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The Day I Met Bruce Lee

By Bonnie Devet

He taught actors Steve McQueen and James Coburn how to fight. He kicked so rapidly Hollywood slowed down his fight scenes so audiences could see his speedy delivery. He defeated enemies through finger punches called chi sao (or “sticking hands”). He numchaked (from numchaku or “two wooden sticks joined by a cord”) his opponents. And, like most moviegoers, back in 1973, I had seen him at his best in the American release of Enter the Dragon. Little did I expect that one day I would meet the true Bruce Lee.

The conference where I had delivered a paper as a staid, bespeckled, middle-aged college instructor had ended. With the flight home still a half-day off, I decided to seek out something novel in the conference city of Seattle, Washington, and visit a lesser-known site: the grave of martial arts master Bruce Lee.

Though he’s been dead for over thirty years, all my students know Lee. His posters decorate their dorm rooms. If I could report I had seen The Master’s last resting place (as if the energetic Lee could ever rest), my classes would more than likely think I was pretty hip (do students use “hip” any more?). My students—especially the freshmen— might even see me as “cool” or “very cool” or that highest of teenage adjectives. . .“awesome.”

I bravely surrendered myself to the Seattle metro system, hoping I had the right bus numbers to reach the Lake View Cemetery on Capitol Hill. Two hours later, in a scorching, simmering, so-hot-that-even-eggs-refuse-to-fry day, I arrived at the cemetery, following the directions of my trusty guidebook. At the same time, like doves to a rooftop, a car showed up with a couple half my age, the girl dressed in the classic summer uniform of what my generation, unfortunately, labels as “Punk Rock”: short, spiked hair like tiny Matterhorn peaks, tank top with spaghetti straps, and, of course, a pierced nose. Her driver boyfriend looked like a Sumu wrestler who had lost a bit of weight yet was still a lumberingly solid Paul Bunyan.

One does not mess with this couple.

They did, however, want to talk to me. I had directions to locate Lee’s grave among the hundreds and hundreds interred in Lake View, so they asked me to ride around with them as we scouted for the site.

Getting into a car with total strangers? Didn’t my mother always warn against such foolishness? Yet I did, answering the little mother voice inside my head with, “But these are fans, too, Mom, and, besides, they are driving such a conservative car the Chevy Malibu, so how dangerous can they be?” Logical? No, but in the heat of the hunt for the grave of Lee, who could stop to be rational or careful. The Punk Rockers and I were as one, weren’t we? Already, Lee was working some kind of magic . . . different strangers engaged in the same enterprise.

The hunt was successful. Around a bend and on top of a hill sat the garnet stone (red for good luck in Chinese lore?) with a Hollywood photo of a young Lee and his name inscribed in both Chinese and English. Standing like a sentinel, the stone carried an inscription, “May Your Inspiration Guide Us Toward Our Personal Liberation.”

The Punk Rockers and I were not alone. Coming up the cemetery hill was a grandfathery Chinese man with his two middle-school-aged grandchildren dressed in the latest khaki shorts and skin-tight t-shirts straight from Old Navy.

The three groups—the conservative professor, the Punk Rockers, and the Chinese family —converged at Lee’s side.

The Chinese grandfather was reverently silent at the grave for different reasons, I suspect, than were the Punk Rockers. To this elderly man, Lee symbolized the triumph of East over West. Lee’s movies simplistically but graphically displayed the power of Eastern thought and movement in a fighting style called jeet kune do (“the art of the intercepting fist”). Using his art, Lee— the classic underdog— always triumphed over oppressors, be they Japanese or Westerners. Being victorious wasn’t enough, though. Embodying contradictions, Lee was a dancer (a noted cha cha champion of Hong Kong) as well as a fighter (learning kung fu to protect himself from street gangs). He balanced two worlds, surely not unlike how the elderly Chinese grandfather must do as he lives in a western culture.

When Lee finally broke into mainstream Hollywood with his $100-million-grossing blockbuster Enter the Dragon, he had, at last, achieved his own personal victory—recognition by the West. But, ironically, this conquest arrived after he had died at age 32 from an acute cerebral edema (swelling of the brain), probably induced by an ingredient in the prescription painkiller Equagesic.

In one sense, Lee’s heritage lives on. Without him, could we, today, have House of Flying Daggers, Jet Li (in the recent movie hit Hero), Michelle Yeogh (co-star with Pierce Brosnan in the 1997 James Bond thriller Tomorrow Never Dies), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a Texas Ranger (Chuck Norris was a pupil of Lee’s), The Matrix, the hugely popular video game Mortal Kombat, or even the comic version of martial arts successfully represented by Jackie Chan?

In its list of the most famous heroes and icons of the 20th century, Time also attributes to Lee the oddest of influences: the rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Through rigorous training (maybe even too much), Lee ascended from street thug to iconic star, becoming a lightening-fast fighter with a taut physique that, at his death, had virtually no body fat. He set the stage for others like Arnold to arrive in Hollywood with the same agenda of taking charge of one’s body and career. Sure, Lee was merely a Hong Kong martial arts movie star. To many, though, he represented transformation, opportunity, respect.

The Chinese kids didn’t see any of that. Looking at the grave with its silk flowers, notes of thanks from well-wishers, and coins for Lee’s travels through the underground, the kids asked their grandfather, “What does the tombstone say?” Patiently pronouncing the Chinese inscription, the grandfather translated, “It’s just Bruce Lee’s name in Chinese.” The teenagers’s response reminded me of tourists ogling the walk of fame stars embedded on Hollywood Boulevard, squealing delightedly when spying a name they knew: “Oh, yeah. I’ve heard of him.” To them, Lee was not a Fists of Fury symbol but only a dead movie star.

Lee had strived to bring East and West together, but these kids—the latest examples of the American-Chinese world—couldn’t connect with a part of their culture or language.

And the Punk Rockers? As many New Yorkers have never visited the Statue of Liberty, they had not seen their own hometown’s tourist spots. “We just doing some sightseeing,” they explained.

I suspected, though, there was more to their visit than merely dropping by a local attraction. The Punk Rocker girl, pushing up her spaghetti strap slipping under the sweaty sun, sat down oh-so-carefully on the backless concrete bench in front of Lee’s grave, a bench provided by Lee’s widow Linda so visitors could do like the Punk Rocker, contemplate the site.

She gingerly ran her finger over the inscription as if by touching it she could reach Lee. Then, she read each of the mementos left by adorning fans for the anniversary of his death---July 20, 1973.

“He was cursed, you know.” She spoke, as if to no one but to herself and possibly Lee. “He was not supposed to reveal ancient fighting skills to non-Chinese.”

More than likely, Lee was merely another street kid trying to get ahead by teaching his version of martial arts. By coalescing various fighting styles into a new form, however, he symbolized the skill to re-shape one’s self and the world in spite of odds. . . not unlike what the Punk Rockers want to do.

The Punk Rockers were there, too, because like Lee, they see themselves as struggling to be acknowledged; in Lee’s case, he battled his way through life, getting into countless skirmishes at his Hong Kong high school so that, finally, his family sent him away to America to finish his education. In the hit tv show Green Hornet (1966-67 on ABC), he played only the second lead of the faithful servant Kato, masked, no less, so that he was rarely recognized. He also resented not getting the title role in the tv show Kung Fu (with the lead going to that most non-Chinese of men David Carradine). Lee (and the Punk Rockers) desired to be seen, heard, accepted for their philosophy and their own selves.

The Chinese kids soon grew bored and walked away, becoming more interested in the grave of an unnamed Nineteenth century Irishman who possessed the most unfortunate luck to have Lee buried next to him....or perhaps it was good luck..... because everyone visiting Lee stops to read his weather-worn stone, too. The grandfather prodded along after the Chinese kids, paying attention not to step on Lee’s grave.

As I turned to leave, the Punk Rockers remained behind, glad the rest of us were finally departing. They could pay their own homage, now.

And the staid, middle-aged, bespeckled English professor? This little jaunt to Lee’s grave had been designed ostensibly to fill time before a flight home and to gain bragging rights before my freshman students. I could also claim that I was being professional, looking for elements in pop culture to illustrate for my classes the universality of literary classics. Wouldn’t Lee be a swell example of A. E. Housman’s poem “To An Athlete Dying Young”? Or I could maintain I was interested in seeing the grave of the man who, ultimately, made it possible for a movie like House of Flying Daggers to become a hit in the US. These reasons were, really, mere excuses, as rationalizations often are. Something more powerful was at work.

We are told we live in a multi-cultural world. We are told to celebrate differences. It is all true, and yet..... it’s also beneficial to celebrate union and the ability to bring together. Lee did just that on a sweltering summer day. For a brief, tenuous moment on a hilltop in a Seattle cemetery, I feel I had met the true Lee—someone with the power to unite the disparate, the desperate, the divergent, and the dissimilar...the real heritage and influence of this martial arts star.

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About The Author:

Bonnie Devet is a professor of English at the College of Charleston (SC), where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in writing.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Bruce Lee, Kung Fu

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