Just think, it’s already been 50 years since Bruce Lee left us.
We’re still talking about him 50 years on, and he’s still a model, an icon and an inspirational figure, not only in the martial arts world.
Like many teenagers, I was a big Bruce Lee fan in my youth. I’d stuck posters on the wall covering the old wallpaper in my bedroom, which dated back to the 1970s. At the time, Bruce Lee was a great source of inspiration for me in the martial arts. I started martial arts at 16, with traditional Japanese jujutsu, Hakko Ryu style, because it was within my reach, not far from my home, I knew a family member who introduced me and I was dependent on an adult to drive me to and from my classes.
A few years later, when I had my car, I looked for a Jeet Kune Do school to practice Bruce Lee’s martial art. In the early 2000s where I lived, Jeet Kune Do wasn’t very widespread, and it still isn’t today.
I finally opted for Wing Chun because I knew it was Bruce Lee’s basic martial art.
This post is a tribute to the man and martial artist who inspired me so much in my youth, and who continues to inspire me to some extent today. It’s undeniable that without Bruce Lee, I certainly wouldn’t have been interested in Wing Chun and my martial path would have been very different.
The following post is a brief biography of Bruce Lee’s life. I won’t go into too much detail, as there are many books, biographies, documentaries, podcasts… and I’m sure there will be many more to come. To write this post**, I’ve drawn heavily on Matthiew Polly’s book, Bruce Lee: a life , which is simply brilliant! Very exhaustive, with an incredible number of references and sources. The author has done a remarkable job. I recommend it to anyone interested in Bruce Lee.
** I’ll also include references to the other sources I used to write these lines at the end of this post.
The Little Dragon of Hong Kong
Bruce Lee was born in San Franciso on November 27, 1940, in the Year of the Dragon, an auspicious sign in the Chinese horoscope. His parents, *Lee Hoi Chuen (or Li Hoi Chuen) and Grace Ho Hoi Chuen, were in the United States when Bruce Lee was born. His father is a Hong Kong Chinese opera actor. He performs in American chinatowns. His Chinese name is Lee Jun Fan 李振藩, Lee being his surname, Jun meaning “shake-up, rouse or excite” (in fact, part of his paternal grandfather’s first name, Li Jun Biao) and Fan meaning the city of San Francisco in Cantonese. His parents nevertheless had to give him an American first name, hence Bruce Lee.
*Lee is an anglicized version of Li.
The post-war period was a prosperous one for the Lee family. They belonged to a well-to-do class and settled in the Kowloon district on Nathan Road. His father became an actor in Hong Kong’s burgeoning film industry, making a reasonable living. The young Bruce Lee was accustomed to acting on movie sets, and from time to time to appearing in front of the camera to play his first roles. In his first starring role in the 1950 film My Son A Chang (also known as The Kid or Kid Cheung), the 9-year-old Bruce Lee won critical acclaim and a small amount of notoriety. Local newspapers nicknamed him Siu Long 小龍, the little dragon, a nickname that Bruce Lee would keep throughout his career.
At school, the little dragon isn’t a model pupil, at least not in the academic sense. Early on, he became the leader of a small gang. He’s very boisterous and often picks fights. He was expelled from school and enrolled at Saint François Xavier (SFX) in 1956. There he met Hawkins Cheung and William Cheung (no relation), teenagers from wealthy families like Bruce Lee. Together, they continued to get into trouble, getting into increasingly serious fights and mischief, until the police spotted him. He was identified as a delinquent around the age of 15/16.
Bruce Lee was interested in dance and became an excellent Cha Cha Cha dancer, but it was above all the art of combat that fascinated him. It was his schoolmate William Cheung who introduced him to Ip Man in 1956, at the age of 16. The Grand Master accepted him as a disciple in his clan, but left Wong Shun Leung, one of his most advanced students at the time, in charge of his teaching. Ip Man only took care of the most advanced students.
Wong Shun Leung had the reputation of being Ip Man’s best fighter. He took part in numerous clandestine fights that came to be known as beimo 比武. These fights took place most of the time on Hong Kong’s rooftops, hidden from the public and the vigilance of the police. Hong Kong martial artists faced off in these fights, which usually took place in a few rounds and with a judge. Wong Shun Leung took part in numerous fights and also organized fights for his students, including Bruce Lee.
Bruce Lee used to train and demonstrate his Wing Chun moves at the school. Together with Hawkins Cheung, they were reputed to be the bad boys of their school.
In March 1958, Bruce Lee was spotted taking part in the boxing championship organized between three Hong Kong schools: St Georges School, King George V School and St François Xavier School. 30 people took part in the tournament. Bruce Lee is one of the 3 participants from St François Xavier School. The competition took place in St George. Bruce Lee felt into the same group as Gary Elms, the champion of the previous 3 years. The two opponents went head to head, and the fight was close, but Bruce Lee won on points. The little dragon took home a gold medal for his school, St François Xavier.
His addiction to street fighting got him into serious trouble. In 1959, after a violent fight, the police identified Bruce Lee as a delinquent. His parents were very worried, as their son’s future remained very uncertain. He’s not doing well at school, has no career plans, and his parents fear he’ll join a gang and end up in a bad way. His father plays on his knowledge to give him the opportunity to move to America. He is forced to move to the United States against his will.
Bruce Lee left Hong Kong on April 29, 1959 for San Francisco.
Bruce Lee and his difficult American dream
When Bruce Lee left Hong Kong, he didn’t really have any definite plans for his American adventure. From the outset, however, he planned to go back to school and teach martial arts. As for his martial arts background, Bruce Lee didn’t consider himself a Wing Chun expert when he left Hong Kong. He felt the need to enrich his technical knowledge and managed, through two of his father’s friends, Shiu Hon Sang and Fook Young, to learn the basics of other Kung Fu styles such as Praying Mantis and Eagle Claw in exchange for Cha Cha Cha lessons.
After a brief stay in San Francisco, Bruce Lee settles in Seattle and works in the Chinese restaurant of one of his father’s friends, Ruby Chow. There, he frequented the Chinese Youth Club and practiced Kung Fu. It was during a martial arts demonstration organized by the Chinese Youth Club that Bruce Lee met his first pupil, Jesse Glover.
Jesse Glover, at the time a black belt in Judo, was impressed by Bruce Lee’s agility and technique. The two men hit it off, and Bruce Lee began to teach his Kung Fu to a small group of people on an informal basis wherever he could find space, in parks, gardens, parking, garages and so on.
The group quickly expands, and is joined by Taky Kimura, who works in a supermarket not far from a parking where Bruce Lee’s group used to train.
During this period, classes were sometimes held in Leroy Garcia’s garden. Bruce Lee’s students were all martial arts enthusiasts, most of them practicing boxing and Judo. Classes lasted from 1h to 1h30, with a regular structure: warm-up, stretching, technical exercises with a partner, chisau, then sparring without protection and therefore without real contact. Classes usually ended with a few minutes’ meditation in Ma Bu 马步 (horse stance). 
What Bruce Lee taught at that time was essentially Wing Chun techniques such as Paak Sau and Laap Sau. For leg techniques, front and side kicks. 
As his group of students grew, Bruce Lee finally took a room and opened his first school at the age of 19 in Seattle’s Chinatown, not even 1 year after setting foot in the United States.
To attract more students, he gives demonstrations in which he openly criticizes other so-called traditional martial arts styles. During one of these demonstrations, a 29-year-old karateka named Yoshi Nakashi was offended by Bruce Lee’s criticism and challenged him to a single combat. Bruce Lee accepts the challenge with flying colors. He confronts his opponent and defeats him in a matter of seconds.
In March 1961, he enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle and found a great interest in psychology and philosophy. At the same time, he continued to teach his Kung Fu classes, but the rent became too expensive to pay, as he had lost many students. He was forced to close his school and return to training outdoors with his most motivated students, Jesse Glover, Taky Kimura, James de Miles, Howard Hall and Leroy Garcia. At the same time, Bruce Lee began to give classes at the University and welcomed new students, so much so that in 1962, he once again rented a room in a basement in Chinatown, thus formalizing his first school open to the public. It was named Jun Fan *Gung Fu Institute.
*Gung Fu is the spelling used by Bruce Lee, nowadays it’s Kung Fu that’s generally used. See my post on this subject.
It was at this time that a split occurred between Bruce Lee and his first students. With the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, Bruce Lee wanted a more traditional, “Chinese-style” school, so he imposed the name Sifu and organized his classes differently. Jesse Glover, James De Mile and Leroy Garcia didn’t like this new way of doing things and preferred to split from Bruce Lee to open their own group.
In the summer of 1963, Bruce Lee took advantage of the summer break to visit family and friends. He spent 3 months in Hong Kong, and also took the opportunity to train at various Hong Kong martial arts schools to enrich his techniques. However, he was not very well received, as Hong Kong martial artists did not appreciate the Little Dragon’s cavalier attitude.
Bruce Lee also visits his Sihing Wong Shun Leung and his Sifu Ip Man to train in Wing Chun. 
On his return to Seattle, Bruce Lee continues to teach at the University and his school in Chinatown. He meets a young student, Linda Emery, who joins his classes and becomes one of his pupils.
After a successful promotional campaign, the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute took off and soon welcomed over fifty students. In view of the school’s success, Bruce Lee considered expanding to another city. In 1963, he met James Yimm Lee (no relation to Bruce Lee), a martial arts practitioner from the Oakland area. James Yimm Lee was a well-known practitioner, had published books that Bruce Lee had read, and was 20 years older than Bruce Lee. The collaboration with James Yimm Lee enabled Bruce Lee to publish a book; Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense. The following year, he opens a Jun Fan Gung Fu section in Oakland. Bruce Lee concentrates more on the new Oakland school, and Taky Kimura takes over the Jun Fan Gung Fu classes in Seattle.
1964 was a big year in Bruce Lee’s life. He married Linda Emery, opened a Jun Fan Gung Fu school in Oakland and had the opportunity to demonstrate at the Long Beach tournament organized by Ed Parker.
Ed Parker is a Kenpo Karate practitioner from Hawaii who has made a fortune with several dojos on the West Coast of the USA. He made a name for himself in the world of show business, training celebrities such as Elvis Presley and promoting his Kenpo Karate. In the summer of 1964, he organized the 1st Long Beach International Karate Championships. The tournament attracted a large crowd, including Hollywood showbiz celebrities. James Yimm Lee, who was a friend of Ed Parker, gave Bruce Lee the opportunity to meet Ed Parker and demonstrate Jun Fan Gung Fu at the Long Beach tournament.
During his demonstration at the Long Beach tournament, Bruce Lee met Dan Inosanto, an American of Filipino origin, who was a black belt with Ed Parker. Dan Inosanto was seduced by Bruce Lee’s charisma and style, and the two men struck up a friendship that led to regular training together.
Following the demonstration in Long Beach, Bruce Lee became the talk of the town. He was asked to give a demonstration to the Chinese community in San Francisco’s Chinatown. With the help of Dan Inosanto, Bruce Lee gave a demonstration that did not please the Chinatown martial arts masters, who took it as a provocation. The San Francisco community challenged Bruce Lee to a fight with Wong Jack Man, a young Chinese martial arts expert (Northern style) fresh from Hong Kong. Bruce Lee accepted, and the fight took place behind closed doors at the Jun Fan Gung Fu school in Oakland, in November 1964. Bruce Lee won the fight without any great difficulty, but it lasted too long in his opinion, around 3 minutes.
It was from this event that Bruce Lee began to modify his fighting style, leading to the creation of Jeet Kune Do a few years later.
At the Long Beach tournament, Bruce Lee was spotted by influential people in Hollywood. He was offered a lead role in a series called Charlie Chan’s Number One Son in early 1965. Bruce Lee won over the producers and signed a contract to shoot in Hollywood. At the same time, two important events marked his life. He had just become a father with the birth of his son Brandon, and he lost his father, Lee Hoi Chuen. During the following summer, Bruce Lee travels to Hong Kong to introduce his son and wife to his family who are staying on in the British colony.
Hollywood and the Jeet Kune Do
In 1966, Bruce Lee and his family move to Los Angeles. Bruce Lee works on the set of The Green Hornet. The series follows the adventures of Britt Reid, a crime-fighting hero known as the Green Hornet. He is aided by Kato, his butler and martial arts expert.
The series competed directly with Batman, released the same year, but was not as successful. It did, however, reveal Bruce Lee to the public, and he gained a certain notoriety.
The collaboration with Dan Inosanto led Bruce Lee to open a 3rd Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute school in Los Angeles’ Chinatown in February 1967.
Since his fight against Wong Jack Man, Bruce Lee has been reflecting on his fighting style. Wing Chun is his basic martial art, for close combat and trapping techniques, but Bruce Lee also draws on other fighting systems such as boxing, notably for footwork, and fencing, which he learned from his brother Robert, for the concept of interception. Unlike boxing, where the strongest weapons are at the back, Bruce Lee favors a guard where his strongest weapons are at the front, as they are more often used. Certain techniques, such as the finger jab, became his favorite weapons and he created a “Bruce Lee” style.
He finally named his method Jeet Kune Do 截拳道, The Way of Intercepting Fist, on July 9, 1967.
“There are three opportunities to strike an opponent : before he attacks, during his attacks, or after he attacks. Jeet Kuno Do means to intercept before he attacks – to intercept his movements, his thought, or his motive.”
Alongside his martial arts training, Bruce Lee trains like an athlete to perfect his skills, develop his physical abilities and sculpt his body; he wants to look like a hero in front of the camera.
His small notoriety enabled him to become a teacher for famous people. He gave private lessons to Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the famous basketball player, and to two renowned karatekas, Mike Stone and Joe Lewis.
In 1967, he was again invited by Ed Parker to demonstrate at the Long Beach Karate Tournament. Thousands of people turned out to see Kato’s prowess. Bruce Lee’s demonstration caused a sensation, and his famous One Inch Punch, the very short-distance punch, became the stuff of legend, while his full-contact sparring with Ted Wong and Taky Kimura left no audience indifferent.
Bruce Lee takes advantage of his notoriety thanks to his Kato character and travels the United States to give demonstrations. Demand was so great that prices could go up to 4,000$ for just a few hours of The Green Hornet star’s presence. At the end of 1967, Bruce Lee was invited to New York’s Madison Square Garden to perform at a karate championship. On this occasion, he met Chuck Norris, winner of a fight against Joe Lewis.
However, the euphoria for Kato soon ran out of steam. With only one 8-episode season, after a few months demand for The Green Hornet series dried up and Kato fell into oblivion. Several promoters suggested that Bruce Lee launch a chain of martial arts schools, Kato Karate Schools, but Bruce Lee refused. Instead, he decided to become a private instructor for celebrities.
In 1968, Bruce Lee expanded his network of private students. He met many Hollywood celebrities such as Vic Damone, James Coburn, Steve McQueen, Stirling Silliphant, Joe Hyams… His rate is 150$/hour (equivalent to over 1000$/hour these days).
Thanks to his new job as a private coach to Hollywood celebrities, Bruce Lee and his family begin to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. They soon move to Bel Air, one of Los Angeles’ most exclusive neighborhoods.
Shortly afterwards, Bruce Lee became a father for the second time, his daughter Shannon being born in April 1969.
By the end of 1968, Bruce Lee was well known in Hollywood. He is the official martial arts instructor to the stars. He raises his rates to 275$/hour.
Bruce Lee also frequents the private parties of Hollywood celebrities, thanks in particular to Steve McQueen. He hopes to meet the right people to land a role or at least a job in Hollywood. At these private parties, most celebrities consume illegal substances. Bruce Lee steers clear of alcohol, which he can’t stand, but uses marijuana, perhaps to make himself more acceptable to the showbiz elite. As a hyperactive person, marijuana also helped him calm down.
Thanks to his connections in show business, Bruce Lee had the opportunity to appear in a number of TV series. In 1967, in Ironside, and in 1969, in Blondie and Here Come the Brides.
In 1968, he experimented with coaching Steve McQueen for the film The Reivers.
At the end of 1968, he planned to make Hollywood’s first martial arts film, The Silent Flute, with the help of Stirling Siliphant for the writing. However, he was unable to convince Steve McQueen to star in the film. The project fell through.
In 1969, he choreographed the fight scenes for The Wrecking Crew and A Walk in a Spring Line. Also in 1969, he played the villain in the film Marlowe.
In March 1970, during a short trip to Hong Kong to arrange his mother’s visa, Bruce Lee realized that The Green Hornet series was a big hit in Hong Kong. He was invited onto a TV set and spotted by Lo Wei, a director from the Golden Harvest film studio. A few days later, when Bruce Lee had returned to Los Angeles, producer Raymond Chow contacted him with an offer, but Bruce Lee was not interested. He still hoped for a career in Hollywood, and concentrated on The Silent Flute project, which had just been relaunched by James Coburn.
In August 1970, Bruce Lee seriously injured his back (the 4th sacral nerve), trying to lift 125 pounds with a barbell while doing the good morning exercise. His convalescence lasted several months, and the doctors were not optimistic. He takes the opportunity to read, in particular Krishnamurti, and to write 8 notebooks on his reflections on combat. Linda would later publish The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, based on these notes.
In January 1971, Bruce Lee finally emerged from convalescence, although his back pain was still persistent. He resumed work on The Silent Flute and went to India with James Coburn and Stirling Silliphant.
Location scouting in India is inconclusive. The Silent Flute project was definitively abandoned. Hollywood wasn’t exactly smiling on Bruce Lee, and his career didn’t take off. Financially, it was difficult, as Bruce Lee had been out of action for several months following his injury, with no money to show for it. So he turned to Hong Kong and relaunched Raymond Chow.
The Dragon’s return to Hong Kong
In April 1971, Raymond Chow hired Bruce Lee for two films with Golden Harvest; The Big Boss and Fist of Fury. For Bruce Lee, these films represented no more than a financial opportunity. He had no real intention of pursuing a career in Hong Kong and still wanted to try his luck in Hollywood.
His friend Stirling Silliphant gave him a small role in the Longstreet series, where he played his own character, Bruce Lee, a Jeet Kune Do teacher. He also choreographed the fight scenes in the first episodes. The film was shot in July 1971.
Immediately afterwards, Bruce Lee left for Thailand to shoot The Big Boss. The shoot was extremely demanding, with unbearable heat and difficult working conditions. All the more so as Bruce Lee had great difficulty getting along with the director, Lo Wei.
When he returned to Los Angeles in September 1971, he shot 3 more episodes of Longstreet. He had the opportunity to put his Jeet Kune Do philosophy on stage, and for the first time said on camera “Be water my friend” during a dialogue scene.
Bruce Lee soon began shooting Fist of Fury, his 2nd film for Golden Harvest, again with the same director Lo Wei. The film was shot in Hong Kong at the Golden Harvest studios. Bruce Lee personally directs the fight scenes.
In October 1971, the Lee family went to Hong Kong to promote The Big Boss. The film was an extraordinary success, smashing the box-office by grossing 3.2 million HK$ in 3 weeks. An estimated 1.2 million Hongkongers saw the film, out of a total population of 4 million at the time.
In November 1971, Hollywood definitively rejected a Bruce Lee project called The Warrior, and he also learned that the lead role in the Kung Fu series had been given to David Carradine. Hollywood turned its back on him for good.
The success of The Big Boss changes Bruce Lee’s plans. He temporarily abandoned the idea of making a name for himself in Hollywood, sold his Bel Air home in Los Angeles and moved to Waterloo Hill, not far from Kowloon in Hong Kong.
In partnership with Raymond Chow, Bruce Lee creates Concord Productions, a satellite company of Golden Harvest, which will enable him to be autonomous for his next film.
In March 1972, Fist of Fury was released. It was a phenomenal success, even bigger than The Big Boss. The film grossed 4.3 million HK$ in just 1 month. Bruce Lee becomes a superstar. His private life becomes difficult, with crowds of fans surrounding his every public appearance. He moves to a house in Hong Kong’s upmarket Cumberland Road, Kowloon Tong.
In May 1972, Bruce Lee left for Rome for 10 days to shoot his next film, The Way of the Dragon. He shot many of the scenes on location, including those around the Colosseum for his fight with Chuck Norris. The rest of the film was shot in a studio in Hong Kong. Bruce Lee is fully committed to this film. He was director, producer, scriptwriter, choreographer and actor. To bring the project to fruition, he surrounded himself with martial arts experts to make the fight scenes more credible and on a different level. He hired Hwang In-shik, a Korean expert in Hapkido, as well as Chuck Norris and Bob Wall, two American experts in Karate. The final fight with Chuck Norris becomes the highlight of the film. Even 50 years later, this fight scene has become a cult reference.
The Way of the Dragon was released in December 1972. It surpassed The Big Boss and Fist of Fury at the box office, quickly reaching 5 million HK$.
As soon as shooting of The Way of the Dragon was completed, Bruce Lee immediately set to work on his next film, The Game of Death, in August 1972. He took advantage of the availability of his former student and basketball player Kareem Abdul Jabbar to shoot a few scenes in the film. Shooting of Game of Death was put on hold in October 1972, however, when a Warner Bross producer came to give Bruce Lee some good news. He was to star in the first Hollywood-Hong Kong co-production, Blood and Steel (later renamed Enter the Dragon).
“The training method of Chinese martial artists today is like teaching people to swim on dry land”Bruce Lee 
He made several enemies in the Wing Chun clan and even fought two practitioners in soft sparring in front of Ip Man himself, largely dominating the confrontations. The press was aware of the unease between Bruce Lee, his Master and Wing Chun. To calm tensions, Bruce Lee made a public appearance next to his Master Ip Man, during a walk along Nathan Road, to show that he had not broken the link with his Sifu.
However, when Ip Man died in December 1972, Bruce Lee was not informed of his Sifu’s death and was unable to attend the funeral. It was another scandal for the Hong Kong press.
On May 10, 1973, Bruce Lee takes part in the post-production of Enter the Dragon at Golden Harvest Studios. The air-conditioning is turned off to allow sound recording of the film’s dubbing. The heat was unbearable, and Bruce Lee collapsed. He is taken to hospital. He was saved from death in extremis, having just suffered cerebral oedema. After several medical examinations in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, the doctors were reassuring about Bruce Lee’s state of health.
On July 20, 1973, Bruce Lee returned to work on Game of Death at the home of actress Betty Ting Pei. He complains of a headache, takes a painkiller to ease the pain and lies down to rest. Later that evening, Raymond Chow and Betty Ting Pei have trouble waking him up, so they call an ambulance. Bruce Lee is taken to hospital. He had just suffered another cerebral edema, but this time the doctors were unable to resuscitate him. He died aged just 32.
Here, then, is my succinct summary of what I wanted to say about the life of this fascinating man. Once again, I can only recommend reading a good biography to learn more about the life of this fascinating celebrity.
Bruce Lee became an icon after his death. His great strength was to have created his own character, which we enjoyed seeing in all his films; a fury, a shout, a side kick, a nunchaku, a nose rub, a jump, a guard, a particular fighting style…
Bruce Lee went too quickly, and that’s what helped create his legend.
50 years on, it’s still part of pop-culture and a seemingly inexhaustible source of inspiration.