It has been 49 years since the tragic death of Bruce Lee. Bruce was a star from the moment he was born and was very successful in his 32 years of life.
A Star was Born
Bruce was born on November 27th, 1940, in San Francisco. His parents were on tour with the Chinese Opera Company in the USA at the time of his birth. However, he was raised and grew up in Hong Kong. There, he starred in his first film at three months old in 1941. And later, he went on and appeared in 20 more films as a child actor in Hong Kong. At the age of 13, Bruce began studying Wing Chung from master Yip Man from 1954 to 1959. A surprising fact about Bruce is that he was a cha-cha dance champion and teacher.
Living in the USA
In 1959 Bruce made his way from Hong Kong to the USA. He was 18 years old with $100 in his pocket, living in San Francisco, CA. (At the time, $100 was equivalent to about $1,000 today.) Later, he moved to Seattle, WA. While in Seattle, Bruce attended Edison Technical school and studied philosophy at the University of Washington.
Some years later, in about 1963, Bruce opened his first martial arts school for Gung Fu. And in 1964, he opened a second school in Oakland, CA. Circumstance and destiny were with Bruce that same year when a Hollywood agent discovered him. He was demonstrating his one-inch punch at a karate championship in California where he amazed the crowd and martial artists. Also, this was the year that Bruce married Linda. In 1965, Brandon was born.
In 1966 Bruce Lee was given a role in the TV show series, The Green Hornet, as Kato. Bruce did not intend to be an actor, and his mission was to open many Gung Fu studios throughout the United States. And in 1967, he continued his mission by opening the third school in Los Angeles in the Chinatown area. But with much surprise and success, his small TV role opened bigger doors for him in Hollywood.
When the Green Hornet was canceled in 1967, Bruce began giving Jeet Kung Do lessons to Hollywood stars to supplement his income. One of his famous Hollywood star students included Steve McQueen.
Almost A Career-Ending Injury
In 1969 Bruce experienced happiness and pain. This was the year his daughter Shannon was born. And the year he injured his back. According to a story provided by Shannon, Bruce injured his back very seriously. He had been training for many years and got to a point where he stopped warming up. And while performing an exercise called the good morning lift, he had too much weight on the bar and injured his sacral nerve.
He was taken to the hospital and told he would never do martial arts nor walk normally again. With this news, Bruce was bedridden for months, and in turn, developed depression during that time.
To work through his depression and stay motivated and inspired, he read many books on mental and physical recovery, physiology, biomechanics, self-help, and philosophy. From all this studying and research, Bruce finally, believed he could develop his own recovery.
Understanding the road to recovery was going to be colossal, Bruce needed inspiration and motivation. So, on the back of one of his business cards, he wrote, walk on. Then, he created a little wooden stand and put it in sight where he would always see it. It was a way to remind him to just keep moving forward day to day to get better.
Back in Hong Kong
In 1971, Lee moved back to Hong Kong because it was difficult to find acting jobs. Moving back to Hong Kong was a massive payoff because he released and starred in three box office films that later were very successful in the United States. First was “The Big Boss” which grossed $50 million worldwide. And in 1972, “Fists of Fury” grossed $100 million, and “Way of the Dragon” grossed $130 million around the world. Because of the success of these films internationally it sparked interest in Hollywood.
Enter the Dragon
In 1972, Bruce started filming his next box office hit between August and October, "Game of Death." “Game of Death” is the movie where Bruce wore the infamous yellow jumpsuit. However, “Game of Death” was put on hold to film “Enter the Dragon”. “Enter the Dragon” was an essential film for Bruce because it would debut as the first production ever between Hong Kong and Hollywood.
His debut in America was essential. Acting was important for Bruce to show his technique and philosophies. Most importantly, it was a way to break the Chinese stereotypes that existed in America. In Bruce's time, American stereotypes labeled Asians in movies as slanty-eyed, buckteeth, and unintelligent servants. So, when Bruce accepted roles on TV or in movies, he always made sure the producers did not want him to portray those stereotypes in any way.
The primary importance Bruce wanted people to see and know was that he is a human being. Bruce said,“Because, I mean I don't want to be like as Confucius say, but under the sky, under the heavens, there is but one family. It just so happens, man, that people are different.”
In 1973, on July 20th, at the age of 32, Bruce Lee died before the release of “Enter the Dragon.” He died from cerebral edema caused by a hypersensitive reaction to the painkiller, Equagesic that he had taken for a headache. He fell asleep and never woke up.
Bruce Lee became the first leading Chinese actor to star in a major Hollywood production. “Enter the Dragon” was produced with a budget between $850,000-$1,000,000 and grossed an estimated $350-400 million dollars worldwide. But unfortunately, Bruce never got to see the positive impact “Enter the Dragon” had on the world.
Greatest of Greats
Bruce Lee used martial arts for people to find better versions of themselves. To find the better version of yourself, you must have faith and self-discovery, not fear. Bruce said, “Always be yourself, express yourself, and have faith in yourself.” And “To understand fear is the beginning of really seeing.” -Bruce Lee
Bruce saw beyond what makes martial arts work as he writes in Jeet Kung Do. Balance mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically brings about harmony. And harmony is where you excel and be and do your best.
“I’m not a master. I’m a student-master, meaning that I know a master and the expertise of a master, but I’m still learning. So, I’m a student-master. I don’t believe in the word ‘master.’ I consider the master as such when they close the casket.” -Bruce Lee
Rest in peace Master Lee. Your teachings and philosophy are still impacting and evolving around the world.
To read more about Bruce’s philosophy and some more personal stories, check out Shannon Lee’s book, “Be Water, My Friend.”