Bruce Lee was one of the most important film stars to have ever existed–not the most important Asian American film star, not the most important martial arts film star– one of the most important stars in Hollywood film history. Even if you have not watched Lee’s slender filmography, you have probably encountered his imposing image at some point in your life. He was the first Asian man to hold an iconographic status, and his fame endures to this day. Lee is regarded as a pioneer for Asian Americans in cinema, but I find this reputation simplistic and reductive. Looking at Lee and the legacy he left behind, I wonder if he really did as much for Asian Americans as we think he did, and whether his hard-fought legacy has turned into an unfortunate parody of itself.

Born in San Francisco in 1940 to Cantonese parents and brought up in Hong Kong, Lee’s American and Asian identities were intertwined from birth, and Lee was suspended between them, struggling to fit comfortably into either one. In his native Hong Kong, Lee learnt the Wung Chan martial art form under the tutelage of Yip Man, but faced pressures to leave the studio after his classmates said they would not learn next to a Eurasian person (Lee’s mother was of mixed Chinese and Dutch-Jewish ancestry).

When he began his acting career in Hollywood, Lee was again hindered by others’ prejudices – this time because he was Asian. He was repeatedly turned down for Asian roles in favour of white actors who would wear yellow-face. Whenever he did get roles, they were usually of subservient men who deferred themselves to Caucasian characters. Lee found these roles not only racially insensitive, but also unrepresentative of who he was. He was strong, attractive, dominant, and charismatic – how was he supposed to express himself when bound by the Western expectations of Asian men?

“It’s rare to see such self-assured portrayals of Asian people in cinema, and we owe a lot to Lee for offering alternative models of who Asians could be.”

In Hollwood, Asian men – or more commonly, white men playing Asians – were typically portrayed as emasculated and servile, a stereotype that persists to this day. While several Asian actors have succeeded in bucking this trend, examples are few and far between, and this was especially true during Lee’s lifetime. Even when he did achieve fame, Lee was still sidelined by Hollywood. According to his wife, Lee pitched a series called Kung Fu to a TV stuido that would center around Lee in martial arts storylines. His idea was picked up – without Lee on board. The character that Lee had in mind for himself went to a white actor, David Carradine, who wore yellow-face for the role.

This incident pushed Lee to appeal to Hong Kong studios that wouldn’t racially discriminate against him. Lee eventually made films that were huge financial successes, becoming partially responsible for the elevation of Hong Kong cinema to a globally respected industry. Watching Enter the Dragon during the Lent holiday, I was impressed by the discipline, agency, and strength that Lee depicted in his character. It’s rare to see such self-assured portrayals of Asian people in cinema, and we owe a lot to Lee for offering alternative models of who Asians could be.

His tragically early death at the age of 33 left a hole in the martial arts genre that film studios were willing to exploit for commercial gain, without any consideration for the integrity of the film form they were working with. Through no fault of his own, Lee inadvertently replaced one stereotype for another. The image of a physically powerful Asian man, a progressive reaction to demeaning prejudices at the time, was rendered into another digestible stereotype. Studios hired Asian actors exclusively for gimmicky martial arts roles, and this became another stereotype for them to commit to. Perhaps it is inevitable that Lee’s innovations would become tired tropes.


Mountain View

Medieval Heroes in Authoritarian Propaganda

Luckily, the martial arts form has since been reclaimed by Asian films like Oldboy, Crouching Tiger, and Hidden Dragon, but it’s still depressing to see how the philosophy and culture of martial arts as portrayed in Western films are downplayed in favour of ‘kung fu theatrics’. One of the few Asian American actors I grew up watching, Brenda Song, got her own film like a lot of her fellow Disney stars. It was called Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior. In it, she plays an instinctively talented martial artist. Could you imagine any of Song’s Caucasian peers getting this sort of project? It’s a limited repertoire to grow up with.

Even the film about Lee, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, distorts his legacy and dismisses the careful thought and training that went into his art by portraying him as a mystically talented martial artist. Lee died before he could have any control over his legacy, and I believe that he would not have tolerated what the genre has become today. He was important in breaking down barriers for Asian actors — but his legacy was tarnished by those unconcerned with his greater principles or the integrity of his art form, and his impact will always be under scrutiny because of this.