Photo credit: IAmBruceLee.com
On March 17, Bruce Lee will be back in the spotlight with the limited Canadian release of I Am Bruce Lee, a documentary about the Chinese American actor's impact on North American culture.
The film has a pretty impressive roster of interviewees, including basketball star Kobe Bryant, Oscar-nominated actor Mickey Rourke, and Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas, all speaking about how Lee influenced their lives growing up.
It's also fitting that such a film about a Chinese American cultural icon is screening this year, with so much buzz around Jeremy Lin, a strong contender to become the something of a cultural icon of our generation to both Chinese Americans and Canadians alike. As a fifth-generation Canadian of Chinese and Filipino descent, and having written my thesis on Asian stereotypes in video games, I've followed the media coverage around Jeremy Lin with a lot of interest.
The intense mainstream media and online discussion about Lin has focused as much on his ethnicity as his impressive athletic ability (to read more about this, check out my other article about Jeremy Lin not playing the ching chong game). Last month, CNN's Timothy Yu went as far as to ask whether Lin's success will end stereotypes.
But a part of me wonders if this is all déjà vu.
Forty years ago, Chinese (and by extension, East Asian) men faced the exact same Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan stereotypes we face now, and similarly they were propping up their own would-be savior, Bruce Lee. Despite his massive impact on popular culture, Lee's legacy on East Asian masculinity was to simply create a foil to our math nerd stereotype. No longer were we just bucktoothed number crunchers, now we could also seen as stoic (read: one-dimensional) warriors.
It's 2012 now, but what's changed?
The way Lin gets portrayed by media outlets is a variation on the 'Asian superman' stereotype already carved out by Lee. No longer are Chinese and East Asian men just martial artists defending the honor of our master, now we can also opt to be game winning athletes defending the honor of our city. Quelle difference.
Don't get me wrong—I'm still just as susceptible to the rampant idol worship around Jeremy Lin and Bruce Lee. And why not? One is a great basketball player with the potential to be a superstar, and the other is already an international legend. I only question whether they have a net positive impact on East Asian masculinity.
Some may argue that neither stereotype is truly awful. However, that doesn't take away from my personal discomfort as a self-identified East Asian male to see such limited representation of what I know to be a much more complex and diverse group. It's frustrating that in 2012, we are still competing for any kind of representation other than as the bookish nerd, the ching chong coolie and now the Chinese super athlete.
While I don't have any concrete answers about where we go from here, I'm curious about your thoughts. Do you think Jeremy Lin and Bruce Lee break down boundaries, or just re-create new ones? Let me know in the comments down below.
I Am Bruce Lee is now playing in select theatres in North America. For official screening times and locations, visit the I Am Bruce Lee official site.
Rob Parungao is a web producer based in Ottawa. He navigates race, pop and geek culture for DailyDose and InDepth.
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