In 2020, Jeff Chinn helped unveil a plaque in San Francisco’s Chinese Hospital to commemorate where the movie star Bruce Lee was born on what would have been his 80th birthday. Now, Chinn is working on something much more significant to unveil in honor of Lee: a statue.
“People continue to ask me, ‘Jeff, what can you do? Can you do something bigger?’” said Chinn, a collector of Lee’s memorabilia. “A statue is a much bigger project.”
Chinn, 62, is working with Lee’s family and community members to advocate for placing a statue of Lee in Portsmouth Square—Chinatown’s “living room”—ahead of its renovation next year.
The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department is beginning to plan upgrades for the park using $66 million in 2020 parks bond funds. The well-loved park, a rare open space in a densely populated area, has long been a gathering place for generations of Chinese Americans. The project will also tear down a controversial pedestrian overpass.
Although the project is in its early days and will take years to complete, a coalition of Bruce Lee fans is organizing a push for the statue, which has been talked about for years.
“Certainly, Bruce Lee is a key iconic figure for the community,” said Jenny Leung, the director of the Chinese Culture Center. “It's important for the square to recognize that.”
Leung, who’s participating in community outreach meetings led by Rec and Parks, said that the current park has erased some of Chinatown's critical history and the new park should equitably honor the Chinese American community’s rich culture of art and activism.
David Ho, a political consultant, said he’s confident private funding can be raised to hire a designer and sculptor to create the Bruce Lee statue and then donate it to the city for installation in the park.
Chinn hopes to hire a sculptor with Asian American roots to accurately reflect Lee’s physical appearance, and he already has the verbal endorsement from Shannon Lee, Bruce’s daughter, he said.
Shannon and the Bruce Lee Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.
The Bruce Lee statue would join a Robert Louis Stevenson memorial statue, a stone remembering the site of the first public school in California and a plaque marking the history of the American flag first raised in San Francisco. Also in the square, "The Goddess of Democracy," a statue commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, was the center of a recent controversy. Rumors say the Chinese government's "surrogates" were pushing the idea to remove it.
Daniel Montes, a spokesperson for Rec and Parks, said the park construction is anticipated to start in late fall 2024. After state Assemblymember Phil Ting secured another $6 million, the total budget for the project is now $72 million.
"We are excited to commission a new artwork for Portsmouth Square," said Mary Chou, the Arts Commission's civic art collection and public art director. "We have been working closely with Rec Park and the community to determine the goals for the new artwork, and to ensure the new art is aligned with the overall design of the park."
The Arts Commission plans to release a call for artists later this year and will partner with the Chinese Culture Center on outreach to artists, Chou added.
For Chinn, the only open question is, what’s the best pose for the statue?
Han Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org