When American-born, Hong Kong–based martial arts star Bruce Lee met his untimely demise in 1973 at 32, the term “Asian American” was still new, coined in 1968 by Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee. Just a year earlier, Richard Nixon made the first visit to the People’s Republic of China by a US president. Nearly 50 years later, Asian Americans have taken an increasingly prominent, if still underrepresented, position in Hollywood. China has ascended into position as a major player in the global theatrical box office, overtaking the United States for the first time in 2020.
Two recent books on the intersection of China and Hollywood bring together these important threads to offer essential historical grounding for contemporary debates about the relationship between the world’s two largest film industries. Focusing on the story of a singular defining figure in one case, and an entire industrial tapestry in the other, both texts offer rich narratives from the past that help us make sense of the complex political and racial threads that shape the current relationship between these two industries.
In Like Water: A Cultural History of Bruce Lee, Daryl Joji Maeda tells the story of Bruce Lee by examining the forces of capitalism, orientalism, colonialism, militarism, and globalization that led to the genesis of the pioneering global superstar. Highly engaging, Maeda’s history of Lee’s life provides a vital service to scholarly and general readers seeking to understand the role that Lee played in shaping and critiquing the media flow between Hong Kong and the United States. Like Water draws together the disparate fields of Asian studies, American studies, and Asian American studies, which, while often dealing with similar subject matter, emerge from radically differing traditions, ranging from Cold War national security concerns to the American Civil Rights Movement.
The book begins by delving into the immigration story of Lee’s family, foregrounding his experience as a figure whose life spans cultures and countries. Maeda describes Lee’s early life as an actor in Hong Kong, his martial arts training, and his family’s background in Hong Kong’s entertainment industry. Later chapters explore his life in the United States and the complex racial, ethnic, and cultural divides he faced in his professional and personal life. The book wraps up by detailing Lee’s return to Hong Kong and eventual stardom. Despite facing racial stereotypes in Hollywood, back in Hong Kong Lee found fame and the opportunity to critique the systems that had stymied his success. Most notably, the film Enter the Dragon (1973), completed only a few months before Lee’s death, synthesized a critique of colonialism with a critique of racism in the United States.
Maeda’s cultural history is compulsively readable. Like Water focuses heavily on Lee’s life, but it also treats Lee as a literal embodiment of the complex forces of imperialism, colonialism, and attitudes toward Asians in the United States during the mid-20th century. It provides a lot of background for readers who may not have that context, but it may leave some hungry for still more. For example, while the book bills itself as exploring the politics of Hollywood’s relationship with Hong Kong, it offers little in the way of comparison between the distinct political stakes Lee and Chinese-born Jackie Chan — who rose from a Hong Kong child actor in the 1960s to a global martial arts star today — had in this transpacific relationship. Lee’s Americanness presented him with opportunities unavailable to Chan, who, despite being a major force in Hong Kong martial arts cinema in the 1970s and ’80s, did not achieve major stardom in the United States until the 1990s.
Maeda might have spent more time contextualizing issues of hybridity and dual identity for readers: Chan, as Lee’s contemporary in the Hong Kong martial arts scene, is a major transpacific martial arts figure in Hollywood and Hong Kong who, unlike Lee, has never focused his advocacy on Asian American representation, but who remains a staunch supporter of the People’s Republic of China. Yet much like the burden of representation faced by Lee, the book confronts the challenge of sharing the unique history of one influential individual against a backdrop of chronically underexplored histories of Asian America. Just as it is unfair to ask Lee to bear the burden of representation for all Asian Americans in Hollywood, so too should figures such as Lee anchor cultural histories like these without having to explicate all the racial biases and political landmines of the 20th century.
Ying Zhu has built her career as a scholar in the United States and China between both spaces. Drawing on her roots in Shanghai and her experience as a professor with academic appointments in both the United States and Hong Kong, Zhu offers a historical tapestry of Hollywood’s investment in China in her new scholarly monograph, Hollywood in China: Behind the Scenes of the World’s Largest Movie Market. The book takes readers through Hollywood’s historical investments in China. Rich with archival images and personal anecdotes — such as the author’s experience living next to Shanghai’s legendary Paris Theater as a child — the book weaves together a range of sources to offer a complex tapestry of stories, while its historical overview of the Chinese film industry’s relationship with Hollywood makes a valuable contribution to cinema studies. The latter part of the book, contending with a moment in flux, offers interesting vignettes, albeit ones that meander away from a core driving argument. However, like many of the films the book describes, the journey is more important than the destination.
Zhu’s narrative moves readers from the earliest days of film distribution in Shanghai in the 1890s to the present. After articulating how China developed its commercial film industry in conjunction with Hollywood and other global commercial players in the 1930s and 1940s, the book explores the evolution of that commercial enterprise into China’s state-run film-production system under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and in dialogue with the “Soviet model.” Ripe with anecdotes about individual films, the book traces the path that Chinese cinema followed from Hollywood influence to Soviet influence to, eventually, charting its own course. Hollywood in China also examines the persistent power of US films in China’s national film industry and the official reemergence of movies imported from California in the 1980s. These initial historical chapters weave together essential sources and do invaluable service for those interested in learning about global Hollywood, China, or the history of Sino-US cultural relations.
For the remainder of the book, Zhu addresses the much murkier challenge of the recent history of Hollywood and China and its political implications. Zhu highlights the way that poor Western reception of Chinese cinema builds on biases that associate all Chinese films with the CCP, and then she shows how the CCP and Xi Jinping have sought to co-opt the Chinese film industry — with mixed results. These dynamics of the Sino-US relationship have been further complicated by changes in the US and Chinese film industries during the COVID-19 pandemic and amid pressures to decouple the industries in both countries. Like the industries themselves, Zhu’s uncertain conclusion seems affected by the volatility of the moment.
Both books are essential to the libraries of those interested in China’s relationship with Hollywood. Zhu focuses on the long, broad history of China’s relationship with Hollywood and the evolution of the Chinese film industry. Maeda, by contrast, offers a deep dive into the life of the first defining figure in the relationship between Hong Kong and Hollywood to better understand this complex relationship. Maeda’s highly engaging account, written with professional care but also a fan’s exuberance, offers a lively narrative for Lee enthusiasts and scholars alike.
General-interest readers looking for an accessible, well-researched account of Lee’s life will find Like Water a good fit, as will more serious readers. Meanwhile, Zhu’s Hollywood in China offers a rich array of anecdotes about and analyses of chapters in the long-standing relationship between these two major cultural industries. While accessible enough to engage many kinds of readers, hers is especially well suited for academics eager to learn more about this dynamic for studies of China, the global media industries, or both of these subjects. Together, the two works provide valuable new material for those invested in transpacific cultural history. Most importantly, reading these two books together underscores that, despite the emergence of such rich new texts, there is still so much left to explore and discover.
Aynne Kokas is the C. K. Yen Professor at the Miller Center, the director of the UVA East Asia Center, and an associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.