Updated: Oct 30
“You have a Jew and an Arab that hate each other because of 2000 years of history, lock them in a room together and put on a Bruce Lee movie,” my martial brother, honorable friend and a champion Bruce Lee historian, David Tadman, once told me, “Then they will have something in common because they are both going to like Bruce Lee. That's what Bruce Lee is, even in death, he's communicating, bringing people together.”
The irony about Lee is that his career and stardom in the West came together at the wrong place at the wrong time. America, 1972, the country was in the midst of the Vietnam war, anti-Asian sentiment had not been this high since World War II and each week, racial tension was finding a new way to twist the psyche of a country floundering in gas lines and cold war.
Traditionally, whenever the U.S. was at war, Hollywood always created characters and storylines based on the heroic efforts of the American soldier, trying to use films to boost the country’s morale and confidence that the troops were righteously defending the realm against the evils of the world. Yet during the Vietnam War, America was in no mood for war heroes.
Furthermore, when you look at the five top grossing films in descending order of 1972, The Godfather, The Poseidon Adventure, What’s Up Doc, Deliverance and Deep Throat, and the brunt of the Academy Awards going to The Godfatherand Cabaret, it was evident that the definition of the American cinematic champion of justice was undergoing a huge transition away from the “riding off into the sunset” glory. Additionally, keep in mind that back in those days, to most Americans, someone who used their feet during a fight was considered a sissy.
For all intents and purposes, it was not only the wrong time for any Asian actor to make a mark in Hollywood, but it was also the wrong time for the hero to win a fight by kicking. Yet Bruce Lee came along, and with his dynamic facial contortions, rapid-fire punches, greased lightening kicks and high-pitched phoenix screeches, he single-handedly gave Chinese martial arts cinema legitimacy and the Chinese people an identity.
Lee has done more for spreading the word of martial arts throughout the world than anyone else in history. He was the first martial artist to mainstream the concept of cross training and linking the best attributes of many martial arts into one. In one final inadvertent swoop, with his second film Fist of Fury (1972), Lee created one of the biggest fibs in cinema history.
Many aspects of Lee’s martial arts training, his time in America, and film career have been fairly well documented and redundantly repeated: practicing wing chun during his teens, which led to the development of his own martial art jeet kune do; studying philosophy at the University of Washington and subsequent marriage to Linda; and his role as Kato in the Green Hornet TV series; and the springboard to five of the most spell-binding martial arts films ever made.
Since his death in 1973, books, documentaries and magazines have used countless adjectives to describe his on-screen presence and martial abilities. Labels such as icon, legend and myth have been overused, and folks who even remotely knew Lee have created novel ways to cash in on his posthumous fame. Yet not until Mark Pollard’s Bruce Lee: A Life(2018), so little had been written about Lee’s foundation as a boy, teen, and the young man who fled to America to avoid gang trouble, the law and fulfill his obligation as an American citizen to serve his country via Army ROTC in college.
To understand where Lee really came from, one must look to the deep past, his family history. The following treatise is based on uncompromising interviews I had with Bruce’s youngest brother Robert, older sister Phoebe and Tadman in 2005, a treatise that never been published before. Since this writing uses many Lee names, I will refer to each Lee by their first name.
COLONIALISM AND IMPERIALISM
1917, the eve of World War I, Japan had gained firm footholds in Manchuria and Shantung, but in deep South China, in the small rural village of Shen De, the only thing on teenager Moon Chuen’s mind was the mere pittance he could earn catching fish by hand and carrying them by foot for two hours to various village restaurants to feed his mother and siblings. These were the fishing techniques taught to Moon by Lee Jun, his deaf and unable to speak father who was the last of 13 children born during the Ching dynasty.
Moon’s grandfather was a high-level government official during the turbulent times of the Dowager Empress Tzu-hsi, an empress known for her cold-blooded cruelty who secretly condoned the British sale of opium in China knowing it would quell the Chinese spirit. The Manchus were foreigners and did not want to relinquish their control over the Chinese people. Fortunately, many Chinese patriots refused to bow to the puppet-controlling power of opium.
Born in 1901, Moon was one of eight children: Two of whom died at an early age; a sister who became one of Hong Kong’s top Madams; a brother who died of a heart attack at 16; another sister that was sold as a child into China’s pi-paworld (similar to the Japanese geisha, pi-pa girls were trained to sing, dance and play musical instruments to be hired by wealthy men to entertain at elaborate Chinese banquets); and a younger sister who during two marriages gave birth to five children, all of which died during infancy.
Thin, taut, dressed in tattered clothes, yet full of spirit and a booming voice, Moon was offered a job at one of the restaurants he sold fish to. He was hired to be a "check caller," where he would yell out a customer's tab to the cashier. Moon, who loved opera, would instead flamboyantly sing out the receipts with his powerful voice. During a fateful meal, a famous opera star eating in the restaurant heard Moon’s voice and offered to take Moon on as his protege. Moon reverently accepted and signed a contract with his now mentor, a contract that had Moon living at his teacher's home for three years with the agreement that he would do what he was told in return for learning everything about the trade the maestro could share.
When a lead singer stormed off the stage prior to an important performance, Moon was ordered to fill in for the temperamental performer’s warrior role and became an overnight sensation. Moon moved to Hong Kong and became one of the premiere opera singers of his time. Due to his impressive talents, Moon’s mentor renamed him Lee Hoi Chuen (“Hoi” means “sea” and “Chuen” means “stream”) a name that reflected his past and present direction in life.
With the help of financing from the Chinese-Dutch Sir Robert Ho Tung (the first knight of Hong Kong), Dr. Sun Yet-sen’s revolution against the Manchus finally succeeded when Dr. Sun established the Republic of China in 1911. That same year, Sir Robert’s brother Ho Kum Ton’s (a Shanghai nightclub entrepreneur) third of thirteen wives, the German Irish Cheung King, gave birth to the youngest of four children, Grace Ho.
Although Grace was born into a well-to-do family and lived a lavish lifestyle, there was a price. Grace had to live in seclusion and could not publicly be associated with her wealthy standing or her father’s family because her mother was German Irish. Yet her Eurasian looks made Grace a stunning beauty, a prize for anyone within the high-society bachelors of China. During her teens, Grace moved to Hong Kong and lived under the wary eye of Sir Robert, who was an opera buff.
One night, Grace accompanied Sir Robert to an opera where she became enamored with one of the troupe’s young singers, Moon. Back then, being a film actor or an opera performer was one of the lowest occupations around and for a high-class debutante like Grace to be seen with a low-class opera singer like Moon would be social suicide for Grace and bring shame to her family.
What followed was a surreptitious romance cloaked in secret rendezvous, family turmoil and a love that sparked the fury of the Hong Kong upper echelon and struck a blow to the unwritten dementia of racism in 1930s China. If this was not socially challenging enough, in 1935, while Mao was in the midst of his long March in China and two years before the Japanese rape of Nanjing, Moon and Grace got married. Grace was stripped of her social status and disowned by her family. Even to the day she died, Grace never regretted her decision.
In 1936, Hoi Chuen and Grace’s first of nine children, Lee Hon Chong, was born, a celebration of life, the continuance of the family line until his inexplicable death six months later. To help the distraught Grace overcome the loss, the family arranged for Grace and Hoi Chuen to adopt a baby girl, Phoebe. For years, Phoebe was the brunt of Hoi Chuen's older sister Hop Ngan's hatred as she despised little Phoebe because she was adopted and, in her opinion, not a real Lee.
Because Hop Ngan planted tears in Phoebe’s eyes and doubt about her own existence, Phoebe tried extra hard to win the love of Grace and Hoi Chuen, something that is usually not openly shown in Chinese families. Yet it was not necessary for Phoebe to do this because in the eyes of Grace and Hoi Chuen, she was part of the family. To this day, Phoebe remains the most loyal daughter and now stands as the matriarchal figure of the Lee family.
When I first met Phoebe in 2005, the first thing she asked me in Mandarin Chinese was, “Do I look like Bruce?” I answered, “Bruce has your eyes.” She simply smiled. As it turned out, Phoebe, who was left to the Lee family by a lady of the night who worked at Hoi Chuen's sister's brothel, was in fact the illegitimate child of an illicit affair Hoi Chuen had with a Shanghainese lady who died during childbirth. Therefore, Phoebe is indeed a true member of the Lee family.
These are the real humble historical beginnings of Bruce Lee.