A Chinatown museum returns with an unprecedented and inspiring tribute to a trailblazing native son.
After a grueling two-year pandemic closure, San Francisco’s Chinese Historical Society of America has reopened in bold, blazing, fists-of-fury fashion.
Located in the nation’s oldest Chinatown, the CHSA Museum marked its return in late April with an exciting new exhibit spotlighting the martial arts virtuoso, legendary film and television star, and boundarybusting Asian American icon Bruce Lee.
We Are Bruce Lee: Under the Sky, One Family represents the first time in the museum’s 59-year history that it has centered a major show on the San Francisco native, who was born at Chinese Hospital, only a couple of blocks away, in 1940.
Lee rose to fame as the high-kicking Kato in television’s The Green Hornet (1966–67) and became an international film star who ushered in an unprecedented new era in martial arts cinema popularity. Along the way, he broke down Asian stereotypes and dared to teach Chinese martial arts to members of other ethnic groups, including Blacks and whites, a practice unheard of at the time. He was also a poet, prolific reader and deep thinker who studied philosophy at the University of Washington. His many facets are illuminated through the more than 160 items on display at the CHSA Museum.
Although it’s been 49 years since Lee’s death at the age of 32 — a month before Enter the Dragon’s release in 1973 — his contributions in bridging East and West with grace and dignity, despite facing deep-seated discrimination, resonate even louder today in an era of political divisiveness and anti-Asian sentiment, says Nathaniel Jue, CHSA communications manager. In fact, it was the rise in hate crimes against Asians and the ostracism of Chinatown businesses during the pandemic that sparked the original impetus for the exhibit.
“He was not a big person” — barely five-foot-eight — “but he broke down barriers when it came to finding ways to make an impact on society,” says Jue. “He was able to emit a sense of togetherness through the way he carried himself. Our hope is that people from all walks of life and generations find inspiration in his way of being a bridge for community.”
That includes those too young to have grown up ardently watching Lee’s films, such as Jue, whose father not only attended the University of Washington at the same time as Lee, but also was a member of the Seattle Chinatown Boy Scouts troop privileged to watch Lee do a kung fu performance.
The exhibit will run for at least three years. Months before its debut, Jue was already fielding inquiries from interested fans across the country, as well as throughout Europe.
Among the items on display are Lee’s weight-lifting bench and dumbbells; handwritten letters; costumes; and a 1966 TV Guide with his photo on the front, the first time an Asian American graced the cover of a national magazine.
In tribute to Lee’s embrace of multiculturalism, two Bay Area art collectives, whose members are people of color — Twin Walls Mural Company and Macro Waves — created the mural “Be the Bridge,’’ which features Lee alongside scenes from his life in Hong Kong, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Items were culled from four main collectors, including Jeff Chinn, considered the world’s foremost collector of Lee memorabilia, whose thousands of artifacts can barely be contained within two rooms in his San Francisco home. Drawn to the star’s commanding physical and intellectual presence at a time when Chinn was bullied by classmates because of his ethnicity, the 61-year-old retired mail carrier started his collection at age 11 with one Bruce Lee magazine.
Among Chinn’s striking items on exhibit are a film poster from Return of the Dragon, printed with the searing words, “Bruce Lee versus America’s Chuck Norris,” despite the fact that the San Francisco–born Lee was every bit as American as his white costar. A payroll sheet for The Green Hornet lists actor Van Williams, who played the titular character, at the top of the salary scale. Despite the fact that Lee was his costar, his pay rate was at the very bottom alongside stunt crew members.
While Chinn has loaned items to exhibits all over the world, he couldn’t be more pleased to continue telling Lee’s inspiring story in his hometown. “There was no one quite like Bruce Lee,” Chinn says. “I always ask people, ‘Can you name another Asian American as famous?’ I haven’t gotten an answer yet.”
We Are Bruce Lee: Under the Sky, One Family
Chinese Historical Society of America Museum 965 Clay Street, San Francisco. | wearebrucelee.org