Bruce Lee Dances the Cha-Cha

Cheng Chao An (Bruce Lee) leads the cha-cha in The Big Boss.

Originally published in Issue 3 of Pallet magazine:

It’s April 1959 and a small American Presidents Line steamship is making the slow journey across the Pacific, toward San Francisco. On the upper deck, a young man from Hong Kong, where the ship began its journey, is swinging his hips and stepping in time to music, while a group of well-heeled, mostly middle-aged passengers follow and try to imitate his movements. Buddy Holly has just died; in popular music, it’s the era of Ritchie Valens, Bobby Darin and Dean Martin, a brief Latin-inspired parenthesis sandwiched into the rise of rock ‘n roll. The passengers are here to learn the cha-cha, a crazy new dance from Cuba, the world’s youngest revolutionary socialist state. Their teacher is a good dancer — he’s won cha-cha competitions in his native Hong Kong, they say — and even though he’s traveling down in the lower decks of the ship, the first class passengers have caught wind of his special talent and invited him up to school them in the licentious charms of the cha-cha. The teacher is just 18 years old, and he has the slender hips and willowy limbs of a boy still growing into his frame; he’s a walking linguine. But there’s something else there, too. A charisma. A bravado. And the suggestion, perhaps, of some coiled violence. The teacher is lissom, but cobra-quick on his feet. His name is Bruce Lee.

Today, Bruce Lee is best known for the astonishing three-year, four-film burst — from 1971 to his death, at the age of 32, in 1973 — that cemented his status as the greatest martial artist who ever lived. But it’s often forgotten that he got his start as a dancer. Lee’s father sent him to the U.S. partly to keep him out of trouble: the young Bruce had a talent for fighting on the streets of Kowloon and had managed to piss off the local triads, a move demanding evasion, rather than engagement, in his father’s sage calculation. When Lee set sail for San Francisco in 1959, famously with just the $100 his father had handed him in his pocket, his initial idea was to make a living by giving dance lessons. To understand Bruce Lee — to grasp his contribution to Chinese cinema and martial arts, as well as what made his films so startlingly current — you need to understand this basic fact: he was a dancer before anything else. And he didn’t just specialize in any type of dance. He was a cha-cha dancer, exactly the style you would least expect a young man from the lower middle classes of mid-century Hong Kong to grow up to master.

Hong Kong has always worn its hybrid cultural stripes proudly; it manages, as the travel guide cliches have continued to remind us even in the near-two decades since the handover from British rule, to be both unmistakably Chinese and utterly western at the same time. But cha-cha, in 1959, was a recent invention; it had really only been around, even in Cuba, since the beginning of the decade. Lee’s embrace of this new dance showed he had both the enthusiasm of an early adopter and a fluency across different cultures that was, while unremarkable today, a minor achievement in the conservative, closed-off, unadventurous, xenophobic world of 1959. Undoubtedly it took bravery for the 18-year-old to leave Hong Kong alone to start a new life in America. But it took a special kind of cross-cultural confidence — a comfort among the confusion of the tongues — for this short, skinny Chinese boy to spruik himself as a master of Latin dance.

It’s been more than 40 years since Lee died, but this is the key to what makes him such an enduringly appealing figure today: he was, as Rimbaud might have wanted it, absolument moderne. And he wasn’t modern for the sake of his own glorification only: he was a lodestar for the modernization of Chinese culture more broadly after the century of humiliation. Almost a decade before China opened its economy to the world, Bruce Lee’s movies — schlocky and poppy, yes, but utterly unlike anything that had come before them — offered a way for Chinese culture to begin to make sense of itself and its place in a more interconnected world. This cultural opening up of China preceded and in some ways facilitated the economic opening, and Lee was at its very heart. Consumerism, private enterprise, the rise of the middle class: before any of these things happened in China and the world’s most populous national re-entered the international arena, Bruce Lee — son of Hong Kong, emblem of China — was not-so-quietly paving the way with a battery of sidekicks, 1-inch punches and nunchaku flicks. As the world continues to grapple with the question of how to integrate China into the global community — this is the country, remember, that was only admitted to the World Trade Organization in 2001 — Lee’s contribution to this opening up deserves a closer look.

The Big Boss, Lee’s breakout 1971 success, smashed Hong Kong box office records and set its young star on the path to cinema immortality. To modern eyes, the film appears comically raw: the camera work is jangly, and not deliberately so, and the acting is mostly artless and one-dimensional. Dubbing hasn’t helped: watch the movie on Netflix and you’ll experience this tale of racial prejudice and gnarly face jabs through a hilariously incongruous chorus of aw-shucks, Leave It To Beaver-style American accents. But there’s a scene midway through the film where Lee, playing the part of a Chinese peasant sent to Thailand to work at the ice factory in which his cousins have found employment, kicks the shit out of a bunch of bad guys then leads his cousins back to their house in a victory dance. What makes this scene remarkable is that they’re dancing the cha-cha: Cheng Chao An (Lee’s character) kicks off, and Hsu Chien, Chiao Mei, and all the other cousins follow behind in a celebratory conga line. This stretches plausibility to breaking point: Chinese migrant factory worker peasants in the early 1970s dancing the cha-cha? That just didn’t happen, surely. But Lee didn’t care — and that’s precisely the point. No one, at the time The Big Boss was released, had ever put modern dance — let alone a dance as foreign and racy as the cha-cha — into a Chinese martial arts film. For those watching in Hong Kong in 1971, this scene would have constituted a small cultural revelation.

When The Big Boss came out, most Chinese martial arts movies — produced primarily in Hong Kong, but performed in both Cantonese and Mandarin — were examples of the established wuxia genre. Wuxia films were set in Ancient China, usually in villages or rural areas, and addressed themes of chivalry and natural justice. The fight scenes invariably involved elaborate swordplay and incredible, unlikely feats of athleticism, the levitation, 30-foot leaps and three-storey backflips familiar to anyone who’s seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (the most famous contemporary example of the wuxia genre). Modern kung fu cinema didn’t really get going until 1970, when The Chinese Boxer and Vengeance, by legendary Hong Kong director Chang Cheh, both came out. The former was remarkable because its fight scenes did away with swords and involved pure hand-to-hand combat; the latter stood out because, unlike any Chinese-language martial arts film to that point, Cheh set the action not in Ancient China but in the 1920s, the politically turbulent period between the end of the Qing dynasty and the rise of the Kuomintang, when China was ruled by warlords. Historical context gave Vengeance a mood and a sharpness that wuxia films, set at some indeterminate point in China’s distant past, lacked; martial arts cinema was, to that point, historically bland.

In The Big Boss, Lee and his co-creators, producer Raymond Chow and director Lo Wei, took these advances and turbocharged them. What they came up with would have seemed shockingly new to Chinese viewers at the time. Wuxia films were set in ancient times; Vengeance was a 1920s period piece. The Big Boss, by contrast, is set in the modern day — and in a foreign country, no less. Where previous martial arts films had minimal music or mawkish, unremarkable orchestra scores, The Big Boss led with a swinging brass band theme by German composer Peter Thomas. Where the fighting in wuxia films was overly stylized and unrealistic, Lee punched his way through The Big Boss with the bare-knuckled venom of a trained street fighter. Where the only dancing you were ever likely to see in a conventional Chinese fight flick in 1971 was the mannered, mime-like sequencing of Beijing opera, in The Big Boss the characters danced the cha-cha.

Even Lee’s fighting gait was somehow unusual, or different, or new. He didn’t charge through fights in the slightly flat-footed, mechanical manner of other martial arts stars: he bounced on the balls of his feet, like a tennis player waiting to return serve. He brought the cha-cha to hand combat. He was rhythmic in a way no martial arts star had been rhythmic before, or has been since. Gordon Liu, Jackie Chan and Jet Li are the only martial artists who have come close to matching his legend, but none of them has the swivel-hipped charisma of Bruce Lee: Liu, star of the 1978 classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, was earnest in a way Lee never was; Chan played all his fights for laughs; and Li’s career has tracked the Chinese Communist Party’s appropriation of martial arts cinema for its own political messaging. Lee had something these fighters lacked: a kind of delicacy. In his footwork, there was the perfect combination of agility, speed, balance and power; he didn’t just win fights in The Big Boss, he danced his way to victory. This was a greater cultural achievement than Lee has ever been given credit for. Almost single-fistedly, and with a puckish iconoclasm, he brought a revered Chinese cultural idiom — the martial arts narrative — into the modern era.

Above all, though, it’s the subject matter of The Big Boss that sets it apart. There’s some irony, perhaps, in praising a superficially mindless action film for its plot, but through kung fu, Lee brought the lot of the migrant Chinese worker vividly to life. The Big Boss, whose central tension is between the Chinese factory workers and their murderous, corrupt, drug-running Thai overlords, portrayed Chinese people as they actually were in the world today, immersed in real issues like racial discrimination, labor exploitation, syndicated crime and the narcotics trade — not as they had been at some remote and romanticized point in the past.

His subsequent films built on this theme, and in increasingly interesting ways. Fist of Fury was set against the backdrop of the Japanese presence in early 20th century, foreign-controlled Shanghai, while Way of the Dragon took a quintessential migrant story and chronicled the struggles of a Chinese restaurant owner in Rome to protect his business from the aggressions of the local mafia (quick summary of solution: when everything else fails, call in Bruce Lee). As he explored this new terrain, so unfamiliar at that point to students and fans of Chinese martial arts cinema, Lee also began to introduce more variety into his own acting. The first five minutes of Way of the Dragon are a minor comic masterpiece. We see Tang Lung (Lee) landing at Rome airport and wandering around as he waits for his cousin to pick him up. Eventually he finds his way to a restaurant and, not understanding Italian, accidentally orders every soup off the menu. He dutifully, and increasingly painfully, stuffs all seven bowls of soup brought to him into his mouth, before running to the nearest bathroom and suffering the consequences out the other end. Lee plays the scene in a silent film style vaguely reminiscent of Buster Keaton. The whole thing, while funny, seems pointless at first, but it quickly establishes an important theme that runs through the film: there is a place for Chinese people in the wider world, however bewildering or inhospitable it might seem, and however much that place might have to be fought for.

This is more than a trivial point. China has always had a strong sense of its own centrality to world affairs: it is, after all, the middle kingdom, and it has existed as a continuous sovereign state for longer than any other place on earth. Chinese people, in this traditional sinocentric view, don’t journey to other places; people from other places come to China. Hong Kong is a special case, but Lee was more than a product of Hong Kong only; he was a representative of Chinese culture more broadly. Mainland China was arguably more sinocentric in the early 1970s than at any other point in its modern history. It was an almost totally closed society, shuttered off from the world by the Cultural Revolution, which by 1973, the year of Lee’s death, had reached its puritanical, repressive, murderous zenith. Wuxia and early kung fu films — whether consciously or not, it matters little — reinforced China’s monastically insular sense of itself as a world in one country. They showed Chinese people fighting each other, and foreigners, to the minimal extent a world beyond China was ever recognized, took only one form: the despised Japanese, who were invaders and aggressors within China itself.

Lee, in The Big Boss and Way of the Dragon especially, showed something different: Chinese people outside China. And given the runaway popularity of martial arts films in Hong Kong and throughout the mainland, there’s a very real sense in which Lee, by showing a world beyond China’s borders, brought the world — or a particular vision of it — to the people of China. He opened the very notion of Chinese-ness — what it means to be Chinese in the context of other nationalities — up. He gave it context; he gave it the world. No longer were Chinese people, in Lee’s cinematic vision, confined to China, as other Chinese movies of the era suggested. It was possible to be both Chinese and a fully curious citizen of the world, struggling with complexity, finding a place among other cultures, engaging with unfamiliar customs and memes: pasta! Language barriers! Strange soup!

Lee’s final and most famous movie, Enter the Dragon, distills these complexities even further. Where his previous films showed him traveling to some other part of the world, here we see him in his native habitat, competing as one among many fighters from all corners of the world at a Hong Kong martial arts tournament organized by a local business tycoon. The plot premise is straight from the sinocentric wuxia manual — the world comes to China — but Lee subverts this cliche of the genre with typical playfulness. The villain here is not foreign. He is Chinese, the corrupt Mr. Han, who runs a business empire covering multiple evils (drugs, prostitution, slavery) and fights Lee with the help of a prosthetic blade-hand in the famous mirror scene that closes the film. Critically, Lee only triumphs over Mr. Han and his henchmen with the help of the friendly foreign fighters competing in the tournament.

The subtext of this denouement builds on the thematic and cultural advances of The Big Boss and Way of the Dragon. Even as Lee was introducing China, on the screen, to the world, he was also cautioning about the corruption within, and signaling the virtues of cooperation with friendly members of the international community. Foreigners were not simply caricature villains to be despised and repelled without question; they could be helpful allies in fighting local bad guys and fostering a more virtuous system of government. This was a world away from the crude anti-Japanese, China-is-everything narratives the Chinese cinema-going public of the era would have been used to. Action films always reflect a certain view of the political order. Lee’s worldview was, on the evidence of the four films he produced in his short but incandescent career, overwhelmingly cosmopolitan, internationalist, and open to difference. Today, China struggles with political corruption and projects its power throughout Asia with an increasingly spiky mix of pride and entitlement (Exhibit A: the South China Sea dispute). Perhaps its leaders would benefit from re-watching Enter the Dragon.

The Cultural Revolution died with Mao Zedong in 1976. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping initiated the policy of gaige kaifang, or “economic reform and opening up,” and in 1979 China resumed diplomatic relations with the U.S., heralding an end to almost 30 years of international isolation. But thanks to Lee, the cultural opening up of China was by that point already well under way. Whether eating soup in Rome, fighting drug lords in Thailand or dancing the cha-cha, the Hong Kong master was radically, thrillingly ahead of his time.