By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The iconic image of Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar together, symbolizing the unity between Asians and Blacks, was captured in thousands of photos by visitors onto the Tai Tung Restaurant’s storefront in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (CID). But on Sept. 10, Lee’s portrait suddenly vanished.
“What happened to Bruce Lee?” wondered Evan Chan, the fourth-generation owner of Tai Tung, who saw the hole on the wall as he walked down South King Street on the morning of Sept. 11.
Chan texted his father Harry immediately, “Somebody stole the painting.”
Bruce Lee’s picture was installed there at the end of June in 2020. It had survived for over 700 days since its inception “during the pandemic, vandalism, and graffiti” in the CID, said Chan, “out of a sign of respect for Bruce Lee.” Chan was there at 10 a.m. on Sept. 11, helping to clean up after the CID Night Market on Sept. 10.
“There’s not much we can do,” Harry said. “We have been in business for over 80 years and have never seen anything like this before.”
The thief just “grabbed and ripped the portrait out from the wall” with the screws attached and the wall was damaged, said Chan. “Whoever did this must be very strong,” said Chan, who suspected the thief struck between 11 p.m. on Sept 10 and 10 a.m. on Sept. 11.
The artwork was the brainchild of artists Patrick “Dozfy” Nguyen and Shara Lee, and it was one of more than 200 murals created by a diverse group of artists to paint and restore CID after looters, anarchists, and rioters destroyed the neighborhood on May 29, 2020 following a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest. The CID was the site of the first BLM protest in Washington state, and it was held at the Hing Hay Park.
The artists had consulted with Harry who wanted the artwork to focus on Bruce Lee. Tai Tung was his favorite CID restaurant during his time in Seattle between 1959-1964. The two artists then researched Bruce Lee. Inspired by the movie “Game of Death,” in which Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar appeared, they decided the theme would be to paint both of them side by side to support the BLM movement.
The mural was a symbol of solidarity and unity between the Asian and Black community – in the wake of the wrongful deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It was one of the few remaining in the CID from the summer of 2020. Other murals representing the same spirit have either been put in storage or removed altogether.
The Lee-Jabbar mural has been profiled in numerous local and national media, and won Second Place in the People’s Choice Award in the Northwest Asian Weekly’s mural contest in 2020.
The powerful painting caused such a sensation that a local reader, Sue Kay, sent a photo of the mural to her friend, Linda, Bruce Lee’s widow. Linda wrote to the Asian Weekly afterwards.
“I want to applaud your efforts and those of all the painters to come together to inspire goodwill in the community. I especially liked the portrait of Bruce and Kareem on the Tai Tung storefront. They were good friends and always looked straight across at each other with no barriers between them. Please pass on my appreciation to Shara Lee and Dozfy Nguyen for their artistry… The renovation of the CID is an inspiration to other communities to repair structures as well as relationships.
“I spent a lot of time in Seattle Chinatown,” she continued. “It is where I first met Bruce and started taking gung fu lessons from him. Tai Tung was one of our favorite hangouts.”
The Northwest Asian Weekly appreciated the artists’ magic brush so much for transforming the CID, from an ugly city that was boarded-up to a community art gallery, that it organized an art mural contest to promote the artists. Their stories and artwork were featured in the publication and in a YouTube video. Prizes were awarded to winners with plaques and restaurant gift certificates.
When the mural contest began, I noticed that the artwork was gone. After a while, it was displayed inside the restaurant as Harry heard a rumor that the City of Seattle was going to remove all the art murals as the City had donated and installed all the boards for CID businesses at the time.
“Put the mural back on the front,” I told Harry. “Judges are coming unannounced.” Quickly, Harry and his men moved the mural back to the front. It has remained there since, until now.
Chan contacted the artist Nguyen who in turn, had reached out to Shara Lee who painted Bruce Lee. The artists will paint Bruce Lee’s portrait on Sept. 24.
“It’s so wonderful that the artists instantly agreed to repaint Bruce Lee’s portrait,” said Harry. “All they said was, buy yellow paint, get it ready, and we’ll come.”
“It’s been up for Tai Tung for two years, I really feel really good about the painting being there for so long without being tagged or damaged,” said Shara.
“If someone steals an artwork, it means that it has made an impression on him. It’s sad because I don’t want to see Bruce Lee missing. People really love (Bruce) and his image. I’ll be happy to repaint it, it belongs to Tai Tung… (and) the CID. It’s part of the community.”
Nguyen echoed her sentiments.
“Five seconds later of remorse,” he said. “I was trying to figure out how to replace the painting with the same power.”
Another challenge this time is how to better secure the painting. Shara said her job is to paint and leave the security part to the owners.
In a post on Facebook, Tai Tung said, “Return Bruce with no questions asked! Sad that someone would take artwork that was so beautiful.”
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.