Today is the birthday (1940) of Li Jun-fan (李振藩)known professionally as Bruce Lee, an enormously influential actor, film director, martial artist, martial arts instructor, and founder of the Jeet Kune Do style of wushu or kungfu. He is widely considered by commentators, critics, media, and other martial artists to be one of the most important martial artists of all time, and a pop culture icon of the 20th century. He is also credited with helping to change the way Asians were presented in Hollywood films.
Lee was born on November 27, 1940, at the Chinese Hospital, in San Francisco’s Chinatown. According to the Chinese zodiac, Lee was born in both the hour and the year of the Dragon, which according to tradition is a strong and fortuitous omen. Lee and his parents returned to Hong Kong when he was three months old. Bruce’s father, Lee Hoi-chuen, (李海泉) was Han Chinese, and his mother, Grace Ho (何愛瑜), was of Eurasian ancestry. Grace Ho was the adopted daughter of Ho Kom-tong (何甘棠) and the half-niece of Sir Robert Ho-tung, both notable Hong Kong businessmen and philanthropists. Bruce was the fourth child of five: Phoebe Lee (李秋源), Agnes Lee (李秋鳳), Peter Lee (李忠琛), and Robert Lee (李振輝). Grace’s biological parentage remains unclear, but a common belief is that she had a German father and a Chinese mother.
In Chinese naming customs, the family name comes first, and the given name is second. Given names are typically unique, given by parents for some personal reason, and may be homophonically ambiguous. In Cantonese Jun-fan sounds like “return again” and was given to Lee by his mother, who hoped he would return to the United States when he came of age. The English name Bruce is thought to have been given him by the hospital attending physician, Dr. Mary Glover. Lee had three other Chinese names: Li Yuanxin (李源鑫), a family/clan name; Li Yuanjian (李元鑒), which he used as a student name while he was attending La Salle College, and his Chinese screen name Li Xiaolong (李小龍; Xiaolong means “little dragon”). Lee’s given name Jun-fan was originally written in Chinese as 震藩, however, the Jun (震) Chinese character was identical to part of his grandfather’s name, Lee Jun-biu (李震彪). In consequence, the Chinese character for Jun in Lee’s name was changed to the homonym 振 instead, to avoid a naming taboo in Chinese tradition. The character 李 in his name can be transcribed as Lee or Li using the Roman alphabet; the pinyin is Lǐ, which can mean “plum.”
Lee’s father, was one of the leading Cantonese opera and film actors of his day, and was embarking on a year-long opera tour with his family on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. He had been touring the United States for many years and performing in numerous Chinese communities there. Although many of his peers decided to stay in the US, Lee’s father returned to Hong Kong after Bruce’s birth. Within months, Hong Kong was invaded and the Lees lived for almost 4 years under Japanese occupation. Lee’s mother was from one of the wealthiest and most powerful clans in Hong Kong, the Ho-tungs. As such, the young Bruce Lee grew up in an affluent and privileged environment. Despite the advantage of his family’s status, the neighborhood in which Lee grew up became overcrowded, dangerous, and full of gang rivalries due to an influx of refugees fleeing communist China for Hong Kong, which at that time was a British Crown colony. After Lee was involved in several street fights, his parents decided that he needed to be trained in the martial arts. Lee’s first introduction to martial arts was through his father, from whom he learned the fundamentals of Wu-style t’ai chi ch’uan.
The greatest influence on Lee’s martial arts development was his study of Wing Chun. Lee began training in Wing Chun when he was 16 years old under the Wing Chun teacher Yip Man in 1957, after losing several fights with rival gang members. Yip’s regular classes generally consisted of practicing forms, chi sao (sticking hands) drills, wooden dummy techniques, and free-sparring. There was no set pattern to the classes; Yip tried to keep his students from fighting in the street gangs of Hong Kong by encouraging them to fight in organized competitions.
After a year into his Wing Chun training, most of Yip Man’s other students refused to train with Lee after they learned of his mixed ancestry, because the Chinese were generally against teaching their martial arts techniques to non-Asians. Lee continued to train privately with Yip Man and Wong Shun Leung in 1955.
In the spring of 1959, Lee got into another street fight and the police were called. Until his late teens, Lee’s street fights became more frequent and included beating the son of a feared triad family. Eventually, Lee’s father decided his son should leave Hong Kong to pursue a safer and healthier life in the United States. His parents confirmed the police’s fear that this time Lee’s opponent had an organized crime background, and there was the possibility that a contract was out for his life. In April 1959, Lee’s parents sent him to the United States to stay with his older sister, Agnes Lee (李秋鳳), who was already living with family friends in San Francisco. After living in San Francisco for several months, he moved to Seattle in 1959, to continue his high school education, where he also worked for Ruby Chow as a live-in waiter at her restaurant. In December 1960, Lee completed his high school education and received his diploma from Edison Technical School (now Seattle Central Community College, located on Capitol Hill in Seattle). In March 1961, Lee enrolled at the University of Washington, majoring in drama, but also studying philosophy, psychology, and various other subjects.It was at the University of Washington that he met his future wife Linda Emery, a fellow student studying to become a teacher. They were married in 1964.
Lee began teaching martial arts in the United States in 1959. He called what he taught Jun Fan Gung Fu. It was basically his approach to Wing Chun. Lee taught friends he met in Seattle, starting with Judo practitioner Jesse Glove, and opened the Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, in Seattle. Lee dropped out of college in the spring of 1964 and moved to Oakland to live with James Yimm Lee (嚴鏡海), a well known Chinese martial artist in the area. Together, they founded the second Jun Fan martial art studio in Oakland. James Lee was also responsible for introducing Bruce Lee to Ed Parker, organizer of the Long Beach International Karate Championships at which Bruce Lee was later “discovered” by Hollywood.
At the invitation of Ed Parker, Lee appeared in the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championships and performed repetitions of two-finger push-ups (using the thumb and the index finger of one hand) with feet at approximately a shoulder-width apart. In the same Long Beach event he also performed the “One inch punch.” Lee could stood upright, his right foot forward with knees bent slightly, in front of a standing, stationary partner with right fist approximately one inch (2.5 cm) away from the partner’s chest, and, without retracting his right arm, deliver a punch to his partner that would send him sprawling to the floor. His first volunteer was Bob Baker of Stockton, California who recalled, “When he punched me that last time, I had to stay home from work because the pain in my chest was unbearable.”
Lee appeared at the 1967 Long Beach International Karate Championships and performed various demonstrations, including his famous “unstoppable punch” against USKA world Karate champion Vic Moore. Here, as with many other of Lee’s competitive bouts, Lee’s version of events and his opponent’s version differ significantly. Lee claims he threw 8 straight punches to Moore’s face (stopping before contact), and Moore failed to block any of them because Lee was too quick. Moore denies this, claiming he blocked every punch.
In Oakland, California in 1964 in Chinatown, Lee had a controversial private match with Wong Jack Man, a student of Ma Kin Fung known for his mastery of Xingyiquan, Northern Shaolin, and T’ai chi ch’uan. According to Lee, the Chinese community issued an ultimatum to him to stop teaching non-Chinese. When he refused to comply, he was challenged to a combat match with Wong. The arrangement was that if Lee lost, he would have to shut down his school; while if he won, then Lee would be free to teach Caucasians or anyone else. Wong denied this, stating that he requested to fight Lee after Lee boasted during one of his demonstrations at a Chinatown theatre that he could beat anyone in San Francisco, and that Wong himself did not discriminate against Caucasians or other non-Chinese. Individuals known to have witnessed the match include Cadwell, James Lee (Bruce Lee’s associate, no relation), and William Chen, a teacher of T’ai chi ch’uan. Wong and William Chen stated that the fight lasted an unusually long 20–25 minutes. Wong claims that he had originally expected a serious but polite bout; however, Lee attacked him very aggressively with intent to kill, straight from the beginning of the bout when he had replied to Wong’s traditional handshake offer by pretending to accept the handshake, but instead turning that hand into a spear aimed at Wong’s eyes. Forced to defend his life, he had nonetheless refrained from striking Lee with killing force when the opportunity presented itself because it would land him in prison. Wong claims the fight ended due to Lee’s “unusually winded” condition, as opposed to a decisive blow by either fighter. According to Bruce Lee, Linda Lee Cadwell, and James Yimm Lee, however, the fight lasted a mere 3 minutes with a decisive victory for Lee. In Cadwell’s account, “The fight ensued, it was a no-holds-barred fight, it took three minutes. Bruce got this guy down to the ground and said ‘Do you give up?’ and the man said he gave up.” The bout is famous, and accounts vary enormously. The part I tend to believe is that Lee got over-emotional in the fight and friends broke it up. From there it seems likely to me that both sides evolved a story flattering to themselves to avoid losing face. Losing face is a BIG DEAL among Chinese.
After filming one season of The Green Hornet in 1967 Lee was out of work and opened The Jun Fan Institute of Gung Fu. The controversial match with Wong Jack Man changed Lee’s philosophy of martial arts. Lee concluded that the fight had lasted too long and that he had failed to live up to his potential using his Wing Chun techniques. He took the view that traditional martial arts techniques were too rigid and formalistic to be practical in street fighting. He decided to develop a system with an emphasis on “practicality, flexibility, speed, and efficiency”. He started to use different methods of training such as weight training for strength, running for endurance, stretching for flexibility, and many others which he constantly adapted, including fencing and basic boxing techniques.
Lee emphasized what he called “the style of no style”. This consisted of getting rid of the formalized approach of traditional styles. His system of Jun Fan Gung Fu was even too restrictive, and eventually evolved into a philosophy and martial art he came to call Jeet Kune Do (Way of the Intercepting Fist), a term he later regret, because it implied a certain style whereas the idea of his martial art was to exist outside of parameters and limitations.
Lee was introduced into films at a very young age and appeared in several films as a child because of his father’s fame as a Chinese opera star. He had his first role as a baby who was carried on to the stage in the film Golden Gate Girl. By the time he was 18, he had appeared in twenty films. While in the United States from 1959 to 1964, Lee abandoned thoughts of a film career in favor of pursuing martial arts, but his martial arts exhibition on Long Beach in 1964 eventually led to the invitation by William Dozier for an audition for a role in the pilot for “Number One Son”. The show never aired, but Lee was invited for the role of the sidekick Kato alongside the title character played by Van Williams in the TV series, The Green Hornet. The show lasted only one season of 26 episodes, from September 1966 to March 1967. Lee and Williams also appeared as their respective characters in three crossover episodes of Batman, another William Dozier produced television series. This was followed by guest appearances in three television series: Ironside (1967), Here Come the Brides (1969), and Blondie (1969).
According to statements made by Lee, and also by Linda Lee Cadwell after Lee’s death, in 1971 Lee pitched a television series of his own tentatively titled The Warrior, discussions which were also confirmed by Warner Bros. During a December 9, 1971 television interview on The Pierre Berton Show, Lee stated that both Paramount and Warner Brothers wanted him “to be in a modernized type of a thing, and that they think the Western idea is out, whereas I want to do the Western.” According to Cadwell, Lee’s concept was retooled and renamed Kung Fu, but Warner Brothers gave Lee no credit and rejected him for the role of Kwai Chang Caine, Kung Fu master, in favor of US-born David Carradine, who had no martial arts experience at the time, but had the benefit of being the son of a famous actor, John Carradine. Hollywood had, and still has, a bad habit of casting WASP actors as non-WASP characters. How many Arabs played leads in Lawrence of Arabia?
Producer Fred Weintraub advised Lee to return to Hong Kong and make a feature film which he could showcase to executives in Hollywood. Lee returned to Hong Kong, unaware that The Green Hornet was very successful there and generally referred to as “The Kato Show.” After negotiating with both Shaw Brothers Studio and Golden Harvest, Lee signed a film contract to star in two films produced by Golden Harvest.
Lee played his first leading role in The Big Boss (1971) which proved to be an enormous box office success across Asia and catapulted him to stardom. I suppose you could say, “The rest is history.” I’ll say simply that you can study his subsequent movie career on your own.
On July 20, 1973, Lee was in Hong Kong, to have dinner with actor George Lazenby, with whom he intended to make a film. According to Lee’s wife Linda, Lee met producer Raymond Chow at 2 p.m. at home to discuss the making of the film Game of Death. They worked until 4 p.m. and then drove together to the home of Lee’s colleague Betty Ting Pei, a Taiwanese actress. The three went over the script at Ting’s home, and then Chow left to attend a dinner meeting. Later Lee complained of a headache, and Ting gave him an analgesic, Equagesic, which contained both aspirin and the tranquilizer meprobamate. Around 7:30 p.m., he went to lie down for a nap. When Lee did not come for dinner, producer Raymond Chow went to the apartment, but was unable to wake him. A doctor was summoned, who spent ten minutes attempting to revive Lee before sending him by ambulance to Queen Elizabeth Hospital. By the time the ambulance reached the hospital he was dead. He was 32 years old. The autopsy revealed that he had had an allergic reaction to the meprobamate, and that his brain had swollen fatally.
Lee’s stringent physical regimen had an important nutritional component which has been widely publicized. Key elements are:
- Little and often: Lee ate 4 or 5 small meals a day and snacked on fresh fruit.
- Avoid empty calories: Lee avoided pastries, breads and sweets.
- Dietary supplements: Vitamin C, Lecithin granules, bee pollen, Shilajit, Vitamin E, rose hips (liquid form), wheat germ oil, Acerola – C and B-Folia, and brewer’s yeast.
- Daily tea: Lee drank Lipton tea with honey or a Chinese tea called Li-Cha with milk and sugar.
- Balance: Lee’s diet was a healthy combination of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
Lee’s favorite dish was beef in oyster sauce, a mainstay of Chinese-American restaurants. The Westernized version is easy enough to make if you have a wok and a hot enough gas burner. The key is finding good-quality, tender beef. Choice of vegetables in the dish is up to you. You’ll usually find broccoli, carrots, cauliflower or pea pods in restaurants across the US. I’m happy with bean sprouts or mushrooms (if I can get Asian mushrooms).
Beef in Oyster Sauce
1 lb. tender beef steak
1 tbsp chopped fresh ginger (chopped)
1 cup Asian mushrooms (sliced)
1 cup bean sprouts (or pea pods)
2 ½ tbsp oyster sauce
1 tsp soft brown sugar
¼ cup chicken broth
vegetable oil (for frying)
1 ½ tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine
2 tsp cornstarch
1 ½ tbsp water
1 tbsp vegetable oil
Cut the beef across the grain into thin slices.
Combine the marinade ingredients in a large bowl and marinate the beef for at least 15 minutes.
In a small bowl, mix the chicken broth, sugar, and oyster sauce together and set aside.
Heat the wok on the highest heat possible until it is as hot as you can get it. Add a little vegetable oil, swirl, and add the ginger. Drain the beef. As soon as you smell the fragrance of the ginger, add the beef and stir fry (in batches if necessary) until it is lightly browned. Transfer the beef to a dish and clean out the wok.
Repeat the heating of the wok over the highest heat and add a little vegetable oil. Add your choice of vegetables and stir fry briefly. Push the vegetables to one side and add the oyster sauce mixture to the center. Bring it to a boil and add the beef back to the wok. Stir fry everything together for a minute or less, until everything is hot and the sauce is thick. Serve with plain boiled rice.