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In the midcentury United States, Asian men were often portrayed in movies as emasculated fools. Often, they weren’t played by Asian actors at all (think Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”).
Then came Bruce Lee.
“Lee’s indelible image was crafted as a rejection of those diminished roles,” Daniel McDermon writes in The New York Times.
And the most essential aspect of that image is his body, stripped to the waist, corded and quivering with muscle. It is the centerpiece of dozens of fight scenes, which Lee choreographed himself, and is frequently revealed with slow, deliberate pageantry.
Those bodily displays made him unique: an Asian-American star whose masculinity and physical prowess were front and center, not only in the films themselves, but also on promotional posters, billboards and merchandise around the world.”
Lee, who died at age 32, had a relatively small body of work. But it was enough to leave a legacy that has changed movies, martial arts and American culture at large.
Author Matthew Polly’s exhaustive new biography of Lee examines Lee as a man, a filmmaker, a martial artist and a stereotype-destroying icon.
- Matthew Polly Author, "Bruce Lee: a Life;" @MatthewEPolly
- Lamont "U-God" Hawkins Hip-hop artist and a founding member of the rap group Wu-Tang Clan; author of a new book, "Raw: My Journey into the Wu-Tang"@Ugodofwutang
- Jeff Yang Podcast co-host, "They Call Us Bruce;" CNN contributor; author, "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action;" @originalspin
Read an excerpt of Bruce Lee by Matthew Polly
The crowd of mourners began gathering on the evening of July 24, 1973, outside the Kowloon Funeral Parlour in anticipation of the ceremony the next morning. As the appointed hour of 10 a.m. drew closer, their numbers swelled and multiplied until over fifteen thousand Hong Kong residents stood behind police barricades, looked down from balconies, or perched precariously on the city’s famous neon signs to catch a final glimpse of their idol’s coffin. Five days earlier Bruce Lee had died at the age of thirty-two. Several hundred extra police officers were detailed to control the crowd. Wearing lime green shorts and short-sleeved shirts, black shoes, knee socks, and billed caps, the cops looked like overgrown Boy Scouts on a summer trip.
The South China Morning Post described the scene as “a carnival.” When the crowd spotted one of Bruce’s celebrity friends entering the funeral home, they clapped and cheered. Wearing sunglasses to hide tears, the famous arrived one after another to pay their respects to the man who had put Hong Kong cinema on the world map: Shih Kien, the villain in Enter the Dragon; Nancy Kwan, the star of The World of Suzie Wong; Nora Miao, Lee’s longtime costar; pop singer Samuel Hui, a childhood friend; even Lo Wei, who directed two of Bruce’s films. One of the few famous faces to skip the event was
Betty Ting Pei in whose apartment Lee had died. Much to the disappointment of the throng, Betty chose to stay home where she was reported to be under heavy sedation. She sent a wreath instead with a note, “To Bruce from Ting Pei.” Next to it a tearful six-year-old boy dropped a spray of flowers with a simple message, “From a little fan.”
“For the scores of fans who had stayed the night, the saddest moment was the arrival of Lee’s wife Linda,” reported The China Mail. A black Mercedes pulled to the curb, and Raymond Chow, Bruce’s business partner and the head of Golden Harvest studios, opened Linda’s door and gave her a hand. Linda was dressed in all white—the Chinese color for mourning—a white double-breasted long coat down to her knees, white slacks, and a white turtleneck. Her light brown hair was cut short. Big round sunglasses covered her red eyes. She appeared dangerously thin as if she hadn’t eaten for days. Leaning on Raymond’s arm, Linda was surrounded by a group of Golden Harvest employees who helped push her through the crowd surrounding the front door. “Outside the crush was tremendous,” Linda later said. “I recalled the old newsreel shots of the funeral of Rudolph Valentino.”
The five hundred VIP mourners inside the cramped funeral home fell silent as the twenty-eight-year-old widow entered. At the front of the parlor was an altar with a movie-poster- sized photo of Bruce wearing sunglasses surrounded by a display of ribbons, flowers, and a Chinese banner saying, “A Star Sinks in the Sea of Art.” Three joss sticks and two candles burned in front of his picture. The walls were covered with thousands of tributes—Chinese calligraphy on strips of white silk.
Raymond and Linda bowed before the altar three times before Chow escorted her over to the section reserved for family. Bruce’s older brother, Peter, and his wife, Eunice Lam, stood solemnly. Linda was helped out of her fashionable long coat and into a white, hooded, burlap mourning gown per Chinese custom. Her two children, eight-year-old Brandon and four-year-old Shannon, were brought in from a side entrance and dressed in white burlap as well. A white bandanna was tied around Brandon’s head. Shannon, too young to understand what was happening, played happily while Brandon glared angrily.
A Chinese band struck up a traditional funeral song, which sounded like “Auld Lang Syne.” Bruce’s HK$40,000 bronze casket was brought into the room. The top half of the coffin was opened. Inside was a protective enclosure of glass covering Bruce’s body to prevent anyone from touching him. Linda had dressed her husband in the blue Chinese outfit he had worn in Enter the Dragon and liked to wear around the house because it was comfortable. Beneath the glass, Bruce’s face looked gray and distorted despite heavy makeup. Friends filed past the open casket to see him one last time. Press photographers jostled with the invited guests to get a better angle; many simply raised their cameras above their heads and snapped away furiously. As Linda made her way to her husband’s side, she looked heartbreakingly close to collapse. Covering her face with a trembling hand, Linda burst into tears. “It was a frightful time,” she later confessed to friends.
From Bruce Lee by Matthew Polly. Copyright © 2018 by Matthew Polly. Excerpted with permission by Simon & Schuster, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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