This piece was originally published in the November 1997 issue of Black Belt under the title “Meet the Man Who Helped Make Bruce Lee a Success: James Yimm Lee Was Bruce Lee’s Friend, Mentor and Training Partner.” Photos were provided at the time by several sources, one of which was Barry D. Hay. Strangely, no byline was printed in the issue at the time. Therefore, the editorial staff has deduced that Barry D. Hay, having provided several pictures of James Yimm Lee for the article, was likely also the author. BRUCE LEE is a registered trademark of Bruce Lee Enterprises LLC. The Bruce Lee name, image and likeness are intellectual property of Bruce Lee Enterprises LLC.
— Raymond Horwitz
Most famous individuals have an inner circle of friends and trusted advisers who are standing by in the shadows and are willing to provide counsel, direction and opinions, and to share their influence.
One of the reasons martial artist and actor Bruce Lee became as well-known and successful as he did is because he developed an inner circle of friends who provided him with counsel and direction, and helped him accomplish his goals.
One of the most influential members of this group was James Yimm Lee, who had a great impact on Bruce Lee’s personal and professional life.
James Yimm Lee was already an established and respected instructor of kung fu and iron palm in the Oakland, California, area when he met Bruce Lee, who is not related to him. Bruce Lee was a young college student at the time, and James Yimm Lee was very impressed with Bruce Lee’s kung fu skills and teaching methods.
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Although he was 20 years older than Bruce Lee, the open-minded James Yimm Lee decided to train with him and absorb what this talented young practitioner had to offer. Their liaison resulted in a lifelong friendship.
In addition to his expert kung fu skills, James Yimm Lee was also an accomplished weightlifter and helped get Bruce Lee started in a weight-training program, which subsequently resulted in his sculptured physique. James Yimm Lee worked as a welder in the local shipyards, and he used this skill in designing and constructing many unique training devices he and Bruce Lee used in their workouts.
James Yimm Lee had a close relationship with a number of noted martial artists in the area, including jujitsu master Wally Jay, Shaolin kempo instructor Ralph Castro and American kenpo founder Ed Parker. James Yimm Lee introduced Bruce Lee to these individuals, and it was through Ed Parker’s Hollywood connections that Bruce Lee received a screen test, which eventually got him the role of “Kato” in The Green Hornet televlsion series.
Photo courtesy of Greglon Lee
When Bruce Lee married Linda Emery in 1964, the couple moved in with James Yimm Lee and his family and lived at the Oakland residence for the next two to three years. Bruce Lee and James Yimm Lee soon opened a kung fu school, but eventually classes were relocated to James Yimm Lee’s garage. lt was during this period that the birth of Bruce Lee’s jeet kune do method of combat took place.
Gary Dill was one of James Yimm Lee’s top students, and he currently teaches jeet kune do in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Gary Dill founded the Jeet Kune Do Association for the purpose of presenting and promoting the pre-1973 brand of jeet kune do, as it was developed by Bruce Lee and taught by James Yimm Lee.
garage of his home in Oakland, California.
Photo courtesy of Gary Dill
As an avid martial artist, Gary Dill had become familiar with Bruce Lee through reading martial arts publications and watching The Green Hornet series. As he learned more about Bruce Lee’s combat method, Gary Dill’s interest in jeet kune do grew. “I knew that I had found the answer for me in the martial arts and that I had to eventually learn this new system of combat,” Gary Dill says.
Gary Dill realized, however, that his chances of learning jeet kune do were remote. He was doing a tour of military duty in Vietnam, and Bruce Lee was a television star in California.
As fate would have it, Gary Dill was transferred to Oakland after his stint in Vietnam, and he heard about the Oakland jeet kune do school the Lees were operating. Gary Dill was able to obtain James Yimm Lee’s mailing address, and he wrote the instructor a letter requesting a meeting for the purpose of training with him. A meeting time was arranged, and Gary Dill called on James Yimm Lee one Sunday afternoon. James Yimm Lee “interrogated” him for more than two hours, trying to get an idea of Gary Dill’s character and commitment to training.
After the “inquisition” was over, James Yimm Lee invited Gary Dill downstairs to his garage “studio.” This was the room where jeet kune do was born and developed. “I was in awe,” Gary Dill recalls.
On the wall adjacent to the garage door was an adjustable hanging bag, and custom, handmade training devices were positioned about the area — a hydraulic kicking machine, a one-armed training dummy, and much more. On the back wall was a traditional wing chun mook jong (wooden dummy). All the equipment appeared to be well-worn from extensive use. James Yimm Lee demonstrated how some of the equipment worked, and Gary Dill took that as a sign that James Yimm Lee was considering accepting him as a student.
a number of innovative training devices for his friend Bruce Lee.
Photos courtesy of Barry D. Hay
Later, back in the living room, James Yimm Lee told Gary Dill he would accept him as a student. Then he shook his forefinger at Gary Dill and said, “If you screw up one time, you’re out!” Gary Dill was on permanent probation.
“I didn’t care if he put me on double life probation,” Gary Dill recalls. “I was accepted, and I was going to learn jeet kune do.”
On his first day of training in James Yimm Lee’s garage, Gary Dill joined four other students who were all karate instructors from a nearby city. They had been training with James Yimm Lee for a month or so.
James Yimm Lee showed the five students several techniques, then sat back and watched the students’ moves like an eagle. Nothing escaped his expert eyes; he was a thorough and detailed instructor. Gary Dill had practiced martial arts for years, but he had never experienced any combat training as effective as jeet kune do.
James Yimm Lee taught Gary Dill more efficient ways to execute kicks, how to develop speed and power in his hand strikes, how to trap an opponent’s hands, and a number of striking combinations.
“Training a month with James Lee was like training a year in a traditional school, the instruction was so intense, so accelerated,” Gary Dill says. “Everything was geared for actual combat — no forms, no sport, no rituals.”
Photo courtesy of Barry D. Hay
But after one month of teaching Gary Dill, James Yimm Lee announced he was terminating all instruction because he was ill. The four karate instructors said goodbye to James Yimm Lee, who pulled Gary Dill aside and said he wanted to talk to him before he left.
James Yimm Lee waved to the four karate stylists as they were driving off, then said to Gary Dill, “Those sons of bitches! lf Bruce was here, he would kill ‘em,” explaining that he found out that the four were teaching jeet kune do in their karate school without permission and were telling their students that they were jeet kune do instructors.
James Yimm Lee proceeded to tell Gary Dill that he had been checking out all the students’ attitudes and sincerity over the past month and that Gary Dill was the only one of the five he wanted to keep as a student. Gary Dill continued to train with James Yimm Lee until he was discharged from the military some time later.
James Yimm Lee was a patient and cordial person, but he did not tolerate disloyalty or lack of dedication from his students. For example, before class one night, one of James Yimm Lee’s students was telling the others about how he had trained recently with some Chinese “master” at a city park. James Yimm Lee overheard the conversation but said nothing.
The student brought the subject of the “park master” up again during class, and James Yimm Lee asked him, “Have you ever seen this guy at the park do any techniques fast?” The student said, “No.” And James Yimm Lee calmly added, “Yeah, and you won’t either.”
Class continued on, and a few minutes later, the same student started bragging again about the so-called “master” in the park. A perturbed James Yimm Lee stopped the class and said, “I know that guy, and he is no master.”
When class was over, the bigmouth was at it again, bragging about the “master.” James Yimm Lee walked right up to his face and said, “You think that guy at the park is so good, you can train with him from now on because you will never train here again with me.”
Nobody wore any kind of formal uniforms to James Yimm Lee’s jeet kune do classes. In fact, James Yimm Lee usually wore a white dress shirt, pleated slacks and wingtip shoes while teaching.
in Oakland, California.
Photo courtesy of Barry D. Hay
Some students wore T-shirts, sweatpants and casual shoes. Others wore jeans, flannel shins and boots. There was no dress code. James Yimm Lee told the students that it is not what they wore but how well they performed their jeet kune do techniques that mattered.
James Yimm Lee died in December 1972 from lung cancer caused by welding fumes. While he was alive, he played an integral role in Bruce Lee’s life, as well as in the early development and teaching of Bruce’s jeet kune do. He became one of Bruce Lee’s closest friends, his mentor and his training partner.
And he was one of only three students Bruce Lee certified as instructors in his system. It is a legacy he would be proud of.
For more information about the life, teachings and legacy of Bruce Lee, visit the official Bruce Lee website at brucelee.com.