This July marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Hong Kong-American action movie star Bruce Lee, who was perhaps the first actor to bring martial arts action to a worldwide market. He is still the most famous Asian actor.
He was born in San Francisco, as the grand nephew of Hong Kong’s Eurasian tycoon Sir Robert Ho-tun,g and was raised in Kowloon. As a boy studying the martial art of Wing Chun, he encountered racism as other students shunned the “half-blood” Lee. His family decided to move back to the US after he got into trouble with criminal gangs through street fighting. He finished high school in Seattle, studied drama and married a white American called Linda Emery.
Soon they moved to California where Lee made connections with American martial artists from various disciplines. According to Lee, the Californian Chinese community was enraged that he taught Chinese martial arts to non-Chinese, and he fought a duel to defend his teaching rights. The duel persuaded him to include American approaches to fitness — weightlifting, body building and practicality — into Chinese martial arts.
Even though he dropped out of college, Lee had more than enough to feed his family by teaching martial arts (and competing in prize tournaments) and acting. He became Kato, the Asian chauffeur and assistant of masked hero The Green Hornet (who shared the same universe with Batman) and made guest appearances in several TV series, usually as a martial artist.
He could not secure a protagonist billing for any movie or TV series, which executives said was because of his thick accent instead of his ethnicity. He returned to Hong Kong, where fans remembered him as Kato.
He starred in several movies from 1971 until his death two years later. In all these movies, which are still very violent by today’s standards, he plays a Chinese man fighting non-Chinese who are oppressing the Chinese people — Southeast Asians, Japanese and Westerners.
The movies were highly successful in Asia and the US, where ironically American stars such as Chuck Norris and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played villains.
There was no doubt that the steady flow of Hong Kong action movies in cinemas worldwide, including in Indonesia circa 1971-1997, started with the high demand for Bruce Lee movies. His films had the strongest impact in countries where the Chinese diaspora were in need of a hero figure.
As the reformasi era permitted the publication of books related to Chinese culture, I read some translated Malaysian and Taiwanese books and was disappointed with how often they took scripts from Bruce Lee’s films and urban legends (many came after his death) as proof of the supremacy of Chinese martial arts (and by implication, of the Chinese man).
On the other hand, the depiction of the Chinese, or any other East Asians, has not changed significantly in movies for the past 40 years.
Asian-Americans often complain that TV series and movies still cannot portray them as ordinary Americans and as the good guys. The trend fluctuates over the decades but while it’s normal for African-American characters to become detectives, family men and even presidents (long before the ascension of Barack Obama to the US presidency), the presence of Asian characters must be linked to martial arts themes or villainy.
The biggest Asian actors in Hollywood after Bruce Lee are also Hong Kong action stars — Jackie Chan and Jet Li. There are also numerous Asian-American actors and actresses, but the trend is similar: they play supporting characters, villains or extras.
The response to this ceiling is different according to the culture and country of residence. Most Chinese-Indonesians do not object to the negative depiction of Asian characters, since they think it’s natural that Western shows portray whites and blacks as the heroes.
Chinese-Singaporeans might swipe at Hollywood online or in magazines (but no more than that), while for the Chinese the most important thing is that the movie does not portray the People’s Republic of China negatively.
It is in Hong Kong where Bruce Lee is most venerated, and his statue in Kowloon is an icon of that region. Feeling their independence and way of life threatened by China, Hong Kongers identify the star’s rebellious and multicultural nature as the antithesis to China’s virtues of conformity and uniformity. They believe that the government should honour him with a permanent museum and embrace his maverick personality.
A pan-Asian hero in the mould of Bruce Lee is still in the making. While Asian-Americans and Taiwanese adore basketball star Jeremy Lin, Hong Kongers and many other Asian NBA fans think he is overrated.
While the agreeable Manchester United soccer player Shinji Kagawa is well-known worldwide, his more rebellious Korean rival, Ki Sung-yong, has recently been lambasted in his homeland for criticising the national team’s ex-coach. His sin was to criticise his superior, no matter how unpopular he was.
At least now Indonesians are more used to seeing Asian main characters in television and movies. Just think of Hawaii Five-O, The Mentalist, GI Joe, and Pacific Rim.
Even Indonesians have contributed to Hollywood and international sports. Many of them are Chinese-Indonesians, but unfortunately many Chinese-Indonesians do not know and even refuse to believe that they are Chinese (and Indonesians).
Take Kristin Kreuk, who was famous as Lana Lang in Smallville. My college friends refused to believe her mother was Chinese-Indonesian. Many refused to believe that world boxing champion Chris John was a Chinese-Indonesian and the same went for his successor Daud “Cino” Jordan.
Disney star Tania Gunadi was raised in Bandung and fortunately the Indonesian media gave a great amount of publicity to action star Joe Taslim. For his Hollywood debut, Fast and Furious 6, Taslim played a villain who fought against an Asian hero portrayed by Korean-American Sung Kang.
It is beyond doubt that Lee opened the gate and set the bar for these Indonesian stars. The Dragon himself may have failed to star in a Hollywood movie, but his charisma, both on and off screen, has since served to inspire a nation and a people.
* The writer teaches English and Australian cultural studies at Uni-Bridge, St. Aloysius High School, Bandung.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.