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Bruce Lee, alive and kicking

In the southern Chinese city of Shunde, government officials are finalising plans to build a Bruce Lee theme park, complete with a memorial hall and a large statue of the man they call the town's favourite "son".

  • By Robert W. Welkos and Don Lee, Los Angeles Times-Washington Post
  • Published: 00:00 August 31, 2006
  • Weekend Review

  • Image Credit:
  • Linda Cadwell, Bruce Lee's widow, and their daughter Shannon Lee carefully control the use of his name, likeness and works.

Although dead for 33 years, the legendary kung fu star remains a powerful cultural figure

In the southern Chinese city of Shunde, government officials are finalising plans to build a Bruce Lee theme park, complete with a memorial hall and a large statue of the man they call the town's favourite "son".

Never mind that the legendary Chinese American kung fu star was born in San Francisco and visited Shunde only briefly, when he was a boy of 5.

Shunde is the hometown of Lee's father and grandfather, and that was enough for local resident Wang Dechao to prod the government to plough $125,000 into opening a Bruce Lee museum in an old teashop in Shunde in 2002.

Since then, more than 300,000 people, some paying $1 for admission, have come to see its collection of Bruce Lee's rare letters, film posters and other memorabilia.
Wang, who now works for Shunde's cultural and sports authority, hopes to move the museum to the new theme park, which he says is projected to cost $19 million and open before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

CCTV, China's national network, has plans to produce a 40-part documentary about Bruce Lee. Meanwhile, Bruce Lee's brother, Robert, is planning a movie about him, as is one of Lee's former students.

Blockbuster film
Although he has been dead for 33 years, Bruce Lee remains an enduringly powerful cultural figure. What if, people often ask, he hadn't died at age 32, barely a month before the release of his blockbuster film Enter the Dragon? Most believe that film would have catapulted him into the ranks of Hollywood's superstars. But what then?

It's a question that his widow, Linda Cadwell, 61, often asks herself. "I think about it a lot - what he missed," Cadwell said. "Professionally, I'm sure he probably would have stayed in the performing industry, but maybe not always as an actor, because he loved to write."

Then, pausing, she added that this year, "He would be 66." Lee died in Hong Kong on July 20, 1973, from a cerebral edema.

Lee left no will and was not a wealthy man. In those days, there weren't the movie-based action figures and video and computer games that line store shelves today.

The estates of dead celebrities hadn't yet amassed the staggering licencing fees that they do today, when, say, Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe can generate millions annually. "In the early years, there really weren't things to licence," Cadwell said.

Now, though, Bruce Lee would seem to be a natural as a brand name advertisers and vendors could use to sell products.

Mark Roesler, chairman and chief executive of CMG Worldwide, the business agent for the heirs of more than 300 dead celebrities, estimates that Bruce Lee could generate yearly licencing fees in the seven-figure range.

Although Roesler doesn't represent Lee's estate, he sees the martial arts star's earning-prospects as good. "He is an icon that is known throughout the world, and when you have someone like a Bruce Lee or a James Dean, someone who has a very strong name recognition, their myth and their legend seems to grow over the years."

Indeed, although he achieved stardom three decades ago, Lee's fame has hardly dimmed. He is still regarded as one of the most influential martial artists of the 20th century, a precursor to kung fu stars such as Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chuck Norris.

In his teens, he had formal martial arts training in Wing Chun kung fu under a master teacher in Hong Kong. Lee's style was known as Jeet Kune Do (Way of the Intercepting Fist). He was famous for a combat technique called the "one-inch punch".

But it was not only his skill at martial arts that won fans, Cadwell said, it was his philosophy and way of life.
Around the world, his likeness has taken on a symbolic life of its own, even in places as far-flung as Mostar, Bosnia, where a life-size statue of Lee poses in a defensive fighting-posture stands.

The bronze statue, erected last year, serves as a symbol of healing ethnic tensions in a land that in the 1990s was racked by civil war among Muslims, Serbs and Croats.

That kind of enduring resonance is why Cadwell and Shannon Lee are taking steps to ensure his reputation stays intact. That means no licencing of tobacco products, alcohol or weapons bearing his image. "There's a place for weapons" in martial arts training, Cadwell said, "but not these ninja stars."

"Basically, what we try to do is run the business with my father's legacy always in mind," said Shannon Lee, who is managing partner of Concord Moon, a Los Angeles-based limited partnership that owns all rights to Bruce Lee's name.

There is a satellite office in Hong Kong and there will be one soon in Beijing, so that anyone wanting to capitalise on Bruce Lee's name knows whom to contact.
Concord Moon's current plans for Bruce Lee-related entertainment projects include an animated television series, a CGI movie, an animated feature film, a live-action TV series, and a Broadway musical being developed by David Henry Hwang, whose M. Butterfly won a Tony Award in 1988 for best play.

Bruce Lee, though familiar to most Chinese, never gained the widespread appeal or following in mainland China that he did in Hong Kong and the United States.

One reason is that China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution during the height of Lee's career in the early 1970s. What movies China showed in cinemas were Communist Party propaganda, and television sets were still relatively rare.

Fans in China
That's not to say he has few fans in China.

"I started to love Bruce Lee films when I first watched Enter the Dragon in Yugoslavia in the late 1970s," said Liu Jikang, chief representative of Sony Pictures Entertainment China in Beijing. "Even now I can still remember the last scene, where he was fighting in a hall of mirrors."

Like other Chinese, Liu was proud of Lee and what he stood for. "Before his movies, few foreigners knew about the Chinese, but his films built up a very positive image of China," the Beijing native said.

In America, meanwhile, Bruce Lee's image continues to embed itself in the cultural imagination.

David Henry Hwang said he began thinking of doing a musical combining a famous Chinese epic called Journey to the West - in which one of the principal characters is the Monkey King, a sort of trickster character - with that of Lee's journey to the West.

Hwang believes that Lee played a major role in changing the perception of China and Chinese in the West. By the mid-20th century, he noted, China was often looked upon as a "sick man", a country that had once been truly great, but now was seen as broken beyond repair.

"When I was a kid, that was not only the view of China, but also of Chinese America," Hwang said. "In this country, we were cooks, waiters and laundrymen. That, in the course of my lifetime, has changed 180 degrees. Now we are perceived as having too much money, being too educated and we raise the curve in math class."

Bruce Lee helped usher this new era into existence, Hwang said. "For the first time in the 20th century, a Chinese man was seen as a hero, as someone who was noble, as someone who fought for justice and all the things we associate with heroism. That was completely different for Chinese at the time he came along."

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