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Bruce Lee becomes a fixture in Chinatown

A 7-foot statue of the martial-arts film icon is unveiled in Central Plaza. Though he was a native of San Francisco, he had strong ties to L.A.'s Chinatown.

June 17, 2013|By Frank Shyong, Los Angeles Times
  • Bruce Lee fans take photos of the film icon's statue, which will not be permanently installed until business leaders can raise $150,000 to put in seating and a concrete plinth.
Bruce Lee fans take photos of the film icon's statue, which will not… (Julia Wall, Los Angeles…)

Officials in Chinatown unveiled a 7-foot bronze statue of Bruce Lee to a crowd of several hundred in the historical Central Plaza on Saturday night.

The unveiling caps a five-year effort to bring the statue to Chinatown, said Shannon Lee, Bruce's daughter and the president of the Bruce Lee Foundation. The statue, created by an artist in Guangzhou, China, is the first such statue of her father in the United States, Shannon Lee said.

Though the statue will not be permanently installed until business leaders can raise $150,000 to put in seating and a concrete plinth, the timing was right for the unveiling, she said. This year is the 40th anniversary of her father's death, as well as Chinatown's 75th year. And Saturday was the day before Father's Day.

"Seeing it there in its permanent spot with the night sky of Chinatown ... it really struck me," Shannon Lee said.

Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco's Chinatown, lived in Oakland and opened several martial-arts schools in Seattle's Chinatown. But he was a fixture in Los Angeles' Chinatown in the 1960s, opening a school on West College Street and working out at the Alpine Recreation Center. Lee stood out, jogging energetically around a neighborhood where almost no one did, Shannon Lee said.

"It was the best place to be for Chinese food and to speak to people in his own language," she said.

Actor James Hong used to manage a theater near Lee's studio and recalled seeing him around the neighborhood. Hong, a prolific actor with more than 400 film and television credits to his name, including "Kung Fu Panda," said he admired Lee's patience and perseverance.

"I learned from him to keep a level head," Hong said in between taking pictures with his fans. "That's why I'm still around after all these years."

In Los Angeles, Lee took a role as Kato in a television adaptation of "The Green Hornet" that launched a short film career that influenced cinema and pop culture even beyond his death at age 32 in 1973. His films inflamed the imagination of a generation of teenagers who grew up seeking black belts and plastering posters of him on their bedroom walls.

John Kreng, 44, staked out a spot with his friends hours before the statue's unveiling, trading Bruce Lee stories and reminiscing. Growing up half Thai and half Chinese in an all-white neighborhood in Maryland, he was inspired by Bruce Lee's films, Kreng said.

"Here's this hero who looks like me on the screen," he said.

Kreng grew up at the tail end of the Vietnam War and "got beat up a lot." Then he saw "Way of the Dragon" and took up martial arts. Lee inspired him to become a stuntman and fight choreographer, Kreng said.

"Seeing him on the screen gave me hope," said Kreng, who has watched "Enter the Dragon" at least 60 times. "I would not be here today if it wasn't for Bruce Lee."

Art Camacho, another fight choreographer and stuntman, was also inspired by Lee. He grew up in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in East Los Angeles, saw "The Chinese Connection" in 1972 and promptly took martial-arts classes.

"Bruce Lee changed my whole outlook," said Camacho, who said he once hired one of Bruce Lee's co-stars just to get his autograph on a movie poster.

When the crowds thinned after the unveiling, Kreng and Camacho took up a stance beneath the statue. They turned sideways, clenched a first, and assumed expressions somewhere between grimaces and grins.

The moment captured, the two self-described Bruce Lee nerds laughed and exchanged high-fives.

Camacho said he's a tough guy "when I do my stuff, but when I see Bruce Lee, I'm a little kid again. This is just awesome. I'm a 16-year-old sitting in that theater again."

frank.shyong@latimes.com

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