Lee’s legend inspires a new generation

The landmark exhibition Bruce Lee: Kung Fu-Art-Life is now open at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, where it has been met with enthusiasm from fans around the globe. As the largest exhibit honouring Bruce Lee in the world, it will run for five years, and tells the martial arts legend’s life story in detail with more than 600 unique memorabilia items.
Lee’s daughter Shannon is chairman of the Bruce Lee Foundation, which has loaned most of the exhibits to the museum, including more than 400 relics of the late film star.
An artist of life
After working closely with the Leisure & Cultural Services Department, she said she is pleased to see how its layout and arrangement tell a personal story of her father’s life journey.
“I really love the way that you enter into the exhibit and the way that you leave, as well. I think it’s really beautifully done, with the mirrors and with the water, and it really sort of sets the tone,” she said.
Born in San Francisco in 1940, Lee returned to Hong Kong with his family when he was three months old. His father was a prominent Cantonese opera actor, and from a young age, Lee followed in his footsteps – including a starring role in the 1950 film The Kid.
Now remembered as one of Asia’s greatest film stars, Bruce Lee was a man of great ambition, as shown in a personal note from 1969, which is on display.
He states his target is not only to achieve world fame, but to deliver exciting performances, and by growing wealthy, to “live the way I please and achieve inner harmony and happiness”.
Student, master
Lee returned to the US at the age of 18, and studied psychology and philosophy at the University of Washington. He also founded the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute to teach “wing chun”, but soon began to doubt traditional martial arts’ effectiveness.
Not satisfied with simply going through the motions, his principle of self-actualisation was every bit as important to him as the films in which he starred. His personal philosophy drove who he was as a person, both physically and mentally, says Shannon.
“When you see him in the films, you see this amazing power and authenticity that’s coming from deep inside of him,” she said. “That’s why he is an inspiration to people all around the world.”
Kung fu master Wong Jack Man once challenged him to a fight, which Lee won after some difficulty. After a three-year period of personal discovery following the event, he invented “jeet kune do”, or “the way of the intercepting fist” – a new “form-less” system of martial arts featuring simple, direct and efficient movements.
His mantra of “using no way as way; having no limitation as limitation” led to innovations in martial arts film-making, evident in his drawings used for fight scenes, which are also on display.
A student of the legendary wing chun grandmaster Ip Man from the age of 13, Lee passed on his knowledge to a new generation of masters in the US, including Taky Kimura, James Yimm Lee, Dan Inosanto, and Chuck Norris.
Global following
Lee’s portrayal of martial arts on the big screen awakened global interest in age-old Chinese traditions. Kung fu fans from around the world have visited his grave in Seattle to pay their respects. Upon the opening of the new exhibition at the Heritage Museum, his followers made pilgrimages to Hong Kong to join the special guided tour led by Shannon Lee.
One such visitor from the UK, James, said he was inspired by Bruce Lee to take up wing chun at the age of 12.
“His life story is so incredible … in terms of where he came from, and then came to be one of the biggest movie stars, and his brilliant martial arts as well – he was really inspiring,” he said.
Another, Taiwanese teenager Fung Lin, came with a fellow jeet kune do enthusiast to the exhibition. He has studied the discipline for more than a decade.
“I like this fight style, as it enables me to hit the enemy and defend myself easily. In this exhibition, I can see Bruce Lee’s training equipment, and I am very excited,” he said.
Breaking down walls
Lee is remembered not just for breaking down his opponents, but also for breaking down barriers of racial prejudice and discrimination.
His performance in a martial arts competition in California led to him being cast as Kato in the television seriesThe Green Hornet – but Hollywood was apparently not ready for a Chinese movie star. Tired of playing supporting roles, he left for Hong Kong to sign a two-picture deal with Golden Harvest in 1971.
He would soon prove Hollywood wrong, by becoming the world’s first Asian superstar.
Local Bruce Lee fan Mr Mak remembers being deeply impressed by Lee’s fighting when he saw Way of the Dragon in the cinema when he was only 10. When Lee’s character defeated his enemy, everyone in the theatre stood up and applauded.
Mr Mak has been a devoted fan ever since, having followed Lee for decades. Though he considers himself an expert, he discovered many things through the exhibition that he did not know before.
“I have never heard that Bruce used to like pets, such as dogs,” he said.
Lasting legacy
Lee’s life was not without difficulties. When he broke the code of secrecy that forbid teaching kung fu to non-Chinese students, it made him unpopular among masters at the time, and put him at odds with traditional practice.
One of the key pieces of the exhibition is a statue that Lee had made to commemorate what he saw as a dead-end for traditionalists. The miniature gravestone, which reads “In memory of a once fluid man crammed and distorted by the classical mess”, is a satirical commentary on the traditional martial arts schools’ rules and styles, which he came to see as shackles.
In his drive towards innovation and acceptance of students from all backgrounds, Lee rejected exclusivity, as well as rigid adherence to structures and forms.
His daughter hopes young visitors in particular will experience and learn from her father’s emphasis on self-expression, and his advice to follow one’s own path, rather than simply copying what others have done before.
She also hopes visitors will gain a more complete understanding of him as a man.
“I think people know his name because he was a movie star – but I want people to know about his philosophies, know about his struggles, know about all the things he created and did in his lifetime. I hope that this exhibition will be a gateway for people to understand why Bruce Lee is important, and why he has been so influential, and why he is still relevant 40 years since he passed.”


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