HomeAsian AmericansBruce Lee still has Asian American men feeling good about themselves

Bruce Lee still has Asian American men feeling good about themselves

By Louis Chan, AsAmNews National Correspondent

Nearly 47 years after his death, Bruce Lee is still a hero to many Asian American men. The just released ESPN documentary 30 for 30 by Bao Nguyen, Be Water, is a reminder of how the best known martial artist of all time took Hollywood head on and conquered it.

Be Water puts his accomplishments in historical context, reminding us of the perception of Asians as “gooks” during the Vietnam War, as foreigners during the incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II and as objects to ridicule as exemplified by Hollywood and the portrayal by Mickey Rooney as I. Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

We see all this through interviews with his wife, family, friends, Hollywood celebrities and culture and movie critics. The documentary is loaded with historical footage from his childhood all the way to his death.

It’s stacked with highlights from his movies going back to his childhood such as The Orphan to the Big Boss, Fist of Fury and , of course, Enter the Dragon.

We learn that Lee was more apt to get in trouble and fights in school than hit the books. Police warned his parents that their son was flirting with gangs, so his family sent him from Hong Kong back to America where he was born to get him away from bad influences.

In fact, he would move back and forth from the United States to Hong Kong several times, with each move turning into a significant milestone in his life.

His road back to America would wind up at the University of Washington where he met his wife, Linda Caldwell-ignoring societal norms which frowned on Asian men dating White women.

“His goal all his life was to show the beauty of the Chinese culture to the world so he started with me,” Caldwell said.

Bruce Lee with his training partner, Dan Inosanto Photo from Matthew Polly

She said her husband’s goal early on was to open Kung Fu studios around the world. He started with one in his own garage and opened up the martial arts to the world outside his own culture.

Caldwell had no idea she was dating a Chinese celebrity until he took her and a few of his kung fu students to see The Orphan. She was so stunned she had to ask her future husband if that was him on the big screen. Caldwell called her marriage to her an “extension of how he felt about America.”

Lee gained a few parts here and there in Hollywood. His biggest in his early years was as Kato in the Green Hornet. ABC. however, canceled the program due to low ratings. He knew gaining celebrity status would be as difficult as walking the entire length of The Great Wall. That realization came when the studio cast David Carradine instead of him in the show Kung Fu, a concept which he himself had introduced to the studio.

He decided if he wanted to gain fame, he would have to return to Hong Kong. The Big Boss became a screaming success and lead to more opportunities including directing a movie- The Way of the Dragon which introduced Chuck Norris to the world.

That opened the eyes of Hollywood and a chance to return to the United States to give it another shot.

As writer and culture critic Jeff Chang put it, Lee’s “presence on screen was a protest.”

It’s a protest worth watching. Be Water can still be watched on ESPN and ESPN2 and call also be streamed. Check your local listings.

How to watch “Be Water”:

Watch on ESPN: Download the ESPN App | WatchESPN | TV

Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access.

Don’t have ESPN+? Get it here.

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