In today’s blog, we take a look at the life and death of the remarkable Bruce Lee, a one of a kind, who most would agree to be the most popular and greatest martial artist of all time, who inspired millions around the world through his movies.
THE LIFE OF BRUCE LEE – Bruce Jun Fan Lee was born in the year of the Dragon on November 27, 1940 at the Jackson Street Hospital in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Bruce was the fourth child born to Lee Hoi Chuen and his wife Grace Ho. He had two older sisters, Phoebe and Agnes, an older brother, Peter, and a younger brother, Robert. Bruce’s parents gave him the name “Jun Fan.” The English name, BRUCE, was given to the baby boy by a nurse in the Jackson Street Hospital although he was never to use this name until he entered secondary school and began his study of the English language.
At the age of three months, Lee Hoi Chuen, his wife Grace and baby Bruce returned to Hong Kong where Bruce would be raised until the age of 18. Bruce’s most prominent memory of his early years was the occupation of Hong Kong by the Japanese during World War II (1941-1945). At the age of 13, Bruce was introduced to Master Yip Man, a teacher of the Wing Chun style of Kung Fu. For five years Bruce studied diligently and became very proficient. He greatly revered Yip Man as a master teacher and wise man and frequently visited with him in later years.
In high school, one of Bruce’s accomplishments was winning an interschool Boxing Championship against an English student in which the Marquis of Queensbury rules were followed, and no kicking was allowed. Bruce was also a terrific dancer, and in 1958 he won the Hong Kong Cha Cha Championship. He studied dancing as assiduously as he did Kung Fu, keeping a notebook in which, he had noted 108 different cha cha steps. In addition to his studies, Kung Fu and dancing, Bruce was also a child actor under the tutelage of his father who must have known from an early age that Bruce had a streak of showmanship. By the time he was 18, he had appeared in 20 films.
At the age of 18, Bruce was looking for new avenues in his life, as were his parents who were discouraged that Bruce had gotten into some trouble fighting and had not made more progress academically. In April of 1959, with $100 in his pocket, Bruce boarded a steamship in the American Presidents Line and began his voyage to San Francisco.
Bruce did not stay long in San Francisco, but traveled to Seattle where a family friend, Ruby Chow, had a restaurant and had promised Bruce a job and living quarters. By now Bruce had left his acting and dancing passions behind and was intent on furthering his education. He enrolled at Edison Technical School where he fulfilled the requirements for the equivalent of high school graduation and then enrolled at the University of Washington. At the university, Bruce majored in philosophy. His passion for Kung Fu inspired a desire to delve into the philosophical world and many of his written essays during those years would relate philosophical principles to certain martial arts techniques.
In the three years that Bruce studied at the university, he supported himself by teaching Kung Fu, having by this time given up working in the restaurant, stuffing newspapers or various other odd jobs. The small circle of friends that Bruce was teaching encouraged him to open a real school of Kung Fu and charge a nominal sum for teaching in order to support himself while attending school. One of his students in 1963 was a freshman at the University of Washington, Linda Emery. Linda knew who Bruce was from his guest lectures in Chinese philosophy at Garfield High School where she had been a student, and in the summer after graduating, at the urging of her Chinese girlfriend, Sue Ann Kay, Linda started taking Kung Fu lessons.
Bruce and Linda were married in 1964. By this time, Bruce had decided to make a career out of teaching Kung Fu. Leaving his Seattle school in the hands of Taky Kimura, Bruce and Linda moved to Oakland where Bruce opened his second school with James Lee.
Having now been in the United States for five years, Bruce had left behind any thought of acting as a career and devoted himself completely to his choice of martial arts as a profession. In 1964 Bruce was challenged by some Kung Fu men from San Francisco who objected to his teaching of non-Chinese students. Bruce accepted the challenge and the men arrived at the kwoon in Oakland on the appointed day for the face off. The terms were that if Bruce were defeated, he would stop teaching the non-Chinese. It was a short fight with his opponent giving up when Bruce had him pinned to the floor. Even though he had won, he was winded and discouraged about his inability to put the man away in under three minutes. This marked a turning point for Bruce in his exploration of his martial art and the enhancement of his physical fitness. Thus, began the evolution of Jeet Kune Do.
Just as Bruce was cementing his plans to expand his martial arts schools, fate stepped in to move his life in another direction. In August of 1964, Ed Parker, widely regarded as the father of American Kenpo, invited Bruce to Long Beach, CA to give a demonstration at his First International Karate Tournament. A member of the audience was Jay Sebring, a well-known hair stylist to the stars. Jay told his producer client, William Dozier, about having seen this spectacular young Chinese man giving a Kung Fu demonstration just a few nights before. Mr. Dozier obtained a copy of the film that was taken at Ed Parker’s tournament. The next week he called Bruce at home in Oakland and invited him to come to Los Angeles for a screen test.
About this time things were changing in Bruce’s personal life as well. His own number one son, Brandon Bruce Lee, was born February 1, 1965. One-week later Bruce’s father, Lee Hoi Chuen, died in Hong Kong. Bruce was pleased that his father had known about the birth of the first grandchild in the Lee family. Bruce was in a period of transition at this time, deciding whether to make acting his career or continue on the path of opening nationwide schools of Kung Fu. His decision was to focus on acting and see if he could turn it into a productive career, which showcased his passion for the martial arts. Bruce loved to teach Kung Fu, and he loved his students. However, he had begun to see that if his schools became more numerous, he would lose control of the quality of the teaching. His love for martial arts was such that he did not wish to dilute the quality with which he approached it.
The years between 1967 and 1971 were lean years for the Lee family. Bruce worked hard at furthering his acting career and did get some roles in a few TV series and films. To support the family, Bruce taught private lessons in Jeet Kune Do, often to people in the entertainment industry. Some of his clients included Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Stirling Silliphant, Sy Weintraub, Ted Ashley, Joe Hyams, James Garner, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and others. One more blessing was the arrival of a daughter, Shannon Emery Lee, on April 19, 1969.
Bruce was devoted to physical culture and trained devotedly. It was actually his zealousness that led to an injury that was to become a chronic source of pain for the rest of his life. On a day in 1970, without warming up, something he always did, Bruce picked up a 125-pound barbell and did a “good morning” exercise severely injuring his back. After much pain and many tests, it was determined that he had sustained an injury to the fourth sacral nerve. He was ordered to complete bed rest and told that undoubtedly, he would never do Kung Fu again. For the next six months, Bruce stayed in bed. It was an extremely frustrating, depressing and painful time, and a time to redefine goals. It was also during this time that he did a great deal of the writing that has been preserved. After several months, Bruce instituted his own recovery program and began walking, gingerly at first, and gradually built up his strength.
In 1970, when Bruce was getting his strength back from his back injury, he took a trip to Hong Kong with son Brandon, age five. Hong Kong producer Raymond Chow contacted Bruce to interest him in doing two films for Golden Harvest. Bruce decided to do it, reasoning that if he couldn’t enter the front door of the American studios, he would go to Hong Kong, establish himself there and come back in through the side door.
In the summer of 1971, Bruce left Los Angeles to fly to Hong Kong, then on to Thailand for the making of “The Big Boss,” later also called “Fists of Fury.” Although the working conditions were difficult, and the production quality substandard to what Bruce was accustomed, “The Big Boss” was a huge success.
In September of 1971, with filming set to commence on the second of the contractual films, Bruce moved his family over to Hong Kong. “Fist of Fury,” also called “Chinese Connection” was an even bigger success than the first film breaking all-time box office records. Now that Bruce had completed his contract with Golden Harvest, and had become a bankable commodity, he could begin to have more input into the quality of his films. For the third film, he formed a partnership with Raymond Chow, called Concord Productions. Not only did Bruce write “The Way of the Dragon,” also called “Return of the Dragon,” but he directed and produced it as well. Once again, the film broke records and now, Hollywood was listening.
In the fall of 1972, Bruce began filming “The Game of Death,” a story he once again envisioned. The filming was interrupted by the culmination of a deal with Warner Bros. to make the first ever Hong Kong-American co-production. The deal was facilitated mainly by Bruce’s personal relationship with Warner Bros. president, Ted Ashley and by Bruce’s successes in Hong Kong. It was an exciting moment and a turning point in Hong Kong’s film industry. “The Game of Death” was put on hold to make way for the filming of “Enter the Dragon.”
“Enter the Dragon” was due to premier at Hollywood’s Chinese theater in August of 1973. Unfortunately, Bruce would not live to see the opening of his film.
THE DEATH OF BRUCE LEE – When Bruce Lee awoke on the morning of July 20, 1973, he was an active, healthy 32 year old. He spent the day meeting with producers about his next film, then headed to a friend’s house for an afternoon visit. By nightfall, the greatest martial artist in a generation lay dead on a mattress on the floor, and the world was left to wonder: How did Bruce Lee die?
The culprit was just one thing Lee did that summer day — a small decision with consequences no one could have anticipated.
The trouble started two months earlier when Lee collapsed on May 10 during an automated dialogue replacement session for his movie Enter the Dragon. He was rushed to the hospital, where he complained of a severe headache and was wracked by seizures.
Doctors recognized the symptoms of cerebral edema, a condition in which excess fluid in the brain causes swelling and pain and were able to treat him immediately with mannitol. After a brief hospital stay, he felt much better — this wasn’t, he told his friends, how Bruce Lee would die.
On his release, he promptly resumed his usual fitness regime and continued eating his usual diet: a strictly enforced combination of vegetables, rice, fish, and milk that excluded all baked goods, refined flour, and most refined sugars.
Until July 20, he seemed to be recovering extremely well from his cerebral edema and, aside from complaining of an occasional headache, gave his friends no reason to worry.
The day of Bruce Lee’s death was a busy one. He was in Hong Kong, where many of his movies were made, and had been meeting with producer Raymond Chow for most of the day discussing his upcoming movie. He was reportedly filled with enthusiasm, acting out scene after scene with energy despite the scorching summer heat.
After the meeting, Bruce went to the apartment of a friend — or, as some would later clarify, his mistress, Taiwanese actress Betty Ting Pei. They were alone for several hours, then made dinner plans with Lee’s producer to finalize his movie deal.
Around 7:30 in the evening, shortly before they were due to depart, Lee complained of a headache. Ting Pei gave Lee an Equagesic, a common painkiller containing aspirin and a tranquilizer known as meprobamate. After taking it, he went to lie down.
After a few hours, when Lee didn’t come down for dinner, Ting Pei went up to check on him and found him unresponsive. She called Chow back to the home, and he attempted to wake Lee without success.
They were forced to call a doctor, who spent ten more minutes attempting to revive Lee. Unable to recall the martial artist to consciousness, they sent him to a nearby hospital in an ambulance.
By the time the ambulance arrived at the hospital, Lee was dead. Because Lee’s body showed no external signs of injury, an autopsy was performed, revealing that Bruce Lee’s death was the result of severe brain swelling: a buildup of fluid had resulted in a 13 percent increase in brain size.
Chow claimed that Bruce Lee’s death was the result of an allergic reaction to the painkiller he had been given, and the autopsy report seemed to partially substantiate his claim.
The coroner officially ruled Bruce Lee’s death the result of a second cerebral edema brought on by taking Equagesic. He called Lee’s end “death by misadventure,” which, unlike death by accident, implies that death occurred due to a dangerous, voluntary risk — though Equagesic was not generally considered dangerous to take.
Lee’s friend and fellow martial artist expert Chuck Norris claimed that there had been an interaction with muscle relaxants that Lee was taking, and that was how Bruce Lee died. Norris’s words sparked a debate about what else Lee was taking: perhaps stimulants to keep him in shape? herbal supplements to keep him healthy?
There was also a rumor that Bruce Lee’s death was caused by a prostitute with whom he had gotten violent. The rumor claimed that Lee was under the influence of a powerful aphrodisiac that caused him to lose control. The prostitute then killed him in self-defense.
Some fans of Lee’s who had heard that the fatal dose of Equagesic was administered by Betty Ting Pei claimed that she had poisoned him on purpose and that she had been working for a secret society that wanted Bruce Lee dead. No immediate answers as to why a secret society would want Bruce Lee dead presented themselves.
Other theories blame everyone from the Mafia (Italian, Chinese, and American) to his fans to even his family.
How did Bruce Lee die? In the end, the simplest explanation seems the most likely. But perhaps Lee, ebullient and dramatic, wouldn’t mind a little mystery around his last hours, a fitting end for the greatest martial artist the world has ever seen.
FAMOUS BRUCE LEE QUOTE – “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”