Bruce Lee: A Life
Simon & Schuster: 2018
Matthew Polly’s Bruce Lee: A Life starts with the movie star’s funeral in Hong Kong in July 1973. I landed in Hong Kong six months earlier and one of the clearest impressions I still have of those days is the awe that Hong Kong people had for Bruce, and the pride he engendered in them. He was still alive at that point and was a star on the local film scene. Even back then, people sensed that he would transcend the constraints of that enclave and make it big outside. He had charisma. Young people were particularly affected by the sense he projected of confidence in being Chinese, of embracing something that was intensely traditionally Chinese — the martial arts — at a time when neither being Chinese nor embracing traditional Chinese culture seemed to have any value at all.
To understand the significance of Bruce Lee, you need to understand Hong Kong back then. Hong Kong in the early 1970s was a colony and the white guys were in charge, and the locals were mostly happy about that. It had been a British colony since the 1840s, but for most of that time, its links back into the Chinese hinterland were strong. What shut it off was not the Japanese invasion and occupation in the 1930s and 1940s, but the communist takeover in 1949. The colonial trading enclave was flooded with refugees, and the border with mainland China was closed. By the time of the Cultural Revolution, Hong Kong was effectively cut off. With the mainland and Taiwan closed or inaccessible, Chinese culture, or Chinese everything really, for the world was seen through a narrow Hong Kong peephole. It was made up of five million people, almost all refugees or the children of refugees from China’s turmoil. It had a Wild West dynamism. Construction was everywhere. It will be a great place when they finish building it, we said.
China was not at that point something to be proud of for Chinese kids in Hong Kong, or anywhere beyond the mass psychosis of the Cultural Revolution. John Lennon may have been wearing a Mao button in New York but he had no idea of the reality of China in those days. We forgive him only because of his contribution to modern music. Western culture for most young people was alien and hard to understand. The Carpenters were big, and Elvis (the Cat King) had been big before them. But it wasn’t their culture. Within this vacuum, Hong Kongers created a revived version of what one might call Lingnan culture — the Cantonese culture of Guangdong and Guangxi with a history of hundreds of years, centred on the city of Canton (Guangzhou). Distinct and different from northern and eastern China and Sichuan, this was a sophisticated and independent culture, with unique opera and music, writings and (later) movies. But with Lingnan culture’s capital Canton now isolated and communist, Hong Kong was culturally adrift.