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The lost history of Bruce Lee
Most of us know him as the kung fu movie star with the Beatles haircut and the mind-blowing physical prowess. What we’ve forgotten is that Bruce Lee had
the spirit of a true ’60s radical as he reshaped a hidebound Eastern art into a brash form of self-expression and shattered popular conceptions of Asian men. And his thrilling crusade began here.
Charles Russo | June 10, 2011
Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco and spent his first few months in a boarding house in Chinatown with members of the Mandarin Theatre (his father was one of their comic actors). Another now dimly remembered fact about him is that just over a decade ago, Time put him on its list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century, alongside such iconic company as Muhammad Ali, Che Guevara, and Mother Teresa. And what many of us never knew at all is that Lee honed the skills and philosophy that secured his place in history right here in the Bay Area.
Without specifically aligning himself with the region’s counterculture, Lee embodied many of its early-1960s ideals. Over the course of just a few years, while still in his early 20s, Lee challenged traditional authority within the Chinese community, joined with progressive-minded martial artists twice his age to spur the evolution of their craft, and had the legendary fight that drove him toward the supercharged street-fighting style and mindful, self-disciplined way of being that jolted the world to attention. “More than any other place,” says Lee archivist David Tadman, “the Bay Area was essential to the person that Bruce was.”
And ultimately, that person changed the culture at large. “Before Bruce Lee, Asian men were represented as house-boys, laundrymen, or rickshaw drivers,” says Valerie Soe, an assistant professor in San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies department. “They were never very interesting, sexy, or physically strong. Then Lee comes along and just blows all of those perceptions out of the water.”
Yet for all Lee’s social relevance and cultural cool, there’s no local memorial to the history of this man who is arguably the Bay Area’s most famous native—no major plaques, no statue, not even a well-rendered mural by a discerning graffiti artist—despite a plan by former Oakland mayor Ron Dellums intended to remedy that (his proposal eventually fell by the wayside). The spot where Lee’s martial arts school once stood now holds an auto dealership. Ambitious plans are under way for a Bruce Lee museum—in Seattle. It’s a peculiar regional amnesia, considering the true course of Lee’s life.
Taking the Bay Area by storm
Soon after Lee’s birth, the family returned to Hong Kong, where he remained until age 18. At that point, his worried parents sent him to America to finish high school and go to college—run-ins with Hong Kong’s turbulent street life had gotten the hyperambitious teenager (who’d already made his mark as a child actor, an amateur boxer, a competitive cha-cha dancer, and a kung fu student) in trouble. The boat trip took about three weeks, during which the charismatic Lee charmed travelers. Back in Chinatown, he worked as a dance instructor to make money for school and began showing off his tougher kung fu style during demonstrations at Bay Area dance halls. In Hong Kong, he’d been exposed to neighborhood rooftop fights between teenage gangs and had trained in Wing Chun kung fu, which encouraged speed and close contact. His exhibitions here showcased both influences—and captivated viewers. “I’ve never in my lifetime seen an instructor move so fast,” says George Lee, now 94, who watched the 19-year-old Lee give a demonstration in Oakland. “It was a blur, especially when he kicked. It was just amazing.” Word spread quickly, and even when Lee was going back and forth between San Francisco and Seattle, where he studied philosophy at the University of Washington, Bay Area martial arts mavericks sought out the young phenom. Eager to collaborate, Lee would show off his explosive power and otherworldly speed, often in the form of his legendary one-inch punch, a physics-defying finger’s-length blow that would send sizable opponents sprawling. “Sometimes when he was punching you could actually hear it, like Pop! Pop! Pop!” says kenpo master Ralph Castro, who ran the Valencia Street school. “And we said, ‘Whoa, he’s pretty good.’ ”
Defying the masters
Chief among Lee’s forward-thinking colleagues was James Yimm Lee, the tough-as-nails Oakland native with whom Lee would strike up a deep and brotherly relationship. “Bruce is smart,” says James Lee’s son Greglon. “When he’s in his 20s he’s hanging out with guys in their 40s, so he can gain their experience.” A well-known local fighter and trailblazer, James Lee was among the first to publish how-to books on martial arts, and he made a point of putting his Caucasian student Al Novak—a muscled 300-pound beast of a fighter—on the cover. He also changed the traditional spelling gung fu to kung fu in order to make it more pronounceable for non-Chinese. By the summer of 1964, Lee had returned from Seattle to live in the Bay Area and had opened a branch of his kung fu school at 4157 Broadway, in Oakland, where he taught a cross-section of nationalities and experimented with a less restrained, more individualistic form of the art. Soon, however, to save on rent, he relocated his classes to James Lee’s residence on Monticello Avenue. There, he sharpened his in-your-face style. He grew vocal about what he saw as the inadequacies of historic martial arts technique. “He was always going up against tradition,” says Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Cadwell. “He trashed classical kung fu,” says James’s student Leo Fong, who watched Lee during one of his signature demonstrations around that time. “He imitated the forms and asked, ‘How could you fight like that?’ I knew all the teachers in the audience, and their faces turned red.” Adds Lee archivist David Tadman: “Bruce knew that the old guys weren’t doing anything exciting or new. So he went 100 miles per hour with something so raw and so cool that everyone was leaving their instructors to go train with him.”
Fighting for a new order
A few months or so after Lee returned, his brazen critiques sparked a showdown with the martial arts elite from San Francisco’s Chinatown. One autumn evening, behind locked doors at 4157 Broadway, Lee squared off in a battle against rising star Wong Jack Man. One ex-Wong pupil calls the battle “a Chinese Ali-Frazier,” and nearly a half century later, a palpable sense of both urban legend and ill will still surrounds the event. The cocky Lee wore a tank top and used economical blasts of his hands—the least effort for the most damage. Wong, known for being more reserved, arrived in traditional garb and fought in the more acrobatic Northern Shaolin style. The prevailing theory is that Wong had been sent to Oakland as an enforcer to stop Lee from teaching kung fu to non-Chinese pupils, a sore point with aging Chinatown masters who felt that the Chinese should never teach their methods to foreigners. But others, including Leo Fong, say this theory is “bullshit,” noting that other Chinese studios were accepting Caucasians. The fight’s result also depends on whom you ask: It lasted anywhere from 90 seconds to 20 minutes before Lee either won or conceded, and various fictional-sounding scenarios involve black eyes, early cheap shots, and a slapstick chase. Hollywood’s surreal 1993 Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story goes so far as to place the fight before a council of elders in a secret Chinatown basement, with a defeated opponent breaking Lee’s back with a cheap-shot kick to the spine. (Now retired and still living in the Bay Area, Wong denied a request for an interview.)
The one point of consensus is that the fight was instrumental in Lee’s development of his new martial arts approach—Jeet Kune Do, The Way of the Intercepting Fist. He had hoped to win in just a few rounds and was frustrated that he had become winded, so the next year he began bodybuilding furiously and refining his philosophy, while raising his family at the Monticello Residences in Oakland. Around the same time, Lee’s stunning demonstration at the Long Beach International Karate Tournament caught the attention of Hollywood agents, and soon he was visiting 20th Century Fox for a screen test for the role of Charlie Chan’s Number One Son. Instead, he landed the role of Kato in The Green Hornet, and by early 1966, he had moved his family to Los Angeles to pursue the film career that made him world famous. Seven years later, after having established himself as the “father of mixed martial arts,” Lee died under mysterious circumstances in Hong Kong. The world mourned his passing, and Bruce Lee became a household name.