Bruce Lee was a man who turned setbacks into milestones. In 1964, the soon-to-be movie icon was challenged to a fight by a kung fu expert unhappy that he was teaching marital arts to non-Chinese students in California. Lee won the bout in three minutes. Despite this resounding victory, he was perturbed by the reason for the encounter, and the increasing restrictions being placed on a martial art he had been honing to perfection. He had a miniature gravestone made a year later inscribed with the words: “In memory of a once fluid man crammed and distorted by the classical mess.” That sardonic monument is now on display at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, where the largest exhibition ever staged on the martial artist, movie star and cha-cha champion — yes, really — opened last week to commemorate 40 years since his untimely death. Yet while his films and wisdom continue to be lauded across the globe, many remain puzzled as to why Hong Kong has taken so long to properly honor one of its most famous sons.
Lee was born in San Francisco but his family moved back to the then British colony when he was still a toddler. He grew up learning wing chun (a close-range form of kung fu) and was, by all accounts, a rowdy teenager who often got into scrapes. One day, police officers visited Lee’s family and vowed that the next fracas would see the young troublemaker arrested. Lee’s father, a venerable Cantonese opera singer, decided to send his unruly son to Seattle to keep him out of trouble. It was while studying philosophy at the University of Washington — he taught martial arts on the side — that Lee met his wife Linda Lee Cadwell. In 1964 and 1967, he appeared in the Long Beach International Karate Championships (a tournament that celebrates its 50th anniversary next year) and wowed crowds with his two-finger push-up and infamous one-inch punch — delivered over that minute distance with such ferocity that one volunteer later complained “the pain in my chest was unbearable.” This natural showmanship led to Lee’s break into Hollywood.
Cementing this next move would not be easy, however, and it was his struggles that make Lee still relevant today — four decades after his death at age 32 from a mysterious swelling to the brain. He was an iconoclast who artfully transcended barriers of race and culture, knocking down conventions that cultivated widespread disenchantment both in Hong Kong and North America. At the time, minorities in movies were still played by white actors caked in ridiculous makeup, à la Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). After making his screen debut as sidekick Kato in the action series The Green Hornet, Lee pitched a show about a Shaolin monk wandering across the American West. Warner Bros. accepted the pitch but didn’t think audiences were ready for an Asian lead, and instead cast David Carradine in what became the television hit series Kung Fu. This slight merely drove Lee on further.
Lee’s enduring bequest to popular culture really hits home in the new exhibition. Although fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage — Lee was actually Eurasian as his maternal grandfather was half-German — he taught martial arts to Japanese Americans and African Americans, two marginalized groups in the 1960s and ’70s. The famous scene in which Lee defeats 2.18-m African-American basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game of Death was captivating for impoverished minorities. “The fact that Bruce Lee was open to working with African Americans was inspiring and just helped young black kids in urban areas identify with him,” New York hip-hop pioneer Fred Brathwaite tells TIME. Brathwaite (a.k.a. Fab 5 Freddy) collaborated with Hong Kong artist MC Yan to create 12 graffiti-style paintings of Lee, which are currently displayed at the Furman Gallery in New York City.
But Lee’s influence went further than fostering an appreciation of unarmed combat. The fusion of fighting and dance was always central to his beliefs — as his triumph in the 1958 Hong Kong Cha-Cha Championship demonstrates — but this even extended to the concrete jungles of the U.S. “Bruce Lee was a clear inspiration on the development of break dancing,” explains Brathwaite, adding that break-dancing battles were inspired by martial arts’ sparring process. “That whole flamboyant new way of moving came from kung fu films.” Braithwaite recalls that a lot of the neighborhood boys would snap broom handles in half and make nunchaku out of them, with their amateurish twirling resulting in an epidemic of smashed windows.
Much of the paraphernalia during this period is featured in the current Hong Kong exhibition, which is slated to last for five years. A body-shaped punching bag and another that would sometimes be filled with rocks are on show, along with Lee’s nunchaku and the iconic yellow jumpsuit worn in Game of Death — Uma Thurman’s costume in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill was an homage — and a notebook where he meticulously recorded 82 cha-cha steps. Some of the most precious items on display are Lee’s conceptual choreography drawings for his last movie, Enter the Dragon. His daughter Shannon told those gathered for the opening ceremony on July 19 that this was the first time that family members had allowed so many personal items to go on display. Another highlight is a 3-D hologram animation of Lee swinging his nunchaku and kicking a heavy bag, giving the impression that he is training in front of you.
The question remains, however, of why it has taken almost half a century for Hong Kong to pay tribute to arguably its most famous cultural export. Lee was a nonconformist in a society where conservative values held ultimate sway. He was also not fully Chinese — he had to learn wing chun privately as a teenager as the other kids refused to be taught with a Eurasian — which likely emboldened his rebellious streak. But Hong Kong did not even erect a statue to Lee until 2005 — and then it was privately funded — by which time even Bosnia had built one. His former home in Kowloon Tong spent years as a dilapidated love hotel, and plans unveiled in 2010 to turn the building into a museum fell apart last year. “Bruce Lee can be Hong Kong’s cultural icon,” Chaplin Chang, production manager for The Way of the Dragon and assistant director for Enter the Dragon, tells TIME. “He was very knowledgeable and was able to weave Chinese and Western philosophy together.” The new exhibition comes as a welcome if belated attempt by Hong Kong to make up for the decades of neglect shown to the memory of its most famous son.