In the early hours of November 27, 1940, Jun-fan Lee – better known as Bruce Lee – entered the world.
He was born in both the hour and year of the dragon; a prestigious and fortuitous omen that hinted of a strong life ahead for the baby boy.
Just how strong, nobody could have predicted.
Born in the Chinese Hospital in San Francisco’s Chinatown to a prestigious family, Lee spent only the first three months of his life in the USA before his parents returned to Hong Kong with their five children, but not before he received his first acting role as a stand-in for an American baby on Golden Gate Girl.
Life was tough in the early days. Not long after the family returned to Hong Kong, it was invaded by the Japanese, who massacred an estimated 10,000 civilians during their three and a half year occupation.
When World War II came to an end, things started to get better, but not for long. The affluent neighbourhood in which the family resided became overcrowded by refugees fleeting communist China into the British colony, and the subsequent emergence of local gangs.
The return of British rule meant the return of culture in the country, allowing Lee to study dancing, poetry, and to appear in approximately 20 films as a child actor.
A poor student in both grades and demeanour, Lee’s rough attitude saw him become involved in several fights with Chinese and British alike. So it was that his father introduced Lee to martial arts so that he could better defend himself.
At the age of 16, Lee began to study Wing Chun under the revered Grandmaster Yip Man, who encouraged his students to fight in organised bouts rather than on the streets. Lee’s mother was half-Caucasian, and as such, many students refused to spar with him, as the teaching of martial arts to non-Asians was generally frowned upon. Still, Lee continued to practice. To go stronger. As he would later say, “Ever since I was a child I have had this instinctive urge for expansion and growth. To me, the function and duty of a quality human being is the sincere and honest development of one’s potential”.
Lee was 18 when he found himself embroiled in a street fight with an opponent who had links to organised crime. Fearing fatal revenge, his parent’s decided it was best for Lee to join his older sister, Agnes, in the United States.
In 1958, He left the country with only $100 to his name.
After a few months in San Francisco, Lee moved to Seattle to continue his high school education. He worked as a waiter while studying at Edison Technical School, and began teaching a martial art he called Jun Fan Gung Fu – Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu. Here, he opened his first martial arts school.
Graduating in 1960, Lee went on to enrol at the University of Washington, where he majored in drama while studying other subjects including philosophy and psychology. Here, he received a job teaching Wing Chun to fellow students, including Linda Emery, whom he married in 1964.
The same year he married, Lee dropped out of college and moved to Oakland with James Yimm Lee, a well known Chinese martial artist. Together, they opened a new school. Not long after, James introduced Lee to Ed Parker, who invited him to participate in the Long Beach International Karate Championships.
Lee displayed some of the abilities that he is best known for at this event, including two finger pushups, and his trademark one inch punch, which caused his partner to stagger back with such force that he fell over the chair that had been placed behind him to prevent injury. “”I told Bruce not to do this type of demonstration again”, recalled his opponent, Bob Baker. “When he punched me that last time, I had to stay home from work because the pain in my chest was unbearable.”
Three years later, he demonstrated the ‘unstoppable punch’ against USKA world Karate champion Vic Moore. Lee told Moore that he was going to throw a punch to Moore’s face, and all he had to do was block it. In eight attempts, Moore failed to block the punch each time.
Not wanting to over-commercialise his teaching at a time when his name was becoming famous on the scene, after being invited to audition for a pilot called Number One Son in 1966. The show did not go to series, but shortly after Lee was cast as sidekick Kato in The Green Hornet, a show that went for only one season, but saw him make cameo appearances on several TV shows for the rest of the decade.
Following the show, Lee launched his original martial art style, Jeet Kune Do: The Way of the Intercepting Fist. The concept was described as “the style of no style”, intended to ward off the stylised approach of traditional kung fu in favour of the flexibility and practicality more readily found in the chaos of street fights. “Be formless … shapeless, like water.” It would become one of the greatest elements of his legacy.
His flowing style was also found in his free verse poetry. Dark and reflective, Lee’s work has been compared to that of great artists such as Robert Frost.
In 1969, Lee partnered with two of his students – screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and actor James Coburn – to develop a film called The Silent Flute. It was never produced, but over the next two years Silliphant brought Lee onto three of his productions.
Producer Fred Weintraub suggested Lee return to Hong Kong to star in a feature film which could showcase his skills to Hollywood executives. Tired of supporting roles, Lee complied.
“To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities.”
He came home to find himself a star.
The Green Hornet had been a success in the country, where it was often referred to as The Kato Show. Fans often stopped him on the street to profess the admiration and ask for an autograph.
Not long after, he signed a two picture deal with Golden Harvest. He made his first starring performance in The Big Boss, which saw Lee become a star all across Asia. It broke box office records, that were broken again the following year by the second film, Fist of Fury.
He entered a new contract with Golden Harvest which saw him retain complete control of his next film, Way of the Dragon, which would feature a legendary climactic battle at the Colosseum between Lee and Karate champion Chuck Norris, whom Lee introduced to cinema audiences after meeting him at the Long Beach championship.
Later in 1972, Lee began work on Game of Death, only to learn that his plan had worked. Warner Brothers reached out to him with an offer to star in a new co-production, Enter the Dragon.
It was everything he wanted.
Then, suddenly, less than a week before the film’s release, Bruce Lee died after having an allergic reaction to a painkiller he’d taken for a headache.
Lee was cemented as a martial arts legend after the film went on to become one of the biggest films of the year. To date, it has grossed over $200 million internationally, after being produced on a budget of $850,000.
The film’s director, Robert Clouse, would go on to complete Game of Death, though the resulting film deviated severely from what Lee intended, and controversially replaced pre-existing footage of Lee with retakes of a stunt double.
Bruce Lee would go on to be named one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century by Time Magazine. A statue of him, now stands in the middle of LA’s Chinatown.
Today, his influence is as strong as ever. Though, at his request, his schools were dismantled following his death, the three certified instructors of Jeet Kune Do continued to teach his style, which carries on to this day.
Of course, he is not only remembered for his martial arts, or for the path he paved for other great Asian actors to find a place in the Hollywood system, but for his outlook on the world.
“If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”