Bruce Lee Ascending, a permanent installation, debuts at the University of Washington’s Odegaard Undergraduate Library. Photo courtesy of MXT Visuals.
On Tuesday, September 6, over 150 people attended the official debut of Bruce Lee Ascending, a permanent installation featured prominently on the steps of the University of Washington’s (UW) Odegaard Undergraduate Library. Having the University finally recognize this prominent Asian American alumnus has been long-awaited and highly anticipated. For decades, the UW had refused efforts to honor Lee, from denying permission to film Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story in 1993, to rejecting the Bruce Lee Garden in 2008. This installation is particularly important, amidst rising hate against Asian Americans and other people of color during the pandemic. As a current undergraduate student, it feels like an acknowledgment of the Asian American student body’s presence and the struggles we continually face.
While Bruce Lee is widely regarded as a Seattle legend, many people do not know he also
attended the UW from 1961 to 1964, where he studied philosophy and drama. I only learned during the promotion of Bruce Lee Ascending that he was a former husky. Instead, many people erroneously think he is a Californian even though he is buried in Seattle. Upon reflection, I see that my ignorance might be partly due to the University rejecting him and failing to recognize him in any form. I wrongly assumed that it was impossible to willfully disregard a figure like Bruce Lee, with his level of influence. However, with the installation produced by artist Han Eckelberg, a Chinese American UW student and Seattle native, this will no longer be the case. The installation is now the first item most students will notice upon entering the library.
Tuesday’s event was sponsored by the UW Department of American Ethnic Studies (AES), OCA Asian Pacific Advocates of Greater Seattle (OCA-GS), and the Bruce Lee Foundation. Hosted by OCA-GS intern, Dylan Hartono, the speakers included UW President Dr. Ana Mari Cauce, Dean of University Libraries Dr. Simone Neame, Chair of American Ethnic Studies Dr. Rick Bonus, OCA Asian Pacific Advocates of Greater Seattle Chapter student intern Brooklyn Hose, and Han Eckelberg, the artist.
The speeches were followed by a lion dance performance by Mak Fai Kung Fu Dragon and Lion Dance Association and concluded with a ceremonial ribbon cutting. It was truly remarkable to participate at a community gathering of people collectively interested in honoring Bruce Lee through art. During her speech, President Cauce stated how “the power of art to transcend time and to create links across generations” is something that will now allow Eckelberg’s work to “inspire future generations of students.” This is a statement I can attest to as a fellow martial arts practitioner, Asian American, and UW student.
Eckelberg, now a UW Communications graduate student, created the artwork as an assignment for a Photo/Media class when he was an undergraduate student in Art and American Ethnic Studies. Noticing the lack of tribute to Lee, Eckelberg explained, the first thing people see as they walk into Odegaard will be the distinct image of Bruce Lee and the message, “When one has reached maturity in the art, one will have a boundless form.” The word “boundless” replaces the word “formless” in Bruce Lee’s original quote to cleverly adapt it towards the UW’s motto.
While I personally encountered the UW’s motto of being “boundless” countlessly throughout
campus, I never truly internalized the meaning behind this message until now. The adaptation of Bruce Lee Ascending symbolizes and re-contextualizes Lee’s teachings and philosophies in a way that students can apply towards our academic endeavors and pursuing our passions. When studying for any exam or project, I often experience the feeling that what I am doing is insignificant or meaningless. How can I manage to progress when what lies ahead only gets more complex and demanding, and I am already struggling? However, Bruce Lee Ascending reminds me that the steps I take—no matter how big or small—are still meaningful in any subject or art I wish to pursue. As Eckelberg states in the Bruce Lee Ascending placard, “the viewer must get close, take the steps, exert effort, and climb to see the message . . . to gain deeper knowledge of this artwork.” Bruce Lee Ascending serves to remind students of the hard work and discipline that is necessary to overcome adversity and reach the pinnacle of any art.
While it is nice knowing I can walk the same streets as Bruce Lee, I have a newfound sense of honor for being able to enrich myself where this icon did the same; a newfound sense of appreciation for Bruce Lee as a philosopher, an intellectual, and more than just a caricature. The master narrative often reduces people like Bruce Lee to being a symbol of violence and limiting his work to only martial arts. Bruce Lee Ascending challenges this narrative by proving how martial arts and academics are not mutually exclusive. Just like how being Asian American and being worthy of full recognition are not mutually exclusive. While Bruce Lee attended the UW in 1961, his UW legacy and history will not be forgotten, it persists through the permanent installation and through the students who reflect on the
messages of Bruce Lee Ascending.
Frederick Lu is currently a UW student majoring in Business and English. He was among the OCA-GS volunteers working at the debut of Bruce Lee Ascending.