October 15, 2003,
For web column topics I have an "Ideas" file that I dip into when I can't be bothered with the actual news a state of mind that I find comes upon me more and more often lately. A lot of these ideas have been suggested by kind readers. This is one such. None of the following words or expressions occurs in what follows: "Iraq," "Schwarzenegger," "WMD," "Hillary," "Wesley Clark," "Muslim," "Chirac," "Madonna," "Kim Jong Il," "CIA," "Kobe," "ICC," "gay bishop," or "omphaloskepsis." (Just kidding on the last it's a word I have always wanted to use, but which has never fitted in with any diction I have been writing in.) Everyone on board with this? Excellent.
A few months ago I mentioned on The Corner that I had once been in a movie with the late great martial-arts star Bruce Lee. The movie has one Chinese name, Meng Long Guo Jiang, and at least two English names. I have tried to untangle the issue of nomenclature here. You can also view relevant clips from the movie via that link.
Well, this tiny revelation generated a huge burst of e-mail, which still continues at a small but steady trickle today. A lot of readers think that having been in a movie with Bruce Lee makes me the coolest thing since Marlon Brando in The Wild One. (Old guy: "You're a rebel, huh? What, exactly, are you rebelling against?" Brando: "Whaddya got?") Several readers computed my Bacon number, which turns out to be 3. One got me established on the standard-reference movie database, where I am listed as an "(uncredited)...Thug." A lot of these readers follow up by asking me how this movie appearance came about, and what it was like to work with Bruce Lee. So here, for what it's worth, is my recollection of the event.
This all happened in the wanderjahre of my misspent youth in the summer of 1972, to be precise, when I had been living in Hong Kong for some months. I had got involved in a business venture that was sinking fast, and also with a woman who, I had recently learned to my chagrin, was no better than she ought to be. I had, in short, come to one of the bumpier stretches on life's road. Seriously broke and lying low, I was renting a room in a seedy guesthouse in downtown Kowloon. If I say "Chungking Mansions," old Kowloon hands will know exactly where we are here. I had struck up a friendship with another resident of that guesthouse, a Malaysian-Chinese guy whom I shall call Chang, whose circumstances were as straitened as my own. Chang actually had a decent job with one of the Hong Kong newspapers; his destitution was the result of an out-of-control gambling habit.
In the lounge of the guesthouse late one evening, in a brainstorming session over a dozen or so bottles of San Miguel beer, Chang and I identified the fundamental problem, the root cause of our wretched situations: Hong Kong was simply too backward, stuffy, small-minded, and constricting to contain intellectual and entrepreneurial genius on the scale possessed by such giants as ourselves. We agreed that, in order to accomplish the next phase of our progress towards Mastery of the Universe, we should strike out for fresh woods and pastures new. Chang, who had lived all over Southeast Asia, said that Bangkok was the place. The living was cheaper, he said, the business climate easier, the weather balmier, the girls better behaved. We could settle in quickly, too. He knew people in Bangkok who would give us excellent jobs for the asking.
Our confidence thus fired up, we went to the Thai consulate the next day and filled out forms. Visas took ten days, we were told. Pooling our resources, we bought plane tickets for a date two weeks ahead. That left us with two weeks to kill. Chang killed them in his own style at the mah-jong tables, mostly. I hung out in the guesthouse lounge, reading, playing solitaire, chatting with other residents, and watching TV.
Hong Kong TV in the early 1970s was nothing to get excited about. There were only three channels, either two English and one Cantonese, or (more likely) vice versa I forget the details. I watched programs in both languages indiscriminately. I never did get very far with Cantonese, being linguistically incompetent, but I had picked up enough to follow what was happening. A lot of the stuff on the Chinese channel, or channels, was imported from the States, anyway. You have not savored the full subtlety of Bonanza until you've seen it dubbed into Cantonese. (Hoss: "Mou dung! Ying-dak ngo ma?" Villain: "Mou da! Mou da!"... etc., etc.) The rest was historical costume dramas from Taiwan, cheesy contemporary soaps with lots of weeping, shouting, and boom-mike shadow, quiz shows of astounding difficulty, news programs, and Cantonese opera. The opera, I must say, was something I wish I had paid more attention to. The stories are very good, the librettos ingenious and often funny, and every one of the words is pronounced slowly and clearly, giving you a wonderful language lesson which is not at all the case with other styles of Chinese opera.
And there were variety shows. These were low-budget affairs, with a great deal of chatter to fill the airtime. The people doing the chattering were drawn from a pool of 20 or so personalities who had established themselves in the hearts of Hong Kong's Chinese population as funny, wise, or endearing in some way. Exactly which way was not always obvious to an observer from a different background. Cantonese culture is a lifetime study. It has that intimate, familial quality that comes from being a small language group nursing some serious territorial insecurities like Israel, I imagine, or Hungary. The only one of these people I can remember with any distinctness was a fat woman of 30 or so, who wore alarming substitute-teacher glasses with swept-up frames, and who was known to the entire Chinese population of Hong Kong as "Feifei," which is Cantonese for "Fatty." (The Cantonese are a direct-speaking sort of people. The fat lady's last name was Shum, but I have forgotten her true given name, if I ever knew it.) Feifei's real-life attempts to get, and keep, boyfriends were a staple of Hong Kong showbiz gossip.
Bruce Lee was a sort of visiting member of this intimate little TV family, dropping in unexpectedly from time to time. The U.S. TV show The Green Hornet, in which Bruce played the part of Hornet's valet, had only run for a single season in the U.S. (1966-7). It had been something of a breakthrough for Chinese racial pride, however, as Chinese actors had never been given decent roles in American films or TV up to that that time. The movie and TV detective Charlie Chan, for instance, had been played by, successively, a Swedish-American, a German-American, and an Anglo-Irish Bostonian. The Chinese people of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the overseas communities had been thrilled to see Bruce in The Green Hornet, and the show had gone through endless reruns on Hong Kong TV. When Bruce arrived in the colony in 1971, after some years' absence, he found himself famous.
He promptly made the first movie he ever starred in, a fist-flick called Tang Shan Da Xiong (with the usual confusing plethora of alternative English names), which opened to frenzied interest in Hong Kong and broke all box-office records for the colony. In its first run, which lasted only three weeks, it grossed $3.2m. At the time I am speaking of, mid-1972, Bruce's second movie, Jing Wu Men , was showing to packed movie theaters. (Here the English names get really confusing. Jing Wu Men was originally released with the English title Fist of Fury, though I think it ended up in the U.S. as The Chinese Connection. Tang Shan Da Xiong had already set sail in the English-speaking world with the title Fists [sic] of Fury. You can never get this stuff straight... which I why I am sticking with the original Chinese names.) Bruce was a megastar among the Chinese all over Southeast Asia. In Singapore, Jing Wu Men had to be withdrawn from theaters because of the traffic jams it caused.
You would never have known the extent of Bruce's fame from the style of his appearances on Hong Kong Cantonese TV. He would amble on to the set of one of those corny variety programs in the middle of one of their air-filling chat-fests, or into a comedy sketch that was already under way, and tease people, and crack jokes, and pretend to be lost, or drunk, or belligerent. He stole the show every time, of course he was a terrific natural performer, more fun to watch impromptu than most actors are after a week of rehearsals. (Bruce came from a showbiz family. His father was a Cantonese-opera singer. Bruce had made his first film appearance at age three months.) His charm, quick wit, good looks, and physical agility captured your attention at once, and held it for as long as he was on-screen...Which was never too long: he had an exquisite sense of how much of himself to give to his public.
There were a couple of occasions I had heard about I can't recall having caught them in my own TV watching when Bruce had been invited on TV martial-arts programs to discuss his own fighting style. In the most talked-about of these, he had been confronted by a traditionalist martial-arts master of one of the old Chinese schools, a fellow particularly proud of his defensive stance, who claimed that when he was in that stance, no one could push him over. He actually took up the infallible stance right there and challenged Bruce to push him over. Bruce walked across and hit him with a highly unorthodox sucker punch. The guy fell over. Said Bruce, helping the outraged master to his feet: "I don't push, I hit."
Bruce called his style of fighting "Jeet Kune Do" (Jiequan Dao in Mandarin) "the way of the blocking fist." It may as well be called "Bruce Lee Do," as it was a highly individual, very eclectic mix of styles that Bruce picked up at random from Chinese, Japanese, and Western sources (including boxing and ballroom dancing he was the 1958 Hong Kong Cha-Cha Champion) and adapted to his own physique and inclinations. Bruce's art was entirely physical. Though a martial-arts genius of the first order, he was no intellectual. His "philosophy" of fighting is a dull recycling of some commonplace clichés from Taoism and American self-help books. You can sign up with instructors to study Jeet Kune Do, and I see there is a ton of websites, but my private opinion is that, as someone said of Gaullism after Charles de Gaulle died, Jeet Kune Do without Bruce Lee is like jugged hare in redcurrant jelly, minus the jugged hare.
Well, that was the extent of my acquaintance with Bruce Lee in mid-1972. Then, one afternoon, while waiting for my Thai visa, I was sitting in the guesthouse lounge reading a book. In that peculiar way the mind has of retaining the most trivial things while misplacing your children's names, your wife's office-phone number, and which part of the supermarket lot you parked your car in, or perhaps just because of the coincidence of names, I remember the book: It was a collection of the short stories Bruce Jay Friedman had written for Playboy. Well, I was sitting there reading when a young Chinese guy came in. Seeing that I was the only person in the lounge, he addressed me. "Do you speak English?" I said I did. "Know any martial arts?" I said I had taken a few lessons. "Want to be in a movie?" I asked him if it paid. "Sure. Seventy bucks a day." (Hong Kong dollars, he meant around US$12 at that time.) I said I was game. "Good. Be outside the Miramar Hotel front entrance tomorrow morning, seven thirty."
There were half a dozen other ghost-heads (gwai-tau, the generic Cantonese term for a non-Chinese person) outside the Miramar. We must have looked an unsavory lot the casting director had obviously just trawled around the low-class guesthouses for unemployed foreigners of a sufficiently thuggish appearance. One was a dead ringer for Jimi Hendrix. Another was a full-blood Maori from New Zealand, a huge fellow an obvious rugby lock who made a meager living as a nightclub singer in the colony's low dives. A minibus arrived and drove us out to the New Territories that is, the countryside that stretches out back of urban Hong Kong 40 miles or so to the Chinese border. (Beyond which Mao Tse-tung's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was going through one of its nastier phases. Rafts of rotting corpses would occasionally float down the Pearl River past the colony.) Here there was a movie studio. We were led into a huge shed used for indoor sets, and spent the next two days filming fight scenes in that shed.
Bruce himself directed Meng Long Guo Jiang. He was on set all the time, setting up the fights, working out positions, talking to the lighting crews and the cameramen. There was, by the way, no sound crew. Chinese movies at that time were shot without sound. The sound was dubbed in later. When you watch a Bruce Lee movie, you are not hearing Lee's voice, though I think they might have inserted his qi-ai the intimidating yells, grunts, and howls he used when fighting into the soundtrack of Meng Long Guo Jiang. The qi-ai sounds like his, anyway. In fact the first dubbing was always into Mandarin, and the on-screen lip-syncing was to Mandarin words. Bruce, though fluent in English and Cantonese, could not speak Mandarin, so this was a constant vexation to him when filming, and probably the main reason he has very few speaking lines in his movies.
Bruce Lee's presence was as striking in person as on screen. I have never seen a man who gave such an impression of concentrated energy. If he got animated when talking to you, he would make little springy skipping movements with his feet, as if warming up for a fight. When nothing much was happening, he would drop down and do one-arm finger-thumb push-ups at one side of the set, or have someone hold up a board he could practice kicks on. Just as a skilful schoolteacher knows how to get the class's attention by speaking very softly, you were most aware of Bruce's presence, and he was most intimidating, on the rare occasions his body was dead still. In the relaxed state, he was in constant motion. Crouching tiger, indeed.
Movie fight scenes are a devil of a thing to get right. We did everything a dozen times, levels of frustration and discomfort rising each time. This was summer in the tropics, and if the place had any air conditioning, it wasn't adequate. There were huge electric fans everywhere, but they had to be switched off for filming, or the actors' hair would all be streaming out horizontally from their heads. Yet through the entire two days I was on the set, I never saw Bruce lose his temper, or display any negative emotion stronger than momentary mild annoyance. He was just as I had seen him on TV: smiling, cracking jokes, smoothing out difficulties and differences, coaching, teasing, encouraging, cajoling. I have a tall, lean physique, so he addressed me as "Slim."
"Hey, Slim, let's try that again and this time look mean. You hate me, remember? I'm a runty obnoxious little Chink, just stole your woman, trashed your car and pissed in your beer. Whaddya gonna do to me? Huh? Whaddya gonna do? Come on..." (He spoke perfect idiomatic American English the whole time.)
The fight scenes were all improvised out of his head. I can say this authoritatively, as I got a chance to read one of the scripts. The entire section I was involved in two days filming, though of course less than five minutes in the finished movie was encompassed by four Chinese characters in the script: Li da xi ren "Lee strikes the Westerners."
We had some visitors on the set those two days. Chuck Norris showed up, though goodness knows why, as his scenes, later in the movie, were filmed on location in Rome. Bruce's wife Linda also made an appearance at one point, with either one or both of the kids, I can't remember. (Brandon, whom Bruce described as "the only blond-haired, blue-eyed Chinaman in California," would have been five and a half at this point, Shannon just over two.) Other than us random gwai-tau hired as fist-fodder for Bruce, the other actors were all Chinese, as were all the set crews. The movie's female lead, Nora Miao, an accomplished Chinese actress with a sulky, icy kind of beauty she was the only person Bruce ever kissed on-screen spent most of her time in a lawn chair at one side of the set, being fussed over by a little bevy of Chinese grannies in old-style smocks and black pants. These chaperones kept everyone away; you couldn't get close enough to speak to Nora.
I did my two days on the set, got paid off, and left the colony a week later for Bangkok with Chang. Bangkok was a comprehensive disaster. The night before we left the actual night before we left Chang sat in on our landlord's all-night mah-jong game and lost his shirt. "Don't worry," he said, "Once we get to Bangkok we'll be all right. I know people there, it'll be fine." He was, of course, a complete fantasist, as all chronic gamblers are. The people he knew turned out to be not at all keen on knowing him, much less any hippie stranger he had dragged along with him. His spirit cracked, he talked me into paying his train fare back home to his family in Malaysia, and I was on my own in Bangkok, a city I had never been in before, where I knew absolutely no one, and of whose language I spoke not a word, with around twenty U.S. dollars to my name. That's another story, though.
Bruce died suddenly, probably from an allergic reaction to an unhappy combination of pain-killing drugs, a year later, on July 20, 1973. He was four months short of his 33rd birthday. His funeral in Hong Kong was attended by 25,000 people. The TV announcers were weeping so much they had to suspend their commentary. "White hair following black" that is, the older generation walking behind the coffin of the younger in a funeral procession is considered by the Chinese, and surely by the rest of us too, to be the most terrible of personal calamities.
A second ceremony was held in Seattle the following week. Bruce was buried there in Lake View Cemetery, where he still rests. At the funeral they played the Laura Nyro song "And When I Die":
And when I die, and when I'm gone,Two of the six pallbearers were Steve McQueen and James Coburn, both of whom had studied martial arts with Bruce, as had Lee Marvin, James Garner, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Roman Polanski.
If my very brief acquaintance with Bruce Lee is any fair grounds for judgment, he was a lively, witty, charming man who thoroughly enjoyed life, a gifted natural stage and screen performer, liked by everyone around him and dedicated to his art his martial art, I mean. It was a tragedy he died so young. The death of his son Brandon just 20 years later in an absurd movie-set accident made a double tragedy for the family, and inspired a great deal of silly speculation about witchcraft and curses. An elderly Cantonese lady of my acquaintance put it all down to the fact that one of the scenes in Tang Shan Da Xiong had been filmed on location in an actual graveyard. "The dead people weren't happy about that..."
Bruce Lee left four movies behind, plus 25 episodes of The Green Hornet, and a scattering of walk-on parts in TV shows and other people's movies. Martial-arts buffs still study his filmed fight scenes with intense interest. I made him a minor character in a novel. The rest is silence.