#115 AloudLA: Bruce Lee and the Afro-Asian Culture Connection
In a special gathering to commemorate the 45th anniversary of Bruce Lee’s passing, Emmy Award-winning comedian and author W. Kamau Bell, Bruce Lee biographer and cultural critic Jeff Chang, Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee, along with moderator and cultural anthropologist Sharon Ann Lee held a discussion on Bruce Lee’s long-lasting legacy and how he became an unexpected icon for Afro-Asian unity.
This conversation took place at the Library Foundation's ALOUD series on July 17, 2018 at the Los Angeles Public Library. AloudLA is a series of dynamic conversations, readings, and performances that take place at the historic Central Library in DTLA. AloudLA is presented by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles which supports the Los Angeles Public Library. For more about the ALOUD series, please visit lfla.org/aloud.
You can watch the video of the event here: Video of AloudLA: Bruce Lee and the Afro-Asian Culture Connection
Bruce Lee emerged in the late 60’s during a time of increasing third-world consciousness. In his movies, Bruce advanced radical cultural politics of an underdog that’s anti-colonial, anti-racist, which is right in line with the social movements happening at the time, especially in the U.S., where there were still signs that read: “No dogs or Chinese Allowed” and “Whites Only.”
Segregation is the real monetary and racial reason why African-American audiences were the first audiences to be exposed to Bruce Lee outside of Hong Kong. With White Flight from the cities, the movie theaters in the suburbs had different programming than the theaters in the cities. Hong Kong movies came inexpensively, so they were played alongside other low-cost programing in the city movie theaters. Bruce’s movies reflected themes that resonated with the African-Americans leading the Black Freedom Struggle and inspired movements within the Asian-American community.
By the time “Enter the Dragon” comes out in 1973, gung fu movies have crossed over and become wildly popular. Gung fu movies were the top movies during the entire Spring/Summer blockbuster season in 1973. This gung fu phenomenon trickled down into television, with gung fu movies and shows filling cheap airtime slots such as Sunday afternoon.
It was through television that W. Kamau Bell was first introduced to gung fu movies and “Bruce Lee.” He movies around a lot but every place he lived had gung fu programming, many movies claiming to star “Bruce Lee.” As a kid watching this TV programming, Kamau thought that Bruce Lee made a ton of movies, even though he did not always look the same in all of them. It was not until the rise of video stores that Kamau discovered the true Bruce Lee movies because they were not being shown on TV at that time. When he watched Enter the Dragon, Kamau knew that this Bruce Lee was different than all the counterfeit Bruces. After that Kamau became a Bruce Lee evangelist, even trying to get enough signatures on a petition to get Bruce Lee a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He would take the bus across Chicago to take gung fu classes because he knew that was what Bruce Lee studied and he would show Bruce Lee movies to all his friends. It was not until Kamau moved to San Francisco and watched a documentary about Bruce Lee in Chinatown that he realized Bruce Lee was not “his.” Kamau had felt an ownership of Bruce Lee, like he was the only Bruce Lee fan in the world, and up until this moment had not placed Bruce in cultural context as a Chinese American man or as an Asian hero. It was Bruce Lee’s challenging of the Man, racism, and State Power that really resonated with Kamau as a young African-American man growing up in 1980’s Chicago.
Growing up Kamau did not see the color line between Bruce Lee and him. In both his writings and movies, Bruce Lee embodied self-determination, self-reliance, and self-protection, which were also pervasive messages in the African-American community.
Shannon has found that her father, Bruce Lee, continues to be beloved throughout the world. His philosophy remains inspirational, motivational, and important on a human level for everyone. Bruce Lee’s unifying energy is still alive, you can feel it when you watch his films or read his writings.
Bruce Lee’s energy can be felt so strongly through his films and writings due to the amount of personal work he put into himself. That self-work resulted in Bruce Le expressing his energy through his films and media, which can still be felt today. That energy piques our interest to learn more about Bruce Lee, and then we find in his writings, philosophy, and life, that there are really interesting, good, and useful learnings for us as human beings. In this way, Bruce Lee has touched many people’s lives.
An example of Bruce Lee’s unifying power is in the story of the city Mostar that erected a Bruce Lee statue following the Bosnian War. The city of Mostar had many city monuments destroyed during the war, and decided to put up a statue of Bruce Lee because all sides could agree that they loved Bruce Lee. This statue of Bruce Lee is a symbol of solidarity in the ethnically divided city.
Shannon continues to share her father’s legacy and philosophy because she knows that he continues to unify and inspire people. Bruce wrote that one-day he hoped someone would see his performance or work and say: “Hey, now that’s quality, here is someone real.” I would like that.”
Bruce achieved this realness and this is why we continue to connect with him today. Shannon sees that Bruce’s energy is real and alive. It is through the sheer power of Bruce Lee cultivating himself, his belief in harmony, his belief in sharing what he had within him, that we are still talking about him.
The majority of the world’s population knows Bruce Lee’s name, but they do not know why. This is why Shannon is excited to get to continue to share her father’s legacy, he was someone real and you could feel it and see it. Bruce Lee imbued himself and looked at differences as uniqueness meant to be celebrated.
Bruce Lee reached out to everyone and said, “We are one family.”
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