Bruce Jun Fan Lee was born in the hour of the Dragon, between 6 and 8 a.m., 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 gung 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 gung fu, keeping a notebook in which he had noted 108 different cha cha steps. In addition to his studies, gung 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 vistas 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 gung fu inspired a desire to delve into the philosophical underpinnings 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 gung 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 gung 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 gung fu lessons.
Bruce and Linda were married in 1964. By this time, Bruce had decided to make a career out of teaching gung 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 gung 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 gung 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 gung 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 gung 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. (See Filmography) 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. She brought great joy into the Lee household and soon had her daddy around her little finger. During this time Bruce continued the process he had started in Oakland in 1964, the evolution of his way of martial arts, which he called Jeet Kune Do, “The Way of The Intercepting Fist.”
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 gung 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. On July 20, 1973, Bruce had a minor headache. He was offered a prescription painkiller called Equagesic. After taking the pill, he went to lie down and lapsed into a coma. He was unable to be revived. Extensive forensic pathology was done to determine the cause of his death, which was not immediately apparent. A nine-day coroner’s inquest was held with testimony given by renowned pathologists flown in from around the world. The determination was that Bruce had a hypersensitive reaction to an ingredient in the pain medication that caused a swelling of the fluid on the brain, resulting in a coma and death.
The world lost a brilliant star and an evolved human being that day. His spirit remains an inspiration to untold numbers of people around the world.