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The Bruce Lee Exhibit: We Are Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee Smiling

There is no more identifiable person or image associated with martial arts than Bruce Lee. However, he was more than a martial artist, and his legacy has stretched well beyond martial arts and entertainment. Bruce Lee has truly transcended all genres and mediums and become a world-renowned cultural icon. It is fitting that The Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA), located in San Francisco, California, the city where Lee was born, would have an exhibit that honors not just his accomplishments in entertainment, but his contribution to the Chinese American community and society as a whole. To learn more about the exhibit, I spoke with Justin Hoover, Executive Director, and Nathaniel Jue, Communications Manager, both of the CHSA.

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The Exhibit

The exhibit, titled: We Are Bruce Lee: Under the Sky, One Family, opened in April of 2022 and is “A full partnership between the Bruce Lee Foundation and the CHSA,” said Hoover. In addition to the partnership with the Bruce Lee Foundation, collectors and local artists contributed to the exhibit to make it an educational and entertaining experience that contains a message with a powerful punch. (Pun, absolutely, intended)

The exhibit consists of three sections of memorabilia, inspired art, and a multi-media mural. There are plenty of interesting things to see. Visitors looking for unique relics of the legendary icon will get to feast their eyes on incredible one-of-a-kind memorabilia items such as letters, rare photos, pieces from Lee’s days as Kato on The Green Hornet, and even some of Lee’s personal workout equipment (dumbbells and weight bench).

While the artifacts from Lee’s life and career are fascinating, the exhibit also contains an extraordinary mural called Be The Bridge, which is a joint creation from Macro Waves and Twin Walls Mural Company, both of the San Francisco Bay Area, and with musical contributions from musicians De’Ahna Turner and Mike Dinkins. The presentation is a work that weaves together animation, art, and a sonic program worthy of the legend of Bruce Lee.

There is plenty to see and plenty to do as well. Fighting the Oppressor is an exciting piece of the exhibit that allows visitors to engage in actual board-breaking. Different than merely displaying power or concentration, the purpose of breaking the board has a deeper meaning. Visitors can write whatever challenge or problem they want to conquer on a board, and then break the board, as Lee did when he broke the racist sign in Fist of Fury (1972, a.k.a. Chinese Connection) “He broke through a lot, and he broke through that sign,” Hoover declared. It has been a popular part of the exhibit, as Hoover stated, “People love it!”

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The Message

While it is tempting to focus solely on the entertainment provided by Bruce Lee’s legacy, it is important to note that he was a pioneer in his field. There was no template for Bruce Lee to follow, he had to create it. Bruce Lee didn’t have posters of a Bruce Lee on his bedroom walls like so many that came after him. He was not able to point to another Chinese martial artist-action movie star and say, “I’ll be like him.” He was building the boat as he sailed. He was the prototype.

Unfortunately, as if striving to become successful in entertainment wasn’t hard enough, Lee battled racial injustice that was not as easily defeated as the villains in his movies. In the decades since his passing, some things have not changed. Even more distressing are some recent news stories of violent racism that would seem to point to an alarming decay of the progress once made. Perhaps that is why so many people identify with Bruce Lee? From the comfort of our living rooms or the enveloping darkness of the movie theater, we all become Bruce Lee. We see ourselves fighting the endless waves of attackers, streaming toward us from everywhere. We use everything we have from shiny nunchucks to our bare hands to cut through the chaos. Eventually, and inevitably, we stand amidst a pile of fallen opponents, before we calmly walk out the door. Nathaniel Jue put it best, “There’s a little bit of Bruce Lee in all of us.”

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Bruce Lee has come to represent more than just the Chinese and Asian communities though and that is why the exhibit is important. There is no doubt that the exhibit will entertain, but it will, hopefully, also shine a light on a more powerful message of Bruce Lee’s legacy, as Hoover describes, “We wanted to create an exhibition featuring Bruce Lee that allows other marginalized people to see their struggles expressed in his challenges and accomplishments. We want to be a museum where diverse Americans can understand their plight through the lens of the struggles of the Chinese in America. In this way, we are not a museum of the Chinese for the Chinese, but rather we are a museum for all those who want to know more about social justice, civil rights, and community empowerment.”

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