epitome of traditional Chinese martial arts. He did not wear western clothing, did not pose for publicity photographs and felt strongly that only the Chinese should be taught the art of Wing Chun [Thomas, 19.]. It is therefore evident of how much Lee’s childhood in Hong Kong was steeped in anti- colonial nationalism as well as powerful, albeit conflicting, ideas about Chinese traditions. When he moved to the United States in his early twenties, such ideas were only deepened after he started working at a Chinese restaurant and saw how Westerners treated Asians.
Bruce Lee’s time in America was also spent in the company of other minorities; his best friends included a Japanese, the black Jesse Glover, and the ethnically-mixed James DeMille. His Japanese friend Taky would recall how Bruce would fuel their determination and always reassured them that,“You’re just as good as they [the whites] are” [Thomas, 44.]. His resentment against white authority and his experience with oppression is specifically channelled through his fighting technique. His training was not only fueled by an intense desire to be the best, but also from “a kind of purposefully directed anger” and he focused much on practicing to fight while “centered under stress” [Thomas, 84.], just like when he was fighting against British rival pupils in Hong Kong. One of Lee’s main reasons in mastering the art of Kung Fu seems to be a desire to fight back against the figure of the white man.
While he said that his ambition as a film star was to make “films that were serious, philosophical and entertaining”, he also took upon a responsibility to “educate” his audience [Thomas, 155.]. Lee wrote to his mother, saying “I’m an Oriental person, therefore I have to defeat all the whites in the film” [Thomas, 161.]. He remarked on how “something of the Oriental – the true Oriental” should be known in America [Thomas, 157.]. Such a statement is contradictory due to Lee’s own hybridity, which will be discussed further in this essay. However, Lee’s ambition in shattering existing stereotypes and his defiance against white oppression was undeterred and it was soon realised in his most two famous films, The Way of The Dragon and Enter The Dragon, both being two of the most prominent Bruce Lee films in America till this day.
In The Way of The Dragon, Lee’s character is used to establish a strong sense of Chinese national identity in a Western setting. He outwardly fights and defeats white oppression which is predominantly symbolised by the character of Colt, who is played by the American martial artist Chuck Norris and is described in the film as “America’s best”. In the 1972 film, Lee plays a young Chinese man from the country side who arrives in Rome to help an uncle run a Chinese restaurant and deal with the harassment they are receiving from local mafia gangs. In the earliest scenes of the film, Lee’s character, Tang Lung, is immediately established as a fish out of water. His past as a country boy removes him even further from a Westernised environment. In the airport, white passerbys openly stare at Lung and his alienated status is further heightened by his inability to communicate with anyone. Lee, however, chooses to portray this incident not as entirely embarrassing or disheartening, but rather chooses to turn the cultural differences into a key comical element in the film. The audience witnesses Lung staring back at an old woman or scaring a boy with an ice cream cone, happily and teasingly taking advantage of the stereotype of the dangerous exotic other. An incident of dining in an Italian restaurant and only being able to order soup becomes a running joke for the first few scenes of the film. Such experiences seem to be geared towards an Asian audience, especially those who have travelled or lived abroad in a Western country. Therefore, Lee sets himself up as a relatable and everyday Chinese man, winning over the Asian audience.
He then – after witnessing the harassment his countrymen suffers at the hands of the locals – embarks on a journey to become the ‘extraordinary’ Chinese man, who is always proudly decked out in his Chinese clothes. A white woman makes sexual advances towards him, seeing him as an exotic commodity. The exchange establishes a sense of ‘Chinese pride’ which comes from an Asian man being seen as desirable by a white woman. Lee’s character, however, chooses to interact more with the typical, appropriate and traditional choice of the Chinese love interest. As the antithesis of Lee, we have Asian characters who have succumbed to oppression and are now subservient to the whites. There is Uncle Wong, a long time resident of Rome, who is the victim of circumstances and who finally ends up betraying his own people. Another similar character is Mr. Ho, who acts as a translator for the Italian gangsters. Ho’s role as the national traitor is mocked and highlighted by the portrayal of him as a weak and bumbling idiot. His flamboyant clothes, high-pitched voice and homosexual undertones are used as comedic relief. These two characters are used not only to progress the theme of national loyalty, but also to build Lee’s character up as a masculine Chinese hero. The ultimate emergence of this figure is, of course, during the fight between Lee and Norris in the Coliseum.
The separation between race and national standing is further highlighted by clothing – Norris wearing white and Lee wearing black. The Coliseum is chosen as a setting for the fight for it being globally recognisable as a Western landmark. In a place where its history is marred by slavery and oppression, Lee triumphs over the white man. Lee is beaten down at first but then rises up again, symbolising the Chinese rising from oppression in a strong post-colonial Hong Kong statement. Lee destroys the white man’s superiority by physically crippling his arm, then his leg, and finally breaking his neck and killing him. Lee, however, maintains his sense of dignity by showing his opponent respect after the fight and then proceeds to assume and emphasise his Chinese identity by putting his traditional Chinese shirt back on. The last shot is of Lee walking away as the figure of the lone fighter. Such an image not only makes Lee seem untouchable, but also as unattainable and as an indestructible force. Lee’s constant seamless transitions from the ordinary to the extraordinary makes him even more appealing to the audience; he is an iconic hero, but one which the ordinary man can still connect with. This image is part of his hyper-masculinity and “cool masculinity” in which Asian stars post-Lee try to either emulate or redefine. Lee’s on screen masculinity destroys the orientalistic emasculated East Asian man that has come before. In doing so, however, Asian feminine identity is still sidelined and Lee’s own cultural purity is questioned, especially due to his American ties.
Lee himself speaks of the “true oriental”, but Enter The Dragon and Lee’s own personal life complicates such notion and explore a more Asian-American identification. He received an American university education, married an American woman and spoke almost perfect English. Enter The Dragon is a prime example which explores this part of Lee’s complexity. Unlike the character he plays in Way of The Dragon, his character in Enter the Dragon speaks English and chooses to cooperate with the British intelligence. The people he befriends in the film are the white underdogs: the black karate fighter of Williams played by Jim Kelly and Roper, the down and out gambler. The setting of the island itself is not of Hong Kong; it seems to be devoid of national jurisdiction and is shown as an exotic and isolated island, almost in no-man’s land. The main antagonist of the film, however, is not the white figure of authority, but rather of another Chinese man. Han is the man who tarnishes Shaolin and therefore, the Chinese sense of honour. He is shown as cruel, inhumane, and deformed. Lee defeats him in a room of reflections, smashing mirrors and finally impaling Han on his own spear. The fight with Han seems to suggest a theme of self-reflection and national reconfiguration. Unlike the straightforward villainy of Way of The Dragon, this film is suggesting that maybe evil does not necessary always comes from a white influence, but it can be born from one’s own self or nationality. Such a statement separates Enter The Dragon from Way of The Dragon, making the former a far less nationalistic film and supports the argument of Lee being a more progressive figure rather than a typically traditional hero.
Bruce himself acknowledges the criticism he receives for possibly being “fairly hip and fairly Americanised” and “too Western for Oriental audiences” [Thomas, 158.]. Such criticism raises the possibility that there is no true Asia nor can there be a representation of the complete Asian. It also raises the question of how significant it is for artists to not only show their culture, but also to criticise it from an outsider’s perspective. It is undeniable that Lee’s physique and masculinity is used mainly by him to channel the image of him as a “symbol of rebellion against a racist America” and “a model of justified anger” towards colonisation in Asia [Marchetti, 213.]. This is the first time in American cinema where an East Asian person has wrestled control from the white majority and carve out a new Asian identity, thus making Lee’s success a breakthrough. Lee paved the way for a martial arts craze in America, one which open doors for other prominent Asian actors like Jackie Chan. However, the martial arts craze created by Lee and his on screen masculinity has begun to turn into new stereotypes, ones which the post-Lee generation of Asian actors now have to struggle with.
- Gina Marchetti, From Tian’anmen to Times Square [Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006].
- Bruce Thomas, Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit [London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 2007]
- Kam Louie, ‘Chinese masculinity studies in the twenty-first century: Westernizing, Easternizing, and globalizing wen and wu ’, Norma: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, 9.1 (2014).