A Look Back at Bruce Lee, Wise Man of Kung Fu
The only thing faster than Bruce Lee’s fist was his influence. He was a slight man at 5-foot-7-inches and 135 pounds with a childlike bowl haircut. Yet he would marry Chinese nationalism with Hollywood effects with grand effect, looming large in films such as Fists of Fury and Enter the Dragon. The latter of which will be airing on November 27th in honor of what would have been Lee’s 74th birthday on the El Rey Network as part of their Thanksgiving “Way of the Turkey” marathon that will also celebrate Lee’s legacy (the channel is available through some providers like DirecTV).
Lee Jun-Fan was born November 27, 1940 at the Jackson Street Hospital in Chinatown, San Francisco, not more than an hour’s walk from Fisherman’s Wharf. The supervising physician, Dr. Mary Glover, asked to christen the boy with an English name. Bruce, she suggested. Agreed, said Mrs. Grace Lee.
Three months later, the family returned to Hong Kong. Little did they know that 18 years later, fearing repercussion from a Triad gang member whose son Bruce had bloodied in a fistfight, they would mail him back to America in a third-class ship bunk.
Young Bruce had the nickname “Mo Si Tung,” meaning never sits still. He was a hot headed youth. His status as a child film star and member of the privileged Ho-Tung clan guaranteed him some social immunity. He was privately taught by Wing Chen grandmaster Yip Man. He became a Hong Kong cha-cha dance champion. In short, he was on the fast track.
That ended when Bruce arrived in America with $100, a pair of glasses, and the plan to become a dentist. After flitting between jobs, siblings and cities, he landed as a drama student at the University of Washington in Seattle. There, Lee opened his first martial arts school, the Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute. A few years later in 1963, Lee would publish, Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense, explaining the Taoist philosophy upon which he would later base his martial discipline, Jeet Kune Do, meaning Way of the Intercepting Fist.
In 1964, Bruce married Linda Emery, dropped out of college, moved to Oakland, California, and was invited to the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championships. He demonstrated the two-finger push-up and the one-inch punch, landing a solid hit on volunteer Bob Baker, who later said, “I had to stay home from work because the pain in my chest was unbearable.”
First exposed to Hollywood via the Karate Championships, Lee snagged his first role as Kato, sidekick of The Green Hornet. After a few years as a support actor, Lee returned to Hong Kong and obtained his first leading role in The Big Boss. All of Asia fell in love with Cheng, the furious factory worker fighting against Hsiao Mi, boss of a narcotics smuggling operation. The release became the highest-grossing film in the history of Hong Kong.
That is, until Bruce Lee’s next film: Fists of Fury (also released as The Iron Hand and The Chinese Connection) which showcased Lee as a martial artist retaliating against Japanese racism in Shanghai. Ever since Asians first came to America as exploited laborers on the transcontinental railroad, male Asian-Americans were often pigeonholed as stolid, nerdish and watered-down. All that changed with Lee’s bared teeth and flying sidekicks.
For Way of the Dragon, Lee’s third major film, he was writer, director, actor and choreographer of all fight scenes. The story pitted Chinese restaurant owners in Rome against the local mafia, starring Lee as the underdog martial artist, Tang Lung. It was also the big break for Chuck Norris.
Lee’s fourth film, Game of Death, was never finished. He halted production to star in Warner Bros. Enter the Dragon as a shaolin martial artist working undercover on behalf of British Intelligence to expose a narcotics trafficking operation. The movie smashed records. It launched a Kung Fu craze in the 1970s, spawned the film career of Jackie Chan, and cemented Bruce Lee as an all-time great.
Bruce never witnessed the film’s release. On July 20, 1973, he took the painkiller Equagesic for a headache. After dinner, he napped and never woke up. He would have turned 75 in 2014.
Beth Kelly is a blogger and film fanatic based in Chicago, IL. Working previously as an English teacher in South Korea and Poland, she's now back in the Midwest and feeling better than ever. Follow her woefully neglected Twitter account at @bkelly_88.