In the climactic scene of Bruce Lee’s final film, the 1973 martial arts movie Enter the Dragon, Lee pursues the archvillain Han with the hope of finishing their fight in a hall of mirrors. The two stalk each other through the maze of reflections and refractions, the screen filled with one Lee, two, a dozen or none at all, as he slinks in and out of the frame. Some of the images are complete, others only fragmentary slivers. The multiple Lees always move in unison, sometimes in the same direction, sometimes toward or away from each other. A distorted image of Han lies in wait for Lee and strikes him in the face with a backhand blow. Lee swings back at the reflection but finds only air as Han retreats invisibly further into the funhouse.
As Lee moves forward, his back to the camera, Han emerges from the reflections and slashes Lee on the shoulder with a bladed claw before disappearing again. The camera alternately captures images of Lee and Han reflected in long mirrored panels that break them up into a dozen overlapping images. Tension builds as the viewer is never sure of whether the image on screen is the real Lee or a mere reflection. The fragmented Lee delivers a side kick that sends a dozen Hans flying, after which the real Han rolls across the screen. Lee, frustrated by his inability to locate his foe, backs up against a set of mirrors as a voiceover of his sifu (teacher) intones, “Remember, the enemy has only images and illusions behind which he hides his true motives. Destroy the image and you will break the enemy.”
Inspired by this brief philosophical refresher, Lee delivers a backhanded fist to an image of Han, in the process splintering the mirror containing Han’s reflection. Using fists and feet, he shatters mirror after mirror until he can move forward confidently, for the shards of broken glass reveal the falseness of the Hans they reflect and leave the true Han visible and vulnerable. Lee rushes triumphantly toward the exposed villain and sidekicks him across the room, impaling him on a spear protruding from the wall.
According to Robert Clouse, the film’s director, the hall of mirrors scene was not included in the original script but was dreamed up by him and his wife. The set consisted of a large room paneled completely in mirrors. Three shallow bays, each about five feet wide, were covered with narrow vertical slats of mirrors that created dozens more reflections. The camera sat inside a mirror-covered box about six feet square in the center of the room behind a mirrored sheet of plywood with a cutout for the lens that enabled it to shoot anywhere without capturing its own reflection.
Some $8,000 worth of mirrors—two truckloads worth—were used to construct the set, an undertaking that took three days. The scene, which lasts for just five minutes in the movie, took two days to shoot. After filming on Enter the Dragon ended, Clouse claims that Lee spent two more weeks in Hong Kong, where the film was made, shooting additional scenes on the mirrored set.
In many respects, this intricate scene represents the complexity of both Bruce Lee’s life and his career. Never before had the entire world had a chance to see Bruce so clearly, but Enter the Dragon elevated his profile to unimaginable heights. Though he was already Hong Kong’s biggest movie star, his final film hit occupied the top spot on the United States box office chart for three weeks and took in more than $90 million worldwide. But just as the images of the fictional Lee seesaw between reality and illusion, unity and multiplicity, perception and deception, the figure of Bruce Lee remains as elusive and contradictory in real life as he was in that hall of mirrors on the big screen. Hometown hero or global icon, Chinese nationalist or universal humanist, disciple of kung fu or heretic, ascetic or hedonist, devoted father and husband or playboy: the iconic martial arts practitioner and pop culture hero vacillated between being all of these and none.
Take, for example, the question of what country can rightly claim him as its own. Hong Kong loves its native son, who grew up in the colony and in the 1970’s became the first global Chinese superstar. A bronze statue of the martial artist and actor holds pride of place on the Avenue of Stars on the Kowloon waterfront, where tourists flock to strike martial arts poses for photographs framed by the blue waters of Victoria Bay and the soaring downtown skyline. The “Bruce Lee: Kung Fu‧Art‧Life” exhibit mounted at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum in 2013 told the story of a local boy and child movie star who learned Wing Chun kung fu and fought atop rooftops, decamped to the United States for a few years, then returned to Hong Kong to become Asia’s biggest movie star and win worldwide acclaim.
Chinese America also loves its native son, who was born in San Francisco in 1940, worked as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant while attending a technical school in Seattle, developed a reputation as a martial artist in Oakland, and struggled to make a name for himself in Hollywood. On the Bruce Lee walking tour of Seattle, sightseers visit the playground where the young martial artist worked out and dine on his favorite dish of beef with oyster sauce at Tai Tung, his favorite Chinese restaurant. The “Do You Know Bruce?” exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum in 2015 traced Lee’s Seattle roots and stressed his development as a martial artist, teacher, and actor on America’s West Coast. Yet neither of these two competing local stories—of a Hong Kong boy who ventured out into the world or a Chinese immigrant struggling to make it in the United States—capture what is most compelling about this iconic figure.
As the often riveting details of Bruce Lee’s life reveal, his story is endlessly fascinating, and for many different reasons. He became a global phenomenon due to his incessant traversals across the Pacific, a vast region across which peoples of various nationalities, races, and cultures have confronted each other as adversaries, trading partners, and neighbors over four centuries. Transpacific migrations shaped Lee and his world.
Movements and migrations across the Pacific Ocean structured the histories and cultures he inherited, the milieu he occupied, the martial arts practices he developed, the films he made, and the world that he left behind after his death in Hong Kong on July 20, 1973, a year that will also be remembered as the one that witnessed the Yom Kippur War, the Arab oil embargo, and the start of the Watergate hearings in Washington, D.C. Lee’s death, blamed on an overdose of a prescription pain killer, was officially ruled “death by misadventure,” which in turn became the title of a 1973 documentary about Lee’s turbulent life and times. He was 32.
The conditions that enabled Lee to become an icon celebrated around the globe were created by a variety of forces — European and American trade with China in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, the British colonization of Hong Kong in 1841, the discovery of gold in California in 1848, Cold War deployments of American troops throughout Asia in the last half of the 20th century, the counterculture of the 1960s, and Lee’s own incessant shuttling between Hong Kong and the West Coast of the United States until the abrupt end of his richly multifaceted career in 1973.
Within the turbulence of people, cultures, and identities roiled by transnational (capitalism and militarism, Lee combined Taoism and Western philosophies, synthesized fighting styles from China, Japan, Okinawa, the Philippines, Korea, and the West, and blended Hong Kong and Hollywood cinema to create a fusion all his own. He pioneered new ways to use the body as a weapon, advocated martial arts as a path toward harmony among strangers, and articulated interlinked critiques of colonialism and racism.
Bruce Lee’s colorful and dramatic story is worth examining for a number of important reasons. Because Lee embodied the transpacific flows of people, culture, and ideas that began in the sixteenth century and have accelerated ever since, his story provides a lens through which to understand how peoples confront each other, intermingle, and produce wondrous new cultural forms and alliances in an era of globalization that itself confronted continuing inequality, racism, and xenophobia.
Bruce Lee’s story is a quintessential illustration of how larger forces have shaped an increasingly globalized world. Lee was an extraordinary person, to be sure, but his story could not have unfolded at any other moment in history. The forces of mercantile capitalism, colonialism, Cold War militarism, and globalization fundamentally reordered the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, giving rise to the intricately intertwined and thoroughly transnational planet we inhabit today. Humans have crossed geographical and political boundaries since time immemorial but never at the pace and frequency seen in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Migrations and contacts, whether friendly or belligerent, produce new forms of culture. Whenever peoples meet others they consider to be different, regardless of whether the distinctions are drawn along tribal, ethnic, religious, or national lines, they exchange, adopt, adapt, co-opt, and incorporate ideas, beliefs, technologies, and cultural practices, and create new identities. As the Roman Empire grew through conquest, it not only spread its religion throughout Europe and Africa, it also incorporated new local deities that coexisted alongside the old gods. The Manchus who conquered China strategically embraced the native ideology of Confucianism as an instrument of rule. What could be more English than tea served in a fine China pot? Yet both the beverage and the vessel that typify Britannia originated in China.
It is impossible to imagine American music, or world music for that matter—jazz, rock and roll, hip-hop—without hearing the voices of enslaved African peoples. The borderlands of the Southwest of the United States boast a unique hybrid culture that combines Mexican, Spanish, Indigenous and European influences and, where these borderlands abut the Pacific, Asian influences as well. Where could the Korean taco have emerged except in Los Angeles?
The Bruce Lee story, which began a century before his birth, is remarkable, even in a nutshell. To understand that story one should start by examining how Hong Kong and California came to be nodes in a transpacific network of migration and commercial and artistic exchange. Hong Kong was a hybrid society structured by British colonialism and European mercantile capitalism, both of which influenced the creation of the cast of multiracial people known as Eurasians, and Bruce descended from the wealthiest and most prominent Eurasian clan, the Ho family. It was the journey of Chinese opera across the Pacific to California that led to Bruce’s birth in San Francisco in 1940. And as a result of the transpacific origins of Chinese cinema, which was tightly connected to the opera, Bruce made his film debut in San Francisco at the age of three months, playing an infant in the Chinese film Golden Gate Girl.
Bruce grew up in Hong Kong as the son of privilege and a child movie star who also dabbled in the disreputable world of street fighting. Because he earned fame as a martial artist, it is useful to examine his martial arts pedigree as an adherent of Wing Chun kung fu. Far from being an accomplished master of an ancient art, he was a relatively non-advanced student of Ip Man, the grandmaster of Wing Chun, who revised the style he taught to Bruce and others.
At the age of eighteen, Bruce Lee migrated to the West Coast of the United States, where he confronted new challenges and absorbed new influences. There he faced American racism for the first time and remade his philosophy, fighting style, and body in response to both the barriers he faced and the influences he encountered. He learned to move in new ways as he confronted martial arts styles from around the world.
As a working-class immigrant in Seattle, he attended school and worked in a Chinese restaurant. He began teaching Wing Chun and encountered many more martial arts styles than he ever would have in Hong Kong. As it turns out, his evolving approach to fighting would be mirrored in his philosophy as expressed in his notebooks from his time as a student at the University of Washington and even his romantic life, as he began dating Linda Emery, whom he would wed in defiance of widespread prejudice against interracial marriages.
Bruce changed his martial art dramatically during his time on the West Coast. His time in Oakland was marked by continual change as he met and befriended martial artists whose styles were drawn from all across Asia and intermixed in the crucible of the United States. Unsurprisingly, given that all martial arts are hybrid forms, Bruce Lee’s was shaped by his own migration as well as the transnational forces of militarism and colonialism.
Throughout his time in Seattle and Oakland, Bruce Lee dreamed of finding fame and fortune as a martial arts teacher, but in 1965, at the age of 25, he returned to his childhood vocation of acting and would pursue a career in television and film that took him from Hollywood to Hong Kong while struggling against Hollywood stereotypes of Chinese people and Asian Americans generally that limited his choices.
Upon returning to Hong Kong, however, he made three groundbreaking martial arts films that transformed him into Asia’s biggest movie star. This trilogy examined nationalism and transnationalism, showcased the martial arts philosophy Bruce had developed while on the West Coast, and galvanized audiences not only in Asia but throughout the world. The success of these movies also enabled Bruce to fulfill his longstanding goal of starring in a Hollywood blockbuster, albeit one filmed in Hong Kong.
This movie, Enter the Dragon, blended stories of resistance to American-style racism with narratives that resonated with the colony’s audience for martial arts films, which were known as wuxia. But before the film was released, Bruce Lee collapsed and died, leaving friends, family, and fans around the world to grieve and wonder about the perplexing circumstances of his premature death at the age of 32.
Bruce Lee willed himself to worldwide superstardom through supreme self-possession, dogged determination, and astonishing physical skills. By any measure he was an extraordinary individual. Yet it was his preternatural ability to absorb the ideas, atmosphere, and styles of movement surrounding him and to synthesize them so that they were uniquely his own that enabled him to become the first global icon to emerge from outside of the West. He was exposed to these influences by his incessant travels across the Pacific, impelled by the transnational processes of militarism and capitalism, and melded them into a potent blend of justice-seeking and personal empowerment that has proved inspirational for half a century.
Since his death, Asian martial arts have suffused filmmaking and cultural practices throughout an ever more globalizing world. Yet despite an army of imitators and wannabes, there will never be another Bruce Lee.
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.