Bruce Lee (1940-1973)

Master of Wing Chun kungfu and founder of Jeet Kune Do

Bruce Lee, founder of Jeet Kune Do (Way of the Intercepting Fist)
Bruce Lee, founder of Jeet Kune Do (Way of the Intercepting Fist).

Bruce Lee was an extraordinary martial artist, who popularized Chinese kungfu on the movie screen.

Bruce Lee is also renowned for his expertise with the Nunchaku (or Nunchucks) – two batons or fighting-sticks made of wood with a chain or cord between them. In expert hands, it is a devastating martial arts weapon, and Bruce Lee’s expertise with this and many other martial arts weapons was a joy to watch… Just awesome!

Born in San Francisco, California, of Chinese parents, young Lee went to Hong Kong and was educated at Catholic schools there.

In 1954, he began studying Wing Chun kung fu under the Hong Kong Grand-master, Sifu Yip Man. Bruce was soon fighting and beating other martial artists from other styles.

Between 1957 and 1959, he continued his Wing Chun martial arts training, learning from Wong Shun-leung and later William Cheung, (who were both disciples of Grandmaster Yip Man).

He moved back to the USA in 1959, finishing his high school education in Seattle. He then majored in Philosophy at the University of Washington.

By this time, Bruce had put together his own fighting philosophy. He called it Jeet Kune Do – The Way of the Intercepting Fist. Lee also began teaching foreigners (non-Chinese) students. That was something that other Chinese martial arts masters were angry about, and Lee was told to ‘stop teaching the Kwailo’. But he continued anyway.

In 1964, Bruce Lee demonstrated his JKD skills at Ed Parker’s International Karate Tournament at Long Beach, California. He took on all comers, and demolished those who accepted his challenge.

In the same year, Bruce married Linda Emery in Seattle, and on February 1st, 1965, she gave birth to their son, Brandon Lee.

Kato in the Green Hornet TV series

Lee then moved to Los Angeles, and appeared as Kato in the TV series, The Green Hornet. This gave him a cult following with Kung Fu fans around the world.

Bruce’s daughter, Shannon, was born on April 19th, 1969. The same year, Bruce appeared in the film Marlowe, starring James Garner.

Bruce Lee’s entry into Hong Kong kung fu movies

In 1971, Bruce Lee returned to Hong Kong, where he starred in two Kung Fu movies: The Big Boss (called Fists of Fury in the US), which is set in an Ice-Making factory in Thailand, and Fist Of Fury, (named The Chinese Connection in the US) which is set in Shanghai back in early 1900s when China was controlled by foreign powers. In those days, the parks were reserved for foreigners, and a sign in the movie reads “No Dogs or Chinese Allowed”. Here the worst of the baddies Bruce must fight are the Japanese, who murder his Sifu in the story and even tell the Chinese police detectives what they can and cannot do.

The era of Bruce Lee movies had arrived, and Hollywood, which had rejected him years earlier because he looked ‘too Chinese’ to play Kwai Chang Caine in the TV series Kung Fu, sat up and took notice this time.

The next year he made Way Of The Dragon (called Return of the Dragon in the US), where Bruce Lee plays a country bumpkin working in a Chinese Restaurant in Rome, Italy. The restaurant is threatened by gangsters, and Bruce sorts them out. The gang boss ends up importing a Karate champ from the USA (played by a young Chuck Norris) to kill him. But our Bruce beats and then mercy-kills the American champ in a duel set in Rome’s Colosseum, where real gladiators used to kill and die 2000 years ago. This Bruce Lee vs Chuck Norris fight scene launched Chuck Norris’ career as a movie ‘tough guy’. In real life, the two stars were always friends.

Lee also worked on the film Game Of Death, but it was not finished until many years after he had died. Game of Death incorporates his philosophy of Jeet Kune Do. Here, Bruce has to fight champions from many martial arts styles until he faces the most dangerous of all – the “Style of ‘No-Style'”.

In 1973, Bruce Lee starred in Enter the Dragon, set on a south Chinese island ruled by an evil drug lord and martial arts master, named Han. Bruce Lee’s movie character goes to the Island to win a martial arts competition (and to spy out the baddie’s operation so the (then British) Hong Kong authorities can be contacted to raid the island and arrest the crooks).

The untimely death of Bruce Lee

So many people still want to know, how did Bruce Lee die? Well I will tell you as best I can because I was living and working as a reporter in Hong Kong when it happened. I never met him, but I did attend the coroner’s inquest into his death, as I was assigned to it by my radio station.

The inquest was disappointingly inconclusive. I remember the pathologist stating that Bruce had a swollen brain. There was some speculation at the time because it all occurred at the apartment of a Taiwanese actress named Betty Ting Pei. But Lee was there because he had been at a business lunch there with producer Raymond Chow. Bruce said he felt ill and asked to lie down. Ms Ting Pei gave him a painkiller and Mr Chow left the apartment. Bruce Lee fell asleep and Betty Ting Pei left him for a few hours and then tried to wake him. When Bruce could not be roused, the actress called Raymond Chow who hurried over. When the producer was unable to make Bruce up, they called for an ambulance. But it was too late.

Bruce Lee died in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, in Kowloon, Hong Kong, on July 20th, 1973.

Apparently Lee’s body was so low in fat, dangerously so, that some specialists said years afterwards that they believe he had a reaction to ingested cannabis, which was found in his stomach during the autopsy. Other doctors believe he had an adverse reaction to the ordinary pain-killer tablet he had been given for his back pain.

Bruce Lee is buried at the Lakeview Cemetery, in Seattle, USA. His son, Brandon Lee, shot in a movie accident some years later, is buried next to him. Brandon Lee made several movies, including The Crow.


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