The Bruce Lee Letters

young Bruce Lee Bruce in a scene from one of his childhood films in Hong Kong.

THE BRUCE LEE LETTERS
By Linda Lee

The Fighter is proud to introduce a new column on Bruce Lee by the late screen idol’s wife, Linda, the First Lady of the Martial Arts. Since Bruce’s untimely death in 1973, Mrs. Lee has received thousands of fan letters requesting information about her husband. The sheer volume of this fan mail would have required a staff to answer it all and made personal replies impossible. In each issue, Mrs. Lee will select and address one or more of the most common questions from the fan mail about Bruce. She has also requested that her fees for this column be donated to the World Martial Arts Congress for Education headquartered in Washington, D.C., an organization of which she is a board member. In this column, Linda answers questions about Bruce’s life from his birth in 1940 to his first break in showbusiness in 1964.

In the premier issue of The Fighter, I wrote about the end of Bruce’s life. It has been over thirteen years since Bruce died, and I find that he has many new admirers as well as fans who were quite young or not even born at the time of his death. I receive many letters from people who are curious about Bruce’s roots — where was he born, where did he grow up, how did he get interested in the martial arts, and later, show business? So let me thumb through my scrap-book of memories of times and experiences now long past. I’ll start at the beginning and give you a brief bio-graphical sketch of Bruce’s life. By a quirk of fate, Bruce was born in San Francisco, a factor that would become significant later on. His father, Lee Hoi Chuen, was an actor in the Chinese opera, and, accompanied by Bruce’s mother, was touring in the United States at the time of Bruce’s birth (November 27,1940). His parents named him Lee Jun Fan. The English name “Bruce” was bestowed upon him by a nurse in the Jackson Street hospital, although he was not to answer to that name until many years later. Bruce actually had several other Chinese names, including Lee Yuen Gam, his school name, and Lee Siu Lung (Lee Little Dragon), his stage name. At three months of age Bruce returned to Hong Kong where he would spend the next 18 years of his life. Even as a small child Bruce dis-played a charismatic, outgoing personality. Because his father acted in Cantonese films, Bruce became an actor at a young age, appearing in as many as 20 films as a child. This might lead you to believe that Bruce’s success in films later in life can be traced to his childhood acting career. But making movies in Hong Kong in the 1940’s and 1950’s was neither a glamorous nor well-paying profession, and by the time Bruce came to America he had entirely different plans for his future. Bruce attended Chinese schools until the age of 12 when he began to learn English. The Cantonese language would always remain his primary tongue (he often told me he dreamed in Chinese), and he was extremely gifted in both spoken and written Chinese. Chinese is a very expressive language and in its written form often creates words and phrases from the combination of simpler concepts. I believe that being rooted in a language that by its very expression becomes a philosophy, enriched Bruce’s way of thinking. When Bruce was enrolled in English speaking school, he was unaware that his name was “Bruce” and, on the first day, when the students were asked to write their names, he copied the name of the person sitting next to him. After that slow beginning, Bruce attacked his English studies with the same zest he applied to anything he wanted to know. I still have in my possession many books that Bruce studied — underlined, marked up, pages tweaked — books on English grammar, idioms, common usage. He wanted to be able to speak the vernacular rather than stilted text-book English. His intuitive sense about communication told him he’d be far more effective if he knew how to say, for instance, “What’s up?” rather than “How do you do?” depending on the circumstances.

Bruce Lee
Bruce in 1963 when Linde first met hies at Garfield High School.

When I first met Bruce in 1963 his use of the English language was better than mine, and he often helped me write papers for my classes in college. As a preadolescent in Hong Kong, school was not exactly Bruce’s favorite subject, perhaps because of the distraction of the adult world of films combined with a seemingly inborn disinclination to conform. At any rate, at the age of 13 martial arts entered Bruce’s life and became his life long passion. Bruce was truly fortunate in having that passion because even though his life was not that long, he did live it passionately which I’m sure is quite obvious on the screen. Bruce began the study of martial arts because he wanted to learn how to fight, not terribly unusual for a 13-year-old especially on the streets of Hong Kong. He studied the Wing Chun system of gung-fu under the tutelage of Master Yip Man. All of you who are martial artists know that the desire to fight will develop through training into a sense of self-assuredness that evolves into the non-necessity to fight for reasons of ego. And so it was with Bruce, who soon found that gung-fu was becoming for him a way of life and not just a way to fight. This process, however, took its toll on Bruce’s schoolwork. Many foreign-born students are able to come to the United States to attend college on the basis of their academic achievements, but because Bruce did not focus on academics he could not come to America on that basis. Having been born in California, however, Bruce, at the age of 18, had to make a choice of citizenship. In 1959, with his parents blessings, he boarded an American President Lines steamship with one hundred dollars in his pocket and headed for America. The sight of the Golden Gate Bridge must have been as stirring for Bruce as the sight of the Statue of Liberty was to European immigrants, for he knew he had to make his future in the United States. Hong Kong had very little to offer him at that point. Upon landing in San Francisco, and having been cha-cha champion of Hong Kong the previous year, Bruce got a job teaching dancing. After a short time, he traveled to Seattle where he worked in a Chinese restaurant and lived above it. He took numerous small jobs and enrolled at Edison Technical School to complete his requirements for a high school diploma. At the same time, he had begun to gather around him a group of friends who were interested in his martial arts. The group worked out in city parks, homes, parking lots, wherever it was convenient. This was the beginning of a dream. In 1960 Bruce enrolled at the University of Washington, majoring in philosophy, and became an excellent student. Many of his professors still have memories of Bruce’s impact on their classes. It was in 1963 that I met Bruce. I was a senior at Garfield High School in Seattle. Bruce frequently came to my high school to give guest lectures in the philosophy class. Although I was not in that particular class, it was always an event when “Bruce Lee” came to school. Something about his style and charm would set all of us girls staring and giggling. Never would I have imagined that the following year !would be married to him. By this time Bruce was earning his living solely as a gung-fu instructor, having developed a steady following. A Chinese girlfriend of mine, Sue Ann Kay, was one of his students, and she convinced me to enroll in the class. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I became entranced more by the instructor than the exercise. Those were some of the greatest days of our lives. Bruce and I attended the University of Washington where we studied together, practiced gung-fu on the campus lawns, had lots of fun, and not a care in the world. At the end of my freshman year, Bruce was preparing to move to Oakland, California to join in a partnership with James Y. Lee, a wellknown gung-fu practitioner, and open a studio. This was Bruce’s dream at that time — to open a kwoon in California and then branch out and have many studios nationwide. To me Bruce proposed a union for eternity — I was either staying in Seattle or I was going with Bruce. Kids weren’t quite so sophisticated or worldly in those days in Seattle, and this was a big decision for a 19-year-old girl who had never been far from home or family. The added dimension of an interracial marriage was not exactly thrilling to my family, but despite the trepidations I decided to go with Bruce — one of the better decisions I’ve ever made. It didn’t take long for Bruce to win the hearts of my family, too. So here we were in Oakland and Bruce’s dream was becoming a reality. But, as he used to say, one must be flexible like the willow tree, not stiff like the oak, in order to bend with the storms of life. Presently his dreams, his goals were to bend with the storms of life. Presently his dreams, his goals were to change. “To change with change is the changeless state,” my philosopher-husband often said. In August of 1964, Bruce was invited to give a demonstration at Ed Parker’s first International Karate Championships in Long Beach, California. Bruce always gave spectacular demonstrations and this one was no less impressive. Unbeknownst to Bruce, one member of the audience was spellbound by Bruce’s personality and flare, as well as by his martial art. This was Jay Sebring, wellknown hair designer of the stars (later murdered along with Sharon Tate in the Charles Manson killings). Soon after seeing Bruce’s demonstration, Jay happened to be cutting the hair of producer William Dozier, who mentioned that he was looking for a Chinese actor to play the lead role in a proposed television pilot, Number One Son. Jay, knowing nothing at all about Bruce except what he had seen, told Dozier about this young Chinese man who had so much style and panache. Within a few days I received a call in Oakland from a Mr. William Dozier of 20th Century Fox. Bruce was not home at the time, but when he returned I asked him why a movie studio in Holly-wood was calling him. He didn’t have the foggiest idea, but he did return the call. Dozier related the sequence of events and invited Bruce to come to Los Angeles for a screen test. We were about to embark on a new adventure, one that would be exciting but frustrating, rewarding but often disappointing. It would be a long road with many turns from that meeting in William Dozier’s office to Enter The Dragon. In the next issue of The Fighter, I’ll continue the saga — the years from 1964-1973.

 


Fighter magazine
This article appeared inside Fighter International magazine’s April issue 1989.