In Los Angeles’ Chinatown stands a bronze figure that’s formidable and familiar.
It is also the only statue ofin America, one his daughter, , says captures his strength and dignity.
“My father represents what’s possible, like what is possible for a human being,” Shannon Lee said. “It’s like if you put your drive, your passion, what you love and you’re curious about the world and you work hard, like, this is what’s attainable.”
Half a century after his tragic death at 32, Bruce Lee is still teaching that lesson of power — and peace.
“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless like water,” he once said. “… Be water, my friend.”
Martial artist, actor, writer, civil rights leader, Lee broke barriers and bridged cultures.
“There is just no place in the world where people don’t know who he is, don’t have affection for him, don’t have stories, you know, about seeing him for the first time or standing in line to see his movies,” Shannon Lee said. “It’s really amazing how affecting he was on so many people from so many walks of life all over the globe.”
His life was truly remarkable.
Lee was born in 1940 in San Francisco and raised in Hong Kong, where his dad kept his curious son busy.
“So my father had a nickname as a young boy … which means ‘never sit still,'” Shannon Lee said, laughing. “And so he had a lot of energy. And so he got into acting at a very young age and he made, you know, 18, 20 films, up to the age of 18.”
Bruce Lee started training in wing kung fu when he was 13.
“You know, he just immediately fell in love with the art because he was such a physical person,” Shannon Lee said.
In 1958, Lee moved to Washington state, opening up martial arts schools and studying philosophy.
The two were inseparable, as Lee said in an interview with Canadian journalist Pierre Berton.
“Man, listen, you see … ultimately, martial art means honestly expressing yourself,” Lee said.
It didn’t take long for Hollywood to notice him, and in 1965, Bruce Lee gave a screen test to remember. Auditioning for the part of Kato in the TV series “The Green Hornet,” Lee displayed punches, jabs and kicks that were too fast for the film to record it.
He won the role, but studio executives limited his dialogue because of his accent.
Lee would leave for Hong Kong to star in films on his own terms and not be subjected to the stereotypes that Asian Americans faced in the U.S.
“I actually grew up being ashamed of my Chinese heritage because of all the negative stereotype that you see in movies, TV, even comic books,” said Jeff Chinn, who owns one of the largest collections of Bruce Lee memorabilia, now on display at the Chinese Historical Society in San Francisco.
He may have only been 5 feet, 7 inches tall and 130 pounds, but Chinn says Lee was a larger-than-life hero.
“‘Fist of Fury’ came out on a Friday. My dad took me to see the movie Saturday. When I went back to school on Monday, I noticed all my non-Chinese friends were looking at the Chinese a little differently,” he said, laughing. “So I said, ‘What’s goin’ on here?’ I guess what I’m tryin’ to explain to you, in a nutshell, being invisible on Friday to being popular on Monday, which was almost like, like, like magic.”
When Chinn looks at a poster of Lee, he said he sees dark memories as well as positive.
“Cause I was in a very dark place, I was in deep depression,” he said. “But he was kinda like the guy that pulled me out of it.”
For Bruce Lee, “Fist of Fury” led to “Enter the Dragon.”
It was his biggest hit.
It was also his last.
On the verge of superstardom, Lee died in 1973 from a cerebral edema, a swelling of the brain — a sudden and mysterious death that has only added to his mythology.
He didn’t live to see the final product of “Enter the Dragon.”
Director Justin Lin said if Bruce Lee was only an action star, “we wouldn’t be sitting here 50 years after his death talking about him.”
Lin moved to America from Taiwan when he was 8 years old. His films — he directed several of the Fast and Furious movies — have grossed more than $2 billion.
“His action was something that was really kind of an extension of him, you know?” Lin said. “There was something that was authentic in his sequences, in his films. The fact that he only did I think three and a half films in his career, and it’s resonated, I think that to me transcended race.”
But his favorite Bruce Lee sequence isn’t really about action.
“It’s these moments where unabashedly, they just cut to this close-up, and he’s not saying anything. But he’s saying everything,” Lin said.
Lee paved the way for so many behind the camera and in front. He also inspired his son, Brandon Lee, to become an actor.
Brandon was just 28 when he died after awhile filming “The Crow” in 1993.
“I was struggling a lot with my brother’s death and at the time I was given a bunch of my father’s writings to look through,” Shannon Lee said, “and then I came across this quote that I had never seen before and it just spoke to me so deeply in that moment because of the amount of personal pain that I was in. And the quote was, ‘The medicine for my suffering I had within me from the very beginning, but I did not take it. My ailment came from within myself, but I did not observe it until this moment. And now I see if I am to be the light, I must be like the candle and be my own fuel.'”
She said her father guides her every day.
Included in those writings was Bruce Lee’s treatment for “The Warrior,” a martial arts crime drama that Shannon Lee and Justin Lin are producing for HBO. The series is now in its third season.
“For me, it was very personal, you know?” Lin said. “I grew up, and I had heard the story that Bruce Lee actually came up with the idea. And when he pitched it to the studios, they loved it, but they realized that they can’t cast an Asian American to play an Asian American role … and so I felt like it was important to try to finish what he started.”
And it’s what Bruce Lee started that guides so many people today.
Shannon Lee said her father’s message today would be something he said in an interview in 1971: “Under the sky, under the heavens, there is but one family.”
“I think he would try to encourage everybody to see each other as human beings first,” she said. “We all may have subtle differences to each other, but those differences should be celebrated. On the inside, we all have the same hopes and dreams. We all want the same things: to be safe, to be loved, to be seen. We all want that, to, you know, be peaceful, to have support. All of that. And so in those ways, we’re the same. And our differences are just like, you know, all the beautiful colors of, you know, all the flowers that exist, you know?”
Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Lauren Barnello.
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