Birth of the Dragon: A Kung Fu Nerd Becomes Bruce Lee

By Gene Ching

Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine - November + December 2016 Bruce Lee is the most iconic martial artist of our time, as well as the most impersonated.  Some will claim Elvis or Michael Jackson are impersonated more often, but how many feature-length films were made by their impersonators?  There are countless Bruce Lee knock-off movies.  Many actors have built their entire careers on impersonating the Little Dragon.  There are enough fake Bruce Lee movies to form a sub-genre of its own.

And we've all done it, fantasized about being Bruce Lee.  You can't truly call yourself a martial artist, much less a Kung Fu practitioner, if you haven't picked up a pair of nunchaku and made a "Wataaah!" yell at least once in your life.  Bruce Lee was an inspiration.  He brought Kung Fu into the global spotlight and forever changed how the world views China and Chinese martial arts.

In 2014, Hollywood began production on a new Bruce Lee biopic titled Birth of the Dragon.  Directing the film is George Nolfi, a Hollywood veteran who directed The Adjustment Bureau (2011) and wrote the screenplays for that, The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and Ocean's Twelve (2004).  Stephen Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson were tasked to pen the screenplay.  Rivele and Wilkinson partnered for two previous biopics, Ali (2001) and Nixon (1995).  Nixon earned the writing duo an Oscar nomination for Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.  In late 2015, Nolfi went to China to scout locations and do research.  He visited Shunde in Guangdong, the site of Bruce Lee's ancestral home and the world's largest Bruce Lee statue.  He crossed hands with Chen Taiji master Wang Xian, an experience that landed him on his butt, much to the amusement of his Chinese hosts.  He garnered a $31 million production budget from Kylin Pictures, a leading Chinese entertainment company headquartered in Beijing and Shanghai, securing distribution rights to China as a Hollywood/China co-production.  But one key question remained.  Who would play Bruce?

As it turned out, the role of Bruce Lee fell to a former writer of Kung Fu Tai Chi, Philip Ng.

A Kung Fu Nerd in America

Philip Ng (伍允龍) was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to America when he was seven.  Just like Donnie Yen, the reigning king of Kung Fu action films, being born in China and raised in America gave Philip perfect command of both Chinese and English.  Both stars are already successful actors in China, and are poised to break into Hollywood.  With the alarming growth rate of the Chinese film market, both China and Hollywood are jockeying to make that trans-Pacific blockbuster.  And for any star that can make that crossover, the world is their oyster.  Donnie is hopeful that his upcoming appearance in Star Wars: Rogue One will bring him the attention of the western audience that he deserves.  Philip has guarded hopes for Birth of the Dragon.  “Apparently it’ll change my career,” says Philip in an offhand way.  “But you know what?  You don’t know about anything.  You’re just happy that you’re satisfied with the product and that’s all I am.”

Philip began training Choy Lay Fut under his father Master Sam Ng (伍紹華).  Ng senior was a pupil of Hung Sing Choy Lay Fut Grandmaster To Hon Cheung (雄勝蔡李佛杜漢璋).  Philip also studied Ving Tsun (詠春) under Wong Shun Leung (1935–1997 黃淳樑), a direct student of Ip Man (葉問) and credited as one of Bruce Lee's main instructors.  Philip also practiced Western Boxing, Taekwondo, Jujitsu and Escrima, much of which he did while earning his Masters Degree in education at the University of Illinois.  In 1997, he joined forces with his father to establish the Ng Family Chinese Martial Arts Association (NFCMAA) in Chicago.  The school is still going strong, with students continuing to capture top spots on the podium in U.S. martial arts tournaments for both forms and full-contact fights.

Philip enjoyed teaching and competing in Kung Fu, but he had a dream, a dream many of us share but few of us actually pursue.  He wanted to make Kung Fu movies.  So he packed up his things and made for Hong Kong.  The Hong Kong film industry was booming in the mid-nineties.  It was a leading source of maverick cinema, much of it due to political tensions.  In 1997, the United Kingdom transferred sovereignty of Hong Kong back to the People's Republic of China, ending 156 years of the Pearl of the Orient being a British Colony.  There was great trepidation about what China would do with Hong Kong's film industry.  As a communist nation, fear of censorship was high.  There was an exodus of Chinese filmmakers and stars, preparing to escape if need be.

But as it turned out, the opposite happened.  Hong Kong was declared a Special Administrative Region of the PRC and retained most of its autonomy.  Over the last twenty years, China has risen to become the second largest film market in the world – an ideal market for Hong Kong filmmakers.  Philip came to Hong Kong just after the transfer and began his slow but steady climb to stardom.  “There was a lot of people that came into Hong Kong at the same time that I did from overseas that had a similar background – a Kung Fu background.  You know those guys.  Came and went.  Came and went.  Came and went.  It is not easy.  It is a difficult, difficult path.  I had the support of my family.  Thank God.  And I had a lot of cool people next to me telling me that as long as you're moving forwards and not backwards, it's okay.  I have to thank those people; it was an uphill struggle.  So when I came in the industry, I went to the Christian Fellowship, a fellowship of Christian artists in Hong Kong.  And a singer named Joe Tay (鄭敬基), I told him my story.  He was a good guy and took me under his wing and introduced me to Chin Ka Lok (錢嘉樂).  Chin Ka Lok is a well-established martial arts choreographer and martial arts stuntman of Sammo Hung's stunt team, and an actor in his own right.  So his buddy was doing a movie called Star Runner (2003) and he needed a guy who could help choreograph Ving Tsun and also Hung Kuen (洪拳), and spoke English because a few of the lead actors spoke English.  So I was hired on for a very small amount of money, but I gave them this tape.  It's online.  It's a demo tape of me doing different things, martial arts things.  They saw it and they were impressed.  They thought it was uncommon for a young guy to know all these things.  I thought everyone knew these things in Hong Kong.  Apparently not.  So I was hired on to be one of the assistant choreographers, and also an actor trainer.  So I trained Vanness Wu (吳建豪) and Andy On (安志杰), boxing, kickboxing, Ving Tsun and Hung Kuen.  There was a very pivotal point in my life – my first gig as a stuntman and also as a choreographer.  Assistant or not, I partook in a lot of that movie.  I learned a lot.  There I met my two best friends in the industry, Andy On and Vanness Wu, and the rest is history.”

Since he began working in the industry, Philip has been credited in nearly three dozen films and eight television series.  In the July+August 2005 issue of Kung Fu Tai Chi, Philip wrote Punching to Miss, which discussed fight choreography for screen.  Andy appeared in the article too, assisting Philip with the demonstrations.

Becoming the Dragon

Casting the role of Bruce Lee was critical to the success of Birth of the Dragon.  In summer of 2015, an open casting call went out on the internet, but it was Philip's friend Andy who gave him the lead.  “The whole process was kind of weird because Andy was the one they were casting.  But Andy was like, 'I don't look like Bruce Lee.  But I have a friend who does…'  So he recommended me and actually did the 'casting take' with me.  You know, we cast for these American movies all the time in Hong Kong.  You don't really ever get it and usually if you do, it's for a smaller role.  So we set up the tape, and you know, whatever, right?  Go on with your day.  I got other jobs to worry about.  But then I got in the running.  I didn't know so I got to talk to the director and everything.  And in between, they went through a couple different people.  And eventually they stuck to their guns and wanted to use me.  I have to really thank the director George and the producer Michael [London].  I think they were really fighting for me to get on this project after I spoke to them and they saw my casting tape.  Andy On.  He's a brother.”

Fate played to Philip's favor as he was a perfect candidate to play Bruce.  Apart from sharing Bruce's striking good looks, being a student of Wong Shun Leung was a definite advantage.  What's more, Philip had the lead role in Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (2014) in which his character was almost a Bruce Lee homage.  “It's funny because my boss originally wanted to do a Bruce Lee bio-pic for me, when I first entered his company – Wong Jing (王晶), who pretty much launched my career.  At the time, I was a little bit nervous about it.  So we decided on another story, which was the Ma Wing Jing (馬永貞) story, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai.  It wasn't on purpose – the homage.  The story is similar to the older Bruce Lee movies.  I think there's like a very big similarity there, like the bracelet – an object to remind him of something.  When I went in for a fitting, I wanted to look cool for my first role.  But the director was like, 'Look, you need one of those bowl cuts.'  And I'm like, 'Why do I need a bowl cut?'  'Because you're a country bumpkin.  Your mom would be the one cutting your hair.  Since you were one, she would put the bowl over your head and then cut it.'  But it sold.  I felt that was like the character.  As soon as I got the haircut, I felt in character.  And when we fought, the kind of fighting we decided on working with Yuen Woo Ping, was more solid – Kung Fu-ish – Kung Fu elements like if it was actually in a real fight.  That's why the fighting was the way it was – solid.  I always try to purposely put in moves when I can.  A lot of times when they give me direction, or Andy, someone who has been doing this Kung Fu movie stuff for a while, they tell you, “Okay, punch here, punch here, slip here, block here.”  But you get to infuse your own thing so a lot of times I'll throw a bong sao (膀手) in there, Ving Tsun stuff.  If I have to throw a right hook, I'll throw a Choy Li Fut sow choy (捎槌).  Every time I do one of these movies, my Kung Fu brothers watch and they're like, “Oh!  Look!  He did a sow choy!  Oh!  There's a bong sao!”  I do it for my Kung Fu school.”

Philip's foundation in traditional Kung Fu was also beneficial.  Not many choreographers are doing traditionally-based fight scenes anymore, and there's a lot of nostalgia for that sort of action.  “If you see the old school Hong Kong stuff, like from the Sammo Hung days, a lot of stuff was actually traditional Kung Fu.  A lot of the choreographers around now, even myself as a new-generation choreographer, we still like to stick to the rhythm of the traditional martial arts.  That's why a lot of the stuntmen that I work with from China, they're all Wushu trained, they're very interested in learning the rhythm that I do from traditional Kung Fu.  It is hard for them to mimic.  Even today, in Hong Kong movies, that's more preferable to the more staccato flowy-ness of Wushu.”

Bruce Lee versus Wong Jack Man

Birth of the Dragon centers around the most debated fight in modern Kung Fu history – the duel between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man (黃澤民).  This challenge match happened over half-a-century ago, but it still captures the imagination of Kung Fu practitioners and Bruce Lee fans.  There have been numerous previously published accounts of the match, from Linda Lee Caudwell's (Lee's widow) autobiographical Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew to Rick Wing's (Wong Jack Man's inheritor) e-book Showdown in Oakland: The Story Behind the Wong Jack Man – Bruce Lee Fight, along with many more.  There had been a film version in the previous highly-fictionalized biopic, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993).  Kung Fu Tai Chi even ran an account of it in the July+August 2005 cover story, "Keeping Secrets: Grandmaster David Chin's Legacy of Hop Gar Rebels and Guang Ping Tai Chi Revolutionaries."  Master Chin is one of the few eyewitnesses to the fight who is still alive.

Coincidentally, this match has resurfaced in two other places beyond Birth of the Dragon just this year.  Over the summer, Journalist Charles Russo published Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America through University of Nebraska Press.  It is an overview of pioneering American martial arts masters that centers around the Bruce Lee - Wong Jack Man duel.  Additionally, artist Jeremy Arambulo published A Challenge on the web.  It's a graphic novel based on the very same duel.  With the imminent release of Birth of the Dragon, a new generation is engaging this now legendary match.

Just as this story was going to press, Birth of the Dragon was scheduled to have its world premiere at the illustrious 41st Toronto International Film Festival; but the promotional photo gave those familiar with the story some pause.  Wong Jack Man is played by Yu Xia, a Hong Kong-based actor who has already won Best Actor awards at the Venice Film Festival and from China's Golden Rooster and Taiwan's Golden Horse.  In the photo, he is wearing a Shaolin monk robe.  The real Wong Jack Man is a master of Bak Sil Lum (北少林), which is Cantonese for "Northern Shaolin."  However, it isn't a monastic style; it's a folk style.  Master Wong never wore monk robes.  Philip is quick to explain: “The director called this movie a fable, which I think is better.  It’s more akin to the Wong Fei Hung movies, right?  Or these Ip Man movies.  Ip Man was my Sigong (grand teacher 師公), so it’s not so long ago that I’m listening to Sifu talk stories about his Sifu.  My Sifu is long gone now – God rest his soul – but I watch these movies and I know it’s fiction.  It’s based on the spirit of the truth, but it’s fiction, especially the Wong Fei Hung movies.  But it’s a little bit easier to swallow because there’s not that many circulating images of these people, especially Wong Fei Hung.  So he could have been played by anybody.  Same when I was doing Once Upon a Time in Shanghai and I was playing Ma Wing Jing.  There was really no documentation of that guy except for a few newspaper articles, so it could have been anybody.  I was able to freely create my character.  The problem with Bruce Lee is he is very widely circulated.  He’s a pop culture icon.  What can you do?  But I think if you see this movie in the light of that, the way you would watch an Ip Man movie or a Wong Fei Hung movie, there’s really no other way to watch these kinds of movies.  Even a supposedly historically quote-unquote accurately portrayed film like Lincoln, there is going to be liberties taken with the truth.  Things are going to be done for dramatic effect and mass appeal.  But I think the message is there.  There’s a good message in this movie.  The reason I feel very safe playing Bruce Lee in this movie is they didn’t portray him as a god.  He’s a human being in this movie, with his faults and his inner demons.  When I say inner demons, I mean in a psychological way.  He really is a human being with fears and expectations and arrogance.  There’s also a lot of love to him too.  I like that they made him a human being, not a comic book character.  And his relationships to the other characters in the movie, I like the dynamic.

“I met Wong Jack Man in real life at the shoot in San Francisco.  Also I was quite good friends with my Sifu when he was alive and he told me a lot of stories about Bruce Lee.  He was very close to Bruce Lee.  And also, I’ve met a lot of stuntmen that were very close to him as well.  I’ve heard both sides of the story.  I would have to believe that Bruce Lee is a very fierce fighter.  The fight couldn't last too long.  This is just based on the fact that I know how my method operates – how Ving Tsun operates.  A lot of other traditional Kung Fu styles are just doing forms, lacking any practical application under pressure.   A lot of times that isn’t happening in the Kung Fu schools, which is what I notice.  But whatever the case, whatever the outcome might be, and whoever might be right or wrong, the fight did influence Bruce Lee to create Jeet Kune Do.  It forced him to evolve basically as a human being, and as a martial artist.  So this fight, no matter what happened, because I think there’s only a few people in the world that are still alive, you can’t pry open someone’s brain and find the truth.  But we can know what we know – that this fight forced Bruce Lee to evolve and become a more efficient human being and more wise human being, and a more evolved martial artist.  I think he discovered the source of his ignorance was his lack of knowledge.  He wanted to fill those gaps.”

Scene from A Fist With Four Walls

A Fist Within Four Walls

No matter if Birth of the Dragon succeeds or not, Philip isn't waiting around.  That's just not how it's done in the Hong Kong film industry.  In August, his first TVB television series premiered, a martial drama called A Fist Within Four Walls (城寨英雄).  TVB, a Hong Kong-based company, is one of the largest commercial Chinese program producers in the world.  “It’s crazy.  If the readers just go online and type in three letters – T, V, B – on Google, and read on Wikipedia or whatever, it’s one of the most powerful, most exposed stations in the world to Chinese people.  It’s not just in Hong Kong.  There’s channels all through Europe, America, wherever there’s Chinese people.  Everywhere.  If you’re Chinese, you know TVB.  Especially if you’re Chinese abroad, you know TVB.  And it’s an honor.  I’ve watched that channel since I was a kid.  It’s an honor to be doing a show on it.”  The show has already broken records for the most-watched Hong Kong drama and the highest-rated premiere week for 2016.

Additionally, Philip has several other projects coming soon.  He recently co-produced, starred in and choreographed an upcoming film with his buddies Andy On and Vanness Wu, tentatively titled, Undercover Punching and Gun.  And he has a few more projects in line that he's not at liberty to discuss yet.  But for the most part, he's happy doing what he loves.  “It’s freaking awesome.  I make Kung Fu movies for a living!  See my movie on Netflix.   Dude, I’m a Kung Fu nerd.  Sometimes I don’t believe it.”

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine November + December 2016

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About Gene Ching :
About Author Gene Ching: Gene Ching is the Associate Publisher of Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine and

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