A Word on Bruce Lee and Asian Superheroes

I have to start off by saying I’m sorry. This is not what I planned to publish at all on the release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. I’ve been fixing up some fun tie-in pieces on Marvel’s latest, some deep-dives into lingering MCU plot threads and a couple spotlights on the film’s stars—which I’ll roll out shortly. (My Labor Day plans have been cancelled in light of everything going on so I’ve got nothing else to do this weekend 🙃) But all of my Shang-Chi inspired content are on hold at the moment because I saw something on Twitter that combusted my brain.

I won’t link to the tweets in question or post screenshots because I’ve learned the hard way that doing so will always be misinterpreted as an endorsement of those beliefs, regardless of intent. So I’ll provide a quick summary.

Shang-Chi star Simu Liu spoke about the potential impact that a role like Shang-Chi would have on the respective Asian community – a thing Liu is entitled to say not because he’s Asian, but because of how rare it is *still* to have an upfront Asian superhero lead in Hollywood. (The same industry that gave us Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi now rolling out the red carpet for Shang-Chi is PROGRESS.) Being on a platform as big as Marvel and Disney, Liu talked about the doors this could open, how this could pave the way for younger generations to envision themselves where he and so few others have stood in the industry.

That’s it. It’s not like he opened a studio where he cast every single Asian he could find and got them all roles to gloat in people’s faces. (Modal verbs, folks. Look into it.) He’s just talking about the opportunity. A mere hypothetical. And some people got mad. On came the butthurt cries of “get this woke SJW bullshit out of Marvel!” Followed by the slurs. And the slanted eyes shit-posting.

The entitlement doesn’t surprise me anymore because of a.) Star Wars and b.) non-white ethnicities will always be seen as an encroaching threat to those who believe in the absolute dominance of something deemed rightfully theirs. (Again, Star Wars.)

What surprised me this time was that the trolls cited an actual Asian superhero to justify their point: Bruce Lee. And then I saw the takes that had me spiraling all night long: “Bruce Lee never would’ve brought race into this.“Race never mattered to Bruce Lee.”

Oh. Oh hell no.

Y’all did not just—

They fucking did.

I know the Multiverse phase is underway in the MCU so forgive me for asking: are we in a reality where Bruce Lee was widely embraced by Hollywood? Like, where he faced zero push back whatsoever?

What were his first roles in the industry? And why did he return to China where he became an actual film star before Hollywood started paying attention? I—

I just.

Oh man.

I can’t with this shit sometimes.

*

There’s a mini-clip going around of an interview with Bruce Lee. The interviewer asks if Lee identifies as Chinese or American? Lee responds: “I’d like to think of myself as a human being.”

The trolls are co-opting the hell out of this, using it as a stone to throw at Simu Liu. They see Bruce Lee’s response as a key bullet point in their argument that there are no colors or barriers i.e. everybody is equal and that the path to success is a straight line so long as you work hard. (When I hear this, that uphill battle for inclusion becomes so steep that it’s practically a drop-off.)

Apparently, Bruce Lee is the right way to be Asian in Hollywood and serves as the hallmark of professionalism. Because he “didn’t see race” and he let his fists do the talking.

If you watched the documentary 30 For 30: Be Water, the biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, read any one biography of him, or hell, even read his damn Wikipedia page, you’ll know that his response in the interview is one of defeat. Shit, I’ll Venmo you the $4 to rent the Be Water doc if it’ll get some of you to pull your heads outta your ass.

Throughout Lee’s career in Hollywood, he could not embrace his own Chinese heritage. To make it as a lead actor, you had to be white; you had to be American, which Lee’s image did not embody. He was reduced to being a stuntman and sidekick, despite his early show of charisma long before he started whooping chumps by the dozens. He had talent, but Hollywood didn’t care. He was Asian. That could only get him so far.

All Bruce Lee wanted – more than creating his own discipline, or open a school to teach martial arts – was to be a movie star and moreover, to be accepted in America. He wrote and pitched ideas for films and TV shows but never got the credit for them. This is what a lot of people get wrong about him, especially those who hung posters of the man in their dorm. Hollywood said no to Bruce Lee.

Lee asserts his humanity in the interview because it’s the only way he could get anybody to accept him in the industry. Others see him shrugging off notions of race as emblematic of an all-around badass who silenced the naysayers. I see someone fighting the same fight his entire life, having to change his fight stance each time. I see someone who cannot proudly proclaim that he’s Asian. That’s the sadness of Lee’s story. Lee’s words – not just in the context of the documentary but of his career entirely – are NOT the spark of a revolution. Those are words of shame and defeat.

Despite what some dope on social media might say, race played a defining role in his life. People never let him forget through racial slurs or stereotypes that he’d never be more than a cook or a dishwasher. So OF COURSE he built his body to near superhuman levels of physicality, doing his own stunts, performing for the camera at all times, and boasting his own swagger and bravado. It was his only way in; it was the only way he’d get noticed. (Be Water shows clips of Lee’s earlier acting roles where he never threw so much as a punch, and you get the sense that he truly wanted to be an actor.)

People equate his ass-kicking chops as a mark of his professionalism as performer, but that was the only way he could get people to listen if his fists did the talking. Compared to his white co-stars who had top billing but never did half of their own stunts; they were paid double for less effort while Lee received crumbs in risking his neck. Once Lee approached super-stardom across the world, that was when Hollywood finally listened—not before. And by then it was too late.

When people say that Bruce Lee would never this, or never that, it’s rewriting Bruce Lee’s story as one of a model minority who did as he was told and never made waves. Lee would’ve KILLED for a watershed moment like Shang-Chi, where a major studio not only backs its star but also markets the hell out of him the same way they do their other big-name features. He was dreaming for an opportunity like Shang-Chi. Lee sadly passed before he could see his impact and influence. The creators of Shang-Chi purposefully molded the character out of Lee’s likeness as an ode to his fighting spirit. Marvel, too, tried to get Brandon Lee to star in an early incarnation of the project to cement that hard-won legacy.

So let’s do this again: do you really think being Asian-American never played a part in Bruce Lee’s career, that it never mattered to him—that he never wanted the same opportunities and success for his own children and others just like him?

Respectfully, I think it mattered a great deal.

*

This use and co-opting of Bruce Lee as the “right kind of Asian” struck a nerve for me. Because he wouldn’t be any different to you if he were born decades later, or if we were decades before. You’d say the same shit to The Dragon as you’re saying to Simu Liu on his socials right now. What blows my mind is that a movie and a character like Shang-Chi is how audiences are attuned to seeing Asians – as experts in combat, dabbling in mysticism, with dragons thrown in for good measure – so I don’t understand the whining. It’s tailored to how people package Asians in film anyway. I thought Crazy Rich Asians would have some of you claiming ownership of respective genres. I was wrong.

My final question: if you truly don’t think representation matters, then why does it bother you that it might matter to me, or to others?

You’re not obligated to watch Shang-Chi, so why are you pretending like you’re being forced to see it? YOU buy the tickets, not the other way around. Is it really a blight on the history of cinema or do you just want to rid certain people from the franchises and universes you stan? Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Spider-Man, Ant-Man, Dr. Strange, Deadpool, Superman, Batman and so many more are there for you if you really want to see it that way. So why can’t some of us have Shang-Chi?

There are predominantly more white protagonists in Hollywood than any other minority, and you still get mad. Hollywood would have to put out a Shang-Chi or a Crazy Rich Asians ensemble every year for the next 40 years to narrow the gap, and that’s *if* all other studios elect to shelve every project on their money-making slate, which they won’t. This won’t happen in my lifetime, not my daughter’s either, perhaps not ever.

But you know what, it’s a start—a start in a battle that’s already lost and still I’ll take it all the same. Some of us just want our kids to be inspired, man. I just want my daughter to believe in a world far bigger than her, one that reassures her that she belongs in it too, if only for those 2 hours in the theater. A chance.

And still, you get mad.

*

I’ve been trying to think about what these people want exactly. I can’t think of an end result other than erasing minorities from the media they consume and minority voices from a country deemed theirs because they still equate whiteness with the greater American identity. (You say you care about telling “good stories,” I ask why non-white leads are excluded from what you define as “good stories.”)

They know the threat that Shang-Chi poses to the local multiplex, that there will be more down the line. That’s why they don’t invoke Jackie Chan, Jet Li, or Donnie Yen, because they’re still alive, they’re not Asian-American, and thus they don’t represent the silencing they want. (Those videos of Asian-Americans getting attacked on the street btw never stopped, and I’m pretty sure they’ll escalate further.) It’s no wonder trolls resort to false equivalencies and comparisons—to using a real-life Asian superhero whom happens to be dead to silence all the rest. Dead Bruce Lee nails your point and that’s why you’ll keep invoking him, and that’s why I’m doomed to hear your white-washed narratives for erasure.

Where does this leave us? At split ends, I suppose. They know what kinds of stories they don’t want to see. I know what stories I want to see. Consider my lesson learned. (Never read the replies, ever.)

How about we make a deal? If you’re gonna invoke Bruce Lee’s name and legacy, don’t settle for a 10-second clip or a bite-sized anecdote that suits your agenda.

Tell the whole fucking story.

2 thoughts on “A Word on Bruce Lee and Asian Superheroes

  1. Gemma says:

    So many good points. I went down this rabbit hole of Twitter on this and ugh these people really don’t have any problem proving their own ignorance. (I need to stop doing that before bed. Rage does not lead to a good nights sleep!)

    I hope you and your daughter love the film! I won’t get to see it until next weekend but I’ve only heard good things and its apparently doing really well at the box office under tough times. So hopefully this is just the start for Shang-Chi!

    • adrianvstheworld says:

      I try not to either but I break my own rules sometimes 😅. Just blows my mind that every other actor can talk about doing this for the kids and it’s fine, but poc actors say the same thing respective to their communities in the minority and then it’s a problem??? (And to use Bruce Lee’s story to shoot down the sentiment… ooof.) After what happened to Kelly Marie Tran, I pray for Simu’s socials 😔

      Sadly I won’t get to see Shang-Chi til later this week too but I sure as hell can’t wait! Looking forward to your thoughts!

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