My Uncle Bruce Lee

Translated by: 
Susanna Soojung Lim

This is not a story about Li Xiaolong, also known as Bruce Lee. And I’m not saying that my uncle is Bruce Lee. My uncle was simply one of the countless ordinary people who admired Bruce Lee. At that time, we were all fans of Li Xiaolong. Was there ever a boy who hadn’t hit himself on the back of the head while having a go with those nunchuks? We wanted to have a fist as fast and powerful as his, and back muscles as broad as a straw floor-mat. In other words, in the process of becoming a man, trying to be like Bruce Lee was – like masturbation – a compulsory requirement, not an optional one. My uncle was one of those Bruce Lee followers, but for him Bruce was more than just an object of adulation. He idolised Li Xiaolong so much that he wanted to follow him in every way, and Uncle truly sought to go far. Like Bruce, he sought to reach for the heavens and become a star. 

But dreams are bound to be shattered. And hope? Crushed. A fast and powerful fist; muscles as resilient as a rubber band; a body that, kicking the earth, charges up, fresh and resplendent, with cool-headed ease; and the confidence of the strong! This is the dream for all of us who seek to transcend our human weakness. But the greater our desire for transcendence, the heavier the gravitational pull of despair presses on our shoulders and the more acute becomes the frustration of the body. Our hearts feel as if they’re about to burst, we’re short of breath, our legs give way under us. The moment we realise our bodies are softer than tofu and more fragile than glass – and, what’s more, that the spirit encased within is even less trustworthy – our timid souls duck into dark and solitary hiding. 

My uncle was like that, too. He never fulfilled his dreams, never achieved love, never managed to remove the curse of illegitimacy hanging over his head. If he had died young, would he have become a legend like Bruce Lee? Of course not. Li Xiaolong rose up like a flame and disappeared like smoke, thereby becoming a legend; but my uncle was never able to fly that high. An imitation is fundamentally different from the original, and what separates a fake from the real thing is what separates the earth from the sky. 

You don’t live for something. You just live. 

Bruce Lee said that. He also said the meaning of life was in simply living. Which means even if you break and fall, no matter where it may be, you get back on your feet and plod on. That was how it was with Uncle. 

Li Xiaolong died in the summer of 1973. It was of course Uncle who first told me the news. Since Li was a world-class star as famous as Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley, his death was big news. There was also wide speculation on the cause of his death. One theory claimed suicide; another suggested murder. There was talk of substance abuse and drug addiction. One story had him poisoned, while a bizarre rumour floated around that the cause was a mort d’amour while the star was making love to the actress Ting Pei. Some theories were more outlandish, like the one involving the triads or the yakuza, or the one that had the high priests of Shaolin Temple eliminating Bruce through psychokinesis in order to protect China’s traditional martial arts. But whatever the rumours, the inescapable fact was that Bruce Lee was gone. 

On that day, Uncle took me and my older brother up a neighbourhood hill for a memorial ceremony. He put the dried pollock and wine glasses he had prepared in a bag, and I took down a full-length poster of Bruce Lee to use as a funeral portrait. The poster was from a photo book of film stars included as a supplement to a magazine we had bought. It was a photo of Bruce with nunchuks tucked in to his side, his left hand stretched out as if he were about to confront an opponent. 

On our way we met Jong-tae. He was a neighbourhood friend, a big lad with a perennially good-natured smile on his face. He was catching frogs between the rice fields, but he ran toward us as soon as he saw us. With his characteristic, slightly foolish smile, he greeted my uncle eagerly. Attached to Jong-tae’s waist was a piece of wire on which a few frogs were skewered through their mouths, all of them dead, and with their tongues hanging out. Without hesitation, Jong-tae followed us. Although he asked where we were going, I kept my mouth tightly shut. I didn’t think Jong-tae would understand if I told him we were holding a service for Bruce Lee, but it was also because I felt for some reason that I had to be careful with what I said that day. 

Coming out of the village we passed a field of bellflowers on the side of the hill. The flowers, white and violet and in full bloom, festooned the hillside. Maybe it was because of Bruce’s death, but on that day they seemed melancholy and sorrowful, even though I had seen them many times before. Sensing the solemn mood, Jong-tae gave up his questioning and silently followed us. Every time he took a step, the dead frogs shook at his waist. We had just started secondary school; we hadn’t even grown pubic hair. 

We made our way through the forest and climbed up the hill. Suddenly, there appeared before us a snug clearing encircled by tall pine trees like a folding screen. This was where Uncle polished his martial arts every morning. Various pieces of equipment – concrete weights and dumbbells – were scattered haphazardly around. Uncle placed Bruce Lee’s portrait at the base of a pine tree and put the dried pollock in front of it. Then, pouring the wine with great care, he offered the cup to his dead hero. Following Uncle’s example, we bowed down to Bruce. No one said a word, and this made the occasion all the more solemn. Even the cicadas that had been chirruping loudly seemed to have sensed the mood, for all of a sudden they stopped their noise and the clearing became deathly quiet. Although my family, the Kwons, were known throughout the neighbourhood for our lavish ancestral rites, the memorial service we were holding for Bruce couldn’t have been shabbier, consisting as it did of a single glass of clear wine and a piece of dried fish. 

As I bowed, I looked up at Bruce’s face. His characteristically arrogant expression, with the chin held high as if mocking you, was full of confidence, and his sharp eyes betrayed no doubt or fear. His muscles, formed over a long time with great effort, were pulled taut like a bowstring, and it seemed as if his fist would strike out at any moment with his familiar cry, ‘Hiyaaaah!’ In short, as in any photograph of anyone still alive, you could tell that he’d never once thought of death. I wondered, why had he died? 


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