IN the southern Chinese city of Shunde, a two-hour boat ride from Hong Kong, government officials are finalizing plans to build a Bruce Lee theme park, complete with a memorial hall and a large statue of the man they call the town’s favorite “son.”
Never mind that the legendary Chinese American kung fu star was born in San Francisco and visited Shunde only briefly, when he was a boy of 5. Shunde is the hometown of Lee’s father and grandfather, and that was enough for local resident Wang Dechao to prod the government to plow $125,000 into opening a Bruce Lee museum in an old teashop in Shunde in 2002.
Since then, more than 300,000 people, some paying $1 for admission, have come to see its collection of Bruce Lee’s rare letters, film posters and other memorabilia. Wang, who now works for Shunde’s cultural and sports authority, hopes to move the museum to the new theme park, which he says is projected to cost $19 million and open before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
CCTV, China’s national network, has plans to produce a 40-part documentary about Bruce Lee. Meanwhile, Bruce Lee’s brother, Robert, is planning a movie about him, as is one of Lee’s former students. They all have their sights set on completing the works by the Beijing Olympics.
“I believe we will see another round of Bruce Lee fever,” Wang said.
Although he has been dead 33 years, Bruce Lee remains an enduringly powerful cultural figure. What if, people often ask, he hadn’t died at age 32, barely a month before the release of his blockbuster film “Enter the Dragon”? Most believe that film would have catapulted him into the ranks of Hollywood’s superstars. But what then?
It’s a question that his widow, Linda Cadwell, 61, often asks herself. “I think about it a lot -- what he missed,” Cadwell said in a recent interview. “Professionally, I’m sure he probably would have stayed in the film industry and the performing industry, but maybe not always as an actor, because he loved to write.” Then, pausing, she added that this year, “He would be 66.”
When he died July 20, 1973, in Hong Kong, Lee left no will and was not a wealthy man. In those days, there weren’t the movie-based action figures and video and computer games that line store shelves today. The estates of dead celebrities hadn’t yet amassed the staggering licensing fees that they do today, when, say, Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe can generate millions annually. “In the early years, there really weren’t things to license,” Cadwell said. “There were key chains or a puppet doll that looked like Bruce,” but little else.
Now, though, Bruce Lee would seem to be a natural as a brand name advertisers and vendors could use to sell products. Mark Roesler, chairman and chief executive of CMG Worldwide, the business agent for the heirs of more than 300 dead celebrities, estimates that Bruce Lee could generate yearly licensing fees in the seven-figure range.
Although Roesler doesn’t represent Lee’s estate, he sees the martial arts star’s earning prospects as good. “He is an icon that is known throughout the world, and when you have someone like a Bruce Lee or a James Dean, someone who has a very strong name recognition, their myth and their legend seems to grow over the years and they can maintain a very consistent revenue source.”
Indeed, although he achieved stardom three decades ago, Lee’s fame has hardly dimmed. He is still regarded as one of the most influential martial artists of the 20th century, a precursor to kung fu stars such as Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chuck Norris. In his teens, he had formal martial arts training in Wing Chun kung fu under a master teacher in Hong Kong. Lee’s style was known as Jeet Kune Do (Way of the Intercepting Fist). He was famous for a combat technique called the “one-inch punch.”
But it was not only his skill at martial arts that won fans, Cadwell said, it was his philosophy and way of life.
Known far and wide
AROUND the world, his likeness has taken on a symbolic life of its own, even in places as far-flung as Mostar, Bosnia, where a life-size statue of Lee posed in a defensive fighting posture stands. The bronze statue, erected last year, serves as a symbol of healing ethnic tensions in a land that in the 1990s was racked by civil war among Muslims, Serbs and Croats.
“Because of the fighting that had gone on there, a lot of the monuments had been destroyed,” said Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, 37. “They wanted to put them back but there was a lot of disagreement about what representative ... they should put up. Apparently, they could all agree on a statue of Bruce Lee. And the reason they chose him is not because he’s a martial arts star, but he represents somebody who had a lot of ethnic struggle in his lifetime and overcame it. So, to them, he is a unifying force and representative of somebody who overcame that.”
That kind of enduring resonance is why Cadwell and Shannon Lee are taking steps to ensure his reputation stays intact. That means no licensing of tobacco products, alcohol or weapons bearing his image. “There’s a place for weapons” in martial arts training, Cadwell said, “but not these ninja stars.”
“Basically, what we try to do is run the business with my father’s legacy always in mind,” said Shannon Lee, who is managing partner of Concord Moon, a Los Angeles-based limited partnership that owns all rights to Bruce Lee’s name, likeness, trademarks and works. There is a satellite office in Hong Kong and there will be one soon in Beijing, so that anyone wanting to capitalize on Bruce Lee’s name knows who to contact. Concord Moon’s current plans for Bruce Lee-related entertainment projects include an animated television series, a CGI movie, an animated feature film, a live-action TV series, and a Broadway musical being developed by David Henry Hwang, whose “M. Butterfly” won a Tony Award in 1988 for best play.
Shannon Lee confirmed that Concord Moon has authorized the CCTV project but has not given its approval for any theme park and has not authorized Robert Lee’s plans for a biopic. However, she noted that as Bruce Lee’s brother he is free to do what he wants and that the family is not squabbling.
Li Cheng, executive director of J.A. Media in Beijing, which is producing the movie, wouldn’t comment on whether Lee’s widow and daughter had been consulted or whether they had authorized the production, saying only that “we don’t want to film the story without his family’s permission. In other words, we are open to discussing legal issues as well as suggestions on the movie.”
However, Li also said that Bruce Lee’s oldest sister and other siblings were now interested in recording stories of his life. “Most audiences only know Bruce Lee as a celebrity and from the big screen. They don’t know how Bruce Lee changed from a kid in Hong Kong to a superstar in America ... how he started to love kung fu ... and dance the cha-cha.”
Li said plans were to start shooting next March or April. Locations will include Hong Kong and Seattle, as well as perhaps other cities in the U.S., Europe and mainland China. Li said the film would probably cost tens of millions of dollars to produce and be released before the 2008 Games. “We are looking all over the world for the best actor and director for this movie,” he said.
Bruce Lee, though familiar to most Chinese, never gained the widespread appeal or following in mainland China that he did in Hong Kong and the United States. One reason is that China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution during the height of Lee’s career in the early 1970s. What movies China showed in cinemas were Communist Party propaganda, and television sets were still relatively rare.
In later years, even after China opened up to the rest of the world, Bruce Lee didn’t play in movie houses there. From time to time Lee’s movies have aired on television, but not in prime time. And so, aside from in Shunde, he is not a big presence in China. His face isn’t plastered on billboards, his figurines aren’t in shops and pirated copies of his movies are sometimes hard to find in DVD stores.
That’s not to say he has few fans in China.
“I started to love Bruce Lee films when I first watched ‘Enter the Dragon’ in Yugoslavia in the late 1970s,” said Liu Jikang, chief representative of Sony Pictures Entertainment China in Beijing. “Even now I can still remember the last scene, where he was fighting in a hall of mirrors.”
Like other Chinese, Liu was proud of Lee and what he stood for. “Before his movies, few foreigners knew about the Chinese, but his films built up a very positive image of China,” said the Beijing native.
Still, Liu doesn’t think much of the idea that Bruce Lee’s name is being traded on in increasingly vigorous ways. He noted that other film stars have opened restaurants, for example. “They might work and be popular for a while,” Liu said, “but soon people lose their curiosity and the craving fades.”
The free-for-all in China
XU WEIMING, 30, an electronics factory clerk in Shanghai, loves kung-fu flicks. On a recent Friday afternoon, he and his girlfriend were in the historic Cathay Theatre in Shanghai, nibbling on popcorn while waiting for the start of “Dragon Tiger Gate,” the latest Hong Kong martial arts hit starring Donnie Yen.
When asked about Bruce Lee, Xu exclaimed, “He’s excellent!”
“I love the funny sounds he makes every time he fights,” Xu said. But the man scratched his head at the notion of a Bruce Lee theme park. “It would have to have something special besides his name for me to go,” he said.
That some Chinese with no relation to the star would try to capitalize on Bruce Lee’s name should hardly come as a surprise in a land where piracy and copycatting are an art form. Over the years Lee’s fans have endured scores of look-alikes and other imitators on film, with names like Bruce Li and Bruce Le.
At this point, in fact, the Lee family may have a hard time cashing in, at least in China. Even if his brand had the power to sell food or other goods, the Bruce Lee name, in English and Chinese, has already been registered, or bought for commercial use, by numerous people for all categories of products.
The Lees can forget about fast-food Bruce Lee restaurants. “Real Kung Fu” has beat them to it. Its chain includes 100 diners in Shanghai and elsewhere in China. Though Bruce Lee’s name doesn’t appear in the restaurants, their storefront sign shows an image of a man who looks unmistakably like Lee in a yellow training suit, arms raised in one of his trademark fighting positions.
“They are coming too late,” Wang said of Lee’s family.
For their part, Cadwell and Shannon Lee are alarmed at the business ventures that are springing up in China without their authorization.
“One of the reasons we are interested in setting up an office [in Beijing] is so that people know how to contact us because we are on the other side of the world,” Shannon Lee said. “I think that with the Beijing Olympics in 2008 ... people are interested in using his image over there, but either they have not made the best efforts to contact us or they don’t know how and have just gone about doing things.”
In America, meanwhile, Bruce Lee’s image continues to embed itself in the cultural imagination.
David Henry Hwang said he began thinking of doing a musical combining a famous Chinese epic called “Journey to the West” -- in which one of the principal characters is a god called the Monkey King, a sort of trickster character -- with that of Lee’s journey to the West.
“To some extent, I’m marrying Bruce Lee’s biographical story onto the mythical framework of ‘Journey to the West,’ ” Hwang said in a recent phone interview. Hwang hopes the musical can be completed in time for the 2008 season.
Hwang believes that Lee played a major role in changing the perception of China and Chinese in the West. By the mid-20th century, he noted, China was often looked upon as a “sick man,” a country that had once been truly great, but now was seen as broken beyond repair.
“When I was a kid, that was not only the view of China, but also of Chinese America,” Hwang said. “In this country, we were cooks, waiters and laundrymen. That, in the course of my lifetime, has changed 180 degrees. Now we are perceived as having too much money, being too educated and we raise the curve in math class.”
Bruce Lee helped usher this new era into existence, Hwang said. “For the first time in the 20th century, a Chinese man was seen as a hero, as someone who was noble, as someone who fought for justice and all the things we associate with heroism. That was completely different for Chinese at the time he came along.”
Welkos reported from Los Angeles and Lee reported from Beijing. Cao Jun in The Times’ Shanghai bureau contributed to this report.