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No one has done more for the global growth of martial arts (MA) and MA cinema than Bruce Lee. He was a hero to moviegoers regardless of race, color, creed, gender and religion. Though many Chinese MA evolved by combining different methods (choy li fut was created in 1836 by combining three styles, the fut part dating back to 1674), Bruce Lee was the first martial artist to mainstream the concept of cross training by combining attributes of many MA into one. Yet to billions of Chinese, Lee’s movie, Fist of Fury (Fist; 1972; aka Chinese Connection) is the most powerful Martial Arts film made in history. Let me set it up.

Bruce Lee: Fist of Fury

bruce lee fist of fury
Photo Credit: Bruce Lee Estate

After the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), China was divided between European powers, America and Japan. From this time on, Japan played a large villainous role in Chinese history, the rift irreparable after the brutality Japanese forces inflicted upon the Chinese during World War II (WWII). One notorious incident was the 1937 Rape of Nanjing when Japanese troops slaughtered 300,000 Chinese men, women and kids, and raped 20,000 women and girls. In a 2010 documentary, three Nippon soldiers stationed in Nanjing admitted on camera that if a female was ugly, they’d put a bag over her head.

When Japan surrendered in 1945, Hong Kong and the Republic of China (now Taiwan) kept silent on these sensitive issues because Japan’s post-WWII economy was US-supported and they feared an economic backlash if they spoke up.

bruce lee fist of fury
SuppeRioRTM YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIHRekftV5o

It took Lee’s clout to overcome Hong Kong’s fear of producing anti-Japanese films. Lee’s fights against the Japanese smashed that barrier of silence, making sure no one forgot what it meant to be Chinese and a Chinese martial artist. He gave the Chinese a new sense of national identity and returned a dignified pride to their MA heritage, something destroyed during the Boxer Rebellion (1899) and missing since WWII.

No wonder Chinese crowds cried and gave standing ovations after the film. When I saw Fist of Fury in 1979 Taiwan, the normally quite Chinese audience cheered when Bruce Lee clobbered the Japanese.

Fist of Fury: Chen Zhen

bruce lee fist of fury
Photo Credit: Bruce Lee Estate

Set during the 1910 Japan occupation of Shanghai, Fist of Fury focuses on real life Chinese hero Huo Yuen-jia‘s fictitious student Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee; character based on Huo’s student, Liu Zhen-sheng) who’s seeking to avenge Huo’s death.

After Chen endures ridicule from Japanese emissaries that present Huo’s Ching Wu school with an insulting Sick Men of Asia banner, one of Martial Arts film’s importantly choreographed fight scenes quickly follows.

bruce lee fist of fury
SuppeRioRTM YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIHRekftV5o

When Chen is surrounded by judo/karate fighters, he kicks eight people in one unedited, wide angle shot. It had never been done before. Audiences applauded when Lee pulled it off. It’s also the fight where Bruce Lee introduce a nunchaku, a weapon that quick-lee swept up the imaginations of film fans and budding martial artists worldwide.

The scene also includes several insults to Japanese MA: hakama-wearing attackers wore them backwards (hakamas being traditional wear used by certain Japanese MA stylists); samurai swords on weapon racks had the blades facing up, signifying in many sword styles as one losing their knowledge; and the defining shot of a smug Lee proudly and defiantly posing in front of a portrait of Gichin Funakoshi, father of Japanese karate.

 “No Dogs or Chinese Allowed”

bruce lee fist of fury
Photo Credit: Bruce Lee Estate

In reality, since Huo Yuanjia died in 1910 and karate was introduced into Japan in 1921 by Gichin Funakoshi, it’s not possible that a karate school would be present in 1910 Shanghai, certainly no Martial Arts school of any kind that would feature Funakoshi’s picture. Furthermore, Huo’s kung fu style mi zong yi, arose by combining mi zong chuen and luo han chuen. Eagle claw, hsing-I, wu jian chuen and 7-star praying mantis were later added to the Ching Wu training regimen. There’s no way Chen could’ve fought the way he did in Fist of Fury.

One of Fist’s other landmark scenes is when Chen does a flying kick to splinter the wooden sign in front of Shanghai’s Huangpu Park that read, “No Dogs or Chinese Allowed.” To this day, based on Fist of Fury, many believe the sign really existed. It didn’t.

bruce lee fist of fury

In the 1860s, due to extraterritoriality and cruel Chinese laws, the Chinese Government created The Bund, an international section within Shanghai, where anyone living inside the area were immune to China’s harsh laws. Chinese criminals quickly moved in as did  other Chinese. Since the European contingencies built the park for Europeans and pet owners let their dogs crap everywhere, between 1868-1925 a list of municipal bans was posted in Chinese outside the park. Two rules were no dogs allowed and Europeans only.

In 2005, Chinese American journalist Lynn Pan, while researching Shanghai history in the basement of the Shanghai museum, she came across a cache of stick-mounted wooden No Dogs or Chinese Allowed signs that had been manufactured by Communist Party Authorities. They were paraded in front of visiting foreign delegations.

Bruce Lee in Hollywood

bruce lee fist of fury
Photo Credit: Bruce Lee Estate

The irony about Lee’s stardom in the West was that it defied logic. It came at time in 1972 when the US was fighting in Vietnam and anti-Asian sentiment hadn’t been as high  since WWII. Usually during wartime, Hollywood made films about heroic US soldiers fighting overseas…not during the Vietnam war. Additionally, back in those days, to most Americans, someone who kicked during a fight was considered a sissy.

Yet regardless of being Asian and using kicks during fights, Lee made his mark in Hollywood. His dynamic facial contortions, rapid-fire punches, greased lightening kicks and high-pitched phoenix screeches clearly resonated with everyone. Back then, millions exited theaters aping Lee’s movements and screams. In all my 40+ years of seeing Martial Arts movies in theaters, no one has come out of a theater trying to mimic any other star.

bruce lee fist of fury
Photo Credit: Bruce Lee Estate

Over the years, I’ve interviewed scores of famous Chinese MA film directors, actors and fight choreographers and always ask what are their feelings toward Bruce Lee. Most said, “He gave our country an identity.” The same question to Asian American MA actors and filmmakers rendered the reply, “Lee made me proud to be Asian.” Powerful words. It says a lot about the influence of Lee on Chinese society, Asian Americans and at the very least on the Chinese and Asian American film communities.

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