November 27, 1940 – July 20, 1973
by Chris with photographs by Richard de Silva
“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.”
Bruce Lee was born on November 27, 1940 (the Year of the Dragon) at the Jackson Street Hospital in San Francisco’s Chinatown. His father, Li Hoi Cheun, was a comic actor with Hong Kong’s Cantonese Opera. His mother, Grace, was the daughter of a German father and a Chinese mother. Grace’s first child, a boy, was stillborn – the Li’s attributed this to the unkind workings of spirits. In an effort to confuse these unfriendly spirits, Bruce was originally given a girl’s name, Sai Fon, and later renamed Jun Fan. Bruce was actually a nickname given by Grace’s supervising physician. The nickname stuck and Li was later anglicized to Lee.
At the age of 3 months, Bruce Lee made his screen debut in the film Golden Gate Girl. The infant played the role of a female baby carried by her father. In early 1941, the Lees returned to Hong Kong and settled in a second-story apartment in the Kowloon district. Bruce Lee’s first real acting role came at the age of 6 in the film The Birth of Mankind. In his next movie, My Son, Ah Cheun (also at age 6) Bruce would be billed in the credits as Lee Siu Lung or “Lee Little Dragon”, the nickname “Little Dragon” given to Bruce by his sister, Agnes. The young Bruce Lee had another name bestowed upon him by his family – Mo Si Tung or “Never Sits Still”. By all accounts he would have been a perfect candidate for Ritalin. Constantly in motion, Bruce would only be still when absorbed in a book. At La Salle College, a Christian secondary school, Bruce’s hyperactivity and class disturbances frequently landed him in trouble. Also a cause of trouble was Bruce’s involvement in street fights. The police got to know the name Bruce Lee and were frequent visitors at his home.
The impetus for Bruce seeking formal martial arts training came on the heels of a gang fight that left Bruce on the losing end. Desperate to learn an effective martial art, Bruce, through his friend (and future Grandmaster) William Cheung, was introduced to Grandmaster Yip Man. Under the tutelage of Yip Man, Bruce Lee, now 13, began to sow the seeds of his martial arts greatness. Bruce’s fighting and poor grades led to his eventual expulsion from La Salle College. It should be noted that Bruce Lee did not lack the intellectual capability to succeed at La Salle (quite the opposite – by all accounts he was very bright). Bruce was a perfectionist and he focused all his time and effort on those activities that interested him. Little attention was paid to formal education and the majority of his efforts were concentrated on Kung Fu, dancing, and girls.
Bruce was enrolled at St. Francis Xavier College, where he was coaxed into entering the 1958 Boxing Championships, a competition held amongst 12 Hong Kong schools. He knocked out three of his opponents in the first round en route to the final match against Gary Elms, an English boy from the rival King George V School. Elms had been the reigning title holder for the previous three years. Bruce used quickness and martial arts defense to earn a third round knockout. 1958 Boxing Champion was not the only title Bruce held that year. An accomplished dancer, he also won the Crown Colony Cha-Cha Championship.
A fighter at heart, Bruce Lee continued to get involved in street brawls. Grace Lee, realizing the direction her son was heading, suggested that Bruce exercise his right to American citizenship. Bruce relented and in April 1959, the young man whose birth name Jun Fan means “Return Again” was on his way back to San Francisco. After a three-week voyage across the Pacific, Bruce arrived. His stay there was brief. The Chow family, friends of the Lees and residents of Seattle, offered to take Bruce in. Bruce moved up to Seattle and worked as a waiter at the Chinese restaurant owned by the Chow’s. He was given lodging in a tiny bedroom above the restaurant. Bruce worked at night and spent his days attending classes at Edison Technical School (nowSeattle Central Community College). Eventually Bruce gained his high school diploma and, in 1961, enrolled at the University of Washington as a philosophy major.
While attending UW, Bruce Lee taught kung fu to fellow students, many of whom were not Chinese. This was considered taboo from the standpoint of Chinese traditionalists and it would earn Bruce his share of enemies throughout his life. In 1963 Bruce was called upon to take a physical exam for the U.S. draft board, a precursor to possible military service in Vietnam. Bruce Lee, a man whose chiseled physique is the envy of fitness gurus worldwide, was considered physically unacceptable for the U.S. Army due to an undescended testicle.
1963 was an important year for Bruce Lee. It was the year he began dating Linda Emery, a UW student who would in time become his wife. It was also the year in which he opened his first martial arts school. Named the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, he charged his students about $4.00 a week for instruction. Bruce was adept at drawing new students to his school through impressive demonstrations of his martial arts skills. It was in one particular demonstration at Seattle’s Garfield High School that Bruce displayed his now-famous “one-inch” punch. Singling out one of the larger teens in the audience, Bruce had his guinea pig stand normally and proceeded to place a chair about five feet behind him. Bruce then placed his fist on the kid’s chest. In what seemed like little more than a shrug of the shoulder, the kid was sent sprawling backwards, knocking over the chair behind him.
In June 1964, Bruce moved down to Oakland, CA, to open a second Jun Fan school with his friend James Lee. While down in Oakland, Bruce gave a martial arts demonstration to the audience at the International Karate Tournament, an event held at the Long Beach Sports Arena. Included in the demonstration were his “one-inch” punch and push-ups performed on two fingers. Jay Sebring, the owner of a Beverly Hills hair salon (and future Manson gang victim), saw the demonstration and was impressed with Bruce Lee’s abilities. Sebring gave a demo tape of Bruce’s demonstration to one of his client’s, TV producer William Dozier, who was working on a Charlie Chan series titled Number-One Son. Dozier would eventually give Bruce a screen test for the role of Charlie Chan’s son.
In the meantime, Bruce returned to Seattle and married Linda Emery and on February 1, 1965, Linda gave birth to Brandon Bruce Lee at the East Oakland Hospital. Three days later, Bruce arrived at the studios of 20th Century Fox for his screen test. While his speed and charisma were enough to impress, the Charlie Chan series was scrapped. However, William Dozier had another idea. He told Bruce that if his new Batman series generated a favorable audience, he would follow it up with another series titled The Green Hornet (here is an AWESOME Green Hornet website). Bruce was signed to a one-year option and given an $1800 retainer. Batman was a success and The Green Hornet was a go. Bruce was cast as Kato, the sidekick to the Green Hornet, played by Van Williams. Bruce’s character became a fan favorite for his impressive fighting scenes, which were choreographed by Bruce himself. During filming, Bruce actually had to slow down his moves or they would appear as a blur to the TV audience. For his efforts on the show, Bruce was paid $400 per episode. He would also receive upwards of $1000 for making appearances at fairs, martial arts tournaments, etc.
The Green Hornet was not well received however and it was cancelled after only 26 episodes. Bruce was given small roles in a variety of productions (including parts in Ironside and Blondie). His income was supplemented by the opening of his third school in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles. Bruce also charged celebrities such as Steve McQueen, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski,’
and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar upwards of $250/hr for private martial arts instruction. Bruce refused to portray characters that contributed to stereotypes towards the Chinese.
The Lees bought a home in Bel Air, and in April of 1969, Linda gave birth to a daughter they named Shannon.
No doubt they were sent many congratulatory notes, which most likely arrived in this mailbox.
One morning in 1970, Bruce was felled by severe lower back pain during his morning workout. An examination revealed a damaged sacral nerve. Treatment meant complete bed rest. It was during his bed-ridden recovery that Bruce began to document his philosophies on life and training. These notes would eventually be published posthumously in the 1975 book, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do.
In 1971, Bruce left for Hong Kong with the intention of arranging US residency for his mother. He had no idea that The Green Hornet, cancelled 4 years earlier prior, was immensely popular in Hong Kong. Bruce’s superstar status in HK brought an intriguing movie offer from Raymond Chow, owner of Golden Harvest Studios. Chow was a former executive at Shaw Brothers before his bitter departure (if you’re a fan of kung fu movies and never heard of Shaw Brothers Studio, you deserve a beating). Chow made Bruce a two-picture deal worth $15K, which Bruce promptly accepted. The production of The Big Boss (US title: Fists of Fury) began in the summer of 1971. Three weeks after its release in October 1971, the film had grossed over $3 million (HK) and set box office records throughout Asia.
Around the same time The Big Boss was setting records, Bruce received word about an idea he created for a TV series. Titled The Warrior, the series was to follow the exploits of a roaming Shaolin master who uses his training to fight injustice in the Old West. Bruce was informed that he had been dropped as the main character in the series, which was renamed Kung Fu. The lead of Kwai Chang Caine was given to David Carradine, whose actual fighting ability and knowledge of kung fu were vastly inferior to that of Bruce Lee’s.
Fist of Fury (better known in the U.S. as The Chinese Connection) was the second movie made under the two-picture deal. Bruce plays the role of a martial arts student who goes on a rampage after his master is killed by the Japanese. Fury elevated Bruce, already a superstar, to the status of national hero. It also broke many of the box office records set by The Big Boss. Fulfilling his two-picture deal, Bruce was now free to explore other options. After being hounded by offers from Shaw Brothers head Run Run Shaw, Bruce decided instead on becoming partners with Raymond Chow. The two formed Concord Productions and in May 1972, began shooting The Way of the Dragon. The film was the first Hong Kong-based production shot in Europe and it marked Bruce Lee’s directorial debut. Dragon was highly successful at the box office, raking in $5.5 million in its first three weeks of release.
Find a Death pal Richard interjects: ” I went with a friend to Hong Kong, and did some sight-seeing that they don’t provide on the tourist maps and on one humid day, we went for a walk to find Bruce Lee’s places. The first that we came to was Cumberland Road, Kowloon.”
This was the house he bought for $100,000 in 1972 just when he was becoming a star (thus, an eight-year-old Brandon Lee lived here briefly).
After Bruce died the following year, Linda Lee left it and took the kids back to Seattle. Now it has become a – ahem…”Romance Hotel” where couples just check in for one reason and then check out again. There was hardly anyone around, but we didn’t venture inside because that would have looked odd. Alas, no mailbox either.
In early 1973, filming began for Bruce Lee’s next film, Enter the Dragon. When shooting was complete, the dubbing process began (due to the high volume of street noise in Hong Kong, outdoor dialogue in the movie had to be dubbed subsequent to the on-screen action). On May 10, 1973, Bruce was engaged in one such dubbing session at Golden Harvest. The air-conditioning had been turned off so as to cut down on noise contamination. This caused the temperature to soar in the tiny dubbing room. Bruce, feeling faint, needed a break and stepped out to the lavatory to throw some water on his face. Once in the lavatory, Bruce passed out. After twenty minutes, a studio assistant found Bruce and helped him to his feet. While being helped back to the dubbing room, Bruce collapsed again and was rushed to a nearby hospital. Doctors found him unresponsive and running a fever of 105°. It was discovered that Bruce had a swelling of fluid that was causing pressure on the brain. He was given Manitol and he eventually regained consciousness.
Upon recovery, Bruce and his wife flew back to Los Angeles. Bruce was given a battery of tests at the University of California Medical Center and emerged with a clean bill of health. Doctors agreed that Bruce had suffered cerebral edema and they gave him a prescription for Dilantin, a drug given to epileptics.
Bruce returned to Hong Kong and on July 20, 1973, he and Raymond Chow stopped by the apartment of actress Betty Ting-Pei. Betty was to have a leading role in their next film, Game of Death. After exchanging ideas, Raymond Chow left the apartment. A short time later, Bruce complained of a headache. Betty gave him a tablet of Equagesic (a pain reliever) and around 7:30 PM, Bruce laid down for a nap. Around 9 PM, Raymond Chow, who was waiting for Bruce and Betty to show for dinner, received a phone call. Betty informed Chow that she could not wake Bruce. Chow left for Betty’s apartment and, upon arrival, found Bruce to be unresponsive. A doctor was summoned and Bruce was taken to Queen Elizabeth Hospital. All attempts to revive him were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead at the age of 32. The official cause of death was acute cerebral edema (swelling of the brain) brought about by a hypersensitivity to aspirin. Bruce’s brain was found to have swollen from a normal 1,400 grams to a lethal 1,575 grams.
UPDATED SEPTEMBER 2006: This is Bruce (WARNING: dead pic), in the morgue, and thank you to Find a Death friend Miguel Lopez for sending that extremely rare photograph, and sharing it with us.
Richard interjects: We traveled further out to the suburbs to a place called Beacon Hill, where he died. It was actually quite odd. When we were walking up this hilly neighborhood, we couldn’t find any numbers marking the buildings and we started to wonder if we had any hope of finding the place. As luck would have it, this particular block of flats seemed to be the only building that was marked with a plaque. I guess people in the area got tired of vagabonds like us asking where to find it. There were two security guards at the gate (again, quite unique). They eyed us over and we felt it best that we take our pictures from across the street. At the time, I didn’t know which flat he died in, so I snapped the whole thing.
More recently, I’ve discovered that it was the second floor apartment (you can just see it at the bottom of one of the photos).
After a symbolic funeral in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee’s body was brought back to United States for a funeral and burial at the Lake View Cemetery in Seattle.
James Coburn and Steve McQueen were among the pallbearers. Here is an image of (again..WARNING – dead pics) Bruce in his casket, and a clearer shot here. He is buried wearing the traditional Chinese outfit he wore in Enter the Dragon.
Find a Death pal Rob Hager sent us these images of Bruce’s grave.
Conspiracy theories abound when an icon dies at such a young age. Bruce Lee’s exceptional level of training and fitness led some to insist that foul play must have been a factor in his death. While these theories sell books and add an air of mystique to Bruce Lee’s legend, the facts (and rational thought) simply don’t support such notions. Regardless, here are two alternative scenarios suggested in the death of Bruce Lee:
Bruce Lee was killed by a “death touch”: Quite simply, this scenario suggests that Bruce Lee was felled by a single fatal martial arts blow. It was punishment for Bruce teaching Eastern martial arts secrets to Westerners. The “death touch” refers to Dim Mak, an ancient Chinese martial art that stresses the ability to strike certain pressure points and thus cause incapacitation or death.
Bruce Lee was killed by Triads: This theory has its variations but one in particular claims that Bruce Lee was poisoned for refusing to go along with the business ventures of Triad members. Proponents claim that the Triads have always been major players in the Hong Kong movie market and anyone refusing to go along with their financial schemes was simply eliminated.
I was in the Peterson Museum recently, and snapped these not very good pictures of the Black Beauty from The Green Hornet.
Read about Brandon Lee here.
Update Feb 2015: Death Hag Shelly Lichoff rockin the Death Hag sticker at the Lee’s graves.