WHEN IT COMES to dead-celebrity sightings, Bruce Lee trails only Elvis Presley and Bigfoot.
Today, 27 years after his death, the man who forever changed the image of the Asian male, continues to dominate the covers of martial arts magazines, and his bare-chested, simmering image is a familiar sight, even at the trendiest gift boutiques.
Besides being a pop-culture icon, Lee has also achieved a kind of folk hero status. His breakthroughs include cultivating Hong Kong cinema’s world status; revealing secretive Chinese martial arts to the outside world, and entering into an interracial marriage.
Despite the amount of ink and celluloid devoted to him (and his clones), Bruce Lee exhibits have been fairly infrequent until recently. In Tokyo, a 1998 fair commemorated the 25th anniversary of his death. In Hong Kong, the new Bruce Lee Memorial Gallery will hold a film festival in time for his Nov. 27 birthday.
And now he’s being honored in Oakland. The timing of “Bruce Lee: A Retrospective,” which opens Sunday at the Chinese Culture Center on the edge of San Francisco Chinatown, also coincides with the 60th anniversary of Lee’s birth.
“This year is the year of the dragon, and Bruce Lee was born in the year of the dragon, in San Francisco and right here in Chinatown,” explains curator Gloria Tai. Lee was born at Jackson Street Hospital, while his parents were on tour with a Cantonese Opera troupe.
The San Francisco exhibit culled from four collectors, his widow Linda Lee Caldwell, the Bruce Lee Educational Foundation, and Warner Bros. includes more than 240 items and reveals Lee as an actor, philosopher, artist, author and family man.
It also tells lesser-known details, such as his reign as Hong Kong’s cha-cha champion and the physical handicaps that almost ended his career before it began.
“He was a very self-motivated man,” says Caldwell, who met Lee in Washington. “I think that over all the years, people have been more interested in learning about Bruce the entire man, not just his martial arts and his film career.”
The contributions from “Inside Kung Fu” columnist Jeff Chinn come directly from the personal museum in his Sunset district home.
His “definite numero uno prized possession” though won’t be at the CCC exhibit. The suit worn in “Enter the Dragon” rests under strict climate control conditions in the Warner Bros. museum.
“When I started, of course, I had no idea this would last this long,” Chinn says. “Not just me collecting, but Bruce Lee being so popular.”
His sidekick role as Kato in the American television program “The Green Hornet” landed Lee the lead in “The Big Boss.” And, even though he gained international fame with that film, Lee was rejected for TV’s “Kung Fu.” (The part went to David Carradine.). More than a quarter century later, the lack of Asian men in American television and film is still glaring.
“You would figure Bruce Lee would kick down the doors for others,” Chinn comments.
Cultdom has come with its detractors, who have characterized Lee’s legacy as a persistent negative stereotype.
Chinn says critics who “never experienced being picked upon in school and being called Chinaman” might not see how Lee was a charismatic symbol of fierce Chinese pride and manhood.
* What: “Bruce Lee: A Retrospective,” Sunday through Feb. 18
* Where: Chinese Culture Center, Holiday Inn, 750 Kearny St., third floor, S.F. 415-986-1822, www.c-c-c.org
* Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays
* ADMISSIOn: Free
* SPECIAL EVENTS: Fundraising dinner, 7 p.m. Saturday, $75. Evening includes an exhibit preview and the screening of the documentary “Bruce Lee: In His Own Words” and attendance by filmmaker John Empress of China; 838 Grant Ave., S.F. “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey” screening premiere, 2 p.m. Sunday, $35. Chinese Culture Center.