Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story charts Bruce Lee’s life, but it gets a lot wrong about the true story. Dragon was released in 1993, twenty years after Lee’s untimely death at the age of 32. While Dragon felt content to focus on the legends surrounding Bruce Lee, a modern biopic would do well to focus on who he really was.
In Hong Kong, Bruce Lee’s father Lee Hoi-chuen awakens from a nightmare about a phantom, known as the Demon, haunting his young son. He subsequently enrolls him in Chinese martial arts training with instructor Yip Man.
“Kung Fu is more than a system of fighting it’s a system of thought. You must out-think your opponent whatever form he takes. Because some of them will be more than just men.”
“What else could they be Sifu?”
“We all have inner demons to fight. We call these demons fear and hatred and anger. If you don’t conquer them. Then a life of a hundred years is a tragedy. If you do, a life of a single day can be a triumph.”
As a young adult, Bruce fights British sailors who are harassing a young Chinese woman, resulting in him having to leave Hong Kong. His father insists he go to the US.
After Lee was involved in several street fights, his parents decided that he needed to be trained in the martial arts. Lee’s friend William Cheung introduced him to Ip Man.
Ip Man was a Chinese martial artist and a grandmaster of the martial art Wing Chun. He had several students who later became martial arts masters in their own right, the most famous among them being Bruce Lee.
Bruce Lee was rejected from learning Wing Chun Kung Fu under Ip Man because of the long-standing rule in the Chinese Martial Arts world not to teach foreigners.
His one quarter German background from his mother’s side would be an initial obstacle towards his Wing Chun training; however, Cheung would speak on his behalf and Lee was accepted into the school. Lee began training in Wing Chun with Yip Man. 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 had 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, William Cheung and Wong Shun-leung.
Wong Shun-leung was a Hong Kong martial artist who studied Wing Chun kung fu under Yip Man and was one of Ip Man’s senior students who helped with training Bruce Lee. Due to his reputation, his students and admirers referred to him as ‘Gong Sau Wong’ (‘King of Talking Hands’).
Beimo competitions supposedly had no rules, protective equipment, or time limits. As Wong recalled in an interview, “When I competed, it was in secret. We went into a room, and the door was shut and there were no rules. The government did not allow them. They were illegal, but we didn’t care. We fought until the other guy was knocked out.”
Different kung fu schools met secretly with each other for challenge matches. Wong was said to have faced opponents from many disciplines—”virtually every style of martial art in the colony.” Reportedly, Wong won most of these contests within a few punches.
On 22 November 1957, the inaugural Taiwan–Hong Kong–Macau Open Chinese Kung Fu Competition was held in Taiwan. Thirty-two competitors from Hong Kong and Macau formed a team and participated in this competition, but only two Hong Kong competitors scored a victory. Wong competed in his weight class and had a preliminary match with Wu Ming-jeet, a Taiwanese fighter known for his powerful kicks, but was knocked out and eliminated. A documentary film covering the competition was played in Hong Kong, with a first-day showing on 12 February 1958. In 1974, Unicorn Chan recalled that it was in 1958 when Bruce Lee took him to watch a documentary film on kung fu competitions, and that Lee had watched it seven times before within the last four days.
Wu and Wong’s match in the 1957 kung fu competition in Taiwan is the only documented proof of Wong’s involvement in fighting competition; the only records of Wong’s beimo matches are from eyewitnesses. Since beimo competition was held secretly, the loser often denied involvement in the fight afterward, or both sides would claim victory after the fight. For example, in the match between Ni Yuk-tong and Wong, various accounts of the fight exist, and no one is sure of where the fight took place, how the fighters performed, and who won. Thus, while many of Wong’s students have referred to him as “one of the greatest fighters of this century”
Wong’s participation in, and views on, tournaments reflected his philosophy on martial arts. When asked, “Did you compete in any organized tournaments with rules?” Wong replied, “Not in boxing. When I competed, it was in secret. We went into a room, and the door was shut and there were no rules. The government did not allow them. They were illegal, but we didn’t care. We fought until the other guy was knocked out.”
Some sources claim that Wong choreographed some fight scenes in Enter the Dragon, saying that “… when shooting Enter the Dragon in Hong Kong, he [Bruce Lee] invited Wong to come on location to discuss the fight scenes” and that “Wong in fact had been invited to choreograph some of the fight scenes in Enter the Dragon. The documentary Dragon since 1973 consists of interviews with various Hong Kong personalities, mostly those who worked with Lee in his Golden Harvest days. None of the interviewees, including Bee Chan, Shek Kin, and Chaplin Chang, mentioned that Wong had been invited to work as a fight scene choreographer for Enter the Dragon.
In 1958, Bruce won the Hong Kong schools boxing tournament, knocking out the previous champion, Gary Elms, in the final. That year, Lee was also a cha-cha dancer, winning Hong Kong’s Crown Colony Cha-Cha Championship.
Until his late teens, Lee’s street fights became more frequent and included beating the son of a feared triad family. In 1958, after students from Choy Li Fut, a rival martial arts school, challenged Lee’s Wing Chun school, he engaged in a fight on a rooftop. In response to an unfair punch by another boy, Bruce beat him so badly that he knocked out one of his teeth, leading to a complaint by the boy’s parents to the police. Lee’s mother had to go to a police station and sign a document saying that she would take full responsibility for Bruce’s actions if they released him into her custody. Though she did not mention the incident to her husband, she suggested that Bruce, being an American citizen, return to the United States. Lee’s father agreed, as Lee’s college prospects were he to remain in Hong Kong were not very promising.
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.
“After four years of hard training in the art of gung fu, I began to understand and felt the principle of gentleness — the art of neutralizing the effect of the opponent’s effort and minimizing expenditure of one’s energy. All this must be done in calmness and without striving. It sounded simple, but in actual application it was difficult. The moment I engaged in combat with an opponent, my mind was completely perturbed and unstable. Especially after a series of exchanging blows and kicks, all my theory of gentleness was gone. My only thought left was somehow or another I must beat him and win. “My instructor, Professor Yip Man, head of the wing chun school, would come up to me and say: ‘Relax and calm your mind. Forget about yourself and follow your opponent’s movement. Let your mind, the basic reality, do the countermovement without any interfering deliberation. Above all, learn the art of detachment.’ “That was it! I must relax. However, right here I had already done something contradictory, against my will. When I said I must relax, the demand for effort in ‘must’ was already inconsistent with the effortlessness in ‘relax.’ When my acute self-consciousness grew to what the psychologists call the ‘double-blind’ type, my instructor would again approach me and say: ‘Preserve yourself by following the natural bends of things and don’t interfere. Remember never to assert yourself against nature; never be in frontal opposition to any problem, but control it by swinging with it. Don’t practice this week. Go home and think about it.’ “The following week I stayed home. After spending many hours in meditation and practice, I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched at the water. Right then at that moment, a thought suddenly struck me: Wasn’t this water, the very basic stuff, the essence of gung fu? Didn’t the common water illustrate to me the principle of gung fu? I struck it just now, but it did not suffer hurt. Again I stabbed it with all my might, yet it was not wounded. I then tried to grasp a handful of it but it was impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, could fit itself into any container. Although it seemed weak, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.”
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