Bruce Lee's Biography

By Kungfu Magazine

Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco November 27, 1940, in the hour and the year of the dragon. He was born Lee Jun Fan to parents Grace and Lee Hoi Chuen, a famous Chinese actor, on tour with a Chinese Opera troupe when their son came into the world. The senior Lee's acting talent passed down to a young Bruce Lee who began appearing in Hong Kong films when he was about six years old. At ten he acted in the comedy The Kid, and acquired the nickname Siu Lung, or Little Dragon, and altogether he made over twenty films by the time he was eighteen.

As a teenager Lee was getting into fights and getting into trouble. He was also developing a deeper interest in the martial arts, after having learned tai chi from his father and then Wing Chun kung fu from the famous Yip Man. 1958 marked the year that Bruce Lee became the cha cha champion of Hong Kong, and that same year he came to America. Settling into Seattle Lee worked as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant owned by Ruby Chow. He also pursued an education and enrolled in Edison Technical College and then the University of Washington, where he majored in Philosophy. Here he met his first students Jesse Glover, Ed Hart, Skip Ellsworth, and not much later his assistant and life long friend Taky Kimura. He also had a student named Linda Emery who shortly became his wife. Lee became more and more serious about developing his theories and philosophies of kung fu, and his burgeoning ideas were shaped in his first book Chinese Gung-Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self Defense.

The 1964 Ed Parker International Karate Championships shone the spotlight on both Bruce Lee's talent and charisma. He demonstrated his one-inch punch and two finger push ups. The event was to bring Lee together with Chuck Norris, Bob Wall and Mike Stone, who later became good friends, and Lee soon moved to Los Angeles to pursue a film career.

Between Seattle and Los Angeles, however, Bruce and Linda stayed for a short time in Oakland with his friend James Yimm Lee. It was during this time that Bruce Lee was challenged by Wong Jack Man for teaching non-Asians the "secrets" of Chinese kungfu. Lee won the fight, but realized his Wing Chun was not perfectly effective. It was perhaps the turning point in his evolution of thinking, and the beginnings of his philosophy and theories of Jeet Kune Do.

These theories developed as Lee opened his LA Chinatown school headed by Dan Inosanto. In 1965 his son Brandon was born. And as Lee's kungfu and family developed, so did his film career. 20th Century Fox signed Lee to co-star with Van Williams in the TV show The Green Hornet in 1966. The show lasted for one season, but got Lee good exposure in Hollywood and a cult following in Hong Kong, where the program was called The Kato Show. Lee also began teaching a number of Hollywood celebrities including Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Blake Edwards and Roman Polanski.

A serious back injury from lifting weights kept Lee bedridden for nearly six months. As one of his students has noted, Bruce Lee never wasted time. During his convalescence he filled nearly seven notebooks with notes and thoughts on all types of martial arts, and this material eventually became The Tao of Jeet Kune Do.

After The Green Hornet Lee made various appearances on TV shows and collaborated with writer Sterling Silliphant on a mythical screenplay called The Silent Flute. Warner Bros. was considering him for the lead in a series actually developed with Lee in mind, called The Warrior, which eventually became Kung Fu and went to David Carradine instead. In 1968 Bruce and Linda's daughter Shannon was born.

Lee went back to visit Hong Kong and discovered he was a local hero there because of The Kato Show. He made an appearance on a talk show and demonstrated his martial arts skills, catching the attention of Raymond Chow - who was starting up his film studio Golden Harvest. Lee received offers from both the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest, and he decided on the two-picture contract from Golden Harvest. He flew to Thailand to shoot The Big Boss (Fists of Fury in the U.S.), a film which subsequently broke all box office records in Asia. His next film Fists of Fury (Chinese Connection in U.S.) was even more successful and broke his previous box office record. The movie was so popular it ran for six months straight in the Philippines and had to be cancelled in Singapore on opening night because the thousands of fans rushing the theater caused a major traffic jam. And of course in Hong Kong Lee became not only a hometown hero, but also a hot commodity.

Bruce Lee's success afforded him more power with Golden Harvest, and for his third film Way of the Dragon (Return of the Dragon in the U.S.) he was the star, the director, producer, writer, and fight choreographer. The film ends with the famous fight scene between Lee and Chuck Norris at the Roman Coliseum.

Lee then began to shoot Game of Death, which was put on hold when the offer came to do Enter the Dragon, the first co-production between an American and a Chinese company and the first American studio produced martial arts action film. With Enter the Dragon Lee took the genre to a new level, and even today the fight choreography is some of the best ever created. The movie remains a standard by which others are measured, a testament to Lee's talent, drive and dedication.

The movie put an enormous strain on Bruce Lee. During the editing of Enter the Dragon he passed out in the studios of Golden Harvest and flew to Los Angeles to get a complete physical exam. The doctors found nothing wrong. Weeks later, July 20, 1973, Bruce Lee died in Hong Kong of a cerebral edema brought on by an allergic reaction to a prescription painkiller.

The streets of Hong Kong were jammed with grief stricken fans wanting one last glimpse of their hero at his wake. Lee's body was then flown to Seattle for a private ceremony and buried at Lake View cemetery. His brother Robert, Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Dan Inosanto were the pallbearers. His son Brandon is buried next to him.

Though Lee did not live to enjoy it, his vision of becoming the most famous martial arts star in the world became reality, and, particularly in the West, the name Bruce Lee became synonymous with kungfu. Today we are left with his words, his memories and the living legacy of Jeet Kune Do continuing through his students into the next generations. In his philosophy, his deep sharing of his art, and his intense passion for living Bruce Lee's spirit lives on.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 1999 .

Written by Kungfu Magazine for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM

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