Bruce Lee is an icon. An inspiration to Chinese and Asian culture. There’s no denying it – he made martial arts cool and if you were a kid growing up in the late 60’s and 70’s you wanted to be Bruce Lee. His last movie, “Enter the Dragon” combined with his untimely death at the age of 32 made him more than an icon…he became a legend – but like most legends, over time there is more fiction than fact.
So what do you think you know about Bruce Lee?
Most people know his movies and the urban legends that are perpetuated by his fanatic followers. You know Bruce Lee is trained in Wing Chun Kung Fu by Ip Man (or Yip Man depending on your interpretation). Bruce Lee was also in a gang and participated in “Death Matches” in the streets and rooftops of Hong Kong.
Bruce Lee later came to the US, opened a school in San Fransisco and was ostracized by the Chinese martial arts community for teaching non-Chinese. He later had to defend his position by fighting a local kung fu legend and enforcer Wong Jack Man, in a “death match” (where obviously no one died).
After being seriously injured by Wong Jack Man is that fight, Bruce wrote his infamous book…the Tao of Jeet Kun Do while recovering from his injures. His death, to this day, still remains a mystery and many believe Chinese organize crime poisoned and killed him.
Like most legends, there’s a kernel of truth surrounded by exaggeration and folklore.
In reality it was the combination of his good looks, athleticism, flashy moves, intelligence, Hollywood connections, his willingness to speak out against racism as well as the “martial arts establishment” that made him an icon. His death at such a young age, made him a legend.
Timing is everything…
The 60’s and 70’s were a time for change and Bruce Lee was a part of that change. Bruce was the perfect person with the right message at the right time. He should rightfully be remembered as a liberator and an innovator…but what’s the REAL story…?
The truth about Bruce Lee…
From the age of 13 to 18 he studied with Yip Man….but that’s not all he was doing…Bruce Lee also won the Cha Cha dancing championship of Hong Kong and…APPEARED IN ALMOST 20 FILMS!! So in between a prolific dancing and acting career, Bruce participated in death matches and trained in martial arts.
Bruce Lee moved to the US in 1959 when he was only 19 years old. He lived with family friends outside Seattle, Washington, initially taking up work as a dance instructor. He finished high school in Edison, Washington, and subsequently enrolled as a philosophy major at the University of Washington.
In college he taught Wing Chun to his fellow students and others. In 1964, Lee got married and opened his own martial-arts school in Seattle. He later dropped out of school and moved to Oakland and then to San Francisco to teach martial arts and pursue acting.
The truth about the ‘death match’ with Wong Jack Man.
In the 1960’s, Bruce Lee was just another young instructor trying to promote his new school. In fact, the “establishment” really didn’t pay him any mind.
The fight had NOTHING to do with teaching non-Chinese Kung Fu Secrets…
Bruce Lee was NOT the first to teach Kung Fu to non-Chinese in San Francisco…in fact most of the Chinese instructors already were. Wong Jack Man taught non-Chinese as well as the people who really governed the Chinatown Martial Arts Community for thirty years, Lau Bun and TY Wong.
Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man had little significance in the Chinese Martial Arts Community and their fight was a heated sparring session between two small school owners.
It all started because Bruce LOVED to publicly bash martial arts (sound like someone else you know…?). In fact, at Ed Parker’s inaugural Long Beach Tournament in August 1964, Bruce delivered a scathing lecture that disparaged many existing practices, including such common techniques as the horse stance.
“He just got up there and started trashing people,” explains Barney Scollan, an 18-year-old competitor that day.
Although Bruce’s showing at Long Beach is often painted in glossy terms, many of those in attendance corroborate the polarizing nature of his demonstration, in which half the crowd perceived him as brash and condescending.
As longtime karate teacher Clarence Lee remembers it: “Guys were practically lining up to fight Bruce Lee after his performance at Long Beach.” (but Bruce didn’t fight anybody).
Why did he fight Wong Jack Man?
There are two main theories on this. The first is that because Wong Jack Man was poised to open his own martial arts school in Chinatown, he stepped forward in an opportunistic moment to generate some publicity. Local Tai Chi practitioner David Chin asserts that Wong said as much when he signed a challenge note to be delivered to Bruce.
Yet a more popular theory professed by many local sources from that era is that Wong Jack Man was duped into fighting. Bruce, essentially the new kid on the scene, goaded Wong into a schoolyard brawl without grasping the stakes.
The fight happened at Wong Jack Man’s School in front of about 10 people, lasted anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes with both sides stopping after they got tired. I’m sure if someone posted the fight on youtube today, people would be TRASHING IT.
Lee’s martial arts career really ended when his acting career took off..at the age of 25.
1966-67 Lee starred in the Green Hornet and continued to work in film regularly until his death in 1973. So Bruce Lee trained and studied martial arts for 10 years. This is not saying that he was wrong in his observations (I agree with many of them) its just that he really never had time to implement and test his ideas.
What about his famous book that launched a style…. The Tao of Jeet Kune Do? Well Bruce did write a book, but it wasn’t the Tao of JKD. In 1963 he wrote and published, Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense.
He started the Tao of Jeet Kune Do in 1970 after he hurt his back IN TRAINING (not in the infamous death match) and it wasn’t completed and published until well after his death in 1975. The main editor was Gilbert L. Johnson. Johnson along with Linda Lee, Dan Inosanto and other students of Bruce Lee helped Johnson understand Jeet Kune Do well enough to editorialize and organize Lee’s material into text. Basically the Tao of Jeet Kune Do is a collection of Bruce’s thoughts and notes along with a collaboration from his students written by an outside author.
What Really Made Bruce Lee Great…
He’s an actor and a philosopher who used martial arts to improve the image of the Chinese in western eyes.
At the time there weren’t any Asian leading men in Hollywood, in fact, it was much worse than that…Asians were portrayed as weak and grotesque looking waiters, laborers and servants.
The picture to the right is how Asians were portrayed in popular culture. It’s from a popular 70’s cartoon Mr. Magoo…and the voice of the character is worse than the image.
So is there any record of Bruce Lee in a real street fight?
Actually YES, but strangely no one ever talks about it…
It wasn’t a street fight, or a “death match” but it was a bare knuckle challenge match where Bruce Lee destroyed a guy in seconds.
That fight took place when Bruce Lee was teaching in the Seattle area. A local karate practitioner Yoichi Nakachi took issue with Bruce’s martial arts worldview and loudly issued a challenge.
Yoichi pursued him for weeks. When the two finally fought at the Y.M.C.A., they fought on a handball court. It was supposed to be three, 2 minute rounds, but it didn’t go that long.
Bruce obliterated Yoichi with a rapid series of punches and a knockout kick in an 22-second fight that left him unconscious. Oddly enough, the entire affair tends to get shrugged off as meaningless; when really, it kind of proved Bruce’s point.
Bruce Lee was smart, he could fight, and he sure did have a HUGE set of brass cajones….no doubt, but what you hear about Bruce Lee is just like a Hollywood Movie…”based on a true story”.
Below are the links of reference for the article.
Bruce Lee IMDB here https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000045/
Wong Jack Man fight
Bruce Lee biographical
Tao of Jeet Kun Do (wiki)