By Published: July 11, 2022

‘First Asian American global superstar’ prefigured, influenced today’s interconnected world, CU Boulder professor writes in new book

Nearly a half century after his untimely death at age 32, the American-born, Hong Kong-raised martial artist, actor, filmmaker and philosopher Bruce Lee remains one of the most enduring cultural icons on earth.

“He’s on T-shirts. He’s a person like Michael Jackson or Muhammad Ali, recognizable in any village around the world,” says Daryl Joji Maeda, professor of ethnic studies and vice provost of undergraduate education at the University of Colorado Boulder.

While growing up in a racially diverse community in Southern California’s Inland Empire in the 1970s, Maeda was one of millions of American kids drawn to Lee as a film hero. His screen presence was especially meaningful for a young Asian American boy.

 A Cultural History of Bruce Lee Book Cover

At the top of the page: Bruce Lee In 'Enter The Dragon' (Archive Photos/Getty Images). Above: Like Water: A Cultural History of Bruce Lee book cover.

“At the time, who was on TV? In reruns of Bonanza, Hop Sing was played for laughs and subservient,” Maeda says. “Bruce Lee was strong, heroic, frankly almost superhuman. That’s a powerful message to a kid who doesn’t see himself in popular culture in the rest of his life.”

In August, Maeda will return the favor to one of his childhood idols with the publication of Like Water: A Cultural History of Bruce Lee, a unique blend of biography and cultural history that explores Lee’s power as an inspiring symbol, enduring legacy and harbinger of our current, globalized world.

“He came from a world that had been in the making for centuries and really erupted into our consciousness at a particular time. Nobody was Bruce Lee before Bruce Lee,” Maeda says. “One of the points I’m making is that nobody could have been. The events, processes and forces in the world that made his global stardom possible didn’t all come together until the 1960s.

“I think of Bruce Lee as emblematic of the course of history over the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. He should be remembered as a significant global and cultural figure,” he says.

Lee was born in San Francisco to parents from Hong Kong. His father was a noted Cantonese opera singer, and his mother came from one of the then-British colony’s wealthiest and most famous Eurasian families. He was descended from both Dutch and Chinese ancestors and grew up learning English in school and speaking Chinese at home, Maeda says.

He studied Wing Chung Kung Fu for about four years and was an actor in some 20 films as a child before coming to the United States. He returned to the United States in 1959 at age 18 as a legal citizen and began exploring various fighting forms, from Korean Tae Kwon Do to Japanese and Okinawan karate to Western boxing and fencing. Eventually, he created Jeet Kune Do, a hybrid martial art.

“He was the consummate sponge, absorbing influences, adopting and adapting and making them his own,” Maeda says.

He also began to pursue his adult acting career in Hollywood, where he “was flummoxed at every point by racism,” Maeda says. Lee was infamously rejected for the role Kwai Chang Caine, portrayed by David Carradine in the television show Kung Fu, because he looked “too Chinese,” Maeda notes.

That was many years after he became a hero to millions of young Americans as Kato, sidekick to television’s mid-60s hero, Green Hornet. Maeda doesn’t recommend that former childhood fans return to the show (“It’s really, really not good,” he says), but calls Lee’s portrayal in the show “interesting.”

“He’s clearly supposed to be the sidekick. But children don’t experience him as a sidekick in that show. They experience him as the main character, a guy who kicks all kinds of ass. Nobody wants to be the Green Hornet, this oaf-y kind of dude,” he says with a laugh.

Lee fought unsuccessfully for more dialog and character development for Kato.

“But one thing that’s undeniable about Kato in The Green Hornet: It’s the first time Asian martial arts were portrayed accurately in mainstream U.S. TV,” Maeda says.

Lee also studied philosophy at the University of Washington, where his reading in Chinese classics and Taoist poets fused with martial-arts influences and self-actualization ideas into an eclectic approach to self-knowledge.

He came from a world that had been in the making for centuries and really erupted into our consciousness at a particular time. Nobody was Bruce Lee before Bruce Lee. ... Nobody could have been.

Lee married a Scandinavian-American woman before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia (1967), which struck down all laws banning interracial marriage. He very much saw himself as an amalgamation of cultures and influences who bridged artificial divides that were becoming increasingly irrelevant to the coming future.

“I argue that Bruce Lee is not a product of Asia and not a product of the West. Bruce Lee fundamentally emerges in the transit, the crossing, the flows across and between and among countries, oceans and cultures,” Maeda says. “He is always returning.”

Lee died somewhat mysteriously in July 1973 after being given medication for a headache, shortly before the release of the American- and Hong Kong-produced Enter the Dragon, arguably his most famous film.

Though his life was short, his embrace and transformation of multiple influences, whether in martial arts, moviemaking, culture, language, philosophy or social mores prefigured and reflected today’s increasingly interconnected world, Maeda says.

“Even things we think are pure are the products of past hybridization. … Everything arises out of the cultural context that surrounds it,” he says. “Here in the United States, we have seen an attempt to wall ourselves off literally. That’s not what Bruce Lee would have done. His life shows us the futility of that approach.”