Last week I returned home from a month-long vacation around the US. It was long overdue, and the itinerary had been set in stone for nearly a year in advance. During my visit, I travelled to five states and more than 10 cities. Los Angeles was first off the bat, and I was soon on a train heading straight for downtown Hollywood.
Though I had visited the US before, I never before had the chance to explore Los Angeles, except if you counted transiting through LAX (which I didn’t). I was a gratified tourist the day I walked down the Hollywood Walk of Fame for the first time, and stopping only in the historic forecourt of the TCL Chinese Theatre to see how well my hands and feet fit inside the prints left by iconic celebrities. My photos proved a common theme in who and what I thought was noteworthy on Hollywood Boulevard.
Though I was already entertaining the prospect of making an impromptu break from the itinerary to see the Do You Know Bruce Lee? Exhibition in Seattle, it soon occurred to me how important this chance would be to me if I did. So about a week before I was due to fly back to Australia, I booked tickets and a hotel in Seattle for my last few days in the US.
The first night I was in Seattle, I made my way to the Chinatown/International District to try and see the exhibit before the Wing Luke Museum closed. It was such a satisfying feeling once I realised that I was finally able to see this exhibit, after only reading about it for more than a year prior.
Like many other fans, I was already aware of Bruce’s connection to Seattle. And it was the collection of film memorabilia, personal items, photos and letters in the exhibition’s chambers – otherwise representative of Bruce’s many different selves – that told a story of a single identity born not out of the successes in Hong Kong or the glitz of Hollywood, but in Seattle’s international community. So being there to experience this intimate exhibition first hand was remarkable.
Out of respect for the curators and staff at the Wing Luke Museum, I abided by the no-photos rule inside the exhibit. The only exception, however, being at the very end, where visitors are encouraged to leave messages, anecdotes and favourite quotes on blue strips of paper hung overhead. Surrounded by countless messages from fans from all over the world, I took a photo of the rain.
After traipsing around downtown Seattle all of the next day, I was sitting in a Starbucks, siphoning some of the free wifi, while I googled how far Lakeview Cemetery was from my hotel. It turned out that already being downtown, I was already a few minutes’ drive away. And as it was New Year’s Eve, I wondered if it was worthwhile to gamble on the chance of visiting Bruce and Brandon Lee’s gravesite by leaving it to New Year’s Day, when taxis were few and expensive and most places were closed. So I bit the bullet, and in the same impromptu fashion that led me to Seattle in the first place, I hailed the first taxi I saw.
I don’t know if it was the fact that I was hating myself for not having anything already prepared to leave under their headstones, or just seeing their graves and realising how everything about it was surreal yet so unassuming … but I was overwhelmed. I felt emotional, but in such an unfamiliar way that it was almost confusing.
But mostly, I was thankful to have had the opportunity to visit the site in person. It was something that I never thought I would ever be able to do. I said my own little prayer under my breath and returned to the taxi with tears in my eyes.
Later in the hotel room, my boyfriend (who was on his own vacation in the Philippines) and I were emailing back and forth about the day that was. I felt like the biggest baby admitting to him that I cried at the cemetery.
“Well that’s okay,” he wrote, “That just shows how much he meant to you.”
But I still feel sad, I remembered thinking. So I knew that on my very last day, New Year’s Day, I was going to travel out to Chinatown once more. I wasn’t sure what exactly for, but it felt right to do it. Perhaps I could glimpse the building where he opened his first kung-fu school in Seattle. That seemed like a nice homage to pay.
So the next day, I found myself walking up and down Chinatown, expecting some sort of light bulb moment that will tell me what I was going to do here. Any die-hard Bruce Lee fan would have known exactly where this phantom building was, what street number, how many bricks made up its facade. But I had absolutely no clue. And for all it was worth, I suddenly couldn’t recall any of the “local” information relayed in the exhibit I had only visited less than 48 hours before. Total, utter mind blank.
I started feeling a little ridiculous, embarking on some sort of desperate pilgrimage to find something that could hopefully finish this vacation on a high. Then as I was walking back towards the light rail station, I looked across the road at a restaurant where a family, having had their fill of food, was filing out of its doors. It was a modest building, stark white with a moniker reading TAI TUNG in red lettering. The establishment was in no way modern looking, in fact, it looked like the rest of what Chinatown may have looked like back in the 70s and 80s. It shouldn’t have been a remarkable sight for me. But even though I wasn’t particularly hungry at the time, I soon found myself gravitating towards this restaurant’s green doors with a heightened sense of expectation. Though I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why.
Inside, I was greeted by a smiling waiter and a “Happy New Year”, before being ushered towards a group of booths behind him. He smiled as he took my order of oyster sauce beef and hot and sour chicken hotpot. And it was then when I couldn’t help but ask him, or anyone for that matter.
“Is there a reason why I decided to come to this restaurant today?”
He smiled again and placed a pot of tea in front of me.
“A lot of people come here. I guess it’s because we look more inviting for people wanting to find somewhere to eat good Chinese food … we don’t look intimidating … we make authentic Chinese, with fresh ingredients … we make our own sauces …”
And he waved my menu over his head.
“We’re also very tasty! That helps!”
I smiled and poured myself a drink. It wasn’t exactly what I was digging for, but he wasn’t wrong. It was a cosy place, and the smells from the kitchen were enough to make me feel ravenous. A few cups of tea later, a busboy from the kitchen came gliding out in his apron and presented me with my menu choices. The food proved better than “tasty”, it was actually exceptional. I think it was halfway through my mounding plate of rice and meat that the waiter came back to check on me.
“How is everything?”
“Amazing,” I managed to say through mouthfuls of food, “Thank you.”
We soon struck up small talk as he asked where I was visiting from and how long I had been travelling around North America. And then he asked me if I was enjoying my time in Seattle.
“It’s been so lovely,” I said after a breath, “But I really wanted to come here to see the Wing Luke exhibit on Bruce Lee.”
I blushed, “I’m a big fan of his, and I wanted to see his city.”
“Oh okay cool,” The waiter said, gathering up my first empty dish. “So I guess you know that this was his favourite restaurant?”
My face dropped.
He looked at me with an unfazed look.
“Yeah, you even ordered one of his favourite dishes,” he continued, gesturing to my remaining plate of beef. “Fans would come, sit in and eat his favourites: oyster sauce beef, sweet and sour pork and garlic shrimp.”
After a while he caught my dumbfounded expression and mild curiosity crept onto his face.
“You didn’t know?”
“I had absolutely no idea. I swear to god.”
He smiled at me again, wider this time.
“That’s really spooky.”
“You’re telling me!” He chuckled, his hand that wasn’t balancing a plate now on his hip.
“Yeah, I thought the staff would have mentioned at the museum? They’ve been sending quite a few people from that exhibit down this way.”
“No,” I said half-laughing and looked down at the table. “I mean it may have been written somewhere … there was a lot of info about where he lived, and where he used to work … I don’t remember reading anything about this place.”
I looked up again to find he was walking away, motioning to me to follow.
“You know, he has a table back on the other side of this restaurant. Do you want to see it?”
The table was enshrined with Christmas lights, framed photographs, a signed portrait and a cardboard cutout of Seattle’s favourite son. But it was there where I sat with the beaming waiter and the maître ‘d who was eating his own dinner in a moment that I knew was a perfect end to my trip.
Aside from wanting world peace and a billion dollars in my bank account, I would say that if I could have one wish, it would be to have been able to meet Bruce Lee and to have taken the opportunity to get to know him as a person. But after finding myself in Seattle, dining and chatting at a table he once shared with his friends and family, I felt that I already had.