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Respect the Dragon
Bruce Lee is a Hong Kong legend, but you wouldn’t know it looking around town. John Robertson wonders what we’re doing to preserve his legacy.

By John Robertson | Jul 03, 2008

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  • Respect the Dragon

Bruce Lee’s death from cerebral edema on Jul 20, 1973 famously prompted a swirl of feverish speculation. He overdosed on cannabis or painkillers, said some, dropped dead during sex or intensive training, murmured others. He was murdered by local triads, US hitmen, Shaolin monks, or Japanese ninjas. He faked his death and was hanging out with Elvis.

Concrete evidence surrounding the case was scarce and inaccessible, so the next best thing was to make it all up. Fast forward 35 years, and particulars of Lee’s life risk becoming equally ethereal. Mementos and memorabilia are increasingly few and far between, and still no official memorial space exists to house them.

Hence the urgency of recent requests by the local Bruce Lee Club and others for the government to buy Lee’s old Kowloon Tong home. The 5,700 square foot house on Cumberland Road is already a far cry from its former self. Once an artfully designed multi-purpose complex where Lee did his writing, studying and training, or watched reams of fight footage in his personal cinema, it’s now a shabby “love hotel” for couples who pay by the hour.

Nonetheless, when owner Yu Panglin recently decided to sell the place to raise money for earthquake victims in Sichuan, Lee’s fans immediately called on the government to seize a vital opportunity. One call came from none other than the actor’s brother, Robert Lee, in a direct letter to Chief Executive Donald Tsang on Jun 21. Another came from the Liberal Party’s Michael Tien, who contacted older brother James (also Tourism Board chairman) about the matter, along with Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Frederick Ma.

Not for the first time, the fans’ demands fell on deaf ears. The episode is just the latest in a long line of unsuccessful attempts to get the government to support a museum dedicated to the biggest name in Hong Kong history. Bruce Lee’s importance to Hong Kong is indisputable. Around 25,000 people took to the streets to pay respect to the actor after his death. Cultural critics agree that he vitally transformed the popular self-image of the Hong Kong Chinese people when times were tough.

“Bruce Lee represented character, imagination, courage and creativity,” says popular columnist Chip Tsao, who observes that in an era when colonialism and intimidation was rife, Lee was the little man who made quick work of foreign bullies and corrupt thugs twice his size. Lee also changed the perception of Chinese people around the world.

“He brought respectability to the Chinese through film,” says Anders Nelsson, a longtime fan who once shared the screen with Lee in “The Way of the Dragon.” “Before Bruce, the Chinese were depicted onscreen as people with pig tails and bucked teeth who talked funny. Bruce garnered respect and admiration from all around the world and made it possible for people like Jackie Chan and Jet Li to enter Hollywood today.”

As Hong Kong strives to become a world-class city, Lee’s traction would seem an invaluable asset. Yet, aside from the statue on the Avenue of Stars, erected in 2005 by the Bruce Lee Club with no government assistance, there’s little visible appreciation of the man in the city today. “Hong Kong has used Bruce Lee to promote itself, but what has Hong Kong done for him?” asks Tsao.

The fans have tried long and hard to do something. In 1998, a local Bruce Lee museum was planned, but its backers quickly discovered they had insufficient cash. Sophie Yekawa, the museum coordinator at the time, said the government contributed no money to the project. The following year, the Urban Council approved plans for a proposed permanent memorial gallery at the Film Archive. The plans were suspended for alleged “safety” concerns, and the Urban Council was dissolved that same year.

One local walk-in tribute to the icon that did garner notable attention was the Bruce Lee Cafe, a self-styled “bar and museum” that opened in 1998. Opened by entrepreneur Jon Ben, who starred with Lee in “The Way of the Dragon” as the big-boss gweilo, it featured a few items said to be original memorabilia—Lee’s nunchackas and his outfit from the film—alongside color-copy film posters. It managed to draw plenty of visitors from overseas, eager to sample the Fish of Fury and Kung Fu Curry while having their picture taken with the white-bearded proprietor. Yet not quite enough. The Cafe closed its doors in 2002. It failed to generate enough money as a bar, let alone a museum.

“The costs of a museum are simply not sustainable for an ordinary people like us, which is why we urge the government to get involved,” says Bruce Lee Club chairman W Wong Yiu-keng.

Why hasn’t the government climbed onboard? Critics say it partly comes down to the government’s typical fear of intervention, disregard for heritage, and bureaucratic red tape. Yet the ultimate reason revolves around Bruce Lee’s murky personal life.
“The real reason certain high-level people won’t support a proper Bruce Lee tribute is because he died in another woman’s bed,” says Nelsson. Alvin Ho, who used to work for the Tourism Board, agrees, saying this was the primary objection he ran into time and again whenever he proposed the establishment of a museum or the naming of a road after Lee.

W Wong dismisses such puritanical posturing as “immature,” pointing out that Dr. Sun Yat-sen had his fair share of affairs too, yet we still commemorate him. “So should we only have memorials and museums for saints like Jesus or the Buddha?” he asks. Elsewhere in the world, icons from JFK to Jim Morrison are still celebrated and commemorated despite their less than spotless personal records.

Indeed, elsewhere in the world Lee himself seems to get more appreciation than he does here at home. When the Avenue of Stars bronze figure was unveiled on November 28, 2005, many here thought it was the first such public statue anywhere dedicated to the icon. We then learned that the Bosnian city of Mostar had beaten us to it a day earlier. Citizens there saw it as a symbol of unity that could trump harsh differences between them. “We will always be Muslims, Serbs or Croats,” said the leader of one youth gropup. “But one thing we all have in common is Bruce Lee.”
Meanwhile, an unofficial Bruce Lee museum already does exist outside of Hong Kong—on the mainland of all places—where his films were banned for so long. The “Bruce Lee Paradise” museum and amusement park exists in the Shunde District of Foshan, the actor’s ancestral home which he only ever visited once aged five. Nelsson, who has been to the complex, reports that it is expanding, and that a statue of the legend 15 meters high is being erected.

“The fact is that you find passionate Bruce Lee fans in every corner of the globe,” says Ho, who says he’s met people in Latvia and Russia that celebrate the anniversary of the actor’s death as if it were their own birthday. Now the corporate communications manager for the Convention and Exhibition Center, Ho was spurred by such encounters to launch a Facebook site seeking to establish an annual international Bruce Lee conference in Hong Kong. While it’s still in its embryonic stage, his vision of the ideal conference features Bruce Lee fanatic Stephen Chow as the honorary chairman, while attendees from all around the world would be able to visit Lee’s house, school, the sites of some of his most famous scenes, and meet famous friends and co-stars of Lee.

“If there’s enough support from people around the world, then we can present it to investors and maybe even get the government interested.” Meanwhile, W and the Bruce Lee Club continue with their efforts to get the Hong Kong legend the local tribute he deserves. Lee’s supporters certainly have their work cut out for them, but there’s no denying their fierce determination. Like their hero, they relish a big, hairy challenge.

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