Friday, July 20, 2018

Adapt What is Useful

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, July 21-22, 2018 

Matthew Polly’s new Life of Bruce Lee is over 600 pages long. Is this too much biography for a subject who only lived to be 32, made a handful of movies in a minor genre, and has been dead for 45 years? Well, no book is too long if it's good enough; and Polly’s book is more than good enough. Salvaging Lee from the clich├ęs and conventions of the kung fu fan book, Polly restores him to his full cultural context. The book isn’t just a considerable achievement in itself; it reminds us, or perhaps informs us for the first time, that Bruce Lee was a considerable man, worthy of serious treatment. 

From birth, Lee was what might nowadays be called an intersectional figure. He was born in one port city (San Francisco) and raised in another, Hong Kong. His parents were Hong Kong Chinese, although his mother had European heritage too. This made Bruce – as Polly puts it – “five eighths Han Chinese, one quarter English, and one eighth Dutch-Jewish.” To our squeamish modern ears, this may sound indecently precise. But as Polly amply demonstrates, Lee lived a life in which such exquisite ethnic distinctions were constantly made to matter, so that overcoming them required a person of rare self-belief. 

During his youth in Hong Kong, Lee was a promising student of the Chinese martial art of kung fu, and a notoriously effective streetfighter. Expelled from high school at the age of 18, he was shipped to America to attend college and generally improve himself. This put a crimp in his martial arts education, since America was markedly short of classical kung fu masters. Lee therefore began to evolve his own highly personal brand of kung fu, which incorporated techniques borrowed from other Asian martial arts (karate, taekwondo) as well as from western ones, such as boxing and fencing. Lee called his hybrid version of kung fu “Jeet Kune Do”, the style without a style. “Adapt what is useful,” he counselled, “reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.” This philosophy guided Lee’s whole life: classicism, for him, always took a back seat to individualism. 

Lee’s first ambition, in America, was to found a nation-wide chain of martial arts schools. But his dream soon changed. He resolved to become a new kind of movie hero, the Chinese-American Steve McQueen. Via his martial arts work in California, he came to the notice of local TV executives, who started casting him in minor parts, including the role of Kato in the short-lived Green Hornet series. 

Lee was no great actor. He had an anti-talent for delivering lines. But he had a blazing charisma that overwhelmed such small considerations. The camera loved the way he moved: like a dancer who could kick your teeth in. 

But Hollywood wasn’t immediately ready to bankroll a film built around a Chinese-American actor. Lee’s first starring roles came in Hong Kong, where sketchily scripted action flicks were filmed at a frantic clip during the night, because the noise of the city made daytime shooting unfeasible. Starting with The Big Boss (1971), Lee appeared in a trio of Hong Kong movies that made him a megastar in Asia. In the wake of their success, money was found for his first and only American-backed feature, Enter the Dragon (1973). 

That movie would go on to make millions worldwide, but Lee didn’t live to see its success. He died suddenly and mysteriously while the film was in post-production. The cause of his death has long been a matter of dispute, but Polly claims to have finally cracked the case. He argues, persuasively, that Lee died of heat exhaustion, brought on by the physical demands of the shoot. Matters were not helped, apparently, by the fact that the sweat glands in Lee’s armpits had been surgically removed a few months earlier, in order to cut down on his unsightly on-screen perspiration. 

Polly’s book is an outstanding feat of research and organisation, but it has a few stylistic glitches. There are odd moments when, instead of transcending the cartoonish tone of the old-style Bruce biographies, Polly comes perilously close to echoing their myth-making cadences. Recounting a streetfight Lee had in 1958, Polly narrates the action on a blow-by-blow basis, making you wonder how he can possibly be sure, after all these years, about who jabbed whose eyeball when. Similarly, he has a distracting habit of employing direct speech to narrate decades-old conversations whose word-for-word content can’t possibly be known to him. No doubt this technique is supposed to bring the reader into the scene; but it winds up having the opposite effect. 

But these are venial transgressions. On the whole Polly does a laudable job of evoking Lee’s short but rich life. A couple of linked themes wend their way through the book. The first is Lee’s lifelong refusal to take shit from anyone, anywhere, at any time. Chinese culture is rigidly hierarchical: the Confucian ethic demands that authority figures must be unquestioningly obeyed. Lee was hard-wired to resist all cultural edicts of this type; and his rebelliousness was vital to his achievement in several arts. Rejecting the authority of tradition, he didn’t just create one new martial art; he became the author, as Polly and others have argued, of the very concept of the “mixed martial arts.” 

A second key theme of Lee's life, by no means unrelated to that first one, is the theme of race. As a “mixed” man from birth, Lee became the object of bigotry from all angles. All his life, people kept wanting him to stay in his racial or cultural box, which raised the perennial question of which box, exactly, he was meant to stay in. 

In Hong Kong, he was almost thrown out of kung fu school for being insufficiently Chinese. In America, on the other hand, he was too Chinese for local comfort. He married a white woman during an era when racially mixed marriages, as Polly points out, were still illegal in 17 U.S. states. Lee’s Chinese family frowned on her; her American family frowned on him. 

A TV interviewer once asked Lee if he considered himself to be Chinese or American. “Do you know how I want to think of myself?” he replied. “As a human being.” Quoted out of context, this sounds trite. Appearing late in Polly’s book, it summarises a struggle that Lee fought gracefully for the whole of his short life, and won in a way that yielded global dividends. 

“If anyone still believes in racial differences,” Lee said elsewhere, “I think he is too backward and narrow.” This sentiment, too, is profounder than it may initially seem. Indeed, it has even more resonance today than it did when Lee first said it. In Lee’s time, the backward types were relatively easy to identify; and Lee must have thought it obvious that their views were becoming terminally unfashionable. The Chinese chauvinists and American racists who made his life difficult were mirror images of each other; they were reactionaries who didn’t pretend to be anything else. 

Today, though, the fetishization of difference, and the strict policing of cultural boundaries, is at least as popular among would-be progressives as it is among old-school bigots. Lee would have had a whole new class of ratbag to contend with, if he had tried to get his philosophies off the ground today. His whole approach was built around asserting his right to transcend skin-deep distinctions and forage freely among cultures and styles, borrowing anything he deemed personally useful. If Lee had been afraid to do these things, he would never have created new forms out of old ones. He would have been prevented from playing his small but important part in the evolution and enrichment of global culture.  

Like any good biographer, Matthew Polly dispels the illusion that his subject’s victories were somehow inevitable. Only in retrospect do they seem so. In truth, Lee's achievements happened only because he was ready to engage in a daily struggle against forces of resistance and bigotry that would in some ways be even sterner, if Lee were around today, trying to get similar things done. Then again, we can safely assume that Bruce Lee would have scoffed at today’s cultural commissars as defiantly as he scoffed at yesterday’s. Polly’s excellent biography tells the story of a radical who was not just ahead of his own time, but in many respects ahead of ours.