New Organizing Project blogger Part 1 of the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month series
As most of ya’ll know, the month of May is the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. We celebrate and honor the diversity of culture, achievement and progress Asian Pacific Americans have contributed to America. From food to entertainment to politics and business, we have made an impact on American society and culture. And so, we have our own month!!! WOOO! YEAH! So for this month each of my blogs will be about someone who has made a significant impact on American society and culture from the APA community. So the first one of the month is………
Bruce Lee: yes the world famous martial artist, the actor, the philosopher, the cultural icon, the renegade who shattered the Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu stereotypes. He has become every Asian kid’s idol, little boys aspire to be like him, little girls love him, and why not? The man was the definition of masculinity in a time when Asian males were emasculated by the stereotypes set upon us through the cinema that determined masculinity from particularly white masculinity. Bruce Lee was handsome, charismatic, wise, articulate, and crazily freaking strong.
So for all you people out there who have been living under a rock and have no idea who this king of martial arts was, I suggest you move out of the way before I bust a side kick right out of your computer screen.
Now for everyone else, let’s talk turkey. The reason I chose to honor Bruce Lee was because he brought in a whole new and unique persona and genre of film to Hollywood. Before the arrival of Bruce Lee, Asian actors were put into supporting roles that were non-threatening because of fear that if put into a lead role they could possibly outshine their white counterparts. The stereotypes were either representations of Asian masculinity as hyper threatening or ridiculously benign and solely functioned as comedic relief. Such stereotyped figures could easily then be conquered by white protagonists. White protagonists who had a combination of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood bad-*** Asian roles in the past included the meek and incumbent Charlie Chan, and the evil exotic Fu Manchu. In fact, when Bruce first began his acting career, he had to play as Kato in The Green Hornet, which if you do not know, was the Asian chauffer with amazing physical and intellectual abilities that superseded his white male boss. In this role he functioned only as the sidekick. Now the sidekick is seen as a mini hero, a child in tights, not worthy of being in the spotlight (like Robin). Sounds really messed up right? I mean a person so awesome like Bruce is driving his boss around so Britt can get a few punches in while Kato cleans up right after?
After The Green Hornet, he left for Hong Kong and his fame grew like wildfire with films such as Fist of Fury, The Chinese Connection and Game of Death. All this had Warner Bros begging for him to come back to film in Hollywood for Enter the Dragon. With these films, Lee busted his foot into Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu’s butt and removed them from America’s mainstream…for a time but that’s a discussion for another conversation. He had America mesmerized with Chinese culture and Kung Fu, songs were made about Kung Fu, martial arts schools opened up everywhere, Chinese culture was explored, a whole new generation was created.
Bruce Lee broke the concept of the Asian American community as being submissive and obedient in nature. He showed Hollywood that an Asian male could also become a lead role in American cinema. He single handedly changed what American audiences saw about Asian culture and also cleared that path for upcoming Asian American actors looking for lead roles. However, Hollywood continues to provide limited roles to Asian American actors especially to Asian American actresses as they are either hyper sexualized or made into ruthless dragon lady personas. But still to this day Bruce Lee’s legacy still remains strong. Bruce Lee’s legacy is most noticeable in that he re-masculinized the stereotype of effeminate Asian maleness. So with that said, “oooWAAAHHH!”
For more information on Kung Fu, Bruce Lee and the cultural change it brought, please look into these books, I highly recommend them:
1. Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture by Dr. Jane Iwamura
2. Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity by Dr. Vijay Prashad
Photo credit: Bruce Lee – Wikipedia