Daryl Joji Maeda is dean and vice provost of undergraduate education and professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is the author of “Like Water: A Cultural History of Bruce Lee,” as well as “Chains of Babylon: The Rise of Asian America” and “Rethinking the Asian American Movement.”
A sansei (third-generation Japanese American), he was born and raised in California, but has lived in Colorado for 17 years and now considers it his home state. Maeda lives with his wife and youngest daughter in Denver, where he loves to pursue golf but hasn’t quite caught up to it yet. Although his snowboarding got derailed by COVID, he remains firmly committed to getting back on the mountain this winter.
Maeda recently sat down on a Zoom call with SunLit editor Kevin Simpson to talk about his just-released book on martial arts and movie icon Bruce Lee.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
SunLit: Tell us about what first piqued your interest in Bruce Lee and eventually moved you to the place where you decided to pursue a book about him.
Daryl Joji Maeda: As an Asian American boy growing up in the 1970s there weren’t a whole lot of role models out there that were visible, that were really heroic, frankly. So Bruce Lee was one of those people of course, right? As a young Asian American boy, I could see he looked like me and was a pretty badass dude. So I had an interest in Bruce Lee in a personal way from the time I was young.
As an academic, I have specialized in Asian American history and Asian American culture and Asian American politics in the 1960s and the 1970s. And I was looking around for a new project and I thought Bruce Lee is really interesting, because he’s this incredibly transnational figure who has an outsized impact on both Asia and the West and the United States. But so much has been written about him, I thought I’ll just do a quick and dirty biography, and it’s gonna take me a year. And that was 11 years ago.
So this turned into a much more complex project that you figured?
Every time I dug into another aspect of his life, I realized that there are really deep currents here. Bruce Lee, far from being just some sort of historical footnote or curiosity from the 1970s actually has a lot to teach us about the world that we live in, how this world was constructed. And so I just started pulling on each of the different threads and each of them went deeper and deeper and deeper.
And what I found is that this was, in the end, a book that is about Bruce Lee as an individual, but much more so about an entire world that he was born into. I just got incredibly interested in things like transnational migration, the crossing of oceans and boundaries, the intermixture of different cultures and even racial intermixture. So, yeah, when I started I thought it was going to be easy and quick, and what I found was very, very deep.
Did you work more than a decade straight through?
There were fits and starts for sure. There were times when I wasn’t working as diligently on the book as I should have been. But it was pretty steady. I started doing my research in 2011. I went to Hong Kong in 2014 to do some research there. I did research in Seattle, and in the Bay Area. For local history buffs, I did research in Wyoming as well — which might be the last place you’d think of to do research on Bruce Lee.
But actually, the producer of “The Green Hornet” (a brief television series in which Lee played the main character’s martial arts sidekick, Cato) has his papers at the American heritage collection at the University of Wyoming. So I went up there and and found handwritten documents by Bruce Lee, letters to the producer, the publicity stills from the “Green Hornet” scripts, treatments where they were actively in the process of writing the script and modifying it. Budgets for episodes, all kinds of things.
You have both a glamorous high profile celebrity but also this cultural icon whose life lent itself to scholarly analysis. So as you sat down to write the book, how did you balance the glitz and the glamor versus the academic side?
It’s a cultural history of Bruce Lee because I want to differentiate it from just a biography. I envisioned this as a book that’s going to tell you how and why Bruce Lee was. How did he come into existence? And what about him, and the circumstances that he was born into, enabled him to make the impact that he made on the world?
So I really want to focus in the book on Bruce Lee’s life and career as a narrative device that can move the story along. I spend a long time in each chapter really developing the historical backdrop — because I am a cultural historian by trade, that’s what I do. So I want to equip readers to understand that, yes, Bruce Lee was an extraordinary individual. But he never would have had the cultural impact that he had, never would have had the opportunity that he had, had he not been born into a world that was structured by very large social, political and economic forces.
He’s obviously a complex figure. How controversial was he?
He was an enormously self possessed person. He had incredible belief in his own abilities, and his own ambitions. So there were definitely Bruce Lee detractors in the world. Most famously, some martial artists found him to be arrogant, because to say that you’re advancing martial arts is to say you’re finding a new way to do things better. That’s a value judgment on that which has come before.
So when he’s learning new styles of movement, when he’s synthesizing fighting movements from around the world and bringing them into conversation with each other, he comes to the point where he says, you know, the old martial arts are dead. At other times, he said the style of “no style” was actually a superior way of fighting, and that would rub some people wrong.
He’s also controversial in the sense that he certainly broke norms and barriers in the United States. He famously married a blonde white woman at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states. And he courted controversy in Hong Kong as well with his playboy, movie star lifestyle. So there were certainly detractors of Bruce Lee when he was still alive.
One of the complexities around Bruce Lee is: Which country can claim him? He has deep roots in both the U.S. and Hong Kong. How has that argument unfolded?
To engage in that is to miss the point. Bruce Lee cannot be tied down to any one location. He can be found most clearly in the transition between localities, because he was always in this process of going and coming. In some ways, he was always returning, sometimes returning to places he had never been before.
While he was born in San Francisco, he returned to Hong Kong with his parents as an infant. He grew up there in Hong Kong, then returned to California and eventually to Seattle. He returned to Hong Kong after being frustrated in Hollywood. And then he returned to Hollywood after making it big in Hong Kong and, finally, he returned to Seattle, which is his final resting place.
He was always in this process of crossing boundaries, crossing oceans. And I argue in the book that he was also constantly in the process of crossing boundaries between cultures and ideas and philosophies. So his physical movement was always mirrored by intellectual motion.
What were some other ways he influenced you personally, even an adult?
Just knowing that he was an unassailable hero, and everybody knew that he was not to be trifled with, the first Asian American badass that I’ve ever seen on the screen, right out in the public sphere. So I will tell you a funny thing. When I started doing the research for the book and started writing, I understood that this book is about ideas, and also about embodiment.
One of the arguments I’m making here is that his embodied self really also was crossing different boundaries as he learned to move his body in ways, in (martial arts) styles and forms, that were pioneered from different parts of the world. And so I actually took Wing Chun lessons (a kung fu style) for about a year. And I found that enormously helpful, because even that tiny bit of embodied learning helped me to understand what he was doing as a martial artist a little bit more clearly.
His image in the public eye, of course, is reflected widely in his films, like “Enter the Dragon.” Did you rewatch them?
I watched all of his movies very carefully with new eyes — and I hadn’t watched them in decades. So it was like a fresh new experience for me, especially watching them as somebody who’s earned a Ph.D. in American culture and is a professor of ethnic studies with a whole different set of concerns and things that I’m looking for. So that was a revelation.
And that was one of the things that convinced me, early on in the project, that this was worth pursuing. What I saw was that each of his films had particular thematic issues that they were trying to address that played into this larger picture that eventually flowed into the book as a whole. I also watched “The Green Hornet” — and, oh boy, it’s pretty bad.
Coming back to the dichotomy of creating this book about a movie star, but also the cultural forces that shaped him — how did you approach the actual writing?
When I started writing this book, I had already published two academic books. And so I know how to write academic history books. That’s not a mystery to me. But what I don’t know how to do is write to a broader audience. And so I really struggled to find my voice. What kind of language should I be using? What kind of sentence structures should I include? What kind of academic framework should I put into the book? And I went back and forth and I felt so uncertain. And that was one of the reasons why the writing was so slow in the beginning.
Eventually I realized that I’ve taught a Bruce Lee class three times at CU Boulder. And so I said, you know what, general interest audiences are probably kind of similar to undergraduates in terms of what I should aim for in terms of accessibility. Once I started thinking about my undergrads as my audience, that freed me up a little bit. In an undergraduate class we are teaching academic ideas, but doing so in a way that’s accessible to students. And that became sort of my lodestone, what I was aiming for, to talk about complex ideas in a way that’s accessible to somebody who’s willing to do the work of reading a book.
What was your writing routine for this particular book?
After dinner and after I spend time with my wife, at around 10 o’clock, I would sit down to write at the kitchen table, put in my earphones, pick some appropriate writing music and crank it out for as long as I’m productive. I tracked very carefully the number of words that I was writing every day. And my goal was, at the very least, to be writing 250 words, which is about a page, and hoping to write 500 words, or about two pages.
What was “appropriate writing music” in this case?
I listened to an awful lot of ’70s music to set the mood. The other thing I listened to was the Lalo Schifrin soundtrack to “Enter the Dragon” — that was just kind of going on a loop many times. So that’s appropriate and makes sense, right? The music that I thought didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but certainly helped me write, was I listened to Pink Floyd, “Dark Side of the Moon.”
But you know, the song that really kind of connected for me was “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” Because to me, that’s about Bruce Lee.
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