SHUNDE, China (Reuters) - In the sleepy town of Xiacun in southern China, elders doze and children play along “little dragon” alley, which winds its way to the ancestral home of kung fu star Bruce Lee.
The small, grey-brick courtyard house contains old photos of Lee on the walls, an altar, a musty bedroom and a wooden dummy used for martial arts training, but visitors are few and far between, and other efforts by the town’s council to commemorate their most famous son are also off the tourist radar.
While Lee is renowned the world over as a martial arts legend with a slew of action flicks to his name, back in his father’s Chinese hometown, where many share the Lee name, his legacy remains low-key, even in 2010, the 70th anniversary of his birth.
“We don’t really think about it that much,” said a young woman sitting on the threshold of a home next door.
Local officials, however, have been trying to change that.
Millions have been invested in a park filled with lakes and rare birds, and called Bruce Lee Paradise, that authorities in Shunde and nearby Foshan hope will become a major tourist draw.
“Lee’s image and reputation are becoming more and more familiar now in Foshan,” said Chen Xian, the administration manager of Bruce Lee Paradise. “The Bruce Lee brand is something we’ve been trying actively to promote ... he’s someone the Chinese people should be proud of.”
The motivation is part cultural, part commercial. But the park, nearly 90 minutes by car from Guangzhou along dusty highways, remains largely off the beaten tourist track.
During a recent visit, a 12-meter (39 ft 4.4 in) high bronze statue of Lee remained half-finished and under scaffolding. A museum filled with Lee’s weapons, books, posters and other memorabilia was virtually deserted.
While Lee was been born and raised in San Francisco, later forging his movie career in Hong Kong, Lee’s family originates from Shunde, one of several southern Chinese towns that were home to much of the Chinese diaspora that immigrated in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
While popular overseas, restrictions on Western cultural imports during China’s Cultural Revolution meant Lee was unknown inside China during his cinematic heyday in the late 60s and 70s.
Chairman Mao Zedong, who launched the Cultural Revolution, is said to have been a fan, according to Chen of Bruce Lee paradise, who says Mao once requested a screen reel of Lee’s hit film “Fist of Fury” for private viewing in Beijing.
For some modern martial arts practitioners like Wang Hongxin, who is a master of nunchuka sticks, a martial arts weapon which Bruce Lee excelled at, the star continues to embody China’s need to stand up to the West.
“There are now a lot of kung fu masters. But in those days, foreigners really bullied the Chinese. And Bruce Lee back then, used his fists to survive abroad,” said Wang, who runs the Guangdong Bison Wushu Club in a factory in the Pearl River Delta.
Lee, who died in mysterious circumstances in 1973 aged 32, starred in kung fu classics such as “Fist of Fury,” “Game of Death” and “Enter the Dragon.
Revered both by martial arts adherents and movie buffs the world over for popularizing the kung fu cinematic genre, Lee also helped usher in a golden age of Hong Kong film in the 1960s.
This year, the Hong Kong International Film Festival is planning a retrospective, while authorities in Hong Kong are planning to convert one of Lee’s former residences, a motel, into a commemoration site and museum.
“He’s a part of Hong Kong,” says Sam Ho, a film critic who works at Hong Kong’s public film archive. “He helped the world know about Hong Kong cinema, though his films represent a small part of Hong Kong cinema.”
Several upcoming films will also touch upon the life of Bruce Lee, including “Ip Man 2,” chronicling the life of his teacher, the grandmaster of the of the fluid “Wing Chun” martial arts style. Hong Kong arthouse director Wong Kar-wai also has a movie on Ip Man in the works.
“Bruce Lee is already a standard. He’s like Confucius ... he’s part of our culture that we will embrace,” Donnie Yen, who plays Ip Man in the movie, told Reuters.
“He (Lee) never stopped progressing as a martial artist. He was in search of a higher level all the way till his death.”
Reporting by James Pomfret