Jeremy Arambulo, a Filipino-American comic artist who lives in Los Angeles, says he basically came out of the womb knowing the legend of Bruce Lee, the kung fu king. “He’s like our Elvis,” says Arambulo. “If we didn’t have him, geez, who would we have? Charlie Chan? I don’t know. Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?”
Growing up on Long Island in the ’80s, Arambulo felt culturally isolated on multiple fronts: There weren’t many other Filipino — let alone Asian-American — families near where he lived in Queens, and the pop culture landscape wasn’t exactly littered with Asian faces.
So that’s why Bruce Lee stuck out to Arambulo. Lee’s presence was always there, usually shiny and shirtless (my superperceptive observation, of course) in work from the ’70s, whether he was playing Tang, the triumphant hero in Way of the Dragon, or an antiques dealer in the TV show Longstreet. In each scene, Lee dispensed his flashy punches and kicks for the camera, distant versions of jeet kune do, the version of martial arts he pioneered and taught that maximized speed and minimized movement.
To lots of people, Bruce Lee became that quintessential “kung fu guy,” the leading Asian-American man on TV whose allure was intensified by the many tall tales surrounding his life. In fact, there are still many inconclusive details about Lee. Like what really happened in a much-whispered-about 1964 fight between him and another notable martial artist, Wong Jack Man, the subject of Arambulo’s epic new Web series, “A Challenge.”
Arambulo couldn’t help but fixate on that match-up. And on Lee, who ostensibly was one of the driving forces that made “kung fu” equal “man” and “Asian.” The comic artist thought about the duel for a long while — starting in the mid-2000s — and decided he wanted to use it as a springboard for a long-form comic. He began poring over the stream of articles about it.
There are, Arambulo quickly found, infinite narratives of how the match went down: That it started because Bruce Lee was teaching white students, and that it offended the Chinese community in the Bay Area. That, no, it began because Lee announced he could beat anybody in a fight. That Lee won, that no, it was actually pretty close. That it lasted three minutes, no, 20.
Arambulo wanted to use his version of the showdown to flesh out his own characters: the martial artist Jack Wong (a thinly veiled Wong Jack Man); the aspiring actress Nancy (modeled after Nancy Kwan, who played the sultry Linda Low in the musical film Flower Drum Song); and the hot-tempered Frank, who has a permanent chip on his shoulder.
I chatted with Arambulo about this work in progress, how he’s hoping to shape his characters, and the role masculinity plays in, well, everything.
Can you walk me through how you decided to start A Challenge?
I actually had the idea in the mid-2000s. It sat there dormant for a while, because I think it takes awhile to get something like that going, especially for the scale that I wanted. I wanted to do a single long-form thing, and it just took a while for me to get down to getting all the references and research. It’s very difficult to do any period piece. If you didn’t live it or didn’t even live there geographically, it’s kind of difficult to cobble together what you need to get started. So I didn’t get really to writing it, and I’d never really written anything on that level, so that was also really tricky, because I was hyper-self-conscious about writing. Like, I’d never even taken a creative writing course, at least in my adult life, and I needed to stop being so self-conscious and essentially just get the ball rolling.
Why focus on Bruce Lee? I feel like he’s famous in general in Hollywood, but within a lot of Asian-American circles, he has a special meaning.
I almost saw it as a gimmick, in a way — not to cheapen anything I’m doing. I mean, that’s a bad word for it. I kind of wanted to use him as a secondary character. I’d first heard of the particular fight [between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man], because of course any person of my generation, you idolize Bruce Lee. You just do. It’s a default. There are all these stories I’ve been told about him to varying degrees of fantasy, really, so when I read this article about the fight that he’d had with Wong Jack Man, like in Black Belt Magazine [editor’s note: it was in Official Karate] in the ’80s or something, it was an article called “Bruce Lee’s Toughest Fight.” And that was the first time that I really read into detail about it. … All the myths about Bruce Lee and about that fight just seemed so over-the-top.
So I saw when I was doing my Googling of you, in a Q-and-A with Phil Yu [Angry Asian Man], you said one of the things you care about is the “progression of Asian-Americans in pop culture.” Can you say more about that?
It’s funny because when I wrote that a couple years ago, a lot has changed in the last two or three years in terms of Asian-American stories just being prominently out there. … Like 2015 — last year alone — was kind of incredible to witness in terms of TV. Just seeing particularly Asian-Americans, Asian-American men even, who usually just got the short shrift of everything in terms of pop culture. …
It’s kind of funny coming out of the context of what we’re talking about, because I’m talking about Bruce Lee — it was great for me to see Asians as the romantic leads and not just as “kung fu guys” or whatever.
Can you talk more about that? How Bruce Lee as the “kung fu guy” butts up against what we’re seeing now?
Oh, yeah. I didn’t even before finish trying to express the “gimmick” of using Bruce Lee. What I mean by that is you almost never see him as a secondary character. It’s almost impossible because of how iconic he is. Although there’s a new movie coming out, the new Ip Man movie, that supposedly uses Bruce Lee as a student of Ip Man, as a character in that. So that’ll be interesting to see how he’s not a focal point in the story. Until I heard that, I never heard Bruce Lee functioning as part of the story as opposed to [the movie] The Bruce Lee Story.
When you say “secondary character,” what do you mean?
I don’t think the story is about Bruce Lee. In some ways, it’s not just about Wong Jack Man, either. I see it told from the point of view from the three characters. They sort of, in my mind, share the spotlight for different reasons.
Your characters Nancy, Jack and Frank, you mean?
Yeah, that’s right. I consider Nancy, Jack and Frank to be the main [parts], I think, if we’re talking about mythology in Bruce Lee as this icon. I’m less interested in that at this point, [after] a lifetime of seeing movies about him or even just watching his movies of him being this iconic superhero, this great philosopher, which he was, but we get so much of that, that’s so easy to find, in some ways consistently reinforced by the Bruce Lee estate or whatever.
And that’s fine, but to me that just becomes white noise after a certain point, and I just want to explore as much as possible whatever is out there, or, being an armchair psychologist about it, just [finding] what his flaws were — anything that would humanize him. I don’t know how many people are interested in that. I’m much more interested in that now, you know, how he had a notorious temper.
And I feel like how he had to get to where he was in life, of course there’s the idea of focus and almost superhero, laserlike focus to shape his body the way he did, and to perfect his martial arts the way he did. I’m more fascinated with the potential arrogance involved in that; that’s kind of also what the story is about, at least to me — the idea of masculinity, or whatever. I don’t know. [laughs]
No, no, say more! That’s interesting.
The story is a way for me to ramble a little about the potentially damaging effects of masculinity, depending what you consider it to be, for all the male characters I’m trying to express. I think in Bruce Lee’s case, I think for any kind of trailblazer … they say people, some people in that position, have to try harder. There are some people of color who say depending on what field they’re in, you just have to try harder because already you walk through the door and they have their assumptions about what your capabilities are, who you are. And, of course, that’s just a reality for a lot of people, for any person of color, depending if we’re just speaking about this country in particular.
How does your identity of being Filipino-American and a man play into how you do your work?
I think it’s a tricky thing of molding one’s anger about that. … There’s so much to say about that. And, you know, talking about how to try harder — that’s part of it too. Depending on what you’re talking about. I don’t envy an Asian-American man that’s in, let’s say, showbiz. I mean, we were just talking about Master of None, and one of the things I loved about that — and some people would give it flak for being too on the nose, but I would say it’s on the nose in a way that really worked, because it was really funny. So it sort of got its — for lack of a better term — social agenda out there as well. It said a lot while being funny and charming. And I was really a fan of it. And I don’t see a lot of that, although maybe I haven’t been exposed to it.
Is that kind of what you’re trying to do? You mentioned you want to explore masculinity in your work, to tie it back to “A Challenge,” for instance.
For an Asian-American male standpoint, it’s fascinating to me in terms of what that means physically, sexuality or in terms of machismo. All those things rattle around in your head, and they have different meanings because of how people perceive you as an Asian-American man, and how you take that, whether it registers to you at all. Because some people grow up in an environment where that wasn’t a thing and that’s great. But for other people, if you are very much the minority and you already have the stigma of being asexual or whatever, you just have to try harder, or you get very angry.