I don’t have a dream — and certainly not about children one day living in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. (That would destroy the fairness cream industry.)
But I do have network TV. Last week, thanks to some quality time with my television set, I remembered how one single American changed the course of history.
Before the summer of 1973, the popular perception of China was that it was a place where everyone muttered lines from a little red book, came back from the fields to chug on an opium pipe, were lazy or robotic or both, and had terrible teeth. The Chinese, unlike, say, the Japanese with their catalogue of kamikazes, hara-kiris and Samurais, didn’t even have a ‘villainous cool quotient’. To quote Hergé before he met the young Chinese sculptor Zhang Chongren in Brussels and went on to produce my favourite Tintin adventure, The Blue Lotus, China in the popular Western imagination was inhabited by “a vague, slit-eyed people who were very cruel, and would eat swallows nests, wear pigtails and throw children into rivers”.
Growing up in the 70s, ‘Chinese’ for me was cheap, loseable and leaky Wing Sung fountain pens, a genre of eating-out food for special occasions, and one significant cause behind why Calcutta smelt so bad (tanneries in the city’s Chinatown in Tangra). That those guys had walloped us in a war not too long back had never really registered for my generation.
Then, sometime in 1978 — who knows, maybe on December 18, the very day Deng Xiaoping was addressing the Third Plenum of the 11th Chinese Communist Party Congress and stating that “a liberation of thoughts” was required and that the party and China needed to “seek truth from facts”, thereby officially junking Mao’s Cultural Revolution — I had my moment of truth. I saw Enter the Dragon for the first time.
Last week, watching the film on TV for what should be the 26th time, I was again blown away by the sheer Jedi force of Bruce Lee.
Five years before I encountered that wiry physique, that death-delivering monkey shriek and gnawing monk-like glare for the first time, America had already been floored by this Chinese-American ‘scrawny man’. After making a name in the American Karate circuit, Lee had got the small role of Kato, the valet-cum-sidekick of the hokey comic book hero, the Green Hornet, in the mid-60s TV series. He went on to star in Hong Kong kung fu productions that made him hugely popular there. Characteristically, in mainland China, these movies — The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon — were banned by Mao for depicting “spiritual pollution and rightist sentimentality”. Rather ironic, considering that Lee was an atheist and actually portrayed Chinese national and racial pride.
But it was his first Hollywood film, Enter the Dragon, in 1973, that turned him into a poster to be put up next to those of Led Zeppelin and Muhammad Ali. (I put my Bruce Lee poster, in a searing pose with ribbons of blood scratched on to his midriff, next to a non-negotiable framed picture of my grandma’s favourite eye-candy, Swami Vivekananda.) More than the Nixon-Mao meet in 1972, more than the silly Nehruvian nonsense of ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’ before that, Lee Jun Fan a.k.a. Bruce Lee made the world sit up and recognise something modern and cool about the Chinese.
Why else do you think China, chugging with economic might and chutzpah, asked for some ‘soft power’ help from Lee in the form of starting a 50-part bio-pic on Chinese prime-time TV last month? A Bruce Lee theme park, currently under construction at the icon’s ancestral home of Shunde near Hong Kong, can only help.
Unlike California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lee was an American citizen by birth. If he had not died under very mysterious circumstances 35 years ago — who knows? — he could have become America’s first yellow president. And what a message that would have sent out to the world 157 years after the first batch of 195 Chinese contract labourers landed in Hawaii.