When Bruce Lee Left Hollywood to Become 'The Big Boss'

Bruce Lee in The Big Boss- Photofest-H 2016

Exactly why Hong Kong has declined to tap Lee’s enduring star power to serve as one of the city’s icons is still the subject of some debate.

For decades, Hong Kong movie buffs have been perplexed by their city’s neglect of its most famous native son: Bruce Lee. 

Hong Kong has no Bruce Lee museum, no Bruce Lee Boulevard, not even a proper Bruce Lee memorial. The city’s Avenue of Stars, Hong Kong’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, features a lone statue of the star, but its erection was the result of a global fan initiative, not the local government’s largesse.

In 2011, the owner of Lee’s former mansion in Kowloon Tong offered to donate the home to the city so that it could be made into a commemorative museum, but the project fizzled within the city bureaucracy.

Exactly why Hong Kong has declined to tap Lee’s enduring star power to serve as one of the city’s icons is still the subject of some debate — most suggest that the local elders never viewed Lee as a true native, given that he was born to Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, USA (even though he returned to Hong Kong when he was three months old and grew up there until he returned to California at age 18).

But this year, for its part, HKIFF is taking steps to right the oversight. The 40th edition of the fest is honoring Lee with screenings of restored, digital versions of four classic Bruce Lee kung fu flicks, beginning with The Big Boss, the film that brought him back to Hong Kong and launched him into superstardom.

In 1971, having grown frustrated with the side parts and choreography work he was getting in Los Angeles, Lee returned to Hong Kong on the advice of producer Fred Weintraub to make a feature film that would showcase his skills for executives in Hollywood. After signing a two-picture deal with Golden Harvest, Lee played his first leading role in director Lo Wei’s The Big Boss opposite James Tien, already a big star in Hong Kong.

Lee’s charisma and fighting style made the film a phenomenon, and it soon became the highest-grossing picture in Hong Kong history, not to be surpassed until the release of Lee’s second Golden Harvest vehicle, Fist of Fury (1972).

The global success of these movies had the intended effect: in 1972, Warner Brothers offered Lee the lead role in Enter the Dragon, the first Chinese film to be produced by a major Hollywood studio. Tragically, this artistic and entertainment industry milestone would be Lee’s last onscreen appearance before his mysterious and untimely death on July 20, 1973, at the age of 32.