Bruce Lee & the Wing Luke

We spent a too-brief week visiting my folks in Seattle earlier this summer. My mom and I took my daughters down to the International District, to get some phô, shop at Kobo at Higo and Uwajimaya, and visit the Wing Luke Museum.

 The Wing Luke's very cool Seattle-centric Bruce Lee poster.

The Wing Luke's very cool Seattle-centric Bruce Lee poster.

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At the Wing Luke, we were just in time for a tour. The museum is built inside an old flophouse hotel, one used by generations of immigrants to Seattle. You can see the remains of the hotel—and an old Chinese grocery store—but you need to take the tour to go inside. So, we stood inside a grocery store, not all that different from the ones I remember from being little—and no wonder: it closed in the 70’s and they moved it, and all its merchandise to that spot as a memorial. Then, we went up to the hotel to see the tiny rooms. They have been preserved to show the successive generations of immigration—Chinese laborers, then Japanese families, Filipino workers in the Alaska fishing industry who passed through Seattle seasonally, and, finally the living room of a Chinese woman who settled with her husband and became a guide for a new generation of women coming to stay. The museum also has a model room of a Chinese family association, with photographs, a mahjong table and other artefacts from their meetings. We were so enthralled by our tour—and our sweet young guide—that we didn’t have time to visit the Bruce Lee exhibit.

No matter, Matthew Polly’s new biography of Lee was on sale at the Kinokuniya bookshop in Uwajimaya and, my mom, ordinarily an opponent of carrying too many books home, recognized that it would be more meaningful to have the book from Seattle, so she bought it for me.

We got phô one day at the amazingly snazzy new Phô Bac and then, because we hadn’t done enough shopping and food, we came back the next day and had lunch at the Tai Tung, Seattle’s oldest Chinese restaurant (and my grandmother’s favorite). The food, which I don’t think has changed much since 1935, was delicious, and we were delighted to see signed photographs of Bruce Lee on the wall and a big cardboard cutout of him, too. That restaurant is a stop on the Museum’s Bruce Lee walking tour.

 Shrine to Lee at the Tai Tung

Shrine to Lee at the Tai Tung

Growing up in Seattle, Lee was a big deal and I was eager to learn more about the superstar. Polly’s book, which has been well-reviewed, is so lovingly written and so consistently interesting that it sustained me even though my interest in kung fu movies is minimal. It turns out that he did not go to Garfield High School (alas!), although he was celebrated on a mural in the walls during my days there. Born in California, raised in Hong Kong (where he was a child star), Lee went to community college and then the UW. His wife, Linda, was a Garfield Bulldog.

Lee sounds like a fascinating, complicated man: Kind of a punk a lot of the time, with a quick temper and a real mean streak. Wildly ambitious and incredibly disciplined, too: he was determined to be the first Chinese-American superstar—to rival his friend Steve McQueen and his daughter, who carries on his legacy through the Bruce Lee Foundation to this day, perpetuates that goal. But there was also a deeply philosophical side to him. And he seemed to have had an easy way of accepting racial difference. His mother was the descendant of a Dutch-Jewish merchant and his Chinese wife and Lee not only married a white woman, but also was the first to teach martial arts to people who were not Chinese. Before he taught Steve McQueen and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, he was teaching a multi-racial group of Seattle kids in his college classes, forming them into a band of loyal acolytes to his style of fighting which, itself, blended styles across national borders and traditions.

I miss living out West, and those few days back home in Seattle and then Polly’s biography were both beautiful ways of getting reacquainted with what West Coast cosmopolitanism can look like. A welcome reminder in these troubling days.

 A feast at the Tai Tung

A feast at the Tai Tung