I had a million reasons to love Bruce Lee, but I hated him
I reached out to others to hear their thoughts on Lee, and whether they suffered from the same cultural paradox
“Those who are unaware they are walking in darkness will never see the light”
— Bruce Lee
I’m supposed to write about Bruce Lee right now, but it’s hard to concentrate. I’m thinking about what’s happening to black and African Americans in this country. Talking about Asian identity issues feels like an utter lack of perspective, but as my colleague Marc Spears tweeted: “This Bruce Lee documentary is coming at a excellent time in the midst of today’s world.”
So, here goes.
Lee might be the baddest Asian to ever grace a screen. The Chinese American legend was born in San Francisco and is the subject of ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 documentary, Be Water, which premieres on Sunday. His culture transcendence is known. He was good friends with basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and waxed him in a movie for kicks. Among his pupils was Steve McQueen, the actor once known as the “King of Cool.” Lee redefined Asian masculinity to the western world.
I had a million reasons to love him.
But I hated him.
Growing up, I rejected Lee because of my own racial insecurities. Kids called me Bruce Lee, teased me in broken English: “You know kung fu? HWAAAAA!” I distanced myself from martial arts and anything representing my culture to prove my Americanness. Bruce Willis over Bruce Lee, Marshall Faulk over martial arts. In public, I’d be quick to speak loudly to show I had no accent. I needed acceptance. It worked.
But at what cost? Those kids on the playground weren’t trying to be cultural identity assassins playing the superlong game. Quite the contrary, some might have been trying to relate to me. Lee was America’s first Chinese pop culture superstar and much of the country’s gateway to Asian culture. Media helps people understand cultures they don’t have access to. Sometimes that strengthens communities, sometimes it stigmatizes, sometimes it’s both or neither.
Sure, I respected what he’d done, but I distanced myself from everything he represented. So, I reached out to a diverse group of voices from entertainment, sports, politics, music — from RZA’s former manager to an official in President Barack Obama’s administration — to hear their thoughts on Lee, and whether they suffered from the same cultural paradox.
Bao Nguyen — the director
“Every time someone would approach me, they’d call me Bruce Lee. It evolved into Spike Lee because I had spiky hair and I was like, ‘At least you’re trying to be clever,’ ” said Bao Nguyen, an award-winning Vietnamese American filmmaker who directed Be Water to humanize a transcendent figure whose myth had surpassed the man.
“I wanted to unpack who Bruce Lee was as a person because he’d almost reached this deity-level status,” Nguyen told The Undefeated. “It’s hard to relate to him and who he became. In order to understand your heroes, you have to understand their struggles, fears, failures. Then you can relate because you see yourself in their experience.”
The 36-year-old Silver Spring, Maryland, native was mocked as Lee growing up, “traumatized” at martial arts school, but when he first saw Enter the Dragon, it transformed what he thought he could be.
“Having someone like Bruce Lee, who’s Asian American, born in San Francisco, in the time when the Vietnam War was just starting, the Korean War, World War II had just happened, how was he able to bypass some of those stereotypes that people had of what an Asian American face meant? It was the face of a villain or sidekick.”
In defying one stereotype, Lee created others. That’s why Nguyen says it’s so important to have diverse storytelling, even if stereotypes are positive.
“[That] perpetuates these unreachable positive role models we’re expected to live up to. It builds on the model minority myth a bit, where we only have a positive portrayal, and then people of other races who don’t live up to the Asian model minority myth, they’re looked down upon. ‘Well, if Asians can do it and they’re a minority, why can’t black, Latinx, African Americans do the same?’ When you look at things monolithically, that’s where stereotypes and generalizations happen that you have to overcome in our society.”
Ronny Chieng — the entertainer
“He’s ‘mom famous.’ Like even your mom knows about him, which I can’t say about most people. My mom doesn’t know how famous I am. Seinfeld, Michael Jordan, Bruce Lee — he’s on that level,” said Ronny Chieng, an actor and comedian.
Chieng became a modern Asian folk hero after his 2016 Daily Show bit decimating a racist Fox News segment in New York’s Chinatown. The 34-year-old, who recently dropped a Netflix special, Asian Comedian Destroys America!, was born in Malaysia, raised in New Hampshire and Singapore, studied in Australia and now lives in New York. He says watching Lee in Asia is far different from watching him in America.
“At the time in Malaysia, you’re dealing with colonial issues. Since we were a British colony, we put the Western world on a pedestal. They set our system of government, education. Bruce Lee kind of decolonized it, where even the colonists were like, ‘This guy’s badass.’ There were undertones of, ‘Even Americans love this guy,’ so he was the ultimate hero,” said Chieng, who learned martial arts because of Lee. “We’d reenact his stuff, but it wasn’t a racial issue. If you had a normal strict Asian family, they’d say don’t make the sounds, but it was more because that’s not how kids should behave instead of racism.”
Growing up in a country where Asians aren’t minorities, Chieng was never mockingly called “Bruce Lee” (“In Singapore and Malaysia, we’re not gonna yell at a Chinese guy, ‘Hey, Bruce Lee!’ That wouldn’t make any sense!”), but he did recognize Lee was shattering stigmas.
“When I moved to America, I got a deeper understanding of Asian American issues. He’s the lone figure showing Asian masculinity in a badass way. If you watched Western movies, you’d never see the Asian guy beating up other races. Bruce beat up everybody — Asians, Chinese, Japanese, black people — he was an equal opportunity a– kicker.”
But that also left an opening for being a punchline.
“He’s the entry point for other races to relate either antagonistically or endearingly to Asian people. If you like Asian people, it’s, ‘I love Bruce Lee!’ If you hate Asian people, it’s like, ‘Hey, it’s f—ing Bruce Lee over here!’ He’s the only reference point.
“His stories had a lot of cultural significance. Asian stories told with power and dignity. It’s one thing to push a social agenda in your storytelling, it’s another to make it good and have everyone like it. Now that I work in showbiz, the way he wanted Asian men represented in storytelling is a fight that continues.”
Dat Nguyen — the athlete
“When we came from Vietnam to America, he was the first somebody that gave us an opportunity. Meaning you could dream because he was a movie star,” said Dat Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American to be drafted, play and be named All-Pro in the NFL.
The College Football Hall of Famer was born in a refugee camp in Arkansas after his family fled war-torn Vietnam, then raised in Rockport, Texas, a small Gulf Coast town where racial tension was high because of the shrimping industry.
“We came in and people felt like we were invading what they had established for their families. They were threatened,” Nguyen told The Undefeated. “Mom always told us to make sure we had our relatives close by when you’re out, at school, because those are the only people we could trust.”
When the 44-year-old first saw Enter the Dragon, it had a profound effect.
“Coming from Vietnam after the war, Bruce Lee was the first one we saw with some similarities or nationality that we could relate to, that could allow us to be myself. Down the road, there was Jackie Chan, Michael Chang, but Bruce Lee was the first. During that time, for Vietnamese America, myself, my family, relatives, Bruce Lee was a big component of all of us for hope.”
While Nguyen dealt with some racism playing football, he found winning was the ultimate equalizer.
“Nothing was given to you, you had to earn everything. At [Texas] A&M, there was someone who was very disgruntled about an Asian American playing sports. I got a threatening letter. It was envy, jealousy, whatever it is,” said the school’s all-time leading tackler. “It helps when you’re in sports and winning. That really helps perceptionwise with who you are. They don’t look at what nationality you are then, you’re just part of the team.”
Chris Lu — the politician
“To see somebody like Bruce Lee give a positive stereotype was a very refreshing and empowering feeling for an Asian American kid growing up in the United States, but the stereotype was a double-edged sword,” said Chris Lu, deputy secretary of labor under Obama.
Lu was the second Asian American to become deputy secretary of any U.S. Cabinet department. The 53-year-old from Rockville, Maryland, grew up with a muted appreciation for Lee.
“It’s funny now, there’s an iconic T-shirt of a black and white Bruce Lee. I would never have worn a Bruce Lee shirt. I was picked on because I wasn’t a big kid. My parents thought we should go learn karate, and that was the worst,” Lu told The Undefeated. “I grew up in an area with racial diversity, but not diversity of interests. Bruce Lee was a pigeonhole I didn’t feel comfortable in.”
That feeling is rooted in the perpetual foreigner syndrome, the concept that regardless of where Asians Americans are born and raised, they’re viewed as foreigners.
“You’re already self-conscious that my parents didn’t speak fluent English. I wasn’t eating the foods others would eat. I spent my Sundays going to Chinese school. I couldn’t really do sports and had to study. It was a series of stereotypes that made it difficult to grow up. Bruce Lee was one positive one, but it was so foreign to me, I couldn’t relate.”
It wasn’t until seeing the Bruce Lee exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle that Lu fully appreciated Lee’s place in American history.
“All the barriers he faced, his cultural significance. He had beautiful writing, was a poet, was very spiritual. And he himself was trying to break out of all the stereotypes. He was a trailblazer, and unfortunately he passed too early to continue that, and then there was a drought for the next 20-30 years.”
Phil Yu — the advocate
“If you show any 10 people on the planet a picture of Bruce Lee, are they all gonna know who he is? There’s a good chance,” said Phil Yu, award-winning author of the Asian American blog Angry Asian Man, and host of an Asian American podcast called They Call Us Bruce.
The 42-year-old Korean American from the Bay Area was frequently called “Bruce Lee” growing up (“too much to pinpoint a specific incident”), but that didn’t affect his reverence for the man who dropkicked Asian male stereotypes.
“Back then, the image of the Asian man was someone weak, subservient, always on the sideline,” Yu told The Undefeated. “When Bruce Lee comes along, he’s like a stick of dynamite. I’m trying to imagine what it was like for people to first see this guy. It must’ve been mind-blowing and so inspirational for Asian Americans then. His arrival led to a surge of Asian American visibility and representation. We wouldn’t be as far as we are now.”
Yu, who’s co-writing a book about Asian American effects on pop culture, didn’t let stereotypes that emanated from Lee affect his identity, especially when it came to martial arts.
“That relationship never went sour for me. I can’t control what people perceive as stereotypical. Martial arts is a cool cultural artifact from our motherland. At some point, you can embrace it without embracing others’ misperceptions.”
Sophia Chang — the hip-hop manager
“Was it worth it to have Bruce Lee because of what he did for Asian American culture versus the liability of the stereotypes he engendered, then the answer is f— yes,” said Sophia Chang, a Korean Canadian who was the former manager of RZA, GZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard and recently released an audio memoir, The Baddest Bitch in the Room.
The Vancouver, Canada, native practices Shaolin Kung Fu and Chan Buddhism. Chang said Lee is the greatest martial artist of all time because of both the mental and physical.
“Bruce Lee represents power, rebellion, revolution, Asian pride, self-determination and self-actualization, traits which we don’t necessarily associate with the Asian American community, who have lived under the shadow of the model minority myth for decades,” Chang told The Undefeated via email.
While Chang relishes her unapologetically Asian persona now, she grew up wanting to be white, asking her mom to make cheeseburgers so she didn’t have to eat Korean food. After the Wu-Tang Clan helped her appreciate her culture (Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is named after Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon), Chang’s light bulb went off.
“The fact that the show Kung Fu, which I watched religiously as a child, was his idea then stolen from him, and starred a white man as a Shaolin monk, is obscene. What’s worse is that it didn’t occur to me that it was wrong.
“We can’t worry about what people will do with our stories once we are the architects, proponents and broadcasters thereof. People can be s—y and f—ed up and racist, but that can’t stop us from telling our stories. And when I say #TellYourStory, I mean tell your story, don’t let someone else tell it.”
W. Kamau Bell — the fanatic
“Bruce Lee breaks through right after the civil rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and black people were like, ‘We have to do for ourselves and protect ourselves.’ At that same time, Bruce comes through and is like, ‘Here’s one way you can protect yourself,’ ” said W. Kamau Bell, who is African American. He’s a comedian, is featured on CNN’s United Shades of America, and stars on Netflix’s special, Private School Negro.
“I was a gangly, shy kid and a target of bullying, so that was another way Bruce Lee crossed over,” the 47-year-old entertainer told The Undefeated. “That guy’s smaller than me and he’s handling his business, so it naturally drew me into martial arts to make me feel more confident about myself. I moved a lot growing up, I always felt vulnerable. Being interested in Bruce and martial arts actually made me feel better in my skin.”
Bell related to my battle with stereotypes and pop culture representation.
“As a kid who was 6-2 in high school, I had to have a lot of basketball conversations I didn’t want. I think a part of the reason I’m not good at basketball is because I was exhausted from having those conversations, so I never really tried to play. ”
As a divided country smolders from injustice, anger, racism and fear, Bell said, we could all learn something from Lee, a man who broke racial barriers within his own community, defying Chinese martial artists to teach kung fu to anyone who wanted to learn. Lee was ostracized at the time, but would prove to be on the right side of history.
“All his writing is about philosophy and human development and finding balance. He purposely goes out of his way to teach the thing he cares about to everybody who wants to learn,” said Bell. “Let’s all get on the same page, work together to strive to better ourselves and become better people. But if someone steps to you and you gotta fight, you’ll be ready.”
“As you think, so shall you become.”
— Bruce Lee
I rectified my relationship with Lee in my 20s, when I rectified my relationship with my race, an always-evolving discovery. It wasn’t Lee’s fists of fury or the whuppings he gave Chuck Norris that converted me. It was his philosophy. As Bell said, Lee was about bettering himself in every way. Constantly learning and evolving. I rejected Lee because of stereotypes, but ironically it was I who stereotyped him. I was doing that to my own people.
Lee is a man who preached inclusion and advancement without sacrificing any backbone (metaphorically). We take so much pride in sticking to our convictions, even when we discover new information that demands revision. Self-realization only happens when we check our baggage and privilege and are genuinely honest with ourselves that we can be wrong. There is no more pertinent time to listen to Lee, to fight the good fight, to be more empathetic, to be more fluid with our thinking.
To be water.