Bruce Lee. It's one of the most recognizable names in the world. Many people know that Lee was a budding motion picture star at the time of his death. Others recognize Lee for his great foresight and innovative contributions to the martial arts. But few people know of Lee's tumultuous struggle to overcome racism and bridge the gap between White and Asian Americans.
Lee was actually born in America. The year was 1940, the “Year of the Dragon,” according to the Chinese calendar. His parents were touring the U.S. as performers with the Hong Kong Cantonese Opera, when the time arrived for Bruce's birth. He was born on November 27, in the Jackson Street Hospital, at approximately 6:00 a.m., which coincidently was also the “Hour of the Dragon.” He was given the name, Lee Jun Fan. Bruce (a name he would later adopt upon returning to the United States) was barely three months old when he made his debut in the theatrical world. He was “given” the part in a production, playing the part of a female infant.
A few months later, Bruce's parents returned to Hong Kong and resumed their performing careers. At age 6, Bruce auditioned for, and was given a role in a Hong Kong movie entitled, “The Beginning of a Boy.” Bruce was only 6 years old and “smitten by the acting bug.” Not long after, he auditioned for a starring role in another Hong Kong production, “The Makings of a Man.” He was not yet 10.
In 1952, Bruce was enrolled in La Salle College, in Hong Kong. He had just turned 12 and his life was about to take a pivotal turn. The next year, Bruce was set upon by a small group of street thugs and severely beaten. Vowing to never again be a victim, he sought out Sifu Yip Man, a noted Hong Kong Master of Wing Chun Kung Fu. Despite his notoriety as a teacher, Yip Man took on very few students, but Bruce was persistent and was eventually accepted into the Kung Fu school.
Bruce proved to be a hard working and capable martial arts student. And as his confidence grew, so did his other interests. He discovered dancing and soon became a celebrated performer. He would capture the Royal Crown Cha Cha Championships, which was no insignificant feat in Hong Kong. And steadily, he progressed as a student of the “warrior way.”
In 1959, Bruce, against the advice of Sifu Man, entered the Hong Kong Boxing Championships, where he soundly defeated the three-time reigning champion, Gary Elms. Bruce's real troubles were about to begin. With his new found popularity as a fighter, Bruce became a target for every street tough in Hong Kong. And he was all to happy to oblige them. By late 1959, Bruce found himself in constant trouble with local police over fighting. The problem eventually reached such proportions, his family became concerned for his life and made arrangements for Bruce to return to America.
Ruby Chow was an Asian American, living in San Francisco. She owned a small but prosperous oriental restaurant and was acquainted with Bruce's family. When Bruce arrived in the U.S., he had the clothes on his back and $115.00. As instructed by his father, Bruce sought out Ruby. Grudgingly, she consented to give Bruce a job and encouraged him to obtain an education. Bruce worked in the restaurant during the day and attended Edison Technical School by night. This period of Bruce's life is given to much speculation, but we know that he eventually received his High School degree, and began teaching Wing Chun to his closest friends.
Things were going well enough, but Bruce wasn't satisfied. In 1961, Bruce moved to Seattle and enrolled in the University of Washington. That same year, he met and fell in love with Amy Sanbo, his first “Caucasian” girlfriend. However, this was during a very chaotic period in United States history. The country had just ended a long war effort in Korea and was entering a fresh campaign in Vietnam. It didn't matter that Bruce was Chinese. The majority of the white community automatically associated him with Korea and Bruce's love affair with Amy was soon ended. Heart broken, more from the racial prejudice than the failed relationship, Bruce returned home to Hong Kong. The visit was only temporary as Bruce found himself missing Seattle. Despite his cultural problems, Bruce had fallen in love with the "Great American Dream."
He returned to the University of Washington in 1962 and found the same prejudices that he had left behind a year earlier. And his perseverance was soon rewarded. Bruce attracted a small but loyal following, as much for his sense of humor as for his martial arts skill. And he met Linda Emory. A bright, brash coed, Linda resisted the taunts and ridicule and began dating Bruce. The couple eventually married and it was Linda that encouraged Bruce to move to Los Angeles and open a martial arts school.
The next few years were a true “whirlwind.” Bruce was gaining fame for his martial arts prowess and accepted several invitations to perform demonstrations at tournaments. The Asian community was dismayed by Bruce's tactics and demanded that he cease teaching martial arts to Caucasians. This conflict resulted in an altercation between Bruce and one of the other “Asian Masters.” Bruce soundly defeated his antagonist, but was dismayed that it took him longer than he expected. (in excess of a minute) Thus, he began an intense examination of martial arts principles, developing techniques that worked and discarding those that didn't. He also decided that the problem may have been that he wasn't in “optimum physical condition, so he devised a rigorous program and began “re-inventing the wheel.” During this time, Bruce incurred a debilitating injury to his back. So severe was the injury, his doctor told him he would most likely never walk without assistance and would surely never kick, again.
Undeterred, Bruce embarked on the most rigorous training regime of his life. He also began working on a book, “Essence of Jeet Kune Do.” which translates into the “Way of the Intercepting Fist.” This was Bruce's first attempt to refine his concepts on the martial arts. He also began teaching again, and in no time, claimed many of the “Hollywood Elite” as his students. Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Lee Marvin, James Garner and Roman Polanski were among his clientele.
Within a year, Bruce was again conducting demonstrations at Los Angeles Martial Arts tournaments. It was at one such tournament, that Bruce was “discovered” by a Hollywood screenwriter/producer. The writer thought Bruce would be perfect in the television role as an Asian sidekick to an American masked ‘Hero.” Thus, Bruce was given the part of Kato, in the television program, “The Green Hornet.” For his performance, Bruce was paid $400.00 a week.
The program was short lived, but Bruce had become an “overnight phenomenon.” Children all over America played at being Kato, while the “star” of the show was almost completely forgotten. Still, the television and movie industry was slow to approach Bruce, for no other reason than they didn't think American was ready for an Oriental “star.” A television pilot, “Kung Fu,” was co-written by Bruce and was set to feature Bruce in the title role. But again, racism won out as the “geniuses” at the television networks stated that Bruce was “too oriental” for the role. The role was eventually given to David Carradine, an actor with no martial arts training. And he played a young Chinese monk.
But the world wasn't through with Bruce. He was offered a movie contract in Hong Kong, for the paltry sum of $1,800.00. He accepted, and the resultant movie became a worldwide success. Bruce went on to make a string of low-budget films that grossed millions in the worldwide market. Among his movies are, “The Big Boss,” “Fist of Fury,” “Enter the Dragon,” and “Game of Death.” Of course, it wasn't until after his death that the world really discovered the genius of Bruce Lee. He died before many of his films were ever released in the United States.
In 1973, Bruce died mysteriously, (official cause cited as a brain aneurysm) in Hong Kong. Two funerals were held, the first being in Hong Kong. After the ceremony, Bruce was flown to Seattle and laid to rest in his adopted home. Bruce was survived by his wife, and two children.
Written by Lem Jackson
Filmography - These are some of the films Bruce Lee has acted in: