Sunday, May 10, 2009

HONG KONG HUNTS ITS STAR HERITAGE

By Vaudine England
BBC News, Hong Kong

Betty Ting Pei in front of Bruce Lee poster, 2003
Betty Ting Pei became a Buddhist after the death of her lover, Bruce Lee

Kung Fu legend Bruce Lee was spending a night with his girlfriend, fellow star Betty Ting Pei, when he complained of a headache and took one of Betty's painkillers.

Within hours he was dead from swelling of the brain, at the age of just 32.

His death on 20 July 1973 deprived an avid worldwide audience of more epoch-making films such as his Enter the Dragon, Fist of Fury and The Way of the Dragon.

He created the martial arts genre in movies and gave Chinese people around the world something to be proud of.

So intense and loving is the aura that still surrounds Bruce Lee that it also extends to an average two-storey house in a Hong Kong suburb called Kowloon Tong.

The house at 41 Cumberland Avenue is where the star lived officially with his wife, Linda Lee Cadwell, son Brandon (who also was to die tragically young) and daughter Shannon.

41 Cumberland Road, Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong, April 2009
Bruce Lee's last Hong Kong home is now a 'love motel'

Currently it is a love motel, a place where couples can check in for a night, or less, with their cars parked behind curtains to obscure their number-plates and secure anonymity.

It is a nondescript place, but the fence, the arch over the gate and the basic shell of the house are original.

After the tragic earthquake in Sichuan last year, noted billionaire philanthropist Yu Panglin thought of selling various properties around Hong Kong, including the HK$100m (US$12.9m, £8.8m) love motel, to donate the proceeds to the quake victims.

Outcry ensued. This was the home of the great martial arts star, a part of Hong Kong's heritage - and local people weren't going to let it simply disappear.

So Mr Yu changed his plans, and decided to donate the home to Bruce Lee fans around the world.

"Mr Yu has had the house for more than a decade and many people go there, even now," said Raymond Chan, the surveyor and member of the town planning board to which Mr Yu has entrusted the property.

Quite what will happen to the building remains unclear - will it be given to the government to manage? Or will a trust be set up to manage the site?

A committee is being formed, of architects, planners, government representatives and others, to work on moving the project forward.

Fans, friends and film buffs around the world are being asked to contribute designs and memorabilia, and Mr Chan has set up a new email address to manage the influx: bruceleehouse@gmail.com.

Bruce Lee statue, Hong Kong waterfront
Mainland tourists often pose by Bruce Lee's statue

Bruce Lee's daughter Shannon has said she is happy to help. She leads the Bruce Lee Foundation and has been working on the establishment of the Bruce Lee Action Museum in Seattle, where the Lees lived between 1959 and 1964.

"Reviving my family's old Hong Kong residence is a unique opportunity which I believe should be seized if at all possible," she told Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.

For Mr Chan, Bruce Lee is the legend who created a new identity for Chinese men.

A stroll along Hong Kong's waterfront "Avenue of the Stars" shows Mr Chan is not alone in this view - a statue of the star draws tourists and fans every day, many of them from mainland China.

Last year, China's state broadcaster, CCTV, ran a 50-part series about Bruce Lee in a belated recognition of the star's symbolism for the Chinese - even though people living on the mainland must have been barely aware of him during his lifetime.

Somehow the pull of Jackie Chan, another action star, has not captured the Hong Kong public's imagination quite as much.

Jackie Chan has told reporters of his desire to donate his collection of antique sandalwood houses from the Ming and Qing dynasties to Hong Kong, to help spur interest in his heritage and provide Hong Kong with more tourist attractions.

The seven houses, stored in pieces in a Hong Kong warehouse for years, are reportedly worth US$67m (£46m). But he claims the government has dithered for 10 years, and refused him access to adequate sites, sending him to seek a home for the constructions elsewhere.

Jackie Chan with two cheong-sam ladies at Beijing charity concert Nov 08
Jackie Chan is criticised by some in Hong Kong for being too pro-Beijing

Singapore and Shanghai are to receive some Jackie Chan houses, but their Hong Kong welcome remains uncertain.

The recent howls of protest after Jackie Chan said that Chinese people "need to be controlled" to avoid the "chaos" of societies such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, will not have helped his search or home-town validation, the pundits have said.

The newfound focus on the heritage values of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan has raised questions about what it means to be a Hong Konger.

"Hong Kong is much more interested in heritage now," said Christine Loh, leader of the Civic Exchange think-tank.

An environmental and heritage campaigner and a former legislator, she points to a growing number of cases where public debate about preserving what makes Hong Kong special has become intense.

The idea of heritage has grown exponentially in recent years, as the change from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 alerted people to a passing of an era.

A sense of Hong Kong identity as distinct from mainland Chinese or British colonial identities has animated passionate debates about saving icons such as the Star Ferry, which crosses the harbour, or old neighbourhoods where stone shop-houses are propped up by steel hoists to survive.

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