He’s a hero of mine. I think he was really superb. I remember seeing him as Kato on reruns of The Green Hornet, but my favourite film is Enter The Dragon. Bruce died before the film was released.
But who was the person behind the persona? Who was the philosopher behind the philosophy? Was he even a philosopher?
I realised that I didn’t know the answers to these questions. All I knew about him was gleaned from the film “Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story” by Rob Cohen. I now realise that this film has more holes than a Swiss cheese and the artistic licence applied to the ‘true story’ has turned it into a fictional movie. His real life story is far more intriguing.
So I started on a journey to find out more about the man. I started by reading a book. And it’s a very good one at that (Bruce Lee Fighting Spirit by B. Thomas, 1996, 3rd Edition 2007). Then I watched several movies (any excuse!), audio and video clips.
What I found out was intriguing, surprising and tragic all at the same time.
Bruce was an enigma with an energy that burned so fiercely that it motivated him to great achievements and consumed him resulting in his death. He was undoubtedly a brilliant martial artist, whose physical grace was second to none (Joe Lewis might disagree).
But there was a dark side to Bruce.
To put it mildly he had short temper and an ability to alienate himself from people that supported him. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and often went far to prove his point, especially when he was criticised. If it was a critique of his artistry, he would prove his point there and then – note the one inch punch. If the critique was materialistic or status-based, he would return to the criticiser when he had ‘beaten’ their achievements or could prove them wrong.
I conclude that he was the embodiment of yin and yang. Light and dark. Hard and soft. Creative and destructive.
So here we go: my compendium of things you probably didn’t know about Bruce Lee;
1. If Bruce was a child today, he would probably be diagnosed with ADHD. His family called him Mo Si Tung “never sits still”. In fact, if Bruce was sitting still they thought he was sick. His restlessness often got him in trouble in the classroom. According to his mother he was eager to learn, just not in a classroom environment.
2. Bruce pleaded to be taught the martial art wing chun (means “hope for the future”) because his Hong Kong gang (The Tigers of Junction Street) kept on getting beaten by rival gangs. Bruce never admitted that he got beaten.
3. He became the Crown Colony Cha-Cha Champion of 1958. Apparently it was the dance of the time and helped Bruce get his way with the ladies.
4. Bruce returned to his birth city of San Francisco in 1959 (he actually had Germanic ancestry on his mother’s side). On the boat trip over from China he managed to spend most of his time in first class by giving Cha-Cha lessons to the upper class passengers…a real-life Patrick Swayze!
5. He almost never made it out of Hong Kong. His father had to
pay convince the authorities that his son was not a gang leader. Bruce had an infamous reputation as a local trouble maker in Hong Kong.
6. Bruce Lee was considered physically unacceptable by the US Army. He was rejected by the draft board because of an undescended testicle.
7. Bruce played down jeet kune do (the way of the intercepting fist) as an alternative martial art. He insisted it was an approach to martial arts, rather than a style in its own right. He recommended its use for experienced and talented martial artists only, but he drew from countless disciplines to refine his own movements. Among his students were champions in karate (Joe Lewis), judo (Jesse Glover), and Filipino martial arts (Dan Inosato).
8. Jeet kune do influenced the way Parkour was developed. This later turned into Free Runnning – the art of expressing oneself physically crossing urban spaces. According to a History Channel’s documentary, the creators of free running took Bruce Lee’s philosophy of developing instinctive movement and applied it to how a body could move across an urban space as freely, fluidly and directly as possible.
9. Bruce was a bit of a control freak. For example he was the only one allowed to wear a black gi in his class (the others wore grey). He didn’t allow his students to practice on his wooden dummy so that he could maintain an edge over his students. He would even limit the amount of moves his most senior students could teach others, listing the moves that were to remain secret.
10. In 1969 Bruce damaged a sacral nerve in his back after lifting a bar bell. He was hospitalised, missing mortgage payments on a house he couldn’t afford in Bel Air. During his darkest, most challenging times he wrote his Napoleonic “Definite Chief Aim”:
I, Bruce Lee, will be the first highest-paid Oriental superstar in the United States. In return I will give the most exciting of performances and render the best of quality in the capacity of an actor. Starting 1970, I will achieve world fame and from then onwards till the end of 1980 I will have in my possession $10,000,000. I will live the way I please and I will achieve inner harmony and happiness.
Man, this guy was driven! This hand-written document is now hanging in a Planet Hollywood restaurant in Myrtle Beach (South Carolina).
11. The film Way of the Dragon was written, directed, produced, location-scouted, cast, choreographed and costumed by Bruce Lee. And if that wasn’t enough he played percussion on the film soundtrack.
12. Bruce said that he wanted to be more famous than Steve McQueen. Bruce got the fame he wanted but it was a double edged sword. With fame came trouble and attention that Bruce didn’t want and arguably didn’t know how to handle. On set he had countless tantrums with other directors, actors and producers. Off set he took to consuming hash cookies and drinking sake. Author Thomas describes his rise to fame in his book p. 220:
“Too many people looked at Bruce and saw only dollar signs. While he tried to go with what was happening to him, it was all too much, too fast. Not only had he stopped training, in the end he’d stopped laughing, too.”
13. Bruce was critical of taking rest. He described it as ‘pointless’. Being motionless was akin to being dead for Bruce. Many around him described him as not being able to switch off. James Coburn described Bruce as not being able to find the middle point [rest] between two points of action.
14. Bruce died on 20 July 1973 at the age of 32. He collapsed in the apartment of co-actress Betty Ting Pei. She had given him an Equagesic (aka aspirin tablet) and then couldn’t wake Bruce from his sleep. Later that evening he was pronounced dead. A subsequent inquest held a verdit of death by misadventure.
15. Bruce’s autopsy was conducted by a layperson who later required the spelling of medical terms in court when examined during the inquest. It’s rather laughable.
16. The inquest into his death reported that his brain had swollen to from the 1400g to 1575g and death was most likely through an oedema in the brain. This was the same verdict given to Bruce when he collapsed with similar symptoms two months earlier.
At that time Dr Wu (p.216) noted that Bruce had lots of Nepalese cannabis in his stomach. The combination of consumed cannabis with Bruce’s reduced weight (body fat of less than 1%) and the increasing stress he was under, meant his body couldn’t cope with the large amounts of active ingredients. Ingesting cannabis in this way exacerbated the drug’s effects and lead to his original seizure. He was advised to stop eating cannabis but didn’t listen. He thought he was invincible.
17. He told his mother (Grace Lee) that he wouldn’t live much longer, in the weeks leading up to his death. He said that doctors in Hong Kong said there was a serious problem inside his head.
18. A lot of controversy surrounded the fact that cannabis was found in Bruce’s stomach. Cannabis was regarded as a devil drug in China – much worse than opium or heroin because of its Western origins. As such the verdict given did not attribute the cause of dealth relating to Cannabis ingestion. Not to mention the life assurance pay out that would have been forfeited in the event of Bruce having knowingly taken a narcotic.
19. The symbolic funeral was held in Hong Kong. A wreath of flowers shaped in the yin yang symbol adorned his coffin. More than thirty thousand attended and a sign read “A star sinks in the sea of art”. His body is laid to rest in Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery.
20. Hundreds of myths, conspiracies, lies and rumours spread about Lee’s death. By these accounts he died from any number of poisonings, shootings, dim mak death touches, steroid abuse and more. It’s true that Bruce Lee had made many enemies, but the truth is he died from a condition that he had collapsed from two months before. Betty Ting Pei chose not to call the doctors on finding Bruce unconscious in her apartment. Instead she called a film director who took an age to battle through the Hong Kong traffic. When Bruce finally made it to hospital he was still alive and the doctors were amazed he had lasted that long.
21. On a cost-to-profit ratio, Enter the Dragon was the most successful film ever made. According to sources, it cost $850,000 to make, and has grossed more than $200,000,000 worldwide. That’s a gross ratio of 1:235. Quite amazing.
Thanks for reading!