Bruce Lee is considered by commentators, critics, media, and other martial artists to be the most influential martial artist of all time and a pop culture icon of the 20th century, who bridged the gap between East and West. He is often credited with helping to change the way Asians were presented in American films. He was born Lee Jun-fan, but most known professionally as Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee became a Hong Kong and American actor, director, martial artist, martial arts instructor, and philosopher. He was the founder of Jeet Kune Do, a hybrid martial arts philosophy drawing from different combat disciplines that is often credited with paving the way for modern mixed martial arts (MMA).
The son of Cantonese opera star Lee Hoi-chuen, Lee was born in the Chinatown area of San Francisco, California, on November 27, 1940, to parents from Hong Kong, and was raised with his family in Kowloon, Hong Kong. He was introduced to the film industry by his father and appeared in several films as a child actor. Lee moved to the United States at the age of 18 to receive his higher education at the University of Washington in Seattle, and it was during this time that he began teaching martial arts. His Hong Kong and Hollywood-produced films elevated the traditional Hong Kong martial arts film to a new level of popularity and acclaim, sparking a surge of interest in Chinese martial arts in the West in the 1970s. The direction and tone of his films dramatically changed and influenced martial arts and martial arts films in the Hollywood, Hong Kong, and the rest of the world.
He is noted for his roles in five feature-length martial arts films in the early 1970s: Lo Wei’s The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972); Golden Harvest’s Way of the Dragon (1972), directed and written by Lee; Golden Harvest and Warner Brothers’ Enter the Dragon (1973) and The Game of Death (1978), both directed by Robert Clouse. Lee became an iconic figure known throughout the world, particularly among the Chinese, based upon his portrayal of Chinese nationalism in his films and among Asian Americans for defying stereotypes associated with the emasculated Asian male. He trained in the art of Wing Chun and later combined his other influences from various sources into the spirit of his personal martial arts philosophy, which he dubbed Jeet Kune Do (The Way of the Intercepting Fist). Lee had residences in Hong Kong and Seattle. He died on July 20, 1973 at the age of 32.
Bruce Lee was born on November 27, 1940, in the Chinese Hospital in Chinatown, San Francisco. According to the Chinese zodiac, Lee was born in both the hour and the year of the Dragon, which according to tradition is a strong and fortuitous omen. Lee and his parents returned to Hong Kong when he was three months old. Bruce’s father, Lee Hoi-chuen, was Han Chinese, and his mother, Grace Ho, was of Eurasian ancestry.
Lee’s father Lee Hoi-chuen was a famous Cantonese opera star. Because of this, Lee was introduced into films at a very young age and appeared in several films as a child. Lee had his first role as a baby who was carried onto the stage in the film Golden Gate Girl. As a nine-year-old, he would co-star with his father in The Kid in 1950, which was based on a comic book character and was his first leading role. By the time he was 18, he had appeared in twenty films.
After Lee was involved in several street fights, his parents decided that he needed to be trained in the martial arts. Lee’s first introduction to martial arts was through his father, from whom he learned the fundamentals of Wu-style t’ai chi ch’uan.
The largest influence on Lee’s martial arts development was his study of Wing Chun. Lee began training in Wing Chun when he was 16 years old under the Wing Chun teacher Yip Man in between late 1956 and 1957, after losing to rival gang members. Yip’s regular classes generally consisted of the forms practice, chi sao (sticking hands) drills, wooden dummy techniques, and free-sparring. There was no set pattern to the classes. Yip tried to keep his students from fighting in the street gangs of Hong Kong by encouraging them to fight in organized competitions.
After a year into his Wing Chun training, most of Yip Man’s other students refused to train with Lee when they learned of his mixed ancestry, as the Chinese were generally against teaching their martial arts techniques to non-Asians. Lee’s sparring partner, Hawkins Cheung, states, “Probably fewer than six people in the whole Wing Chun clan were personally taught, or even partly taught, by Yip Man”. However, Lee showed a keen interest in Wing Chun and continued to train privately with Yip Man and Wong Shun Leung. Wan Kam Leung, a student of Wong’s, witnessed a sparring bout between Wong and Lee and noted the speed and precision with which Lee was able to deliver his kicks. Lee continued to train with Wong Shun Leung after returning to Hong Kong from America.
After attending Tak Sun School (several blocks from his home at 218 Nathan Road, Kowloon), Lee entered the primary school division of the Catholic La Salle College at the age of 12. In 1956, due to poor academic performance and possibly poor conduct, he was transferred to St. Francis Xavier’s College, where he would be mentored by Brother Edward, a teacher and coach of the school boxing team. In 1958, Bruce won the Hong Kong schools boxing tournament, knocking out the previous champion in the final.
In the spring of 1959, Lee got into another street fight, and the police were called. Until his late teens, Lee’s street fights became more frequent and included beating the son of a feared triad family. Eventually, Lee’s father decided his son should leave Hong Kong to pursue a safer and healthier life in the United States. His parents confirmed the police’s fear that this time Lee’s opponent had an organized crime background and that there was the possibility that a contract was out for his life.
The police detective came and he says “Excuse me Mr. Lee, your son is really fighting bad in school. If he gets into just one more fight I might have to put him in jail”. ~ Robert Lee
In April 1959, Lee’s parents decided to send him to the United States to stay with his older sister, Agnes Lee, who was already living with family friends in San Francisco. After several months, he moved to Seattle in 1959 to continue his high school education, where he also worked for Ruby Chow as a live-in waiter at her restaurant. Chow’s husband was a co-worker and friend of Lee’s father. Lee’s elder brother Peter Lee would also join him in Seattle for a short stay before moving on to Minnesota to attend college. That year Lee also started to teach martial arts. He called what he taught Jun Fan Gung Fu (literally Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu). It was basically his approach to Wing Chun. Lee taught friends he met in Seattle, starting with Judo practitioner Jesse Glover, who continued to teach some of Lee’s early techniques. Taky Kimura became Lee’s first Assistant Instructor and continued to teach his art and philosophy after Lee’s death. Lee opened his first martial arts school, named the Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, in Seattle.
In December 1960, Lee completed his high school education and received his diploma from Edison Technical School on Capitol Hill in Seattle.
In March 1961, Lee enrolled at the University of Washington and studied dramatic arts, philosophy, psychology, and various other subjects. Despite what Lee himself and many others have stated, Lee’s official major was drama rather than philosophy according to a 1999 article in the university’s alumni publication.
In the same Long Beach event he also performed the “One inch punch.” Lee stood upright, his right foot forward with knees bent slightly, in front of a standing, stationary partner. Lee’s right arm was partly extended and his right fist approximately one inch away from the partner’s chest. Without retracting his right arm, Lee then forcibly delivered the punch to volunteer Bob Baker while largely maintaining his posture, sending Baker backwards and falling into a chair said to be placed behind Baker to prevent injury, though Baker’s momentum soon caused him to fall to the floor. Baker recalled, “I told Bruce not to do this type of demonstration again. When he punched me that last time, I had to stay home from work because the pain in my chest was unbearable”.
Lee dropped out of college in early 1964 and moved to Oakland to live with James Yimm Lee. James Lee was twenty years senior to Bruce Lee and a well-known Chinese martial artist in the area. Together, they founded the second Jun Fan martial arts studio in Oakland. James Lee was also responsible for introducing Bruce Lee to Ed Parker, an American martial artist and organizer of the Long Beach International Karate Championships where Bruce Lee was later “discovered” by Hollywood. At the invitation of Ed Parker, Lee appeared in the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championships and performed repetitions of two-finger push-ups (using the thumb and the index finger of one hand) with feet at approximately shoulder-width apart.
It was at the 1964 championships that Lee first met Taekwondo master Jhoon Goo Rhee. The two developed a friendship—a relationship from which they benefited as martial artists. Rhee taught Lee the side kick in detail, and Lee taught Rhee the “non-telegraphic” punch. In Oakland’s Chinatown in 1964, Lee had a controversial private match with Wong Jack Man, a direct student of Ma Kin Fung, known for his mastery of Xingyiquan, Northern Shaolin, and T’ai chi ch’uan. According to Lee, the Chinese community issued an ultimatum to him to stop teaching non-Chinese people. When he refused to comply, he was challenged to a combat match with Wong. The arrangement was that if Lee lost, he would have to shut down his school, while if he won, he would be free to teach white people, or anyone else. Wong denied this, stating that he requested to fight Lee after Lee boasted during one of his demonstrations at a Chinatown theatre that he could beat anyone in San Francisco, and that Wong himself did not discriminate against Whites or other non-Chinese people. Lee commented, “That paper had all the names of the sifu from Chinatown, but they don’t scare me”.
Individuals known to have witnessed the match include Cadwell, James Lee (Bruce Lee’s associate, no relation), and William Chen, a teacher of T’ai chi ch’uan. Wong and William Chen stated that the fight lasted an unusually long 20–25 minutes. Wong claims that although he had originally expected a serious but polite bout, Lee aggressively attacked him with intent to kill. When Wong presented the traditional handshake, Lee appeared to accept the greeting, but instead, Lee immediately thrust his hand as a spear aimed at Wong’s eyes. Forced to defend his life, Wong nonetheless refrained from striking Lee with killing force when the opportunity presented itself because it could have earned him a prison sentence, but used illegal cufflings under his sleeves. The fight ended due to Lee’s “unusually winded” condition, as opposed to a decisive blow by either fighter. By contrast, according to Bruce Lee, Linda Lee Cadwell, and James Yimm Lee, the fight lasted a mere 3 minutes with a decisive victory for Lee.
In Cadwell’s account, “The fight ensued, it was a no-holds-barred fight, it took three minutes. Bruce got this guy down to the ground and said ‘Do you give up?’ and the man said he gave up”. A couple of weeks after the bout, Lee gave an interview claiming that he had defeated an unnamed challenger, which Wong says was an obvious reference to him. In response, Wong published his own account of the fight in the Chinese Pacific Weekly, a Chinese-language newspaper in San Francisco, with an invitation to a public rematch if Lee was not satisfied with the account. Lee did not respond to the invitation despite his reputation for violently responding to every provocation, and there were no further public announcements by either, though Lee continued to teach white people. Lee had abandoned thoughts of a film career in favour of pursuing martial arts. However, a martial arts exhibition on Long Beach in 1964 eventually led to the invitation by television producer William Dozier for an audition for a role in the pilot for “Number One Son” about Lee Chan, the son of Charlie Chan. The show never materialized, but Dozier saw potential in Lee.
In 1966, Lee played the role of the sidekick Kato alongside the title character played by Van Williams in the William Dozier’s produced TV series titled The Green Hornet based on the radio show by the same name. The show lasted only one season of 26 episodes, from September 1966 to March 1967. Lee and Williams also appeared as their respective characters in three crossover episodes of Batman, another William Dozier-produced television series. In 1967, Lee played a role in one episode of Ironside.
Jeet Kune Do originated in 1967. After filming one season of The Green Hornet, Lee found himself out of work and opened The Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute. The controversial match with Wong Jack Man influenced Lee’s philosophy about martial arts. Lee concluded that the fight had lasted too long and that he had failed to live up to his potential using his Wing Chun techniques. He took the view that traditional martial arts techniques were too rigid and formalized to be practical in scenarios of chaotic street fighting. Lee decided to develop a system with an emphasis on “practicality, flexibility, speed, and efficiency”. He started to use different methods of training such as weight training for strength, running for endurance, stretching for flexibility, and many others which he constantly adapted, including fencing and basic boxing techniques.
Lee emphasized what he called “the style of no style”. This consisted of getting rid of the formalized approach which Lee claimed was indicative of traditional styles. Lee felt that even the system he now called Jun Fan Gung Fu was too restrictive, and it eventually evolved into a philosophy and martial art he would come to call Jeet Kune Do or the Way of the Intercepting Fist. It is a term he would later regret, because Jeet Kune Do implied specific parameters that styles connote, whereas the idea of his martial art was to exist outside of parameters and limitations.
At the time, two of Lee’s martial arts students were Hollywood script writer Stirling Silliphant and actor James Coburn. In 1969 the three worked on a script for a film called The Silent Flute, and went together on a location hunt to India. The project was not realised at the time, but the 1978 film Circle of Iron, starring David Carradine, was based on the same plot. In 2010, producer Paul Maslansky was reported to have planned and received funding for a film based on the original script for The Silent Flute. In 1969, Lee made a brief appearance in the Silliphant-penned film Marlowe, where he played a hoodlum hired to intimidate private detective Philip Marlowe, (played by James Garner), who uses his martial arts abilities to commit acts of vandalization to intimidate Marlowe. The same year he was credited as the karate advisor in The Wrecking Crew, the fourth instalment of the Matt Helm comedy spy-fi film starring Dean Martin. Also that year, Lee acted in one episode of Here Come the Brides and Blondie.
In 1970, he was responsible for fight choreography for A Walk in the Spring Rain starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn, again written by Silliphant.
In 1971, Lee appeared in four episodes of the television series Longstreet, written by Silliphant. Lee played Li Tsung the martial arts instructor of the title character Mike Longstreet (played by James Franciscus), and important aspects of his martial arts philosophy were written into the script. According to statements made by Lee, and also by Linda Lee Cadwell after Lee’s death, in 1971 Lee pitched a television series of his own tentatively titled The Warrior, discussions of which were also confirmed by Warner Bros. During a December 9, 1971 television interview on The Pierre Berton Show, Lee stated that both Paramount and Warner Brothers wanted him “to be in a modernized type of a thing, and that they think the Western idea is out, whereas I want to do the Western”. According to Cadwell, however, Lee’s concept was retooled and renamed Kung Fu, but Warner Bros. gave Lee no credit. Warner Brothers states that they had for some time been developing an identical concept, created by two writers and producers, Ed Spielman and Howard Friedlander.
According to these sources, the reason Lee was not cast was in part because of his ethnicity, but more so because he had a thick accent. The role of the Shaolin monk in the Wild West was eventually awarded to then-non-martial-artist David Carradine. In The Pierre Berton Show interview, Lee stated he understood Warner Brothers’ attitudes towards casting in the series: “They think that business-wise it is a risk. I don’t blame them. If the situation were reversed, and an American star were to come to Hong Kong, and I was the man with the money, I would have my own concerns as to whether the acceptance would be there”.
Producer Fred Weintraub had advised Lee to return to Hong Kong and make a feature film which he could showcase to executives in Hollywood. Not happy with his supporting roles in the US, Lee returned to Hong Kong. Unaware that The Green Hornet had been played to success in Hong Kong and was unofficially referred to as “The Kato Show”, he was surprised to be recognized on the street as the star of the show. After negotiating with both Shaw Brothers Studio and Golden Harvest, Lee signed a film contract to star in two films produced by Golden Harvest.
Lee played his first leading role in The Big Boss (1971), which proved to be an enormous box office success across Asia and catapulted him to stardom. He soon followed up with Fist of Fury (1972), which broke the box office records set previously by The Big Boss. Having finished his initial two-year contract, Lee negotiated a new deal with Golden Harvest. Lee later formed his own company, Concord Production Inc., with Chow. For his third film, Way of the Dragon (1972), he was given complete control of the film’s production as the writer, director, star, and choreographer of the fight scenes. In 1964, at a demonstration in Long Beach, California, Lee had met karate champion Chuck Norris. In Way of the Dragon Lee introduced Norris to moviegoers as his opponent, their showdown has been characterized as “one of the best fight scenes in martial arts and film history”. The role had originally been offered to American karate champion Joe Lewis.
However, only a few months after the completion of Enter the Dragon, and six days before its July 26, 1973 release, Lee died. Enter the Dragon would go on to become one of the year’s highest-grossing films and cement Lee as a martial arts legend. It was made for US$850,000 in 1973 (equivalent to $4 million adjusted for inflation as of 2007). To date, Enter the Dragon has grossed over $200 million worldwide. The film sparked a brief fad in martial arts, epitomised in songs such as “Kung Fu Fighting” and TV shows like Kung Fu (in Enter The Dragon, Lee was a Shaolin Kung Fu master, similar to the role of David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine).
From August to October 1972, Lee began work on his fourth Golden Harvest Film, Game of Death. He began filming some scenes, including his fight sequence with 7 ft 2 in American basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a former student. Production stopped in November 1972 when Warner Brothers offered Lee the opportunity to star in Enter the Dragon, the first film to be produced jointly by Concord, Golden Harvest, and Warner Bros. Filming began in Hong Kong in January 1973. One month into the filming, another production company, Starseas Motion Pictures, promoted Bruce Lee as a leading actor in Fist of Unicorn, although he had merely agreed to choreograph the fight sequences in the film as a favour to his long-time friend Unicorn Chan. Lee planned to sue the production company, but retained his friendship with Chan.
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