In Bruce Lee, CU's Daryl Maeda sees a symbol of the modern world — and the subject of his next book.
Somehow it had escaped Maeda’s notice: The Museum of Modern Art in New York was hosting a retrospective of Bruce Lee’s films.
This was in January.
As luck would have it, a New York Times reporter reached out to ask the CU professor about Lee, tipping him off to the show.
“I cleared my schedule and jumped on a plane,” said Maeda, who teaches a course called “Bruce Lee and the Trans-Pacific” and is at work on a book about the martial arts star.
Lee died in 1973 at age 32. He’d made just a handful of major films, of which three reached U.S. theaters during his lifetime.
But, as with James Dean, Janice Joplin and Jim Morrison, early death seems only to have amplified Lee’s fame. Mazda made him a central figure in a Super Bowl ad as recently as 2014.
Maeda thinks Lee, already the subject of several documentaries and biographies, is overdue for a deeper analysis than he’s received.
“Studying Bruce Lee is actually a way of exploring how we come to occupy a globalized world,” he said.
Born in San Francisco in 1940 while his Chinese father was singing opera there, Lee grew up in Hong Kong, where he trained in martial arts and dance and appeared in about 20 minor film roles.
Later he studied philosophy and drama at the University of Washington and opened a martial arts school in Seattle. In the mid-1960s he made his way to Hollywood and found work in television, on The Green Hornet.
Between 1971 and his death, he starred in four films that quickly made him a celebrity in Asia. The most famous of these in the U.S., Enter the Dragon, reached theaters about a month after his death, in Hong Kong, following a bad reaction to medicine.
Maeda, an ethnic studies professor, said he’ll focus on Lee as an early, extraordinary example of a person who forged a new type of truly cross-cultural identity at a time of accelerating global movements of people, information and ideas.
The defining synthesis of Lee’s cross-cultural existence was the hybrid form of martial arts fighting on display in his films. He mixed elements of karate, taekwondo and escrima (or kali) and incorporated aspects of Western boxing, fencing and dance also.
Typically cast as an avenger — physically small, but tough, brave, skilled and finely chiseled — Lee basically invented the Asian American tough guy, conquering generations of unflattering stereotypes about Asian men and becoming a symbol of pride for Asians and other racial minorities.
His films, which appeared in the twilight between the civil rights and black power movements, were hugely popular among American blacks, according to Maeda, who aims to publish his book within two years.
“Bruce Lee is a kind of a multifarious figure who can mean different things to different audiences,” he said. “He contains a multitude within himself, and as a result of that people are able to identify with various parts of his image and his being.”
And yet Lee was one of a kind — making him an appealing subject for an ambitious book.
Said Maeda: “There’s no Bruce Lee before Bruce Lee.”
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