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Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

Michiana Chronicles: Bruce Lee's sex appeal

From Bruce Lee to Kary Kwok - Hong Kong, July 2023
Anne Magnan-Park
From Bruce Lee to Kary Kwok - Hong Kong, July 2023

July 20th marked the 50th anniversary of Bruce Lee's death. Today, Anne Magnan-Park talks with Aaron Magnan-Park to celebrate the legacy of Hong Kong-American actor, founder of Jeet Kune Do, and all-around pop culture icon.

ANNE: Hello, Aaron. When I tell people that part of your scholarship is devoted to the films of Bruce Lee, the common reaction is incredulity, perhaps because writing about Bruce Lee's films sounds like too much fun and therefore an unworthy quest for a serious scholar. Yet, one thing I learned in watching these films with you over the past 30 years, is that their cultural and historical contexts are just as complex as most films. I have just one question for you today. How significant is it that Bruce Lee made the Asian body sexy?

AARON: For most Americans, the concept of a “sexy Asian man” comes across as a confusing oxymoron that is often quickly dismissed as irrelevant and even considered laughable. This also holds true for Bruce Lee since his greatest cinematic impact was to replace China’s image as the “Sick Man of Asia” with that of the heroic kung fu superman. In three years, he developed this new image of heroic Asian masculinity with Hong Kong characteristics in four and a half films. Thanks to Bruce Lee, all Asian men there afterwards were perceived to possess secret Asian martial arts skills that would be revealed only when the need arose.

Anne, your question today raises Bruce Lee’s incomplete cinematic mission of making Asian men sexy again. Starting with his second kung fu film, Fist of Fury (1971), Lee’s character suspends the fight scene at the Japanese dojo to slowly remove his shirt to reveal a chiseled and ripped torso before annihilating his opponents in a spectacular fashion. Like us, his enemies are bewildered by this act since it breaks with martial arts etiquette. I call this moment of eroticized spectacle the “kung fu striptease.” Lee repeats this in his next two films. Unlike the Hollywood norm, the kung fu hero’s restoration of social harmony is not linked with a parallel restoration of a heterosexual romance. Thus, kung fu films end without the hero kissing a woman and riding off into the sunset with her.

Sessue Hayakawa is the only Asian male star to attain success in Hollywood as a sexy Asian man. He did so during the Silent Era, most notably in The Cheat (1915), as the forbidden Japanese lover who tempts a white woman to cross the racial divide. This makes Hayakawa a direct threat to White masculinity.

After Hayakawa, white actors played Asian roles in yellowface as mostly sexually voracious villains like Fu Manchu or as unsexy geeky men like Charlie Chan. When Asian actors played Asian roles, they did so as sidekicks to the white hero like Kato in The Green Hornet TV series (1966-1967) or as domestic helpers like Hop Sing in Bonanza (1959-1973). Both roles were devoid of sex appeal.

It would take Stephen Yuen as Glenn Rhee in The Walking Dead (2010-2022) to present an Asian man as sexually eligible for romance, but the zombie Apocalyptic framework makes Glenn a consolation prize.

Within China’s Confucian legacy, masculinity is split and imbalanced with the wen (文 cultural erudition) valued over the wu (武 martial prowess). Here, bureaucratic scholars domineered over the generals. Those who preferred to prioritize wu were seen as less civilized and even barbaric.

Bruce Lee is anti-Confucian because his screen heroism and his personal life required both wen and wu. Three USC film scholars reveal that even as recently as 2015, Hollywood continues to perceive and portray Asian men as the least sexually attractive option when compared against our White, Black, and Latino cohorts. Even when sexy Asian actors from Asia are invited to star in Hollywood films, they play at best sexually neutral characters. Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung, and Lee Byung-hun are some recent examples.

Male sex appeal is not limited to just one lens of desire. It is multi-faceted, complex, and also unexpected.

Music: "Kung Fu Fighting" by Carl Douglas

Anne is a literary translator and Associate Professor of English at Indiana University where she focuses on Indigenous literatures of the Pacific. She has been writing for Michiana Chronicles since 2019.