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February 12, 2015

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How kung fu shows cultural merging of East and West

Picture this memory: I am 9 and being driven to school in an army jeep in Saigon, Vietnam. The street is filled with weeping young men donning white headbands. On their shoulders sits an altar strewn with garlands. My jeep draws near. Bruce Lee’s handsome face stares out from the altar with determination and seriousness. Asia’s most famous son had died a few days earlier while making a film in Hong Kong. I, too, begin to cry.

Every schoolboy I know loves Bruce Lee, and I am no exception. At school, the older boys often say, “Little Dragon Lee shows the Americans and the French how to fight and what honor really is.”

Through Little Dragon Lee, we could imagine our own faces on the silver screen. Lee transcended race and national boundaries. In the schoolyard many of us, after having seen a Bruce Lee movie, would pretend to practice martial arts. We would fight each other under the shade of the tamarind trees and repeat certain lines learned from the film, and echo that famous Bruce Lee high-pitched growl to unnerve our opponents.

Lee single-handedly brought the heroic Asian male image, long suffering from invisibility, onto the world stage, restoring Asian pride. How could I not weep at his passing?

It’s been over four decades since then. I am an American now and so much has changed since Bruce Lee first flew like an avenging god across the silver screen with his awe-inspiring kicks. For one thing he has single-handedly changed world cinema, and the way the West looks at its own body.

Agility versus brawn

Lee, who would have turned 74 had he still lived, not only introduced martial arts to the West but also redefined cinematic action itself. Gone was the old idea that bigger is better. Swiftness and a precise kick can topple mass. Agility proves superior to brawn. The body in martial arts motion is pure art, a kind of acrobatic dance, endowed with a lethal elegance and grace that had not, up until Bruce Lee, been imagined cinematically.

His swift kicks and furious punches and energized grunts made a major dent in the American imagination. Think about it: John Wayne, seen as a typical American brawny male, never lifted his leg for anything but to try to ride a horse. But after Bruce Lee, everybody, to paraphrase Carl Douglas, is kung fu fighting.

Picture this kung fu moment: Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi are dueling it out with mind-boggling martial arts skills from one ancient rooftop to another, a steady drumbeat egging them on. Fists and kicks fly, elbows and knees clash, there are back flips and somersaults, and the excited audience at the Sony Metreon Cineplex murmur their collective approval. When that awesome scene is over, they erupt in clamorous cheers. It’s Ang Lee’s film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” an American production, filmed entirely in Mandarin but shown in thousands of major theaters across the United States — a first.

Lee has rendered sophisticated and elegant an old genre, lifting it above its often “chopsocky,” low-budget status to the level of poetry. I must confess, watching the audience’s enthusiastic reaction I am of two minds. It is like seeing my own childhood fantasies emerge finally from my parents’ dusty garage to spill irrevocably onto the public sphere.

I feel immensely proud and excited, but there is also this nagging feeling lurking right underneath, something akin to mourning. In an era when America increasingly relies on the Far East for entertainment and inspiration, my private world, it seems, is private no longer; Asia exudes her mysticism and America is falling slowly under her spell.

Kung fu fighting, once exotic, has become the norm. At the beginning, learning martial arts was the foreground, the underlying plot. Remember David Carradine in the TV series “Kung Fu” in the early 1970s? As Kwai Chang Caine, he learned martial arts in China and then went on to search for his father in America. But these days kung fu fighting is so common that it serves as the background to various movies, television shows, video games, and ads.

Turn on the TV and you’ll see ads like the one for, where a young woman raises her foot menacingly near a man’s head while calmly talking to him. There are children’s afternoon shows like “Power Rangers,” cult reruns of “Xena: Warrior Princess” (who can indeed paralyze someone with a touch of her finger!), the ABC hit series “Alias,” and so on. Charlie’s new Angels all know martial arts. The new Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, simply employ their fighting skills to beat each other up as their marriage goes awry.

The other day in San Francisco’s Chinatown I ate dim sum with a few Chinese friends and we were astounded: Outside in the alley were black and white American martial arts practitioners doing their movements. And the Chinese were the ones with their iPhones taking their pictures. The world has changed radically where East becomes West and vice versa. One only needs to attend kung fu competitions in the US to be convinced: blacks and whites and Latinos compete in larger numbers than Asians.

A refugee to California, I once resigned myself to the idea that incense smoke, gongs, and Confucian dramas were simply an Asian immigrant’s preoccupation, a private affair of sorts. But I’ve since changed my mind.

Language is my weapon

Picture this, my new kung fu moment: I am at my writing desk, typing in the early morning, my oolong tea beside me. But I’m not fully there. I’m in a land where cultures intersect and traditions crisscross, between swords flashing on ancient, lichen-covered temple rooftops and cars zooming down double-tiered freeways.

Like the heroes of old, I carry on my skills, walking a path with determination to tell my stories. Language is my weapon, invention my martial art. I seek to marry the New World to the Old Continent, fantasies to memories, and, like Bruce Lee, re-imagine the hemispheres as one.

Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media. His latest book is “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a short story collection published in 2013 and winner of a Pen/Josephine Miles Literary Award in 2014.


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