Mostar's Little Dragon

How Bruce Lee became a symbol of peace in the Balkans.


The kung fu movie star Bruce Lee would have turned 65 in November, and a two-ring media circus descended on Mostar, Bosnia, for his birthday. It was then, in this mortar- and bullet-pocked city once famous for its Ottoman bridge, that the world's first public monument to Lee was unveiled. Building civil society never seemed so weird: Here was a life-sized bronze statue of a topless American immigrant paid for by the German government and christened by a Chinese diplomat, erected at the behest of a dysfunctional community of Croats, Serbs, and Muslims.

The unlikely statue operates on both straight and playful levels of meaning. While respectfully honoring Lee as a symbol of "loyalty, skill, friendship and justice," the monument's fathers also see it as a sly rebuke to the ongoing use of public spaces to glorify the country's competing nationalisms, with each monument guaranteed to alienate and infuriate someone in Bosnia's ideological-ethnic tinderbox.

"The monument is an attempt to question symbols, old and new, by mixing up high grandeur with mass culture and kung fu," explained Nino Raspudic of the Mostar Urban Movement, the youth group that spearheaded the project. Vesilin Gatalo, of the same organization, described Bruce Lee as "far [enough] away from us that nobody can ask what he did during World War II" and "part of our idea of universal justice–that the good guys can win."

As with a Lee roundhouse kick, the post-political point seems to have been made with grace and power. Unlike the rancor that accompanied a recent attempt to rename Sarajevo's airport for former Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, the Lee statue elicited only smiles and shrugs from locals on every side of Mostar's tense three-way divide. "I'm very happy about it," one Muslim resident told Agence France-Presse. "For a moment it did not matter who is Muslim and who is Croat."

It may seem odd that a city trying to overcome its reputation for violence would choose as a symbol a man famous for artfully snapping vertebrae. But violence is relative, nowhere more so than Bosnia. Lee never used a weapon designed after the Han dynasty. His preference, famously, was the nunchaku, a weapon of wood and rope with origins in the tools of Asian subsistence agriculture. Nobody ever massacred a village with nunchucks.

The residents of Mostar are not alone in finding much to honor in Bruce Lee. Though hundreds have tried to swipe his mantle, there has yet to emerge a martial arts figure as loved or as iconic as Lee remains today, 32 years after his death.

Lee began mesmerizing audiences long before his first film; indeed, before he ever showed his face. His quick rise began in 1966, when he landed the masked sidekick role of Kato in The Green Hornet, a Batman knockoff on ABC. In the show's single season, Lee's bursts of swirling kicks and lightning punches offered America its first view of Chinese kung fu. Until then, the country's exposure to martial arts was limited to karate and judo, stodgier fighting systems brought back to America by veterans of the occupation of Japan.

After three successful films in Hong Kong, Lee's collaborator and producer, Raymond Chow, inked a deal with 20th Century Fox to make Enter the Dragon (1973), the first ever joint production between Hong Kong and Hollywood. At the time Lee was also being considered for the starring role in a new TV series, Kung Fu. But network officials didn't think America was ready for an Asian star, so David Carradine, a leaden-footed white guy with no martial arts experience, got the role.

Enter the Dragon was a global smash, but Lee died of apparent brain swelling in Hong Kong a month before its American debut. Soon poorly dubbed versions of Lee's four films were screening around the globe to rapt full houses. If Lee was looking down on his posthumous status as international superstar and Third World hero, it was from an ethereal VIP room, waiting with James Dean and a few others for Bob Marley to show up.

Like Dean, Lee had an on-screen presence that burned through and elevated everything around it. Also like Dean, Lee played quiet, sympathetic characters, at once severe and soft. That presence was dominated by his smooth and sinuous torso–he was 1 percent body fat, or so it was said–and three truly great trademark facial tricks: the moment of shock, the coy blush, and the quivering rage that immediately preceded a Lee death blow. Lee didn't need action hero quips, although he uttered a couple. His face said nearly everything. His feet and fists said the rest.

As his Mostar fans noted, Lee's roles also strike a deep if simple moral chord. He played reluctant, avenging warriors who used force as a last resort. In all four of his films, Lee defends honest working-class Chinese against cruel and corrupt outsiders. In Enter the Dragon, Lee frees his people from literal bondage–a Chinese-American Moses.

If Lee is an unlikely symbol for unity in Bosnia, he is also, alas, not an entirely effective one: Just hours after the monument was unveiled, a group of rowdy teenagers defaced the statue and stole the nunchucks, leaving the site littered with wine bottles. According to Sky News, one citizen responded with the cry, "Once again we've shown what Balkan savageness is!"

Maybe. But at least it's savageness of a sort that isn't likely to provoke ethnically driven revenge killings. Who knows? Perhaps one of the young vandals was inspired by his bronze souvenir to trade in a war-surplus 9mm for a pair of oak nun-chucks. As long as pirated DVDs of Fists of Fury do a brisk trade in Balkan bazaars, there will be teenage Croats more awed by athletic side-kicks than automatic sidearms.

That was Bruce Lee's small gift to the future, and Mostar is right to give thanks. As for the damage done to the statue, its proud fathers shouldn't get too upset. Bruce Lee ended all of his movies more than a little scruffed up.