A tribute to martial arts legend Bruce Lee

Statue of Bruce Lee in Hong Kong, unveiled by his brother Robert on November 27th, 2005

American actor, action director, martial arts instructor, philosopher and book author Lee Jun-fan, commonly known as Bruce Lee, or under his Chinese screen name Lee Little Dragon, was born in the Chinatown of San Francisco on November 27th, 1940.

His parents, Cantonese opera singer and film actor Lee Moon-shuen (1901-1965) and Grace Ho (1907–1996), who was of Eurasian ancestry, were on a one-year US tour with their Hong Kong troupe.

He had two brothers: Peter Lee Jung-sum (1939-2008), former assistant director at the Hong Kong Observatory, and musician Robert Lee Jun-fai (born 1948) as well as two sisters: Agnes and the adopted Phoebe (both born 1938).

He arrived in Asia when he was just three months old and grew up in Kowloon, then an urban area of the British Crown colony Hong Kong, which was occupied by Japanese troops from Christmas Day 1941 to late August 1945.

Introduced to the film industry by his father as an infant, Lee appeared in several movies as a child actor. Lee had his first leading role at the age of nine and by the time he was 18, had appeared in 20 movies.

In 1956, due to poor academic performance and possibly misbehavior, Lee was transferred to St. Francis Xavier’s College, a Catholic school for boys where most lessons were taught in English.

At an elite institution that had recently relocated from Shanghai, under Communist rule since 1949, Lee would be mentored by Brother Edward, a teacher and coach of the school boxing team.

Their common efforts would bear fruit soon, as in 1958 Lee won the local schools’ boxing tournament, knocking out the previous champion in the final. An accomplished dancer, that year Lee took home the cha-cha championship as well.

But as Lee still got involved in several gang fights, his parents decided that he also needed to learn Wing Chun, a form of self-defense based on Kung Fu.

Grandmaster Yip Man (1893-1972) was trying to keep young man from fighting on the streets by encouraging them to participate in organized competitions.

Over time, most of his costudents refused to train with Lee because of his mixed ancestry, as Chinese were generally against sharing martial arts techniques with non-Asians.

In April 1959, after Lee bet up the son of a feared triad family, his parents sent him (back) to the United States to stay with Agnes, who was already living in San Francisco.

After several months, he moved to Seattle to continue his high school education, where he worked for Ruby Chow (1920-2008), one of the first Asian-American activists, as a waiter at her restaurant.

Before receiving his diploma from Edison Technical School in December 1960, he opened the Lee Jun Fan Kung Fu Institute. In March 1961, Lee enrolled at the University of Washington and studied dramatic arts, philosophy and psychology, though dropped out of college in early 1964.

There he met his future wife Linda Emery (born 1945), a fellow student, whom he married in August 1964. They had two children: actor Brandon Lee (1965–1993), killed accidentally on the set of The Crow, and actress and businesswoman Shannon Lee (born 1969).

Then he moved to Oakland to study with James Yimm Lee (1920-1972), another Chinese martial artist. Together they founded the second Jun Fan martial arts studio. That year Lee gave an impressive performance at the 1st Long Beach International Karate Championships.

In 1966/67, he appeared with Van Williams (1934-2016) in The Green Hornet, a TV series about a masked superhero that lasted only one season, but which introduced Lee to a larger American audience.

Shortly afterwards Lee founded Jeet Kune Do (JKD) or «The way of the intercepting fist», a hybrid martial arts system drawing from different combat disciplines as well as his own philosophy and personal experiences.

With The Wrecking Crew, a 1968 spy comedy with Dean Martin (1917-1995) and Sharon Tate (1943-1969), Lee made his Hollywood debut as an action choreographer. In 1969, Lee had a brief appearance in Marlowe with James Garner (1928-2014).

A year later, he was responsible for fight choreography in A Walk in the Spring Rain, starring Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982) and Anthony Quinn (1915-2001).

The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, as well as Way of the Dragon, filmed in Hong Kong in 1971 and 1972 respectively, were big hits and made Lee an international celebrity.

During filming, Lee received an offer for Enter the Dragon, the first Kung Fu movie to be coproduced by a Hollywood studio, with a budget unprecedented for the genre: 850,000 US dollars.

Grossing around 350,000 million US dollars worldwide, one of the most profitable productions of all times was released six days after his death and cemented his legendary status.

Lee passed away in Hong Kong on July 20th, 1973 in the apartment of Taiwanese actress Betty Ting Pei (born 1947) before a planned dinner with Australian one-time James Bond 007 George Lazenby (born 1939).

According to Chuck Norris (also born 1940), martial artist, actor, film producer and screenwriter, his good friend’s death was a reaction to the combination of the muscle-relaxant medication he had been taking since 1968 for a ruptured disc in his back and an antibiotic he was given for a headache that night.

Lee’s rather modest home in Kowloon, which has some of the highest real estate prices in the world, was finally demolished in September 2019 due to the building’s structural problems, but a mosaic and four window frames were said to have been preserved.

The Little Dragon’s impressive legacy includes philosophical books influenced by Buddhism, Taoism and Indian thinker Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), which stand in opposition to the conservative worldview advocated by Confucianism.

The free verse form of Lee’s anti-poetry, originally handwritten on paper, then later on edited and published, is reflected in his most famous quote “Be formless… shapeless, like water.” It’s indeed tragic that such a well of wisdom dried out way too early.


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