Bruce Lee to kick-start reopening of Chinese Historical Society in SF

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By Louis Chan, AsAmNews National Correspondent

The Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco will reemerge from its pandemic-forced shutdown in a newly renovated building and an exhibition entitled We Are Bruce Lee, Under the Sky, One Family this weekend.

The showcase honoring the iconic Asian American Hollywood superstar is aptly titled as it will take over more than an estimated 80 percent of the museum’s exhibition floor space.

It also marks a new beginning under CHSA’s new executive director Justin Hoover, who took over about a year ago-half way through a two year shutdown.

Interim executive director and board member Jane Chin organized the exhibition. Hoover credits both Chin and the CHSA board for having the vision to see the martial artist as a symbol of change for the museum.

“Bruce Lee overcame challenges and crossed racial boundaries, said Hoover to AsAmNews. “We can use his philosophy today to empower ourselves and unite a divided community. He stood for a society that was inclusive for new ideas. He didn’t want to be stuck with traditional thinking.”

Hoover strives to make the museum for everyone, not just the Chinese community. He sees Lee as someone who can be a draw to both Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans.

Justin Hoover. AsAmNews Photo

“I feel very connected to this idea of the Chinese of tomorrow,” he said. “There’s an evolving sense of identity in the U.S. The future of Chinese Americans is multicultural.”

Hoover himself is multicultural. His mom is Taiwanese American with a Russian grandmother. His father is White. Bruce Lee is also multicultural. His mother Grace Ho had a German father and a Chinese mother

Bruce Lee’s birth certificate AsAmNews Photo

The exhibition includes Lee’s birth certificate and childhood photos. Interestingly, his mother gave birth to Bruce at Chinese Hospital, just two blocks away from the museum. Also on display is his naturalization document. Hoover explains due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, Lee needed the papers to allow him to travel freely between Asia and the United States despite being born an American citizen in 1941.

Movie posters, magazine covers, and some of Lee personal writings and belongings are scattered throughout the exhibition. The show also features movie and TV props such as the hat worn by Kato in the Green Hornet and a reproduction of the yellow jumpsuit seen in Enter the Dragon.

The hat worn by Kato in The Green Hornet. AsAmNews photo

Much of what’s on display has been donated by collectors.

Jeff Chinn has 10,000 pieces of Bruce Lee memorabilia displayed at his San Francisco home in his family room. He said he offered to loan the museum 300 items and the exhibitor picked and chose those items that fit the theme and messaging of the show.

“They took a lot of stuff that kind of explain the racism that Bruce Lee went through, and, you know, during the 60s when he tried to make it into Hollywood because after the Green Hornet was canceled after one season, he was really struggling,” said Chinn. “And also, they wanted to have Bruce Lee’s connection to African Americans because a lot of people do not know that. Bruce’s very first student was African American, and this is all the way back in 1960 in Seattle.”

Chinn used his allowance of 75 cents a week to purchase magazines with Lee on the cover. His collection gradually grew and his passion extended into adulthood when he began purchasing memorabilia from eBay and even at auctions.

Among his most prized possession, is the blue kung fu suit worn by Lee in Enter the Dragon. He paid $8,000 for the suit, outbidding Planet Hollywood.

Jeff Chinn in front of his collection with Linda Lee, Bruce Lee’s widow. Courtesy: Jeff Chinn

He became a big fan of Bruce Lee, when as the only Chinese American kid in his class, classmates regularly picked on him. In his heart, he asked Bruce Lee to protect him and vowed he would repay the favor if Lee came through.

“Well, I grew up during the 60s and 70s. And I experienced mostly stereotypes about Asians, which didn’t make me feel very good because they were very prevalent in movies, TVs, even cartoons and comic books,” Chinn told AsAmNews during a phone interview. “It’s almost like, you have the feeling that, well, I’m really ashamed to be Asian or Chinese. So when Green Hornet came out in 1966 That was, that was a really big thing, because you get to see Asian on the TV screen, and he was basically a superhero. That gave me a good feeling because it’s good to have heroes that look like you.”

Many of the magazine covers of Lee as Kato featured Lee alone without The Green Hornet. Many saw him as the star of the show. Yet, a document on display at the museum shows that Lee was among the lowest-paid members of the cast.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a letter from Lee to himself written during one of the low points of his life, the cancellation of The Green Hornet.

AsAmNews Photo

Hoover tells us Lee vowed to make $10 million in ten years or by 1981. He died in 1973, so unfortunately we’ll never know if he would have reached his goal. However, Enter the Dragon which premiered after he died, made 350 million worldwide and catapulted him into international stardom. Lee certainly showed even in death that he could accomplish anything he wanted.

Sure to be a hit to museum-goers is a six-minute animated film about the martial artist. The museum foresees standing in front of the huge screen will become an Instagram-moment for many.

Photo of scene of animated film on Bruce Lee. AsAmNews Photo.  Marina Perez Wong & Elaine Chu of Twin Walls Mural Company & Macrowaves worked on this project.

There are also two films featuring interviews with the superstar along with three films with his daughter, Shannon Lee, who is also president of the Bruce Lee Foundation. She’ll talk about her relationship with her father and Bruce Lee, the movie star. She’ll also delve into her father’s teachings and also discuss Warrior, an HBO series based on a concept by Lee himself, but which he never sold in his lifetime.

The rotating exhibition will be reassessed every six months to a year. It will be on display for five years.

A private showing for donors of We Are Bruce Lee, Under the Sky, One Family will take place Friday with a special appearance by Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter and the president of the Bruce Lee Foundation.

Tickets for the opening night celebration on Saturday night and fundraiser are still on sale for $75. The night will also feature special performances by Deuce Lee, SF’s very own struttin’ icon Lonnie “Pop Tart” Green, Son of Paper, and more! There will also be a dance party Saturday night featuring  DJ Qbert, dancing, and entertainment!   Admission to the dance party is separate. Tickets are also $75. 

Tickets are open to the general public beginning Sunday for just $10. You can get tickets at this special price for just three months. Advanced tickets are available.

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