“Bruce Is My Uce”: Pacific Claims on a Martial Arts Icon

Fightland Blog

By Sean Mallon

Photo by Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Moviepix

Bruce Lee has long been celebrated in the Pacific as much as anywhere else in the world—his achievements as an actor, martial artist, and founder of Jeet Kune Do are well-documented. One commentator has described Lee as the proto-mixed martial artist. Today, social media, YouTube, video games and sports such as MMA keep Bruce Lee alive in the public imagination. With the official Bruce Lee Facebook page—run by his daughter Shannon—boasting nearly 16 million likes, Bruce is long gone but not forgotten.

Bruce Lee and martial arts cinema has had an impact on the region’s visual culture that I can’t ignore as a curator and researcher of Pacific peoples history. At a recent symposium on China in the Pacific, I reflected on the influence Bruce Lee had on indigenous people from this part of the world. Here, I share a few images from my presentation and a brief commentary. 

On a personal note, Bruce Lee and martial arts became part of my visual world in the 1980s. However, I recognized his image long before I saw him in action on screen. He was incredibly popular among Pacific communities. Stills from Bruce Lee films were everywhere throughout my teenage years: on posters plastered to bedroom walls, in garages that doubled as makeshift bars, gyms, and pool rooms. People I knew made and used their own versions of nunchaku, they wore “kung fu shoes,” joined martial arts clubs or pored over martial arts books and magazines to figure out moves. In the households I lived in as a teenager, Bruce Lee often took his place on the wall next to the velvet painting of Elvis, the family portrait, or the painting of Jesus Christ and the Sacred Heart. Although Bruce Lee died in 1973, in the 1980s, he was still a part of our lives. 

Photograph with permission of F. Lefaoseu.

Outside the home, Bruce Lee is immortalized in murals and street art. Indeed, the street and back alleys are where he often dished out his Jeet Kune Do justice. Across the world, murals are often the medium used to honor local heroes, celebrities and cult figures from Malcolm X to Che Guevara. In the Pacific, you might see a mural featuring a local sporting star, Michael Jackson or Bob Marley… but Bruce Lee makes an appearance too. 

Kreativconcept's "L'association graffiti et skate de tahiti".

This is a detail from a slightly weathered mural near Fa’a’ā, Pape’ete on the island of Tahiti in the Society Islands. The islands of Tahiti are incredibly connected to its Pacific neighbours, the cultural influences of its French colonisers, as well as the popular cultures of the wider world. 

In some parts of the Pacific, the content, style and philosophy of street art has been shaped by hip hop culture’s engagement with Chinese martial arts cinema. It’s a case of one subculture appropriating another’s visual and cultural appeal. As Kung Fu scribe Gene Ching has noted, the Wu Tang Clan took their name from the Kung Fu movie Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang (1983). Hip hop pioneers such as MC Grandmaster Flash and films such The Last Dragon (1985) riffed off and referenced the martial arts. Commentators often remark on the connection between hip hop’s four key elements of graffiti, MC-ing, DJ-ing, and dancing have Bruce Lee’s philosophy around creativity and the open free flowing style characteristic of Jeet Kune Do. 

Bruce Lee by Daniel Tippett.

The images on this van were created by New Zealand based graffiti artists Darryl DLT Thomson and Daniel Tippett. DLT is a celebrated Maori hip hop pioneer, and his art work is an example of how Bruce Lee and Hong Kong cinema travelled with the culture and fan base of hip hop worldwide—resonating with Pacific islanders, in much the same way as it did with young African-Americans. 

As much as people in the Pacific could make-over their homes, neighborhoods or vehicles with the images of Bruce Lee, they also attempted to make-over their bodies in his image. If they couldn’t get the physique, Bruce lee fans would wear his image. “Bruce is my Uce” was a slogan on a T-shirt that was popular in South Auckland, New Zealand about ten years ago. The word “uce” stands for uso, which in the Samoan language can refer to a brother (of a man), sister (of a woman). According to UrbanDictionary.com, an appropriate usage might be “Wat up Uce?! (Like saying wat up brotha) if your black” (sic). The shirt was part of a now long established and flourishing international trend where designers utilize the humble T-shirt as a canvas for all kinds of pop culture imagery and messages. The first version of the T-shirt appeared around 2005, with the slogan “Bruce Lee is my homeboy”. It was followed by another shirt based on the character of Bolo Yeung—Bruce’s hugely muscular opponent and the top fighter of drug baron Master Han in Enter the Dragon.  

Bolo Yeung

“Bolo’s my other own homeboy!” targeted Polynesian fans attracted to the size and physicality of Bolo, which in some cases more closely resembled their own. Later, the linguistic reworking of “Bruce Lee is my homeboy” to “Bruce is my uce” would extend the Samoan arm of friendship ever more closely around the shoulders of Bruce Lee. To make the transformation complete, Bruce was equipped with a rubber jandal, (or flip-flop as it might be known elsewhere)—a much favored style of island foot wear that could double up as a weapon.

For those of us who grew up with Bruce Lee, part of his appeal was his physique, athleticism, personality, and discipline. We were impressed by his determination to stand up to enemies and take everybody on by himself. However, Samoan actor and playwright Oscar Kightley has a theory that “…we as Samoans love Bruce Lee so much because not only was he an action hero who kicked ass, but because he was brown. Or at least as close to brown as there was in those days when there weren't Pacific faces on screen.… if you blurred your eyes you could almost pretend that Bruce was part Polynesian.  You couldn't do that with John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood.”

Sean Mallon is Senior Curator of Pacific Cultures at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Special thanks to Stanley Tallon and Oscar Kightley.


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Mark Hunt and the History of Broken Hands in the Pacific

Punching Above Their Weight: A Hard Hitting History of Polynesian Fighters from New Zealand