This blog post was created by KCTS 9 marketing and communications intern Xavier G. in collaboration with KCTS 9 staff.
An attraction since 1967 – and in its most recent location since 2008 -- the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience
aims to connect the community to the cultures, art and history of Asian Pacific Americans through thrilling exhibits and inspirational storytelling. Currently, the museum is in its second year of a three-year Bruce Lee exhibit which features captivating film clips of the icon, fascinating pictures of his early life, and an interactive 180-minute tour of Bruce Lee’s old stomping ground, taking visitors through the International District, past Lee’s first martial arts studio, and even to his favorite restaurant growing up. Recently, we had the opportunity to not only to partake in this enlightening tour, but also explore the exhibit itself, taking in all it had to offer, including its impressive collection of rare memorabilia and artifacts.
In its first year, the exhibit was entitled, “Bruce Lee's martial arts philosophy and Seattle roots.” Visitors were introduced to the personal life of Bruce Lee with an in-depth look into his philosophy, training and writings. “When we first did the exhibit here, there were a lot of people who knew about Bruce Lee but they didn’t really know him,” said Margaret Su, Deputy Director for Institutional Giving and Marketing at the Wing Luke Museum. “I personally didn’t realize until after learning more from the exhibit how amazing he was, how he had his own philosophy, and how disciplined and rigorous his training really was.” The exhibit included exclusive artifacts like handwritten poems looking back on Lee’s time and experience in Seattle, pictures and a birth announcement for Bruce’s son Brandon, and boxing gear that Bruce used during his training.
Currently in its second phase of the three year exhibit, museum visitors are being treated to rarely seen memorabilia and behind-the-scenes looks at the sets of Enter the Dragon and The Way of the Dragon. But while the museum is yet again providing amazing artifacts for visitors to ponder over, the exhibit as a whole in its second year focuses on Bruce Lee’s ‘larger than life’ impact on society that resulted from his work in the Hollywood film industry. “You get to see Bruce Lee not just as a martial-artist, or not just as an actor, but you get to see him as a ground-breaker in what he was doing” said John Nonato, Interpretive Lead at the Wing Luke Museum. “It’s still just as important – especially to the Asian-American community to see this man of color who’s able to make it in Hollywood, during a time when barely any man of color – any person of color really, especially Asian-Americans were in Hollywood at that time.”
As we made our way around the exhibit that was carefully placed in a chronological timeline of Bruce’s life, it was fascinating to see how his time in Seattle, though short in the spectrum of things, had such an impact on not only his career, but who he became as a person. As we left the museum to head to the first location on the guided tour, we would come to learn that Seattle was a place of a lot of ‘firsts’ for Bruce Lee: a place where Bruce mastered martial arts, received his education and met the love of his life.
We began our tour at the Luck Ngi Musical Club, a Cantonese Opera club just a block from the museum. In a scarcely marked building, the club is easy to look past, but ring the buzzer outside the gated door and you’ll be welcomed into an old room filled with relics, traditional instruments and photos of performers from decades past. Bruce Lee’s father, Lee Hoi-cheun, was a revered Hong Kong Cantonese Opera singer in his time, and in 1940, he was invited to travel to San Francisco to perform and tour with the Cantonese Opera Company. The elder Lee and his wife Grace packed up their belongings and headed to the Golden State, and while there, their second son, Bruce, was born. It was musical clubs like the Luck Ngi – one of the oldest in the United States –where Lee and the opera company would perform on a regular basis. This Seattle treasure does not flaunt a direct link to Bruce Lee, but it is a wonderful example of the deep history and tradition of the International District.
Our tour continued down Weller Street, where we arrived in front of the Ho Ho Seafood Restaurant. Not only is the Ho Ho a popular spot for seafood fans today, but it was actually a spot where Bruce Lee would perfect his martial arts skills as a teen. The basement of the restaurant served as a practice facility for Bruce, a location he would use on cold and rainy days to ensure that he never lost a step in his precise training regimen. Looking at the restaurant, you wouldn’t have guessed that there was any link to Bruce Lee; there were no large cutouts of the icon in the windows, and the walls did not bear any posters or autographed pictures of him. Throughout the tour, it was very interesting to see how common this phenomenon was. While superstar Bruce Lee frequented these places, at the time he was just another young adult in the neighborhood. As we made our way to the next location on the tour, our guide pointed out a brick building on the opposite side of the street. Built in 1909, The Eastern Hotel is one of the oldest buildings in the International District and was a popular spot for the Filipino population who would visit from out of town in the 1930’s and 40’s. Again, while this spot had no direct link to Bruce Lee, it was still interesting to learn how this hotel did contribute to the diverse environment that surrounded Bruce Lee as he grew up in Seattle
Our fourth stop, diagonally across from the Wing Luke Museum, – a metal gate with stairs on the other side that led underground, and though we could not enter the shop, chopping, banging, and other loud noises could be heard down below. While the current location with a marked address of “422 ½” is now used as a restaurant’s inventory space, a little over 50 years ago it was Bruce Lee’s first martial arts studio. Compared to other expensive commercial studios in the area, Lee’s studio gave students the opportunity to learn the art of Kung Fu without breaking the bank – and not to mention, from a teacher who had begun to gain notoriety in his community at the time. As a result, his studio attracted many young people who wanted to learn from Lee, with his renowned philosophy and style that many locals had heard so much about.
One of my favorite stories that came from this tour was about how Bruce Lee met Linda, the girl who would later become his wife. People who knew Bruce growing up described him as very outgoing, but also cocky. While his personality wasn’t always well received in the community, it was partly what led to the admiration of Bruce in the media, and many did take a liking to him because of it, including Linda. A student at Garfield High School, Linda was also a student in one of Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu classes. During a demonstration on flips and tumbles, Bruce flipped Linda to the ground, knelt down next to her, and asked her on a date to the Space Needle. The two would be married a few years later, in 1964.
Our last stop on the tour was a real treat: the Tai Tung Restaurant. Opened in 1935, Tai Fung was a favorite of Bruce Lee during his time in Seattle. A really cool feature of this tour is that not only do you get to see spots that played a role in Bruce’s life, but you actually get to try out one of the icon’s favorite dishes. That dish was beef in oyster sauce, and let me tell you, I could see why Bruce loved it so much. Our tour group sat at a large table with various dishes in the middle, and behind us was a shrine of Bruce Lee – pictures lined the wall, a large cut-out of him stood tall, and his favorite table sat empty. The environment of the restaurant and aura of history made it easy to envision Bruce walking through the front door of Tai Tung late at night, sitting in his regular seat, and ordering his favorite meal. It was definitely a special feeling.
In the end, as we made our way out of the restaurant and back to the museum to conclude our tour, I had a new-found perspective on Bruce Lee. The tour helped me recognize not only the impact this community had on Bruce as a person, but also how much of an impact he had on the community as well.
After the tour, we caught up with Margaret Lam and John Nonato for a brief Q&A.
The Bruce Lee exhibit is in its second year at the Wing Luke Museum. How has the community’s engagement with the various themes been thus far?
MARGARET SU: For the first year and the second year, and it will be true for the third year, we have been working pretty closely with Bruce Lee’s family – his wife, his daughter, and the Bruce Lee Foundation, and in working with them, it has brought along a whole new group of fans and followers that we didn’t have before this exhibit. We get a lot of martial arts fans and Bruce Lee fans – which has been great, because they’re not always your typical museum visitor, so it’s been nice to open the museum up to that area, to show that museums aren’t just for a certain type of person. It really can be fun and interesting, and I think what we have found too is that people come here specifically wanting to learn more about Bruce Lee. Our tour staff does a really great job of taking them and showing them other parts of the museum, and then the visitors learn about that as well.
In terms of our own supporters in the community, it’s kind of interesting. I think when we first did the exhibit here there were a lot of people who knew about Bruce Lee but they didn’t really know him. They had heard of him, maybe they had seen a movie or two, and I myself too had seen Enter the Dragon and he looked good, and he seemed skilled, but then again I thought, ‘Well it’s a movie. People always look good in movies.’ I didn’t realize until after learning more from the exhibit how amazing he was, and how he had his own philosophy, and how disciplined and rigorous his training was. I hear stories from Perry [Lee] who has one of the largest collections in the world, and a lot of his memorabilia’s been in our exhibit, and he has told stories about how Bruce Lee slowed down his movements for the camera because it was too fast. Then you hear stories from people about how he was really disciplined and had high standards of their choreography. He would practice and practice, and do it over and over again to the point where people got tired of it and it hurt – I mean it hurts to get punched by Bruce Lee over and over.
Anyways, in terms of our supporters I would say that there’s definitely a group that didn’t know much about him and it’s been interesting to hear from and talk to them about Bruce Lee. Another aspect though is because Lee has such a local story here, there’s actually a fair amount of people that keep popping up that randomly knew Bruce Lee from school, or through friends, or even past relationships, and you realize how his time here is kind of interwoven into the story of our community.
How has the exhibit brought Bruce Lee’s story to life, and why is it important that his story continue being shared and told?
JOHN NONATO: [The exhibit] really brought his story to life – especially his time in Seattle, because one thing that you do notice in a lot of books about Bruce Lee tends to be about his life not in Seattle. They’re usually about how he became famous, and his early in life in Hong Kong, but there’s this gap that’s just missing. So what’s interesting about doing the Bruce Lee Chinatown Tour is that it does give you insight into his life in Seattle, his background, what brought him here, why he’s here and what he was doing here as well. The exhibit itself works to further our messages - to create and share the art, history and culture of the Asian-American Pacific experience. So you get to see Bruce Lee not just as a martial-artist, or not just as an actor, but you get to see him as a ground-breaker in what he was doing, and it’s still just as important – especially to the Asian-American community to see this man of color who’s able to make it in Hollywood, during a time when barely any man of color – any person of color really, especially Asian-Americans were in Hollywood at that time.
The second year of the Bruce Lee exhibit will be on display at the Wing Luke Museum until September 4th. You can learn more about the museum, the exhibit and the tour by visiting the museum’s website at http://www.wingluke.org/.