The pilgrimages begin shortly after dawn, when members of the early-early crowd who use Chinatown's Central Plaza for jogging and cycling tap the rising sun to snap selfies next to an icon as famous for discipline as he was for kicking cinematic butt.
Sweaty and disheveled, the revelers take a few seconds to stare at a statue of Bruce Lee that stands more than 7 feet tall and weighs an estimated 1,595 pounds. Rendered in bronze, the late star of films including Enter the Dragon and The Big Boss (aka Fists of Fury) appears ready for battle. His muscles ripple. His pants wrinkle as though he is in action. One hand clutches nunchaku. The other is posed with the palm facing outward.
At the intersection of two pedestrian walkways, poised between the Grand Star Jazz Club and the building that once housed punk-music joint Madame Wong's, Lee's likeness is more god than celebrity.
In June 2013, the sole Bruce Lee statue in North America was unveiled in Los Angeles. This might seem to be an odd city for the monument — Lee was born in San Francisco and buried in Seattle — but he did live in Los Angeles for a time. (Before his movies became a phenomenon, Lee played Kato in TV series The Green Hornet.)
In fact, Lee had a martial arts studio on College Street, a few blocks from Central Plaza.
L.A. Weekly previously reported that the bronze, similar to one in Hong Kong, would be up only temporarily, and that the intention was to return it to storage until Los Angeles Chinatown Corporation and the Bruce Lee Foundation could raise the funds to permanently install it. To date, it has remained in place, surrounded by a small barricade and a couple traffic cones.
While the caretakers have yet to raise enough money for the planned permanent installation, that might happen soon. Since 2015 marks the 75th anniversary of Lee's birth, the foundation's goal is to complete the project by year's end. In the meantime, this bronze Bruce Lee has become a mecca of sorts, and with Chinese New Year coming up, the new landmark will draw even more admirers.
For the Chinatown Corporation, a group comprising the descendants of the neighborhood's original developers, the biggest issue is keeping people from getting too close to this mammoth version of the screen icon. Larry Jung, president of the group, seems a little awestruck when he mentions the incidents where people try to climb on Bruce Lee, and the lines that form around the statue during neighborhood events.
“It's funny,” he says by phone. Perhaps it's a little unexpected, too. There are plenty of statues in L.A. It's all but impossible to imagine one with a line.
Because I live in Chinatown and DJ at the Grand Star, I've seen the throngs of people come to pay tribute to the film star by taking a selfie. From stroller-pushing parents to uniform-clad Cathedral High School students to late-night bar crawlers, everyone wants a shot with Bruce Lee. Even LAPD isn't immune to the statue's star power. Once, police officers hopped out of a squad car for the minute it took to pose like martial arts masters.
Nearly everyone tries to imitate Lee's stance, but sometimes the smallest day-trippers need a little coaxing. On a recent Saturday afternoon, a long-haired woman crouches as she points her camera toward a toddler. She tries to direct the little boy to pose like Lee, but he is content to do his own thing. “That's not what he's doing,” she says as the child bends at the waist and grins. “Say 'hi-yah.'?”
While adults are prone to exclaiming, “It's Bruce Lee!”, the kids often are oblivious. They're still a few years away from Saturday afternoon martial arts movie marathons. Their parents, though, really want those shots.
Los Angeles residents Veronica and Jose Duenas were raised on Bruce Lee films. Their kids weren't. Veronica points to her elementary school–age son and mentions that he asked her, “Who's Bruce Lee?”
Oftentimes, this 3-D rendition of Bruce Lee comes as a surprise to visitors. It's located on the Broadway side of the plaza, hidden from view of the well-traveled souvenir shoppers and diners. Dora and Ernie Gonzales were in Chinatown looking for shoes when they stumbled upon it.
A photo opportunity was a must. They're fans of the actor and had even visited Lee's grave on a trip to Seattle. The two have memories of watching his films on Kung Fu Theater, the program that aired endless martial arts films on Channel 9 in Los Angeles in the 1980s. “Even the fake Bruce Lees,” Ernie says, “I used to watch them.”
When Bruce Lee tragically died in 1973, he had reached the peak of his popularity. In the years that followed, a number of movies capitalized on that fame and often featured actors with similar names. However, Lee's influence extended beyond the imitators, inspiring blatant homages such as the Bride's yellow and black jumpsuit in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. Today's video games, featuring a succession of “boss battles” that increase in difficulty, mirror the structure of Lee's films.
Later on in the day, three 20-something guys from Santa Clarita ogle the statue. Dave Bund, 27, who studied martial arts for 15 years, says, “It depicts him perfectly.”
The friends banter back and forth about the films they remember seeing on cable as children, such as the posthumously released Game of Death, which featured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Way of the Dragon, which co-starred Chuck Norris. “They're the stuff of legend,” Bund's friend, Alex Shefton, says.
Bund remembers when his dad hipped him to The Big Boss. “He's as skinny as you,” Bund recalls his father saying. “You can stand up for yourself. Bruce Lee could do it.”
Bund touches on a possible reason for Lee's sustained popularity: He was the kind of action star that doesn't exist anymore. Lee's slim frame was quite the opposite of the hulking heroes that emerged in following decades. Those who lacked brawn could relate to him. Moreover, Lee didn't rely on heavy artillery to get through fight scenes.
His power was in his quick reflexes, keen observational skills and intelligence in fighting.
But even when his characters won their fights, the films didn't necessarily end in victory. Take The Big Boss. When Lee's character, Cheng Chao-On, beats the film's primary nemesis, the event isn't followed by a parade or an onslaught of praise. His character is arrested.
Even when violence is used to take out one of the “bad guys,” the Bruce Lee message was that there are consequences. In today's action-packed movie world, Lee's films stand in stark contrast to the mess of explosions and cheers for good guys who kill that we see virtually every weekend.
Bruce Lee's daughter, Shannon, will be in Chinatown for the 37th annual Firecracker 5/10K on Feb. 28, In a statement to the Weekly, she says that she often receives photos from friends visiting the statue.
“It's really a dream realized, to have been able to help place the first statue of my father in the U.S., and L.A. Chinatown's Central Plaza is the perfect place.” she writes. “It does my heart good to see so many people enjoying the statue and celebrating my father's legacy!”
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