The 40th anniversary of Bruce Lee’s death has become a global event. As the BBC report testifies the Hong Kong martial artist is now a major figure of consumption in the corporate celebrity and heritage industries. But for many of us who grew up in the 1970s Bruce Lee was a rare Asian, Third World cinematic icon who resisted, fought and stood up to all-comers. I can vividly recall the fleapit down on Soho Road in Handsworth where mobs of youth regularly streamed out of the cinema poorly mimicking the moves and sounds of our Chinese hero. The un-choreographed kung fu kicks and chops became a unique form of spontaneous street dancing, prefiguring the more graceful gymnastics of break-dancing.
It was in the working class areas of a crumbling urban infrastructure that Bruce Lee stood as some sort of fugitive figure of utopian hope. Against the rising racist violence and culture of white supremacy of the 70s, Lee showed that we didn’t have to suffer in silence. For the formerly colonialised children of immigrants, from the Indian sub-continent to the Caribbean, he was not just a movie star, but a symbolic revenge against all forms of historical and contemporary oppression.
In particular he offered an alternative image of Asian masculinity, one in contrast to the emasculated discourses of victimhood and the subservience of the coolie. The martial arts skills and taut muscular body were like a pedagogical mirror, a survival manual, particularly for young men trying to navigate the badlands of the inner city. When ‘Paki-bashing’ became a legitimate national sport the recourse to the iconography of Bruce Lee’s martial arts provided at least some cultural respect and a little mental respite against a context of continual physical and verbal threat and abuse. Even the Lee inspired kitsch disco classic Carl Douglas’s ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ was received somewhat strangely as a form of cultural legitimation in places like Handsworth. (It does need to be remembered that this was the time when Love Thy Neighbor, Mind Your Language and It’s Ain’t Half Hot Mum were popular forms of ‘multiculturalism’ on UK TV screens).
With so little to cheer Lee’s kung fu stood as a putative popular anti-racism. While that other ‘Eastern’ rebel hero Amitabh Bachchan remained limited to the South Asian imaginary, Bruce Lee’s kung fu master classes transcended their Hong Kong Chinese locality and became global. This was an anti-imperial universal populism, which exposes the limitations of the particularistic, ethnic forms of postcolonial nationalism or ‘hybrid’ cultural resistance that are offered nowadays.
Maybe the subaltern cannot speak but at least they can fight (on screen).
Just imagine if the Chinese Cultural Revolution had been mediated by a globalised Bruce Lee – The Gang of Four would have a greatly different resonance now. It is undoubtedly an extreme stretch of the imagination to claim that if Maoism had embraced, dialectically of course, this form of popular culture, the revolution could have survived and arrested the rise of global capitalism, which has its roots in the 1970s economic crisis. Bruce Lee’s popularity and appeal is symptomatically tied to the crisis of the political left at that time. It is here that the lessons of the failure of the 1968 generation is most evident. 1960/70s Western Maoism, like other forms of Orientalism, rarefied and reduced the Chinese Revolution to an ‘Other’ outside of the West. The failure to popularize Maoism in the West only left the social democracy of a ‘New Left’, which, as we have learnt, has been unable to offer any real resistance to the triumph of the neoliberal ‘free’ market and individualism.
It is of course ludicrous to argue that Bruce Lee is some sort of revolutionary like Che Guevara or Malcolm X, but it is possible to claim that embodied in the allegorical image of Lee is a radical political imaginary that has been able articulate the demands of the global improvised in a way that much of the libertarian or militant left have been unable to do so. It is in this sense Lee is similar to figures like Bob Marley or Muhammad Ali, who condense in popular form a politics of resistance and revolutionary change.
But maybe this return to the heroics of an earlier moment is itself a reaction to the situation now, when it is very hard to see how utopian figures like Bruce Lee can even be imagined or exist, except as commodified nostalgic heritage. In the contemporary narcissistic media culture, where one can easily become an instantaneous Internet star for a few brief moments, it is impossible to see how to create such cultural value and political meaning. Even the televisual militancy of religious orthodoxy and anti-western terroristic violence is easily assimilated into an image-driven celebrity culture of reality entertainment.
Give me any day the cinematic fantasies of the Enter the Dragon to the incoherent media rants of the Woolwich machete wielder.