Bruce Lee: A Global Icon forged in Seattle

Jack Truitt October 11, 2014 0
The Wing Luke exhibit will feature the personal story of Bruce Lee and his connection to Seattle. • Photo by Jack Truitt

The Wing Luke exhibit will feature the personal story of Bruce Lee and his connection to Seattle. • Photo by Jack Truitt

The yellow jumpsuit, the shaggy mop of jet-black hair, blows powerful enough to knock an opponent to the ground from just one inch away. Mention Bruce Lee to most anyone and these are the images they might conjure up.

But there is perhaps nothing more emblematic of Lee’s legacy than the first public memorial devoted to him—in war-torn Bosnia.

Thought to be a symbol of the fight against ethnic tensions, the statue was unveiled in 2005.  A member of a youth group supporting the project had this to say: “We will always be Muslims, Serbs, or Croats. But one thing we all have in common, is Bruce Lee.”

Although he passed away in 1973 at the age of 32, Lee’s legacy as a martial-arts icon still has a profound impact on the world.

“My father had something extremely unique, and that was his ability to express who he was. So there’s never been another person like him, because they can’t copy that,” said his daughter, Shannon Lee. “But I don’t know how much of the layers they really know—of the real man.”

Those layers beneath the Hollywood persona are precisely what the Wing Luke Museum hopes to showcase with its “Do You Know Bruce?” exhibit, the only one of its kind outside of Hong Kong.

From left to right: Randy Engstrom, Linda Lee Cadwell, Councilmember Nick Licata, Councilmember Bruce Harrell, and Shannon Lee pose on stage at the opening of the Wing Luke exhibit on October 3, 2014. • Photo by Jack Truitt

From left to right: Randy Engstrom, Linda Lee Cadwell, Councilmember Nick Licata, Councilmember Bruce Harrell, and Shannon Lee pose on stage at the opening of the Wing Luke exhibit presented by Comcast on October 3, 2014. • Photo by Jack Truitt

Yellow jumpsuit-clad city councilmembers proclaimed October 3 as “Bruce Lee Day” to kick off the exhibit on its Comcast-sponsored opening day. Wing Luke attempts to provide an intimate story of Bruce Lee’s life through a trove of personal writings, photos, and narratives from those closest to him. Seattle and the local Asian-American community played a significant role.

On display for three years at the Wing Luke, the exhibit will feature new themes each year. Year one focuses on Lee’s martial arts and philosophy, year two will focus on the barriers he broke in television and in film, and year three will focus on Bruce Lee the artist.

Born in San Francisco, Lee was raised in Hong Kong to a Chinese father and a Chinese-Caucasian mother.  At the age of 18 and with $100 in his pocket, his parents sent him to San Francisco where he lived for several months before moving to Seattle.

After arriving, Lee worked for famed community leader and politician Ruby Chow at her restaurant before going to community college and then getting his diploma at the University of Washington. During this time Lee met and ultimately fell in love with his wife, Linda Lee Caldwell, a Seattle native who’s last name was Emery before marrying Lee.

“He felt like Seattle was his home in the United States, and he loved those years that he lived in Seattle,” Lee Caldwell said.

During the years that would follow, including  the pair’s journey throughout the globe, Lee hoped to one day return to Seattle and settle down.

“He felt he could express himself, and show people the beauty of Chinese culture from a setting like Seattle,” Lee Caldwell said.

With the full support of the Lee family, The Wing will be the only museum, outside of Hong Kong, to present an exhibit about Bruce Lee. • Photo by Jack Truitt

With the full support of the Lee family, The Wing will be the only museum, outside of Hong Kong, to present an exhibit about Bruce Lee. • Photo by Jack Truitt

At the Wing Luke, it becomes clear that Seattle is where Bruce Lee, the man, was able to develop into an icon.

Photos from college with his university roommates illuminate the forging of lifelong friendships Lee would have in the region. Transcripts, course notes and papers from the UW—where he studied drama and philosophy—show the beginnings of what would become his personal life philosophy. There are glimpses into the days of Lee’s first dojo, in the U-District, and martial-arts demonstrations he would put on everywhere including high schools, Boy Scout troops, and at the UW quad.

And then there are the most intimate artifacts, which bind him to the city where he would be buried: love letters, his own poetry, personal photos strewn over a map of Seattle.

Seattle and Lake Washington reminded him of his life in Hong Kong and its harbor, and the Northwestern climate was full of the element central to his philosophy: water.

The exhibit ends with a place for patrons to leave a written note on a string, sort of in dialogue with four different copies of a poem written by Lee titled “Rain.”

During his time in Seattle, Lee grew from a gifted martial artist from Kowloon, to a philosopher that used martial arts as the medium through which to express himself.

This was the foundation from which Lee would catapult to global fame. From Hollywood to Hong Kong, Lee broke new ground for Asian Americans in pop culture, becoming an icon as unique as any in cinema during a period in the late 60s when Asian Americans were all but absent from both the big and little screens.

Bruce Lee transformed media perceptions of Chinese male stereotypes with his films, insisting on playing roles of real people rather than caricatures. • Photo by Jack Truitt

Bruce Lee transformed media perceptions of Chinese male stereotypes with his films, insisting on playing roles of real people rather than caricatures. • Photo by Jack Truitt

“He’s a real model of masculinity that we don’t see a lot of. He’s a masculine star but he’s not macho,” said LeiLani Nishime, a UW associate professor in communication with research on Asian-American media representation. “He has a very different kind of approach, a different kind of masculinity,” she said.

Beyond just acting, in his later films Lee would have credits as a director, screenwriter, and producer, which even today are roles that can be hard to come by for Asian Americans.

One aspect that might be overlooked is Lee’s role as a multiracial trailblazer.

In his early years, students would refuse to train with Lee on account of his mixed ancestry, and he was condemned for teaching martial arts to non-Chinese disciples.  But perhaps most radical for the time was his mixed-race marriage to Linda.  There are a handful of articles on the mixed-race relationship on display, but if the celebrity tabloids of today existed back then, it likely would’ve been a much bigger deal, according to Nishime.

“I think it really would’ve shocked people,” she said.

Deconstructing the legacy of an icon like Bruce Lee is never simple, but at the Wing Luke, visitors can retrace a formative period of Lee’s time in Seattle,  where he developed into the man that would ultimately become a global icon.

The Do You Know Bruce? exhibit will run for three years with a new theme and select items changed each year. For more information, visit wingluke.org.

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