Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.
He sparked the beginning of a new era, a new world…even if he wouldn’t get to see it.
He sparked the beginning of a new era, a new world…even if he wouldn’t get to see it.
There’s a man fighting in Long Beach, California.
The competitors don’t normally touch each other at the Long Beach International Karate Championships. They throw punches, make patterns in the air. Then they wait, while a panel of judges tally up points to decide who might have won, if the fight was real.
But this is different.
In 1967, America is increasing their troops in Vietnam to 457,000. Muhammed Ali has been stripped of his World Heavyweight Boxing Championship title for refusing to be conscripted. President Johnson is raising taxes. There are race riots and peace protests flaring across the country. In 1967, the bleachers at Long Beach are full. This is new. A laughing man with a strange voice that is part American and part Chinese is refusing to follow the rules. Faster than the naked eye, he moves across space.
Bruce Lee isn’t playing. This isn’t a game. As the 16mm cameras roll, his punch hits home.
Bruce was born in the hour of the dragon, the year of the dragon, 1940, into a city full of bad omens. San Francisco’s Chinese community was looking across the Pacific Ocean, toward Hong Kong, whispering of war. The Lees were only passing through San Francisco. “Stay,” their friends begged. “There will be fighting.”
Ignoring the warnings, Bruce’s father Lee Hoi-Chuen took the family back to Hong Kong. And in December 1941, the Japanese invaded.
For the next four years, Hong Kong bled under the Japanese occupation. Martial law was instituted. The Lees called Bruce “Mo Si Ting”. Never sits still. He would lean off the balcony, shaking his fat five-year-old fist at the Japanese encampment across the road. The Lees did not laugh. Their local park was used for beheadings and shootings.
When the war ended, Hong Kong returned to British rule. Lee Hoi-Chuen went back to work as a Cantonese Opera performer, and took his son onto the makeshift film sets. Seeing the way the small boy mugged and mimicked from the sidelines, directors began to throw Bruce into films. They were formulas, always the same story, but Bruce loved them. The tramp, the street urchin. He scoffed at authority and shrieked with glee.
Before Bruce turned eighteen, he’d already been in twenty movies. He might have gone on to fame in Hong Kong’s slapdash film industry, but in the supposed peace of the 1950s, Bruce began fighting instead.
First, with the English schoolboys. They saw a pattern, not a person: outsider, “ching chong”. Then in the back-alleys of Kowloon, where street gangs ran roughshod over the local children. In despair, his parents sent him at thirteen years old to cha-cha lessons, to calm him down. And to Yip Man, the martial artist and proponent of Wing Chun Kung Fu, so he could learn to protect himself.
Bruce liked cha-cha. But it was Kung Fu he fell in love with. Instead of keeping him away from the fighting, it drew him toward The Junction Street Tigers, the local gang, where he swore to defend the local kids. He knew, in his bones, that the best form of defence was attack.
The trouble spread to his training school. A group of Yip Man’s students found out that Bruce’s mother Grace was the niece of a Eurasian. Overnight, he became a pattern once more. No one, they argued, should teach a non-Chinese the secret art of Kung Fu. Yip Man defended him, but Bruce couldn’t stand to stay. He trained in private with anyone who would fight him, taking notes during dance lessons; the cha-cha moves that could be used in attack.
By his mid-teens the police knew Bruce well. And, more dangerously, so did the Triads. There were beatings in the streets, and organised challenges on the rooftops high over the Hong Kong haze.
In 1958, just before he was expelled from high school, Bruce won the Hong Kong Cha Cha Championship. Part dancer, part fighter, he flew around the floor. It was an ending. A few months later, when his parents heard the rumours of a Triad price on Bruce’s head, they put $100 in his pocket and marched him onto an American President Lines steamship bound for the US.
He cha-cha-ed his way across the Pacific, teaching old ladies to tread the boards of the ocean liner, wondering where he was going with every step.
In Seattle, Bruce got a job in Ruby Chow’s Chinese restaurant, and lived in a tiny room above the smell of the spitting wok and the deep fryer. Away from the streets, away from China, he began to ask himself what it meant to fight.
In 1961 he enrolled in the University of Washington. To support himself while he studied philosophy, he taught his friends Kung Fu. First in car parks, then in a studio where he slept in the narrow space behind the mirror. There were no more outsiders. For Bruce, only bodies and minds, moving through space. He taught anyone who had to fight. Westerners and women, Japanese and Joe Blows.
Enter Linda Emery. When Bruce visited her high school to lecture in philosophy, she was smitten. The summer that she graduated, Linda started showing up in his Kung Fu classes. He took her to the Space Needle on their first date, and they looked at the sky, at the city spreading out below them. A year later they were married, the Chinese boy and the slight, blonde girl. They had broken traditions, offended everyone, so they made a break and moved to Oakland, California, where people began to tell of the beautiful man, who fought like a dancer and a demon.
The Chinese community across the bay in San Francisco was outraged when they heard of the man who would teach anyone the secret art of their fighting. At the time, Judo was the only martial art widely practised in America. Even Karate was in its infancy. No one had heard of Kung Fu, and the local Kung Fu community wanted to keep it that way. They ordered Bruce to stop. ‘Chinese are different,’ they insisted, ‘And the others are enemies.’ When Bruce refused, Kung Fu master Wong Jack Man travelled across the bay and issued a challenge. A fight. If Wong Jack Man won, Bruce would have to stop teaching, close his schools forever. But the fight was over in three minutes. Bruce won.
As word of his fighting spread, Bruce was cast in a television series as Kato, the Green Hornet’s masked sidekick. He was determined to reach as many people as he could. Show them they were all bodies, all people, all capable of compassion for other bodies in movement. He knew he could do it on screen. But after just one season, the show was over.
When The Green Hornet came off air, Bruce couldn’t get more acting work. His daughter Shannon was born. He wrote a screenplay and took it to Warner, the story of an Oriental in the Wild West, a Kung Fu master. Not a simpering stereotype. Someone with grace, who could build bridges, cross oceans.
Warner Brothers liked the idea… but they said Bruce was too Oriental. They cast David Carradine as the Kung Fu master instead; gave him a fake tan and shaved his eyebrows into points. Bruce was in despair. He would always be a pattern, never a person.
Lifting weights one morning in 1970, something slipped. Deep in his back, his body betrayed him, straining against a solid weight it didn’t know how to move. His fourth sacral nerve was damaged, and doctors told him he’d never fight again. Confined to bed, his two young children yelling in the room next door, Bruce began to write. At the end of six months, he put his feet down on the floor, and commanded himself: walk on. The doctors were wrong. Bruce did fight. And when he got up, it was to fight his own way. From those six months of pain was born poetry, hundreds of scraps of thought, and Jeet Kune Do. A form of defence, whose rule was efficiency and grace. Bruce would become the great global iconoclast of 20th century fighting.
Giving up on America, he returned to Hong Kong with Linda and their two small children. They were greeted by crowds at the airport; screaming fans. In Hong Kong, without Bruce ever knowing, he had become a star: The Green Hornet, cancelled in America after just one season, had become a sensation across the ocean. Only it wasn’t The Green Hornet in China. The show was called Kato.
In Hong Kong, he began to make films again. In 1971, The Big Boss broke box office records across Asia. In 1972, after grappling control of the story and choreography, he made Fists of Fury to an even bigger reception. Each Lee film outstripped the next, and with Way of the Dragon in 1972, Bruce smashed all previous Asian box office records.
The stories in Bruce’s films were always the same. Like in the slapdash flicks of his Hong Kong childhood, his character is at first reluctant to fight. But he’s forced, out into a hostile world, where he becomes the attacker to defend himself, and dances his way through to victory. While Bruce was working on his fourth Hong Kong film, Game of Death, Warner Brothers finally approached him. His star was soaring, and they wanted to hold on. Enter the Dragon would be the first ever Hong Kong-Hollywood co-production. Enter the Dragon opened in August 1973 in San Francisco’s Chinese Theatre, and became an immediate sensation across the globe. It was the beginning of a new era, a new world. A world Bruce wouldn’t see. Because life isn’t written to formula, and sometimes the end comes at the beginning.
In Hong Kong one evening, the month before Enter the Dragon opened, Bruce had a headache at a script meeting. A friend gave him painkiller, and he went to lie down. He never got up. In the emergency room a few hours later he was declared dead, his brain swollen from 1400 to 1575 grams. He was thirty-two years old.
There’s no post-production, not on this 16mm film. The footage is grainy. If you look long enough, you can find it, hidden in the thousands of polished clips.
Long Beach, California, 1967. A man is fighting. The bleachers are full, and Bruce is faster than the naked eye. Slow down, someone will ask him. Slow down for the camera.
The film snaps, Bruce Lee laughs. He begins to move his body forward. In six years, he’ll be dead. “It’s compassion,” he will say, before he dies. Compassion, not the principle of justice, that can guard us against being unjust to our fellow men.