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Kung-Fu Wit

When Oscar Wilde was in his full, brief flower, any witty remark, whoever made it, was immediately attributed to him. Later on the same thing happened to Dorothy Parker. Like the practitioner of no other literary genre, the great wit is assumed to incarnate his gift, leaving room for no one else. While he lives, he is not one among many: he is alone. When he dies, there is a tense wait for the birth of such another.

But what if a great wit were to be born, live out his short life, and pass away unappreciated? By the nature of his talent, it couldn’t happen. The news about Bruce Lee was bound to come out sooner or later. Perhaps it was his very fame as a Kung-Fu film star that overshadowed his genius for comedy.

Bruce, before his death at thirty-two, was worshipped worldwide as the young man who brought the Chinese martial arts into the twentieth century and the international arena. With his handsome face distorted by the blood-curdling cry of kiai, Bruce would kick the pistol from the hand of any assailant not smart enough to realise that the chief advantage conferred by fire-arms is their ability to kill from a distance.

Now Bruce sleeps, but his fame is greater than ever. In Britain there is vast interest in the details of his life, methods and philosophy: yet further evidence for the theory that mass culture is not imposed from above, like defoliant, but grows spontaneously from below, like jungle. On the surface, the British reading public is interested in Salman Rushdie’s living-room and the forthcoming novels of Lisa St Aubin de Teran. Deeper down, however, where the sales are in the millions instead of mere thousands, the people who buy books for love are interested in Bruce Lee.

The Power of Bruce Lee, The Secret Art of Bruce Lee, Bruce Lee’s Last Interview — these are the volumes that sell straight off the van. It is a market in which there is no division between pundit and common reader. All readers are pundits, and collectively they have decided that Bruce Lee was not only the foremost modern philosopher of Kung-Fu, but the most penetrating wit ever to come out of the East.

The forty-third issue of Kung-Fu Monthly carries a cover-story entitled THE WIT OF BRUCE LEE, OUTRAGEOUS HUMOURIST! You won’t need to be told about this if you are subscribing to Kung-Fu Monthly already. It is statistically likely that you are: no precise figures are available, but estimates indicate that Lambeth Palace is almost the only prominent address in Britain not receiving KFM twelve times a year.

If by some slim chance, however, you are not already a subscriber, now is the time to place your order and thus make yourself eligible for a discount on the Bruce Lee one-piece track-suit offer.

You’ve waited long enough ... Yes, KFM has finally located some excellent reproductions of Bruce Lee’s amazing YELLOW AND BLACK, ONE-PIECE TRACK SUIT. Snug-fitting and comfortable, we are anticipating an enormous response to our offer for this rare and unique garment.

It will be seen that KFM’s command of grammar is not always exact. But the master himself was perfect in this respect as in all others. For Bruce, language was just another form of expression, like kicking people in the head. He gazed with narrowed eyes into the deep secrets of human laughter, mastered them, and turned them to explosive use, like his feet which kicked not just ‘at’ an opponent, but ‘through’ him, as in taneshiwari, or Breaking Techniques. His tongue was like a third foot.

Which is not to say that his foot was in his mouth. Nevertheless, perhaps because the language of the body was even more international than Chinese or English, he seems to have favoured mime as the vehicle for his outrageous humour. ‘Once, whilst being chased by a gang of thugs through the back streets of Hong Kong,’ KFM recounts, ‘he managed to get a little way ahead — and then pulled off a neat little stunt.

‘He leapt on to a nearby roof, stripped down to his underpants and sat meditating in the cross-legged position. When the heavies arrived he screwed up his face and squinted to such a degree that they failed to recognise him. When asked if he’d seen anybody come by in the last few minutes he nodded — and pointed in another direction. They disappeared in hot pursuit!’

The Bruce Lee one-piece track suit was a functional item of equipment, since if you kick people all day for a living the strain on the crotch of the trousers is immense. (Though not as immense as the strain on the crotch of your opponent’s trousers, if, emulating Bruce, you ‘execute the roundhouse kick to the exposed groin’.)

This question of split trousers became the occasion of outrageous humour for the high-spirited Bruce, known to his disciples as the Little Dragon. ‘One day while on the set of Big Boss,’ says KFM, ‘the Little Dragon was talking to support actress, Nora Miao. In a serious voice he asked her, “What do Kung-Fu fighters have more than anyone else?” Nora, and one or two other people around, decided that it was obviously an important question, so they thought long and hard. Eventually they gave up and asked him what it was. He replied, “More torn trousers” — and promptly produced a pair with an enormous gaping rip in them. It was a good joke, and everyone laughed.’

Like all true wits, Bruce seldom repeated himself. He used an idea a second time only if he could make it more humorous. (In KFM the word is sometimes spelt ‘humerous’, probably in homage to Bruce’s strongly developed upper arm.) His famous Japanese telephone-engineer disguise is a case in point. ‘In Fist of Fury, who could ever forget Bruce’s Japanese telephone-engineer disguise? Once more, many Western audiences may have missed the absurdity of a Chinese actor disguising himself as a Jap. Out East, it had them rolling in the isles!’

Readers should not jump to the conclusion that ‘isles’ is a misprint for ‘aisles’. Around Hong Kong there are many small islands whose inhabitants, after a long day manufacturing toys for export, ask for nothing more than to watch Bruce Lee bewilder the enemy with a mixture of roundhouse kicks, blows with the extended knuckle and humerous impersonations. But the important point is that the Japanese telephone-engineer disguise is not allowed to rest there. Dining out with friends in Hong Kong, Bruce brings the routine to perfection.

‘Eating out,’ laughs KFM, ‘frequently gave the Little Dragon the opportunity to turn on the hilarity. One day he accidentally knocked out one of his contact lenses. The other people at the table were worried he might flare up at this embarrassing incident. The Master, however, saw the funny side of it and, quickly, he donned a pair of heavy, shell-rimmed glasses. At once he seemed transformed into the famed Japanese telephone-engineer disguise — the table rocked with the joke.’

Most of the great wits have had to rehearse their ad libs. Even Byron wrote better than he spoke. Sheridan was the only one who had it to burn. But perhaps Bruce Lee was his equal as a wit, and his superior as a free spirit. To purchase Drury Lane, Sheridan reputedly sold his wife’s favours to the Prince of Wales, and ever afterwards was careful not to offend his grand connections. Bruce, secure in the love of an audience larger than Charlie Chaplin’s, could be as shocking as he wished.

‘One of the best remembered scenes,’ says KFM, ‘has to be in Way of the Dragon, where a customer visits the toilet, only to discover the Little Dragon standing on the seat. His knees are bent and he’s poised over the basin ready to take his trousers down! Though the impact of the joke was a little lost in the West, for Eastern audiences it was hilarious. Well they could appreciate the difficulties encountered by a Chinese-man brought up with very different toilet facilities to those normally used in our part of the world.’

This shaft of wit might have been lost if someone had not seen it as his duty to interpret Bruce Lee’s outrageous humour for an Occidental audience. But someone did. Culture is more robust than we tend to imagine. Creativity arises spontaneously and scholarship along with it. There is something encouraging about the way Bruce Lee’s permanent significance as a wit has emerged from his temporary fame as the man who revolutionised the martial arts. The martial arts will be revolutionised again, but the wit of Bruce Lee endures — an important contribution to the world culture which has become a reality in our time.

Observer, 20 February 1983