2014 marks the 41ST anniversary of the death of martial arts genius Bruce Lee. For a generation of now middle-aged executives, who in their teenage years sat in cinemas around the world to watch his craft, the memories are likely to be vivid and they are wistful. In this reverential piece, we remind ourselves of the greatness of his craft and ponder the reasons for his universal appeal and circumstances surrounding his untimely death.
Born on 27 November 1940 at San Francisco Chinese Hospital, Chinatown, San Francisco he was technically born an American although the body of stellar work and rise to fame was borne out of Hong Kong. Our collective image of him is his lithe, taut body, his photogenic earnestness, his panther movements and shuddering screeches as he unleashed his extraordinary range of kicks, strikes and blows. It is a sombering thought that if he were alive today, would be 73 years old.
The filmic legacy of Bruce Lee forms the integral part of the archives of DVDs and old VHS format tapes of a legion of ardent fans around the world to this day. Five luminescent films are what we remember him by. The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), Way of the Dragon (1972), Enter the Dragon (1973) and The Game of Death (1978).
Those old enough to have been in the cinemas when Fist of Fury (1972), was shown for the first time will remember the swell of national pride, the streaming tears and shouts and cheers of jubilation he brought to Chinese through thrashing his nemesis during the harrowing period of the thirties. What he brought to the screen was something quite different to all that came before him. A technical thesis on the virtuosity of his craft alone would not explain the explosive rise of his fame and fortune from that period onwards. He had, what today’s generation would call “The X Factor” – a seething combination of incandescent energy, charm and implicit sexuality.
Formally trained in Wing Chun from the age of 13, he became, in his own right a constant innovator and master choreographer. Martial arts exponents globally attempted to imitate his moves, facial expressions and use of weapons such as the famed two short lengths of wooden rods joined by chains known as the Nanchuku. His drive and intense individuality together with his university education in Seattle led him to create the elegant discipline of Jeet kune do. Interestingly from the early days of training, he had already began to experience discrimination by other martial artists because of his mixed parentage. There is no doubt this left an indelible impression upon him in the various film roles he was to make famous. Possibly the greatest influence on his fighting technique was the legendary training master, Yip Man. Few martial artists can claim to be trained by Yip Man which added to the mystique of the man. The training, which started from 1954 evolved into private sessions. Another master, Wong Shun Leung is also attributed towards the grounding of Bruce Lee’s technique.
It is probably no surprise that Bruce was not a good student. Easily distracted, he was drawn to the frenetic and adrenalin-charged gritty street life of Hong Kong where he time and time again got himself caught up in gang fighting and the attention of the police. His notoriety was such that even the local Chinese triad marked him for retribution. His father, Lee Hoi-chuen (1901– 1965), a Cantonese opera performer and film star, knew it was time for his son to send him away to America to establish his fortune.
From the age of 18, he arrived in San Fransciso with little more than what he was wearing and the memories of a colourful life in Hong Kong. By 1961, Bruce proved he could motivated to be an able student by entering the University of Washington where he studied philosophy, drama, psychology and other areas of interest to him. It was here that he met and later married Linda Emery. The couple were to bear two children, Brandon (1965-93) and Shannon (1969 – ).
Bruce Lee entered into the American consciousness with his role as side-kick, Kato to actor, Van Williams in the Green Hornet during the late sixties. His fighting technique was quickly popularized back in his home town, Hong Kong where the show was known as the Kato Show. Other brief film roles followed which did nothing to further his career. Acting on the advice from producer Fred Weintraub, Bruce returned to Hong Kong where opportunity knocked through contracts signed with film producer, Golden Harvest. His Kato fame had come before him and opened the way for his first leading role in The Big Boss (1971) and later the record-breaking, Fist of Fury (1972).
The young Hollywood actor Chuck Norris established his career fighting Bruce Lee in The Way of the Dragon (1972) in which possibly the most revered Bruce Lee fight scene of them all was staged within the crumbling ruins of the Colosseum, Rome where the ghosts of ancient gladiators pervaded.
Bruce Lee was obsessive about his physical fitness. He explored and persisted with a battery of strict diet regimens, strength, flexibility and stamina routines that would have suited boxers, distance runners, dancers and sprinters all in one. Through Jeet Kune Do, he espoused the imperative for the practitioner to undergo rigorous physical and spiritual training with lesser emphasis on superficial style and rigid set moves. One area of physical fitness that Lee was obsessive about was abdominal training. He correctly observed that all effective martial arts moves needed strong core muscles.
On the 20 July 1973, Bruce Lee died under incredulous circumstances that today still provoke discussion and conjecture. The official report has it that on that day, Lee experienced a headache and was offered a normal commercial tablet called Equagesic which contains aspirin and Meprobmate (a muscle relaxant). He was in the company of beautiful Taiwan actress Betty Ting Pei and film producer, Raymond Chow in the moments leading up to this death. The autopsy report showed that his brain has suffered massive swelling and attributed the drug he took that day for “death by misdaventure.”
Bruce Lee popularized martial arts in a way that no other person had achieved. The martial arts craze that swept the world during the seventies also had the effect of creating greater respect for Chinese culture and Chinese people generally. Chinese around the world owe a debt of gratitude to Bruce Lee for changing the way they think about themselves and instilling a sense they do not have to be the victim of history or circumstances. His unique fighting skills captured forever on film are a lasting legacy of genius, entrepreneurship and destiny.