“To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities” is what martial arts king Bruce Lee said and did. 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:
- What does a study of Bruce Lee in a transnational context tell us about East-West relations during the Cold War?
- 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.
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 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].