From afar, the old photograph resembled an ancestral portrait, gazing down from a nameless wall inside a grocery in Simunjan.
Except that as passers-by, we were instantly transfixed by the subject’s determined glare.
On closer inspection, the photograph turned out to be a watercolour portrait of martial art legend and actor, the late Bruce Lee, in his characteristic pose with nunchaku in hand.
Fascinated to learn the real story behind this artwork of the kung-fu icon, worshipped by movie fans long before the likes of action stars Jacky Chan and Jet Li came on the scene, we asked around and discovered that Lee Kee Meng, the grocery owner, was the painter.
The self-taught 60-year-old watercolourist is no Picasso but his ‘priceless portrait’ made 42 years ago (May 17, 1973) was less than two months short of the tragic death of the incomparable “Litte Dragon” whose 1971 film “The Big Boss”made him a screen legend with millions of followers fawning over his phenomenal speed.
Known in Simunjan Town as Ati, Lee modestly described his artwork as a mere hobby, put on paper with the little talent he was blessed with but would never pursue to commercial ends.
“Yes, I love to paint objects, portraits, landscapes, caricatures and something I visualise and imagine but I don’t do it anymore as I am a full-time grocer and businessman,” he told us when we stumbled upon the rare painting by this unassuming artist – unfortunately though not at the Kuching Waterfront where this Bruce Lee portrait could perhaps have been pitched to the highest bidder.
Lee said he never pursued his artistic talent as he did not know the value of art as a career in the early days when painting was never seen as a worthwhile career.
“I painted the portrait of Bruce Lee because I was a true blue fan. I was a bit of a rascal after leaving school but I had a penchant for art. You could say art is my softer side that calms my temperament,” he explained.
On that one-of-kind portrait, Lee said he wanted to keep the Bruce Lee legend alive and as real as possible – which was also the reason he used the ‘blowing technique’ so that the water colours swirl to give the painting a 3D-effect.
“You can see in the painting Bruce Lee (in the characteristic Pagoda brand white singlet and black kungfu trousers) is sweating which comes from the blowing effects (from Lee’s breath) on the colour coordination.”
Lee said he finished the portrait in one day and hung it near the cash machine counter to inspire him to be aggressive in business like movie mogul Sir Run Run Shaw or the Golden Harvest (film production) company.
“It (the painting) is a sort of personal bodyguard that protects my business from bad elements. This is Bruce Lee we’re talking about … the legend,” he quipped, his eyes giving out a glint of the hypnotic gaze Bruce Lee.
Pressed on his artistic talent, Lee kept mum, shaking his head in a gesture to show he preferred to keep his artistic side a secret.
However, Lee’s hidden talent could have been given that vital nudge by a short spell working at a batik factory named Sam Aik Industry along Rock Road in Kuching.
“You know, before I came back to Simunjan, I used to work at a batik factory in Kuching just opposite Wisma Saberkas. But the factory is long gone,” he recalled.
After studying at Chung Hua No. 1 in Kuching, he worked in the factory but in 1978, returned to Simunjan to manage his father’s grocery. The elderly Lee handed his business to his son due to old age.
“Back then, Simunjan was accessible by river transport. Business was good,” he remembered.
“I describe the town as an island – people could come in and out by boat. In those days, a trip by a fast boat to and from Kuching would take eight hours, but now, with roads and other infrastructure being built by the government, people can move around easier.”
The town was once the coastal trading centre for locals – mainly Ibans and Malays – who came to buy goods and services but now, with modern infrastructure, connectivity and accessibility, the old way of doing business is fading fast.
Lee is married to a woman from Kuching and the couple have four boys but only the third son, Sui Yong, has inherited his artistic talent.
He showed us Sui Yong’s art and handiwork, including portrait sketches of Korean pop star Psy, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson on a makeshift gallery behind the cash register, as well as sculptures held together by nuts and bolts to create models of Transformer robots – the movie characters of the new generation.
Lee hoped his third son would carry on his artistic legacy but for now, his main concern is to keep his grocery business going.
The long shadows cast by the Simunjan sunset on the floor of the shop keeps Lee company while the legend of Bruce Lee is immortalised with water colours and adroit brush strokes on bamboo paper hung in the grocery of a man whose Spartan resilience was inspired by the martial art giant himself.