Like Water: A Cultural History of Bruce Lee

New York University Press, August 2022

cover of like water

Highlights Bruce Lee’s influence beyond martial arts and film

An Asian and Asian American icon of unimaginable stature and influence, Bruce Lee revolutionized the martial arts by combining influences drawn from around the world.

Uncommonly determined, physically gifted, and artistically brilliant, Lee rose to fame as part of a wave of transpacific globalization that bridged the nearly seven thousand miles between Hong Kong and California. Like Water unpacks Lee’s global impact, linking his legendary status as a martial artist, actor, and director to his continual traversals across the newly interconnected Asia and America.

Daryl Joji Maeda’s multifaceted account of Bruce Lee’s legacy uniquely traces how movements and migrations across the Pacific Ocean structured the cultures Bruce Lee inherited, the milieu he occupied, the martial art he developed, the films he made, and the world he left behind. A unique blend of cultural history and biography, Like Water unearths the cultural strands that Lee intertwined in his rise to a new kind of global stardom.

Moving from the gold rush in California and the British occupation of Hong Kong, to the Cold War and the deployment of American troops across Asia, Maeda builds depth and complexity to this larger-than-life figure. His cultural chronology of Bruce Lee reveals Lee to be both a product of his time and a harbinger of a more connected future. 

Nearly half a century after his tragic death, Bruce Lee remains an inspiring symbol of innovation and determination, with an enduring legacy as the first Asian American global superstar.


A thoughtful, well-informed consideration of the life and legacy of a trailblazing entertainer. Our verdict: Get It.

Kirkus Reviews

Decades after his untimely death, Bruce Lee, like water, still flows across the globe as an inspiration to the marginalized, the colonized, the immigrant, the dispossessed, and the oppressed. Daryl Joji Maeda’s powerful new book places the martial arts megastar/philosopher and his multicultural circle in the critical context of transpacific studies. Maeda does a masterful job of giving us a different way of understanding Bruce Lee and his legacy by avoiding the ‘classical mess’ of pinning the mercurial Lee to Asia or America rather than allowing him to float across the vast Pacific.

Gina Marchetti, author of Citing China: Politics, Postmodernism, and World Cinema

Marvelous and momentous. Maeda’s knowledge of Bruce Lee is breathtakingly comprehensive and impressive and has completely expanded and transformed my understanding of Lee. Like Water is easily the most consequential and definitive book on Lee that has been published to date.

Robert Ji Song Ku, co-editor of Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader 

Conceived as a multifaceted cultural history, Like Water tells the story of the making of Bruce Lee as a transpacific icon. Foregrounding the larger geopolitical and cross-cultural forces at work, Daryl Joji Maeda tracks Lee’s incessantly migratory footsteps from his on-the-road birth at a Chinese hospital in San Francisco to his mysterious death at his paramour’s pad in Hong Kong. As a cultural history, the book is rich and expansive, compiling a montage of big subjects such as Chinese immigration, Cantonese opera in America, and the history of Chinese cinema. As a biography, Like Water draws the contours of Lee’s life while highlighting flashpoints of his legend.

Yunte Huang, author of Charlie Chan: The Untold Story