Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly, Simon & Schuster, US $35.00, Pp 656, June 2018, ISBN 978-1501187629
Bruce Lee wanted to straddle East and West when he was alive. But he had only one body, and his American widow picked a side and chose her hometown Seattle, Washington, to bury his body. Linda explained, “I decided to bury Bruce in the peace and calm of Seattle… I think his happiest times were spent in Seattle, and I intended to return there with my children to live.” Seattle was where Linda had grown up, gone to college, and fallen in love with Bruce Lee. Her hometown had the added benefit of being a tranquil place for a funeral, unlike the mass mania of Hong Kong. In Bruce Lee, Matthew Polly says, in Asia, Bruce was bigger than the Beatles on his death, but in America, ‘Enter the Dragon’ had yet to be released and he was yet to be known to a wider Western public. He was an obscure TV actor whose death garnered only a handful of short obituaries, several of which contained glaring errors.
Released less than a month after Lee’s two funerals, Bruce Lee, Matthew Polly says that ‘Enter the Dragon’ made him in death what he stated as his ‘Definite chief Aim’ in life — the first and highest paid Oriental super star in the United States. ‘Enter the Dragon’ was made for a minuscule $850,000 but it grossed $90 million worldwide in 1973 and went on to earn an estimated $350 million over the next forty-five years. Lee’s other dream was to popularize the martial arts in the West. Bruce Lee had set out to use the medium of movies to promote the martial arts with missionary zeal. He succeeded beyond his wildest expectations. Matthew Polly says that there were fewer than five hundred martial arts schools in the world before his death but, by the late 1990s, the number grew to over twenty million martial arts students in the United States alone because of his influence. In Britain, there was so much demand that crowds would line up in the street outside the handful of commercial schools and literally threw money at the teacher to ensure a place in the next session.
While the rest of the world was falling in love with the late Bruce Lee, Hong Kong was experiencing a hangover. Matthew Polly says that Lee had risen to stardom in the colony as the defender of the Chinese people, their hero. His sudden death in scandalous circumstances left them bereft and disturbed because his death was less than glorious. In the West, his films launched an entirely new Chinese archetype into the Western popular culture — the Kung Fu master. Before Lee, it was only Fu Manchu, the Yellow Peril villain, and Charlie Chan, the model minority. These two tired representatives reinforced the stereotype of the Chinese male as submissive, non-aggressive, and physically and sexually inferior — weak and sniveling; wily but never openly confrontational; effeminate, sexless, or gay. Matthew Polly says that Lee smashed this image and built a masculinity that was physically superior, excessively violent, and sexually enticing. His pugnacious performance in ‘Enter the Dragon’ immediately transformed Western perception of Asians. He was the first Asian American actor to embody the classic Hollywood definition of a star — men wanting to be him and women wanted to be with him. As a result, Bruce Lee’s films also changed Asians’ self-perception. With his cocky smile, come-fight-me hand gestures, and graceful but deadly moves, the chiseled Lee gave Chinese guys balls.
Bruce Lee is probably the best biography of an actor who changed the Western culture. Matthew Polly shows that Lee started with the mission of popularizing martial arts and succeeded beyond anybody’s dreams. But his bigger success was to change the way they make movies in Hollywood. Yet his biggest success was to change the Western perception of the Asians from being physically inferior to stronger and manly people. Lee also helped Asian men how they looked at themselves. Bruce Lee is meticulously researched and brilliantly written. It is a must-read for everyone who is interested not only in the life and art of Bruce Lee but also the history of cinema.