'Doctor Strange' Star Benedict Wong Celebrates Bruce Lee's 80th (Guest Column)

The Chinese Connection (1972) Bruce Lee and inset of Benedict-Wong
National General Pictures/Photofest; Rich Polk/Getty Images

The late actor and martial arts icon was born 80 years ago, on Nov. 27, 1940.

I vividly remember calling out to my mum one evening in the '70s, "Mum, Mum there’s a Chinese man on the TV!" The whole family excitedly rushed in to see, only to be let down to see Benny Hill. False alarm. False representation.

Then, one day, he arrived on my screen, a symbol of East Asian strength. A symbol of hope as a first-generation, Britain-born Chinese growing up in Salford. Bruce Lee has been with me in many different forms through my years, and resonated in different ways.

My first introduction to his movies was with Enter the Dragon, which was, and still is, one of my favorite films. '70s cool at its best, and one of the few films where we actually hear him talk rather than being dubbed.

Further down the line, I happened on his book, Tao of Jeet Kune Do, which has played an intrinsic part in guiding me through my career. When I embarked as an actor 30 years ago, other than some encouraging advice from the legendary Burt Kwouk ("You can do it, Kid!"), whom I was lucky enough to work on radio plays with early on in my career, there were no East Asian actors to guide me through this relatively uncharted path.

Tao of Jeet Kune Do is more than just a book, it’s a philosophical guide that I would highly recommend to all young actors starting out. In the book, Bruce Lee gleaned off all martial arts, using all styles, constantly evolving, discarding, learning and adjusting, becoming better and moving forward; "Because of styles people are separated. Research your own experience, absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own."

I’ve tried to incorporate this philosophy into my acting style. Starting out 30 years ago I simply didn’t have the means to go to drama school, so I’ve taken an unusual path. It’s been about the alchemy of bringing your own version and style. Welcoming all forms and accepting that others around you are doing the same. Learning from others what is, and isn’t, right for you, discarding what no longer serves you, and moving forward.

There’s another quote from his book that I’ve looked to for guidance, and that I’ve tried to use as a mantra for my career; ‘If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them."

This has been particularly helpful when I’ve hit one of the inevitable plateaus, to help work myself through it, as well as when I’ve come up against limitations. Particularly earlier on in my career, there were constant limitations; patterns forming, being boxed in, stereotypes, some I couldn’t wriggle out of. I tried to understand who and where those limitations were coming from, and over time I’m learning to challenge them. Using the previous quote of rejecting what is useless,
closing the door on what I see as limitations and trying to break myself free of them.

There’s a huge pop-art print in my living room of Bruce Lee, with his hands up. I think most people would view his stance as self-defense, but to me I see him in a constant state of readiness. He’s there as a reminder to me to stay ready: ready for change, ready to move forward, to be organic and flow with what comes at me. Be water, my friend.