No. 41 Cumberland Road was once the home of the legendary Bruce Lee.
It was there that he built a gym and fine-tuned some of cinema’s the most memorable kung fu moves. It was there that he spent his final years as a martial arts superstar, husband and father of two. He called it their “crane’s nest.”
Thirty years after the kung fu idol died of a brain aneurysm at 32, his last abode still stands on Cumberland Road -- as a love motel. Clandestine couples pay by the hour at the Romance Hotel for one of the bedrooms inside the two-story villa that bears no resemblance to the residence of one of Hong Kong’s heroes.
The frontyard is now a parking lot. A blue and white tarp conceals the license plates of hotel guests. Everything that used to belong to Lee is gone, replaced by the barest essentials of a cheap thrill: mattresses, nightstands, televisions, whitewashed walls.
No public monument or permanent museum exists to honor Lee in the city where he made his fame and fortune. Yet from California, where he was born, to Seattle, where he was buried; from a southern Chinese province he visited as a kid to a Bosnian city he never saw; people continue to pay homage to the master. They honor him for single-handedly putting Hong Kong cinema on the map and bringing martial arts films into the mainstream.
To his fans in Hong Kong, the fate of Lee’s old house is not just an embarrassment; it’s evidence that their city doesn’t know how to make the most of its best cultural assets.
“The Hong Kong government is stupid,” said Wong Yiu-keung, president of the Hong Kong Bruce Lee Fan Club, which sponsored a 10-day exhibit marking the anniversary of Lee’s death on July 20, 1973.
“They are spending lots of money to build a Disneyland,” Wong said. “But in Japan and the United States, they all have Disneyland. Only Hong Kong has Bruce Lee. We have his old house and many locations from his movies.
“I don’t know why the government cannot get this point and do something to boost Hong Kong tourism. It’s not just Bruce Lee fans talking. It’s good business talking.”
The Hong Kong Film Archive once considered putting up a gallery of items about Lee on its rooftop. That proposal was scrapped for safety concerns by a now-defunct government agency.
This former British colony, now a special administrative region of China, has been hit by the double whammy of an economic meltdown and widespread criticism of the government. Half a million people marched in the streets this month demanding more democracy and economic revival.
In the scheme of things, the quest for a Bruce Lee memorial may seem like a low priority. But to the folks who came out this month to mark the anniversary of his death, “Little Dragon,” as he is known in Chinese, clearly has a place in their hearts.
“I’ve been watching him since I was a spoiled primary school kid,” said Cyril Koo, an insurance agent who left work to check out the anniversary exhibit of Lee film clips, action heroes and wall-to-wall posters. “The government should do something to develop the culture of Bruce Lee. Otherwise his spirit and philosophy may not continue.”
A representative at Hong Kong’s Home Affairs bureau said the government is open to suggestions from the private sector, but that buying up celebrities’ houses to create museums is out of the question. One possibility is to set aside a part of a proposed new cultural and entertainment complex to commemorate Lee. But that project won’t be complete until about 2009.
Meanwhile, neighboring cities with much less claim to the Lee legend have beaten Hong Kong to the punch.
Shunde, an industrial town in southern China’s Guangdong province, last year opened a Bruce Lee museum in the form of a teahouse filled with his paraphernalia. Shunde was the hometown of Lee’s father; the kung fu star was born in San Francisco and visited Shunde only once in his childhood.
In Mostar, a city in Bosnia-Herzegovina, residents reportedly plan to unveil a statue of Lee to honor the working-class hero that residents say represented the old days of the former Yugoslav federation before the ravages of war in the 1990s.
Stateside, a Bruce Lee convention kicked off in Burbank this month led by Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Caldwell, and daughter Shannon. In Seattle, where Lee went to college and got married, an exhibit will run through November.
But critics say Hong Kong, where Lee moved when he was 1 and returned later to launch his career, owes the most to its first international superstar.
“The Hong Kong government has done nothing at all for Bruce Lee,” said actor Stephen Au, who produced a roadshow this year showing Lee footage in buses around Hong Kong. “They do not understand the real Bruce Lee culture. They think of him as a mere action star. But he’s not just that. He’s also a philosopher and martial arts revolutionary.”
In the fast-paced Hong Kong society, where even escalators run faster than in most places, it is not difficult to understand why Lee’s fame might have faded.
“Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Stephen Chau, these are the people that resonate now,” said Stan Rosen, a Chinese film expert at USC. “It’s a very short shelf life for anybody.”
To many Hong Kong families, Lee represents an inevitable generation gap.
“I wasn’t even born yet when he was popular,” said Alex Ng, 24, who glanced vacantly around the exhibit room as his father, Eric Ng, 48, stood transfixed by a video of Lee’s last film, “Game of Death.” The elder Ng has seen it countless times. Yet he can’t seem to tear his eyes from the screen or resist offering up his best defense.
Even without a museum, he said, Hong Kong residents will still honor their idol: “Bruce Lee is always on their minds.”