Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on Plan A Magazine, a publication focused on Asian American issues and was written to promote the 2017 Asian American Man Study — which closes on midnight Sunday Dec 3rd!
The man in the middle of the maelstrom is small and slight, but as he whirls his legs enemies twice his size fall to the dirt. A horde of fifteen adversaries comes at him, but this David flexes his muscles and floods the group of Goliaths with a flurry of punches and kicks, leaving them squirming in agony around his feet.
I have watched this scene hundreds of times, and it never ceases to inspire me. Bruce Lee in the epic movie Enter the Dragon is something far greater than a demigod action hero stomping out lesser mortals: he is a scrawny, short man from Hong Kong, acting as though he believed himself a giant.
This is how tech entrepreneur Bilal Mahmood opened his application essay to Stanford University, going on to describe how Lee’s courage and ferocity influenced his own journey in martial arts.
It is difficult to overstate the impact Bruce Lee had martial arts, action films, and the portrayal of Asian Americans, and in particular, Asian American men. But despite being Hong Kong’s leading action movie star, his death at 32 was given little fanfare.
When covering Bruce Lee’s death in 1973, the New York Times described him as simply “the Chinese actor who made a career of karate, kung-fu and other martial arts on screen”. His obituary was only eight sentences long and didn’t even mention Enter the Dragon, the film he is perhaps most famous for, as it would not hit theaters for another five days¹.
Bruce would be turning 77 if he were still alive today. And in many ways, his presence is still alive in media and popular culture:
- A popular graphic t-shirt known as “Gong-fu Scratch” featuring a shirtless Lee in-front of a DJ table has been seen on Justin Bieber, Will Smith, and even Tony Stark in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.
- The fighting game Tekken — which has featured from its inception a character widely acknowledged to be a homage of Bruce Lee — has sold well over 45 million units and released its ninth installment in 2017.
- The Bruce Lee Podcast, co-hosted by his daughter Shannon Lee, has published over 70 episodes in less than two years and has more than 400 reviews on iTunes.
But Lee’s celebrity status hides an unpleasant truth about Asian Americans: that we’re seriously short on star power.
Since 2015, I have conducted an annual survey of American men of East, Southeast, and South Asian descent, exploring their experiences with dating, media representation, stereotypes, and discrimination. Our current survey explores how Asian men are treated in the classroom and workplace.
In last year’s study, we asked for write-in responses to this question:
“Who is the Asian-American man you most admire and why?”
Is it even a surprise that out 497 respondents, Bruce Lee’s name came up most often? What’s perhaps more interesting is the reasoning.
- “Bruce Lee because he was the first person I’ve seen to battle hardships in media, film, and martial arts to become a breakthrough Asian American that was not only featured as a main character but also considered a master both mentally and physically.”
- “Bruce Lee, fearless in the face of white America”
- “Bruce Lee: He left a legacy including a broadly useful philosophy while establishing one image of a strong Asian in this country with its preconceptions.”
- “Bruce Lee cuz he kicked everyone’s ass and got mad respect for it.”
- “Bruce Lee, if only because there isn’t much anyone else famous to talk about.”
44 years after his death, Lee is not just an inspirational figure for Asian American men, but their number one guy².
On one hand, this makes total sense. After all, Time named Bruce Lee one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. But on the other hand, you can’t help but wonder: “Why hasn’t there been someone to surpass him?”
It’s true that Lee was exceptional. He is recognized for not only his martial arts skill, but his charisma, personality, and wisdom.
While Jackie Chan won over audiences with humor and Jet Li was the assassin who barely spoke, Bruce Lee had an intensity on screen and off that few could match. With his sharp wit and confidence, Lee didn’t just beat his enemies, he humiliated them, and got the girl too³.
And yet. Without taking anything away from Lee, you’d think that four decades after his passing, there would be other Asian American men who could carry his legacy forward.
As a thought experiment, consider The Doors lead singer Jim Morrison, or legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix. Both were incredible performers who had tremendously successful careers (even more so than Lee) before their untimely deaths at 27 in the early 1970’s.
And yet there is no way that white men would name Morrison or black men would name Hendrix the men they most admire. Each have a rightful place in history, but both have been succeeded by other musical and cultural icons — Bob Dylan, Bill Gates, Jay-Z, Barack Obama, to name just a few.
If Asian American men had to field a team of our recognized members, we’d have one superstar, and a cast of support players.
After Lee, the strongest contenders include comedian Aziz Ansari, who has won Emmys along with co-writer Alan Yang on Master of None, as well as John Cho, who plays helmsman Hikaru Sulu in the rebooted Star Trek series as well as one of the lovable stoners, along with Kal Penn, in the Harold and Kumar series.
On the bench, both literally and figuratively, we’ve got Brooklyn Nets point guard Jeremy Lin, who is out another season due to injury, as well as George Takei, the Sulu of the original Star Trek series who’s been accused of sexually assaulting a model in 1981.
We can do better. And we must.
Why does all this matter?
Because we all need exemplars. We need people who look like us to have done incredible things and remind us that we too are capable of such things.
At this year’s TEDWomen conference, creative director Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya gave an impassioned talk about about the importance of heroes. Phingbodhipakkiya is the creator of Beyond Curie, a series of illustrations which recognize the many women who have made important contributions in science and math, whose names are not Marie Curie.
Let me be clear: Marie Curie was an absolute bad ass lady. She was the first woman to get a Nobel Prize in a field of science and the only person man or woman to receive a second Nobel Prize in a separate field of science. But there are 17 other women who have also won a Nobel Prize in the sciences — and while that’s far too few, it’s a powerful reminder to women everywhere that the question is not “if” we can make an impact in science, but why the hell would we stop now?
Phingbodhipakkiya, who is also my fiancée, made the case that reclaiming your heritage is the key to a brighter future, and she’s right. Furthermore, I don’t want to suggest that this challenge of finding exemplars is limited to Asian American men. It’s clear that Asian American women face different, and perhaps greater challenges when it comes to publicly visible role models and celebrated figures who look like them.
Ultimately, Asian Americans are a young minority group. While some can trace their lineage through multiple generations in the United States, many of us, myself included, are here because our parents immigrated from another country to settle in America. We are still finding our roots.
In the summer 2016, The New York Times dove into its archive of 200,000 obituaries, looking to revisit some of those stories. One of these profiles was titled “A Fighter’s Fighter, Bruce Lee” which expanded on their anemic initial obituary and took a broader look at Lee’s legacy — becoming a part of kung-fu canon, inspiring generations of martial arts movie stars, video game characters, and even fashion outfits (Uma Thurman in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol 1).
In many ways, Bruce Lee was ahead of his time, and ahead of ours. But we cannot let him be the high water mark for Asian American men. Having put Lee in his rightful place in the pantheon of Asian Americans, we must find and become the heroes he deserves to have by his side.
 A great example of how Asian people are considered the perpetual foreigner: despite being born in San Francisco, marrying an American woman and holding United States citizen ship, the New York Times calls Bruce Lee “the Chinese actor”.
 Actually Lee was technically edged out by some variation of “no one” or “I don’t know” which is concerning for its own reason, including responses like: “Off the top of my head, I can’t name a single Asian American man I admire most. I would have to think really hard about it, and don’t think any of my role models are Asian anyway.”
 Bruce’s sexual charisma is undeniable in a way that even later stars like Jet Li failed to reproduce. In Romeo Must Die (2000), despite setting Jet Li and Aaliyah up as members of warring families who fall in love, the final scene features a hug instead of a kiss, because apparently the kiss “did not test well”.