It was the San Francisco Chinese Hospital where Lee was born that gave him the English name that he would become known by. Named Lee Zhen Fan by his parents, the iconic Chinese American actor who helped to bring martial arts to the Western world was nicknamed Bruce by one of the staff. Although it is unclear now who this person was, his parents accepted the name and it began to be used when he entered high school and began studying the English language.
Bruce Lee was the fourth of five children born to parents Lee Hoi-Chuen and Grace Ho. His parents were in the USA touring, as his father was a Chinese opera and film actor. When he was just three months old the tensions between Hong Kong and Japan were building and his family were becoming increasingly homesick, so his father made the decision to relocate the family back to Hong Kong. The difficult and long voyage has been implicated in the fact that Bruce Lee was a sickly child, until he took to martial arts.
The choice to return home was unfortunate as the Second World War was soon to begin and the family would be caught up in the occupation of Hong Kong by Japan, making a strong impression on the young Lee. This was especially so since the family lived opposite the Japanese military camp, and yet his family thrived during the occupation, and afterwards his father's fame continued to grow.
Education was unfortunately not Lee's strong point, and unlike his siblings and others around him who sought to travel abroad to further their studies on educational scholarships, it appeared that this would not be available to him. However he did have achievements of his own during school.
His physical training for the Wing Chun discipline helped him to improve his physique, and he turned his hand to boxing, winning an inter-school championship. But what may come a surprise to some was that he also studied dancing. In fact, Bruce Lee in 1958 won the Hong Kong Cha Cha championship, and it was his dancing at various times in his life that helped to support him or to make his lot in life better.
His early time in America after his birth was brief and yet for Bruce Lee it was sufficient to influence the rest of his life, as his birth being on American soil granted him American citizenship. Thus when Bruce found himself in trouble with the law for street fighting and worse-that the person that he fought may have ambitions on taking his life, his parents made the decision to send him to America where his older sister Agnes was living.
He was eighteen and a half when he moved to the USA and went on to complete his high school education in America before applying to the University of Washington where he majored in philosophy. Whilst completing his education he supported himself by working in a restaurant, and ultimately by teaching his own schools of gung fu (as Bruce himself pronounced it).
Whilst attending the University of Washington he met Linda Emery, then a student of his. In August 1964 they married, and on February 1st, 1965 they welcomed Brandon, their first child into the world. He was followed by sister Shannon on April 19th, 1969. Both children would follow their father into acting.
Lee trained in the Wing Chun discipline to begin with, but over time developed his own styles and philosophy. Ultimately it led to the development of Jeet Kune Do (in English The Way of the Intercepting Fist), because Lee felt that the more formalized and traditional forms of the martial art were not suited to street fighting. He wanted something that was more adaptive, and that ultimately was faster, and not restricted to particular routines. He called it the 'style of no style' and aimed for it to have 'practicality, flexibility, speed, and efficiency'.
Only four instructors qualified directly under him, with the vast majority having qualified under Dan Inosanto. The schools were eventually closed as Lee felt that the emphasis should be on quality and not quantity, and thus teaching continued in small groups only.
It is unfortunate that the first film that Bruce Lee ever appeared in has been lost. Still an infant of just a few months old, Lee took an unaccredited role in a film called 'Golden Gate Girl' whilst still in San Francisco. His next role would be just five years later, in 'The Birth of Mankind', filmed in Cantonese in Hong Kong.
August 13th, 1970 saw Lee sustain an injury that would leave him dealing with pain for the rest of his life. He performed an exercise called 'good mornings' where one bows from the waist with a weight across one's shoulders. He had failed to warm up, and experienced pain. The pain built over the following days and he sought medical advice-and after much investigation he was ordered to bed by doctors, with the prognosis being that he would be unable to ever perform martial arts again.
Several months in hospital followed, as well a further period through which he was unable to do anything physical, during which the frustration built. After six months and having made some recovery, unwilling to accept his prognosis, he then began to carefully train. It took another six months of recovery and training that involved a great deal of work before Lee would appear for outward appearances to be fit once again. Despite returning to doing what he loved, the pain remained and he had to use much caution from then on.
Bruce Lee returned to screen work with an appearance in the pilot episode of a series called Longstreet (1971), in which an insurance investigator searches for the person who caused an explosion that killed his wife, and left him blind. He went on to appear in four episodes of the series.
Fists of Fury was filmed later in 1971, containing mysterious disappearances and a young man sworn to a life of none violence-a vow that he ultimately must break. Three more movies were filmed in 1972 and 1973 before he began work on 'Enter the Dragon'.
'Enter the Dragon' (1973) was a cause for celebration as it was to be the first joint work between a Chinese and American studio. Work on 'Game of Death' that was in progress was ceased to begin this important work, one that Lee had long looked forward to as it was viewed as the acceptance of gung fu onto the American big screen. Sadly, Lee was unable to witness the huge success that the film enjoyed, nor the immense fame that it gave to him as he died just six days before its première. He most certainly would have been proud of it, one of the highest earning movies of that year.
Like many iconic figures, film releases would continue after his death. In 1973, another movie was made, called 'The Real Bruce Lee'. This was a compilation of sorts, that included archive footage from some of his earliest films-Bad Boy, Orphan Sam, Kid Cheung, and The Carnival all of which were recorded during Lee's childhood. All clips are dubbed into American English, and are followed by two clips-one short by Bruce Li and one feature length clip by Dragon Lee. Both were imitators of Bruce Lee.
It is possible that two versions of this movie were made, with the earlier release being in Hong Kong and the American release not being until 1979. The movie is now in the public domain.
Bruce Lee lived an amazingly physical life, maintaining the utmost condition despite the challenges that he faced. Yet despite his amazing physical condition and careful adherence to a nutritionally balanced diet, Bruce suffered a major illness on May 10th 1973. At the Golden Harvest studios where he was undertaking some dubbing work he collapsed, experiencing major seizures caused by a cerebral edema (swelling of the brain). Drugs administered by the doctors at the Hong Kong Baptist hospital brought the swelling under control and he recovered. This was unfortunately not an isolated occurrence.
Bruce Jun Fan Lee-probably the best known and most iconic of all martial artists died on 20th July, 1973 of a cerebral edema that it is thought was caused by an allergic reaction to a common painkiller that he took. As is common with such high profile deaths, a period of controversy followed.
In a cruel twist of fate, Bruce Lee's son Brandon would also die in the film studios, whilst filming a scene for his latest movie, 'The Crow'. It was almost twenty years after the death of his father, in the early afternoon of March 31st 1993 that Brandon was accidentally shot on set. He was interred next to his father in Lake View cemetery, Seattle