Since his sudden death at age 32 in 1973, every detail of Bruce Lee’s life has been scrutinized and surveyed ad nauseam. There have been countless books, documentaries and retrospectives telling the story of the film icon considered by many to be the greatest martial artist of the 20th century. Filmmakers as renowned as Quentin Tarantino have paid reverence to Lee’s legend (such as in “Kill Bill”) as easily as they’ve slandered him (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”).
Nevertheless, biographers often omit or downplay the important role the Bay Area played in his life. For starters, he was born in San Francisco when his parents stopped in Chinatown as part of an opera tour (his father was famed Cantonese opera singer Lee Hoi-chuen).
After being raised in mainland China, Lee made a name for himself in the U.S. via his Oakland-based martial arts school. Even after his death, San Francisco became a notable setting for numerous Lee tributes and the filming of the 2008 Chinese miniseries “The Legend of Bruce Lee.” Yet even SF’s own Chinese Historical Society of America only makes the connections briefly in its exhibition “We Are Bruce Lee: Under the Sky, One Family,” running through July 31.
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The CHSA’s marketing tagline for the exhibition is simply “American. Chinese. San Francisco native.” Indeed, after passing through the lobby’s rather lax vaccine check (masks are required at all times), one of the first things visitors can see in the viewing area are reprints of Lee’s birth certificate and copies of family photos. The walls of the exhibition area are noticeably primary yellow, likely an allusion to Lee’s famous jumpsuit from “Game of Death,” a re-creation of which is on display a few feet away from family materials.
Though there’s no specific chronological arrangement to the collection, the hall is easy enough to maneuver in. Display cases hold international posters and still from Lee’s films, with props (yellow nunchaku, Kato’s mask from “The Green Hornet,” sketches from journals, etc.) and memorabilia placed around famous quotes from “The Little Dragon” himself. Said memorabilia includes everything from old comic books and action figures to contemporary magazines and collectibles, proving that Lee’s fame hasn’t abated 49 years after his death.
Dedicated walls highlight his rise to fame and attempts to crack the glass ceiling of Hollywood racism. These include documents and photographs about his breakthrough role on “The Green Hornet” and the way his idea for an original television series was taken from him and reworked into the 1972 show “Kung Fu” with David Carradine. Similarly, another nearby wall is dedicated to “Warrior,” the acclaimed, current Cinemax series that hews more closely to its late creator’s vision. Naturally, Lee’s Hong Kong films get special attention.
Several areas are dedicated to his groundbreaking fitness regimen — thought to be a precursor to contemporary mixed martial arts — and the Jeet Kune Do philosophy that formed the core of his unique fighting style. On the interactive side, guests are invited to take thin wooden boards, write things they despise on them and then break those boards as a means of venting their frustration with whatever words they’ve written.
That doesn’t even get into the upper display room featuring a wall-wide mural of Lee by the Twin Walls Mural Company that’s accentuated by video projection from the Macro Waves Collective, turning an already-impressive painting into a surreal dream piece with ethereal sounds. Nor does it properly cover the basement area featuring more murals, commissioned fan art for the exhibition and projections of two documentaries: “Bay Area Bruce Lee and the Black Community” and “Rhythm of the Dragon,” both of which explore Lee’s influence on hip-hop.
The entire exhibition is a Lee family-sponsored tribute to the late superstar, which works both for and against the installation. Lee’s daughter Shannon, family spokesperson for nearly 20 years, can be seen interviewed on several screens around the exhibition (all of which, unfortunately, had their motion-smoothing turned on), exalting her father’s innovations.
Yet, there’s never any mention given to how she or any other family member felt about the family being uprooted from the U.S. to China (and back) because of their father’s career, which often had him absent from home. Even with family photos on display and an area briefly dedicated to the racism Lee faced, almost no mention is made of the backlash he faced by marrying Linda Emery, a white woman, nor is any detail gone into about Lee’s unique philosophy upsetting martial arts purists.
Most egregiously, the exhibition is scarce on any material featuring Lee’s son Brandon, who also died tragically at age 28 in 1993 after following his father’s career path into film.
All told, the exhibition is an entertaining exercise in contradictions: a Chinese organization in San Francisco dedicates and exhibition to one of the most famous Chinese San Franciscans, but his birthplace is only mentioned in passing; it was made with the approval of his family, but they’re barely mentioned anywhere; it features memorabilia that fans have come to idolize, but not much is shared besides what most fans will know already.
Nearly 50 years after his death, Bruce Lee continues to cast a wide shadow. “We Are Bruce Lee” is an entertaining tribute to that influence and a fine enough reason to visit the CHSA if you’ve never done so before. You may pick up a few details that you might now have known before, but don’t expect much more than that.
“We Are Bruce Lee: Under the Sky, One Family” runs through July 31 at the Chinese Historical Society of America, 965 Clay St., San Francisco. Appointments are available on an hourly basis from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. Masks are required at all times. Tickets, $10-$12, and more information can be found at https://www.wearebrucelee.org/.
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at The Thinking Man’s Idiot at https://thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com/project-type/journalism/.