Into the wild
Actor Jason Scott Lee is always fighting the good fight to preserve nature.
earthy Jason Scott Lee is willing to take risks to live life on his terms.
Mention Jason Scott Lee and the first image that comes to mind is of him portraying martial artist Bruce Lee in the 1993 film Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Undoubtedly, it was Lee’s entry point to stardom – he became a household name on a global scale thanks to Dragon.
While the film provided him with a big shift in terms of his career as it allowed him to understand better both his acting and physical skills, it also made him aware of other things within the industry – like Hollywood wanting to shackle him to the role of an action star, banking on his first success and making him their cash cow. Well, Lee was having none of that. He wanted to grow, not only as an actor but as a person. this ultimately meant having to say no to lucrative projects. Forging his own path, he took on roles that challenged him on different levels, and not just physically.
this decision led the Hawaiian to take on roles in a few inspiring films and portraying a number of different nationalities such as an eskimo in Map Of The Human Heart, a native of Chile in Rapa Nui and an indian in The Jungle Book-book.
Currently, he is lookinging at an adaptation of tenzing norgay’s story – playing the nepalese Sherpa who went up Mount everest with edmund Hillary in 1953.
on the subject of his breakthrough Dragon, Lee also learned martial arts for the role. to play the part, Lee trained in Jeet Kune Do with Jerry Poteet, a student of Bruce Lee. this, in turn, introduced him to one of martial arts’ philosophies.
“one of the (elements of) evolution of a martial artist is, once there is nothing more the teacher can teach, you must leave the nest and continue (learning) by observing nature, which is your greatest teacher,” he says this in an interview at Putrajaya, having just come out of the jungles of Malaysia after filming
Malaysian Journey: Hutan for the national geographic Channel.
Thinking about what he can learn from nature, his train of thought took him to the big question of how he wants to live his life.
as an artiste he has always looked for a sense of freedom in expression and an infinite (creative) canvas that’s perpetually challenging him.
Wanting to apply the same principle to his life, he began exploring the option of living a self-sustainable way of life.
This basically means working the land with his own two hands to raise food to feed his family. So some 15 years ago, he bought a 22ha plot of land in Hawaii, named it Pu Mu (“simplicity” and “nothingness” in Hawaiian) and started farming.
He chuckles when asked what it’s like to eat the food he grows.
“i think i have a greater appreciation of food,” reveals Lee, who has a 15-month-old daughter with his Singaporean wife.
His laugh naturally highlights the crow’s feet on his tanned face – as if to prove further that he does spend a lot of time outdoors.
although the 45-year-old comes off relaxed in person and very gracious, he carries himself with a seriousness at all times. it’s almost as if he is thinking of something poignant 24/7 – erm, something like “by working the land and taking care of the plants it’s sort of like i am nurturing life.”
Lee can sure get into the deep stuff in conversation.
“That’s a big part of being a martial artist. You learn these skills for fighting and the more highly developed you become as a martial artist, the easier it is to take a life. Once you realise that, and you know that’s not the path you want to go on, you want to be on the path to nurture life, to give life.
“in essence, your being, your quality of life becomes richer because you have this everyday effort and activity that is nurturing life. Understanding that enhances everything that is around you. and you end up wanting to take care of all the things that have no voice, like the forest and the animals in it – things that have no one to stand up for them and are slowly being pushed out.”
With the intent of wanting to take care of the land, Lee plants his food – making sure he doesn’t use anything harmful to nature – and reforests deforested land next to Pu Mu.
He talks extensively about the crucial relationship between the predator and prey that exists even at the insect level, and how taking out even one species – no matter how small – from the environment will disrupt the entire agricultural ecosystem.
“We have to learn to put nature first before our own consumption. That’s the big education policy that i advocate,” he says.
Lee’s aptitude for nature began at a very young age thanks to his father who used to take his daughter and three sons with him to spend time outdoors.
Working as a supervisor and later an engineer for a telephone company, the half- Hawaiian and half-chinese dad would take one child per outing on a borrowed boat to go fishing or crabbing.
“He stepped up to deep-sea fishing when i was very young, i couldn’t handle the ocean back then but now i go out fishing all the time. So i am sort of reliving that experience,” recalls Lee.
at one point during the interview, Lee admits that he probably inherited his steadfast personality from his father, whom he describes as “very staunch and old school.”
That ingrained quality came in handy especially when he wanted to grow his own produce.
Having no idea about farming, he turned to a friend from the amish community to find out how his people grow food and take care of livestock.
a few tips here and there took him to Japan to visit Masanobu Fukuoka, a sensei of natural farming. at this farm, Lee worked for three months observing, working and interacting with fellow farmers.
“We worked from 8am to 5pm every day, six days a week. We had Sundays off, and one hour for lunch. That gave me a strong foundation to his technique on how to grow organically. i went home and applied that method, modifying it where needed because of the different soil and climate – learning by trial and error.
“When i met him, he said: ‘So, you like this lifestyle?’ and i said yeah. He said, ‘i only have one piece of advice for you,’ and he was 88 years old at that time. He said, ‘if you want to go down this path, don’t give up. it may seem simple but it’s not easy.’
“and i finally understand what he meant. Because every year when i start on the work, i want to give up; it’s ridiculously hard. But every year i stick to it and i realise that it starts to build character. and i continue to explore and there is so much more to learn. So it’s like a giant encyclopaedia that’s unfolding.”
While his farm keeps him busy all year long, Lee remains active in the entertainment industry – he recently had a stint in Hawaii
Five-0 and from time to time does projects that make a difference (like working with national geographic Channel and education programmes with the state department in Hawaii).
But when questioned whether he misses the pampered “movie star” life, he says, “no. i really don’t. That’s the scary thing.”
He adds: “i have always done things that inspire me. Farming was frowned upon because i was at a certain status in society. now, looking back, i’d say it has always been there.
“When i was growing up, we had a garden. My father would take us so far into the sea that i couldn’t even see the island. We went camping, had barbeques at the beach. Those were the happiest times – when you didn’t look at the clock, and enjoyed the company of your family. i thought if i could reinvent my life i would like it to be of that; that would be my greatest art.”
Down to earth: Jason Scott Lee trying his hand at the iban traditional dance, Ngajat, in Sarawak; and (inset) Lee playing the titular role in