He was the King of Kung Fu – the deadliest human fighting machine that the world had ever seen. Bringing a new level of excitement to the silver screen, he establishing himself as the first oriental super star. Billed as the fittest man on the planet, he had the world at his feet. Then, suddenly, he was gone – dead at the age of 32. In the almost 50 years since then, his legend has propelled Bruce Lee to mythical proportions. In this week’s Biographics we go beyond the legend to reveal the real Bruce Lee.
The child who the world would know as Bruce Lee was born on November 27, 1940 in the Jackson Street Hospital in San Francisco’s China-Town. His mother, Grace Li was accompanying her husband, the actor Hoi Cheun on a tour of the United States with the Cantonese Opera Company of Hong Kong. Grace named the child Jun Fan, meaning ‘Return Again’, but the doctor who delivering him nicknamed him ‘Bruce.’
The Lee’s stayed in San Francisco for five months before returning to Hong Kong. But the heat and humidity of Asia did not agree with baby Bruce. He became a sickly child, with his mother constantly doting on him. Grace had already lost a child and was determined that she wouldn’t lose a second. As he grew older, Bruce became stronger. In fact, he became so active that his mother nicknamed him ‘Never Sits Still.’ The only time he stopped running, jumping or striking the air was when he was curled up in a corner with a book in his hands. His long hours of reading into the night caused him to become near sighted and, at age six, he required reading glasses.
Bruce grew up in a crowded little flat. Along with his family, there was that of his late brother, so that nearly twenty people were squashed up in the chaotic household. Still, the Lees were among the wealthiest of families in Hong Kong. Along with his Opera income, Hoi Cheun received payments from rental properties.
Bruce spent much of his time amusing himself on the streets of Hong Kong. He showed little interest in school and would often cut class to hang out on the streets with local hoods. By the time he was ten he had developed a penchant for practical jokes. These started out innocent enough, but soon took on a more sinister touch. Once when he pushed his sister Phoebe into a swimming pool, she retaliated by holding his head under the water until he promised to never do it again. From that day on, he promised to never go into a swimming pool again.
The Rising Star
Bruce’s acting career begun at just three months, thanks to his father’s connections in the local entertainment industry. His first real acting role occurred when he was six years old. He played a rebellious street kid in the movie Beginning of a Boy. In that film he had the first of many on-screen fights. He was billed in this and a string of films that followed as Lee Siu Lung, or Lee Little Dragon.
Bruce loved the life of a young actor. Often, he would be picked up at 2am, leaping from his bed and excitedly rushing out the door. In his later films he played teenage rebels who invariably ended up in a climactic fight scene. From the very start he developed certain trademark mannerisms which would later become famous – the admonishing finger, the thumb wiped across his nose, the steady, unflinching gaze.
By the time he was 18, Bruce had appeared in 20 films, the most famous of which was The Orphan, his only leading role.
At the age of twelve, Bruce began attending La Salle College, a Catholic Boy’s School. His teachers there found him to be lazy, stubborn and rebellious. The Chinese students of Bruce’s school felt a strong rivalry with the British students who attended King George V school up the hill. Bruce became the leader of a gang that hung out after school behind the playing field of the rival school. The boys would shout taunts at the British students – often with the result that fierce fist fights would break out. The rumbles were often broken up by the police.
Phone calls and visits by the police became regular occurrences at the Lee household. Hoi Cheun was furious at the wayward course that Bruce was taking and imposed strict restrictions on him. But he was not home enough for them to have any real effect.
With fighting becoming a regular part of his life, Bruce began thinking about the subject most of the time. He later recalled that he always fought with his gang behind him, using chains as weapons. But what would happen, he wondered, if he got caught on his own, without his gang to back him up? Could he protect himself? He decided not to take any chances and became convinced that, in order to survive, he needed to be trained in the most effective of the martial arts; Kung Fu.
Bruce’s father had taught him some Tai Chi moves, but the slow flowing movements were little help in a street fight. At the age of thirteen, he began learning Wing Chun under trainer William Yeung. Bruce threw himself into his lessons, practicing constantly and making rapid progress. Yeung was so impressed with his young student thst he introduced him to his master, a revered older man named Yip Man. The master decided to take on Bruce as a personal student.
At first, Bruce was only interested in learning how to street fight but, as the lessons continued, Yip Man introduced him to the finer points of the art – meditation, breathing and balance. While training under Yip, Bruce learned not only to master the physical techniques, but also to quell the interference of emotions such as fear and anger.
Despite his developing skills as a martial artist, Bruce was still a trouble maker at school. At age fifteen, he was expelled from La Salle College, ending up at St. Francis Xavier College on the other side of town. One of his teachers there – brother Edward – encouraged Bruce to release his energies by entering the 1958 Boxing Championships held between his new school and King George V School. Bruce liked the idea and trained vigorously for the upcoming challenge.
When the competition finally took place, Bruce breezed his way through the preliminary rounds, knocking out three opponents in the first round. In the final he faced Gary Elms, who had held the title for the last three years. Bruce was able to use the blocking moves he had learned from wing chun to negate the power of his opponent. Then in the third round he landed a devastating blow which put Elms on the canvas. Bruce had won the title.
Despite have the prestige of being the inter school boxing champ, Bruce continued to get into trouble, both with his teachers and the police. Finally, his mother suggested that he return to the country of his birth to claim citizenship before he turned 18, at which time it would be too late. His father agreed, knowing that Bruce’s future depended on him getting away from his peers.
Coming to America
On April 15, 1959, Bruce gathered up his meagre belongings and set off for his three-week Pacific journey. Before he left, his mother slipped $100 into his pocket. His father gave him a further $15. He was booked onto the ship as a third class passenger, but spent most of his time in first class by giving dance lessons to other passengers. On May 17th, he fulfilled his mother’s prophecy when she had named him when he was born. He returned again to the place of his birth, San Francisco.
Bruce stayed with a friend of his father, making a meager income by giving dance lessons. During his first few months in San Francisco, he met several local karate students who encouraged him to teach kung fu. But Bruce was not yet ready to make that leap.
A few months after arriving he moved into the boarding house of Ruby Chow, a family friend and began work as a waiter in her restaurant. He also enrolled in Edison Technical High School. When Seattle held an Asian Culture Day, teachers at the school asked Bruce to give a kung fu demonstration. In the audience that day was James DeMille, former US Army Heavyweight Boxing Champ. Scanning the audience, Bruce noticed DeMille and invited him up to spar with him. DeMille thought he could easily take out the slight China man but was surprised to discover that he was unable to lay a finger on Bruce, who was able to block and counter with deadly efficiency.
If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of.
After the demonstration, DeMille asked Bruce to teach him some moves. Before long, Bruce had a devoted core of serious students.
Bruce applied himself to his education for the first time, earning his diploma from Edison Tech with high enough grades to be admitted to the University of Washington in Seattle. While at college he kept up his kung fu training, but he would not let his teaching come before his own learning. He would train for up to 40 hours each week, developing new techniques and borrowing from all forms in order to create the most functional figting style.
In October, 1963, twenty-two-year old Bruce quit his job at Ruby Chow’s restaurant and opened his own training academy – the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute. He lived at the back in a small, windowless room. It was around this time that Bruce also met a fellow student at Washington by the name of Linda Emery. They began dating, though Linda hid the budding romance from her parents.
The Institute did well and, by June, 1964, Bruce was ready to open up a larger Kwoon in Oakland, California. He closed the doors of the first academy and told his assistant Taky Kimura to reopen the school in Chinatown as a private club for his regular students.
Before opening his Oakland Kwoon, Bruce attended the International Karate Tournament in Long Beach, where he had been invited to give a demonstration. Here he wowed the crowds with his soon to be famous one-inch punch. It was here that Bruce also met Filipino Martial Artist Dan Inosanto, who would become his number one student.
Bruce gave further demonstrations and soon had a thriving business in Oakland. His plan was to build up a nest-egg and then bring Linda from Seattle where they would marry. But those plans were swept aside when Linda wrote that she was pregnant. Bruce was delighted. Despite the protestations of Linda’s family, they were married in a small ceremony on August 17, 1964.
Bruce and his new bride moved in with James Lee and his family. James was a traditionally trained Kung Fu man who was looking for a more practically efficient style. He worked with Bruce to build up his Oakland Kowloon. They offered their skills to anyone who was seriously interested in learning how to fight. In early 1965, a traditional Chinese Kung Fu instructor named Wong Jack Man heard that the pair were teaching Chinese ‘secret’ fighting arts to Westerners. He was enraged and, largely to build his own reputation, he challenged Bruce to a fight – with a wager; the loser would have to close his school.
When Wong turned up for the fight he half expected Bruce to back down. But Bruce was hyped and ready for action. A surprised Wong tried to throw in some last-minute rules – no eye jabs, no groin kicks, etc. But Bruce rejected them, saying, “I’m not standing for any of that! You’ve made the challenge. It’s all out. It’s no holds barred.”
The match was sloppy. After a few weak punches, Wong turned to run. Bruce ran after him and punched him in the back of the head, but he couldn’t land a finishing punch. Wong finally gave up, and his entourage dragged him off without a word.
Bruce was not happy with his showing. The fight had been too messy and he had become winded. It spurred him on to begin an intense regimen of physical training which he would keep up for the rest of his life.
Return to the Silver Screen
On February 1, 1965, Linda gave birth to a son, Brandon. Three days later Bruce was given his first Hollywood screen test. Hairstylist to the stars, Jay Sebring, had been in attendance at the Long Beach Karate Tournament where Bruce had demonstrated his one-inch punch and had mentioned him to producers who were casting roles in a new Charlie Chan movie. He didn’t get that role, but he was offered another role – as Kato, the side-kick to the Green Hornet in a projected TV series.
The series premiered on September 9, 1966, introducing American audiences to kung fu for the first time. Young viewers were amazed at what they saw and Kato, the side-kick, soon became the real star of the show. Bruce began making personal appearances all over the country. Unfortunately, the Green Hornet wasn’t such a hit with adult audiences, who saw it as too unrealistic and too much of a copycat of Batman. After 26 weekly episodes it was cancelled.
Despite his popularity as Kato, no new roles popped up for Bruce. He did manage to make a little cash with guest appearances on Longstreet, Blondi and Here Come the Brides. Once again, he turned his energies to teaching Kung Fu. Although he never intended it, his techniques soon developed into a new fighting style. He called it Jeet Kune Do – the way of the intercepting fist.
In February, 1967, Bruce opened his third Kwoon, in L. A’s China-Town, just a few blocks from Dodger Stadium. At the suggestion of the Green Hornet’s assistant producer, he raised his fees from $22 per month to as much as $50 per hour. Eventually his rates went up to $250 an hour, with director Roman Polanski even flying him out to Switzerland for private lessons. Celebrity students included Steve McQueen, Lee Coburn, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. He also trained established martial arts masters including Chuck Norris, Joe Lewis and Mike Stone. Between them, those three had won every major karate championship in the United States.
On April 19, 1969 Linda gave birth to daughter Shannon. A few weeks later, Bruce suffered a severe back injury while lifting a 125-pound barbell. The doctor told him to forget kung fu – he would never kick again! For three months he lay flat on his back – and fell into a deep depression. After six months he finally began training again. Working through his pain, he was soon back to his old self.
It was at this time that Bruce was working with screenwriter Stirling Siliphant and actor Lee Marvin on what was to be his breakout film, The Silent Flute. The film never got to the shooting stage, but Siliphant did get Bruce a cameo on the TV series Longstreet.
Shortly after shooting the Longstreet episode, Bruce flew to Hong Kong to arrange for his now widowed mother to come live in the United States. When he stepped off the plane he was shocked at the reaction. The Green Hornet ahd been playing in movie theatres and it had made Bruce a Chinese hero. He was bombarded by reporters and spent the next two weeks doing the rounds of the local TV talk shows.
Bruce’s fame did not escape the attention of the key players in the Hong Kong film industry – the Shaw brothers. They produced two thirds of the Chinese films in the world. Theirs was a film production assembly line, with actors and crew being grossly underpaid. They offered Bruce a seven-year contract for just $2000 per film. He turned them down.
Then Bruce was approached by Raymond Chow of Golden Harvest Studios, who offered $15,000 for two movies. Bruce signed on the dotted line and the rest, as they say, is history.
Bruce’s first major role as an adult was in The Big Boss. The film was shot in Bangkok in the middle of a heat wave. With no air conditioning, polluted water, and no fresh food, it was hardly the star’s life that Bruce had dreamed of. But it was all worth it – he was finally on his way.
The Big Boss premiered in October, 1971. Bruce and Linda sat in the audience in nervous anticipation. The movie ended to complete silence. Then utter chaos broke out. The ecstatic crowd practically mobbed Bruce as he tried to leave the theatre. Within 3 weeks the film took in more than $3 million in Hong Kong, smashing all records.
Bruce’s second film for Golden Harvest, Fists of Fury, was even more popular, smashing the records set by The Big Boss. On the streets sold out tickets went for $50 a pop.
Bruce had become a superstar almost overnight. Suddenly he was unable to walk down the street without drawing a crowd.
The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.
Returning to the United Sates, Bruce was excited about a new TV series that was in production tentatively titled The Warrior. It was the story of a Chinese Shaolin monk who gets transplanted in the American West. Bruce desperately wanted the part. Yet, he was shocked and disappointed to learn that he was considered too Chinese for the part – remember, he was to play the role of a Chinese man. The part was given to American actor David Carradine and retitled Kung Fu.
Bruce dealt with this rejection by throwing himself into his next project, a film he wrote himself called The Way of the Dragon. He decided to do this one completely by himself. He would produce, direct, cast, choreograph, scout locations and star in the movie. He even played percussion for the movie soundtrack. The movie was shot on a $130,000 budget on location in Rome. In the climactic scene Bruce recreated a one-on-one gladiatorial contest with Chuck Norris.
Way of the Dragon was a smash hit, taking in $5.5 million in Hong Kong alone. In the wake of it’s release, Bruce had planned to take some time off to recover from his gruelling schedule. But in October 1972 he heard that basketball star Kareem Abdul Jabbar was in Hong Kong. He quickly arranged some action sequences with his seven-foot two-inch former student that could be used in his next project, Game of Death.
Having shot twenty minutes of footage for Game of Death, Bruce got the call from Hollywood that he had been waiting for for so long. Warner Brothers now saw Bruce as a bankable commodity. They wanted him to star in a US martial arts film and were willing to give him complete control over the fight scenes. The feature was called Enter the Dragon.
The filming of Enter the Dragon placed enormous demands on Bruce’s physical energy. He couldn’t sleep at night, lost weight, his skin paled and he started to look ill.
With filming wrapped up, Bruce sat in a tiny dubbing room on May 10th, 1973 looping dialogue. In order to achieve complete silence, the air conditioning was shut off. Bruce went to the bathroom to wash his face – and collapsed. He was seized with a fit of vomiting and struggled to breathe. Rushed to hospital, he was diagnosed with a cerebral edema and then released.
Around noon on July 20th, 1973, Bruce sat in his Hong Kong study, hunched over his books and papers. Around 2pm Raymond Chow arrived to discuss script ideas for Game of Death, staying for two hours. In the early evening, Bruce drove over to the apartment of Betty Ting Pei, an actress who he wanted to play a lead role in the film. Around 7:30, Bruce complained of a headache and asked Betty if he could lie on her bed. The pair had planned to meet Raymond Chow at a restaurant for dinner. But when Betty went in to rouse Bruce she was unable to wake him. She called Chow who rushed over. Unable to wake Bruce they called a doctor. The martial arts superstar was rushed to hospital – but nothing could be done. Bruce Lee was dead.
The world was shocked. On the cusp of worldwide domination, the world’s fittest man was gone. But the legend of Bruce Lee was just beginning.