“To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities” is what martial arts king Bruce Lee said and did.[1] Bruce Lee adapted from his being one-quarter Caucasian and three-quarters Chinese, living both in the United States and Hong Kong. He adapted from his street-fighting abilities and utilised his skills by training in martial arts by the legendary Ip Man. Bruce Lee’s background and his roles in films – both in Hollywood and in Hong Kong – offer insight into how Asians (specifically East Asians) have been portrayed in Hollywood films during the Cold War. My project will aim to understand two fundamental questions:

  1. What does a study of Bruce Lee in a transnational context tell us about East-West relations during the Cold War?
  2. What does a study of Bruce Lee tell us about the representations of East Asian masculinity?

By researching racism experienced by Asian-Americans during the Cold War, especially during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, studying Bruce Lee as a case study could highlight perceptions of Asians and Asian-Americans in this period and how they are portrayed in films. Is Bruce Lee an exception to the general portrayal of emasculated Asians? Were perceptions of Asian masculinity changing, or did racist ideologies perpetuate them? My inspiration for this project stems from watching Murder by Death (Robert Moore, 1976) as a kid. I saw Peter Seller’s portrayal of a Chinese detective and immediately hated the stereotypical portrayal of a timid Asian man contrasted next to hypermasculine detective Sam Diamond, portrayed by Peter Falk. 

Taking a transnational approach to this project, I will examine Bruce Lee’s turbulent rise to fame and his role in both Hollywood and Hong Kong. Firstly, in Hollywood, Bruce Lee’s struggle to get hypermasculine roles and his eventual progress into him being given lead roles in films such as Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973) will be explored. Therefore, this is significant as the lens will highlight the general trend of hypermasculine roles given to white men versus emasculated roles given to Asian men. I will then look at Hong Kong and how Bruce Lee is depicted there. How different are the two areas comparing one man? Will the lens in which Asians view other Asians be different from Americans’ lens viewing an American-born Chinese? I will use an ethnographic method in studying how the locals view Bruce Lee versus how diaspora’s view the mixed martial artist. This method will be used because, during COVID, it is hard to gain access to online primary sources. Thus, fieldwork may be necessary to interview various non-white perspectives, including Filipinos and Indians. I believe non-white perspectives in Asia on Bruce Lee is significant as this multi-scaled dimension illustrates a various interpretation on the concept of Asian masculinity. 

The sources I will be using in this project will primarily be secondary sources, examining relations between the East and the West during the Cold War and Asian representation in Hollywood. These include Jane Junn and Natalie Masurka’s article on Asian American Identity and Sangjoon Lee’s article on Cinema and the Cultural Cold War. However, I will be using primary sources such as Bruce Lee films highlighting the emasculated or hypermasculine roles played by him and white men, respectively. Ultimately, I will be using transnational history as a lens to view masculine portrayals in films. Thus I will use AHR Conversation: On Transnational History and OXO: Or, the Challenges of Transnational History by Jan Rüger as main sources for my project. Their definitions of transnational history will be useful in this project’s investigation of how studying Bruce Lee as a case study can illuminate East-West relations during the Cold War, and the difference in representations of masculinity and how different audiences view Asians in masculine roles. Going beyond Hong Kong and Hollywood, this project will analyse Bruce Lee’s contributions and legacy in other areas around the world, such as Japan (he inspired some anime and manga franchises), Bollywood (films such as Deewaar), videogames (Streetfighter) and America (UFC Championship). 

Ultimately, my project will aim not to give Bruce Lee too much agency in ‘uniting’ the East and the West. Nevertheless, studying Lee as a lens into East-West relations during the Cold War, specifically, how Asians are represented in the West and how Bruce Lee will provide insight into emasculated versus masculine roles in films. 

Working Bibliography

Primary Sources

Nguyen, Bao (dir.), Be Water (United States, 2020).

Lo Wei (dir.), Fist of Fury (Hong Kong, 1972). 

Lee, Bruce (dir.), Way of the Dragon (Hong Kong, 1972).

Clouse, Robert (dir.), Enter the Dragon (Los Angeles, 1973).

Clouse, Robert and Lee, Bruce (dirs.), The Game of Death (Los Angeles, 1978). 

Chopra, Yash (dir.), Deewaar (Mumbai, 1975).

Streetfighter (videogame).

Secondary Sources

Ascarate, Richard John, ‘About Chinese Cinema’, Film Quarterly 62: 2 (2008), pp.72-76. 

Bayly, Christopher A., et al., ‘AHR Conversation: On Transnational History’, American

Historical Review 111: 5 (2006), pp. 1441-1464. 

Dumas, Raechel, ‘Kung Fu Production for Global Consumption: The Depoliticization of

Kung Fu in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle’, Style 43: 1, (2009), pp. 65-85. 

Goto-Jones, Chris, ‘Is “Street Fighter” a Martial Art? Virtual Ninja Theory, Ideology, and the

Intentional Self-Transformation of Fighting-Gamers’ Japan Review 29 (2016), pp. 171-208. 

Hillenbrand, Margaret, ‘Of Myths and Men: “Better Luck Tomorrow” and the Mainstreaming

of Asian America Cinema’, Cinema Journal, 47: 4 (2008), pp. 50-75. 

Jennings, George, Brown, David and Sparkes, Andrew C., ‘“It can be a religion if you want”:

Wing Chun Kung Fu as a secular religion’, Ethnography 11: 4, (2010), pp. 533-557. 

Junn, Jane and Masurka, Natalie, ‘Asian American Identity: Shared Racial Status and

Political Context’, Perspectives on Politics 6: 2 (2008), pp. 729-740. 

Kato, M. T., ‘Burning Asia: Bruce Lee’s Kinetic Narrative of Decolonization’, Modern

Chinese Literature and Culture 17: 1 (2005), pp. 62-99. 

Kolluri, Satish and Lee, Joseph Tse-Hei, ‘Hong Kong and Bollywood in the Global Soft

Power Contest’, Indian Journal of Asian Affairs 29: 1/2 (2016), pp. 101-112. 

Lee, Sangjoon, Cinema and the Cultural Cold War: US Diplomacy and the Origins of the Asian Cinema Network (Cornell, 2020). 

Mackintosh, Jonathan D., ‘Bruce Lee: A visual poetics of post-war Japanese manliness’,

Modern Asian Studies 48: 6 (2014), pp. 1477-1518. 

Rüger, Jan, ‘OXO: Or, the Challenges of Transnational History’, European History Quarterly

40: 4 (October 1, 2010), pp. 656–668.

Yip, Man-Fung, ‘In the Realm of the Senses: Sensory Realism, Speed, and Hong Kong

Marital Arts in Cinema’, Cinema Journal 53: 4 (2014), pp. 76-97. 

[1] Bruce Lee, quoted in Bruce Lee.com, Website, <https://brucelee.com/podcast-blog/2017/11/28/74-to-hell-with-circumstances#:~:text=%E2%80%9CTo%20hell%20with%20circumstances%2C%20I%20create%20opportunities.%E2%80%9D&text=Bruce%20was%20in%20dynamic%20motion,with%20a%20proactive%2C%20positive%20tone.> [retrieved 10 March 2021].

(Project Proposal) Fists of Fury: A Transnational Guide on how Bruce Lee Punched His Way Against Asian Stereotypes in Hollywood

One thought on “(Project Proposal) Fists of Fury: A Transnational Guide on how Bruce Lee Punched His Way Against Asian Stereotypes in Hollywood

  • March 20, 2021 at 10:07 pm

    This is a fascinating way to examine the role of East Asian masculinity, especially through the lens of popular media.
    The first thing that comes to mind when looking at the concept of East Asian Masculinity is the stereotype of the nerdy, skinny and most importantly “weak” image that exists. I was curious as to what interplay this had with the fetishisation of East Asian Women (otherwise known as “Yellow Fever”). Did these two things arise out of the same time period and strain of thought? Or did one come after the other? I would imagine that the way East Asian Women are depicted as docile and demure would have had an impact on the popular Orientalist imagination of East Asian Men as well.

    Although this is not as relevant to the overall topic.
    Another topic that comes to mind might be the concept of model minorities in the late 1800s and early 1900s of the US and the Anti-Chinese migration bills that were passed during the period.

    As a theoretical perspective, I might suggest looking at specific theories on masculinity and race. Some scholars such as DL Eng have even gone so far as to call it “Racial Castration” (very harsh I know). There are even reviews of the overall literature on Asian American Masculinity (see YL Shek) that might be helpful.

    All in all it’s a very interesting topic!

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