7 Reasons Bruce Lee Continues to Kick Butt

7 Reons Bruce Lee Continues to Kick Butt

By: Dave Roos
 | 

When the kung fu legend Bruce Lee is on screen, it’s hard to take your eyes off of him. Consider Lee’s cocky swagger he s at his nose and beckons his opponent — or sometimes a roomful of opponents — to give it their best shot. You know how this is going to end, with a punishing flurry of kicks and punches, and Lee standing over his vanquished foes flexing his taut torso.

The Bruce Lee made famous in films like 1973’s “Enter the Dragon” is the ultimate bads, an unbeatable kung fu warrior, and for most Westerners that’s the only Bruce Lee they ever knew. Lee died under mysterious circumstances at only 32 years old, just his Hollywood star w beginning to shine.

But who w the real Bruce Lee? And how did his childhood and upbringing in Hong Kong and America help shape the man who would become an actor and dancer years before he became a kung fu mter? For answers, we spoke with Matthew Polly, author of the eye-opening biography, “Bruce Lee: A Life.” Here are seven essential things to know about this iconic star.

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In America, we think of Bruce Lee a Chinese actor who made it big in Hollywood, but Bruce w actually born in America and comes from an ethnically diverse family tree.

In his biography, Polly reveals that Lee’s maternal great grandfather w a Dutch-Jewish merchant named Mozes Hartog Bosman, who sailed to Hong Kong in the 1850s with the Dutch Et India Company. Bosman eventually became the Dutch ambsador to Hong Kong and had six children with his Chinese concubine. One of those children, Ho Kom-tong, grew fabulously wealthy and had a British mistress in addition to his wife and 13 concubines. Bruce Lee’s mother w the 30th child of Ho, who w half Jewish, and his British girlfriend.

Bruce’s father, on the other hand, w 100-percent Han Chinese and born into poverty. He escaped through his singing voice, becoming a famous Cantonese opera star and actor. He w touring in the United States when Bruce w born in San Francisco in 1940. Bruce’s parents named him Li Jun Fan, and a nurse at the hospital suggested Bruce his English name. The Lee family moved back to Hong Kong when Bruce w still a baby, and Lee grew up attending English-language private schools.

Throughout his life, Lee bounced back and forth between two worlds, Chinese and American, but never felt like he fit fully into either one. In China, he w a Eurian with an American psport. In America, he w a Chinese guy with a funny accent. Polly thinks this is key to understanding Lee’s persona.

“He didn’t quite fit in anywhere and I think it’s why he h this wide appeal to various groups,” says Polly. “He h this outsider status — he’s not of any one tribe.”

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Bruce’s early years in Hong Kong coincided with a brutal three-year occupation by Imperial Japan. Lee w small to begin with, but w further weakened by strict food rations and a cholera epidemic. He grew into a frail and ny boy with one leg shorter than the other, an undescended icle and bad acne.

But Lee w also a whirlwind of energy and a natural-born troublemaker. He constantly picked fights to prove his manhood, and Polly says he earned a reputation in the Hong Kong streets not a gangster, exactly, but a “middle-cls tough guy.”

“Bruce Lee fits into the pattern of a young boy who felt weaker and had a bit of a chip on his shoulder,” says Polly. “He got very interested in physical dominance in order to project himself out in a world in which he felt threatened.”

When Lee w a teenager, he got trounced by another kid who w studying Wing Chun, a school of kung fu or Chinese-style martial arts. Unwilling to accept defeat, Lee decided to up his game and began studying kung fu at the age of 15 or 16.

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Lee’s opera singer father also acted in Cantonese movies and musicals, and Bruce grew up on movie sets. He first appeared on film an infant stand-in at just 3 months old, but his first starring role a child actor w in a popular 1950 Hong Kong movie called “The Kid” filmed when Lee w 10. Polly says that he even debuted some of his clsic moves in “The Kid,” like swiping at his nose before a fight and ripping open his shirt.

“The Kid” w a huge success, and Bruce w signed on to do sequels that would have made him the Cantonese MaCaulay Culkin, but his father ped in. The elder Lee wanted his kids to be doctors and lawyers, not actors, and Bruce w constantly getting in trouble at school anyway. His father squhed his chance at child stardom, but Bruce acted on and off in small Hong Kong movies throughout the 1950s.

“By the time Bruce w 18, he had appeared in 20 Cantonese movies and none of them were kung fu flicks,” says Polly. “Watching those 20 movies, you see that Bruce w an actor first who later becomes a martial artist.”

Lee w also a talented dancer, once winning a Hong Kong “cha-cha” con.

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Bruce’s parents sent him off to America for college, where the spoiled kid from Hong Kong got his first tte of supporting himself. In Seattle, between clses at the University of Whington, Lee worked a busboy in a Chinese restaurant and slept there in a glorified closet. Word of his martial arts skills got around and soon Bruce w teaching some kung fu clses on the side.

It wn’t long before Bruce’s side gig overshadowed his studies. Lee dropped out of school and hatched a plan to open a franchise of martial arts schools along the West Cot. “It w going to be the McDonald’s of kung fu,” jokes Polly. To drum up business, Lee traveled to Los Angeles to give a demonstration at a karate tournament where he caught the attention of a TV producer. This led to Bruce’s first and only role on American television the ft-fisted sidekick Kato on the forgettable 1966 series “The Green Hornet.”

The show w canceled after just one seon, but Bruce hung around in Hollywood hoping for his next big break. He scored a few bit parts over the next four years, but Polly says Bruce mostly made his living a kung fu instructor to the Hollywood elite.

“Steve McQueen w one of his students, so w James Coburn and Roman Polanski,” says Polly. “Bruce w charging the equivalent of $1,000 an hour.”

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Even with his high-profile clients, Bruce got himself into some financial trouble and needed some ft ch to dig out of debt. He decided to fly back to Hong Kong for a few months, take some roles in “cheapo” kung fu movies and earn enough money to come back to Los Angeles.

The first of these Hong Kong movies w called “The Big Boss,” and Lee wn’t even supposed to be the lead. It w already in production when he arrived, Polly says, but Lee w “so charismatic they killed off the lead actor and made him the star.”

The movie w the first to feature his unique style of fight choreography. At the time, fight scenes in most kung fu movies looked like dance routines, but Bruce’s fight choreography, informed by years of martial arts mtery, packed a wallop.

“What he w doing w a kind of heightened realism,” says Polly. “When he hit somebody, it felt like a real hit, like there’s real violence occurring. What Bruce created is still the dominant form of fight choreography in Hollywood movies to this day.”

“The Big Boss” w a breakout hit and propelled Lee into a new stratosphere of fame, at let in ia.

“‘The movie blew the box office record out of the water and suddenly Bruce w like the Beatles in Hong Kong and all of Southet ia,” says Polly.

Bruce followed up with two more wiy popular kung fu movies filmed in Hong Kong, “Fists of Fury” and “The Way of the Dragon,” that caught the attention of American producers. It w time to parlay Bruce’s ian stardom into the Hollywood career of his dreams.

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1973’s “Enter the Dragon” w supposed to be the film that made Bruce Lee a household name. And it w, but Lee didn’t live to see it.

A month before the film premiered in the United States, Lee w at his mistress’ apartment in Hong Kong when he complained of a headache, took a prescription pain reliever and lay down for a nap. He never woke up. He w only 32 years old, leaving his young wife Linda to care for their two children, Brandon and Shannon.

The odd circumstances and mysterious nature of his death became fodder for conspiracy theories — that he w killed by ninj or given the “touch of death” by a rival kung fu mter — but the official cause of death w listed a brain edema caused by an allergic reaction to the pain reliever, which he had been taking for months for a back injury.

Polly thinks that a better explanation is heat stroke. Ten days before his death, Lee collapsed while dubbing a film in an un-air-conditioned room in Hong Kong’s sweltering heat. The day he died w also exceptionally hot, and Lee spent part of the afternoon practicing moves for an upcoming role. His body may simply have given out.

“Enter the Dragon” became a touchstone of popular culture, introducing Western audiences to the archetype of the kung fu hero, and earning Bruce the posthumous fame that had eluded him in life.

“Before ‘Enter the Dragon,’ Bruce w bically a no-name actor from an obscure TV show,” says Polly, “and then the movie came out and he became an international sensation a month after his death.”

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“Bruce Lee is perhaps the only iconic figure from the 20th century who died before he became famous,” says Polly, “and that’s why he became a mythological figure.”

Lee didn’t live long enough to give endless press interviews, to attend glitzy award shows or to get drunk and wreck his sports car on set Boulevard. One of the advantages of dying young, says Polly, is that people can project their own image onto you. This is how Bruce Lee becomes the legendary kung fu hero and the ultimate warrior.

And on a cultural level, Polly says that it’s hard to overestimate the influence that Bruce Lee’s films had on popularizing the martial arts in the West.

“Before ‘Enter the Dragon,’ there were about 10,000 people who studied the martial arts in America,” says Polly, himself an enthusit, “and now it’s like 40 million. He introduced more westerners to ian culture than any other figure in modern history.”

If Lee’s premature death wn’t tragic and mysterious enough, his 28-year-old son Brandon w accidentally killed while filming “The Crow,” adding fuel to the claim that the Lee family w cursed. In October 2020, Lee’s daughter Shannon released a book of her dad’s philosophical teachings called “Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee.”

Originally Published: Nov 2, 2020

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7 Reons Bruce Lee Continues to Kick Butt


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