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Bruce Lee, My Father
Posted on Wed, Dec 1, 2010 at 8:03 am
by IDMA Editor

Shannon Lee was thrilled as government officials in Shunde, China, last week unveiled a giant statue of her father, the martial arts and movie icon Bruce Lee.

The likeness stands 18.8-meters (62 feet) tall, next to a plaque that declares "King of Kung Fu." It is the centerpiece of Bruce Lee Paradise, a 1.89 square kilometer park in this town just south of Guangzhou, China's third-largest city. The park is already home to a museum dedicated to Bruce Lee which opened in 2002.

"It was really quite impressive," she said of the statue. "We heard in the past that they were going to construct a theme park. But this isn't Disneyland. It honors my father."

While he was alive, and for years after his death in 1973, Lee's movies were banned in the country of his ancestry; the action star was actually born in San Francisco, and grew up partly in Hong Kong and partly in the U.S. As China opened up to the world from the 1980s, his films started to trickle into the country. The statue in Shunde is just the latest sign that Lee's legacy is growing within China. A park in the small town of Xiacun, not far from Gaungzhou, also has a statue of Bruce Lee, unveiled in 2008—some in the town claim the place was home to Lee's ancestors.

"I think it's great for the people to learn the legacy," said Ms. Lee, president of Bruce Lee Enterprises, the Los Angeles-based company that handles the licensing and merchandizing of her father's name and image. "It was a shame that China didn't have the benefit of that when he was alive, but it's exciting to see them embrace it now."

Though Lee's brand of kung fu films was once blocked in the land of his forefathers, the China of 2010—the year of Lee's 70th birthday which passed last week—is embracing its long-lost son, and his iconic image.

"He's so strong, so fit, such a star," said Huang Dechao, the local government bureaucrat behind the park. "He's our hero."

Lee has been lauded in far-flung corners of the world and Bruce Lee Enterprises says his image is worth about $2.5 million a year in revenue.

The movie star's face has adorned postage stamps in countries including Gambia, Madagascar and Tajikistan. A statue of him in Mostar, Bonsia became a rallying cry for peace when it was unveiled in 2005. In Los Angeles' Chinatown, officials are pondering a proposal to erect a statue of him as well, while film festivals dedicated to his work have been staged in Japan and Hong Kong.

Advertisers have long known the value of the particular brand of coolness that Lee personified. Last year, Nike created the Nike Zoom Kobe V Bruce Lee line of sneakers that was marketed with images of NBA star Kobe Bryant in kung fu poses. Nokia also launched a special edition phone using the martial arts master.

Kristopher Storti, general counsel of Bruce Lee Enterprises, says the company is targeting $5 million in annual revenues by 2012, which would put Lee's financial legacy in line with other well-known dead celebrities, such as Steve McQueen and James Dean.

It's likely the biggest financial rewards will be found in China, where authorities have embraced the concept of "soft power"—the spread of international influence through economic and cultural means.

The process of bringing Bruce Lee back home began to gather speed around the time his daughter Shannon bought back the rights to her father's image—though not his movies—to her father's image from Universal Studios in 2008.

The same year, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV approached her to work together on an epic 50-episode television series called "The Legend of Bruce Lee." The series was a hit—setting network records for viewership during its airing in 2008, with 12% of the national audience tuning in for the final episode—and helped foster a new generation of fans in China.

Ms. Lee, a 41-year-old former actor and singer, was only four years old when her father died of a brain edema. Born in Los Angeles, Ms. Lee and her family were living in Hong Kong when her father died. Afterward, her mother moved the family back to the U.S.

Ms. Lee has made four trips to China this year, mostly on business. One of her main objectives is to rein in unauthorized use of her father's image. While Bruce Lee Enterprises has endorsed numerous products in China, including toothpaste and Panasonic televisions, the star's unauthorized image also features widely too. Ms. Lee says officials she has met are supportive of her aims. But she also says it'll be difficult to enforce a ban on the use of her father's image in China.

Meanwhile, Chinese fans will see more of Lee—or people playing him—on the big screen and elsewhere. A new movie of his early life, "Bruce Lee, My Brother" starring Aarif Lee, has just been released—though it was made without Shannon Lee's blessing. New licensing deals, too, are in place in China—he's the main face in China for Panasonic's Viera 3-D televisions. Ms. Lee is also in talks with studios in both China and Hollywood to produce films in which her father would be brought to life via computer-generated graphics.

Ultimately, she says she hopes her father will prove a hit with China's new generation.

"I think he's such a strong figure, so vital, so powerful and graceful," she said. "And he really sticks up for the underdog and represents the Chinese people. There's a lot of pride in that."

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