Who Was Bruce Lee and How Did He Die?
Lee Jun-fan (November 27, 1940 – July 20, 1973), known professionally as Bruce Lee, was a Hong Kong and American actor, film director, martial artist, philosopher and founder of the martial art Jeet Kune Do. Bruce Lee was born on November 27, 1940, at the Chinese Hospital, in San Francisco’s Chinatown. According to the Chinese zodiac, Lee was born in both the hour and the year of the Dragon, which according to tradition is a strong and fortuitous omen.
Bruce’s father, Lee Hoi-chuen, was Han Chinese, and his mother, Grace Ho, was of half-Chinese and half-Caucasian descent. Grace Ho was the adopted daughter of Ho Kom-tong (Ho Gumtong) and the half-niece of Sir Robert Ho-tung, both notable Hong Kong businessmen and philanthropists.
There is no proof in any documents that Bruce Lee had a maternal German grandfather as popularly thought, rather his European ancestry came from an English maternal grandmother. His mother had an English mother and a Chinese father. Bruce was the fourth child of five children: Phoebe Lee, Agnes Lee, Peter Lee, and Robert Lee. Lee and his parents returned to Hong Kong when he was three months old.
He is widely considered by commentators, critics, media, and other martial artists to be one of the most influential martial artists of all time, and a pop culture icon of the 20th century. He is often credited with helping to change the way Asians were presented in American films.
Lee was born in Chinatown, San Francisco, on November 27, 1940, to parents from Hong Kong and was raised in Kowloon, Hong Kong, with his family until his late teens. He was introduced to the film industry by his father and appeared in several films as a child actor. Lee moved to the United States at the age of 18 to receive his higher education, at the University of Washington, at Seattle and it was during this time that he began teaching martial arts.
His Hong Kong and Hollywood-produced films elevated the traditional Hong Kong martial arts film to a new level of popularity and acclaim, sparking a surge of interest in Chinese martial arts in the West in the 1970s. The direction and tone of his films changed and influenced martial arts and martial arts films in the US, Hong Kong and the rest of the world.
He is noted for his roles in five feature-length films: Lo Wei’s The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972); Golden Harvest’s Way of the Dragon (1972), directed and written by Lee; Golden Harvest and Warner Brothers’ Enter the Dragon (1973) and The Game of Death (1978), both directed by Robert Clouse.
Lee became an iconic figure known throughout the world, particularly among the Chinese, as he portrayed Chinese nationalism in his films. He trained in the art of Wing Chun and later combined his other influences from various sources, in the spirit of his personal martial arts philosophy, which he dubbed Jeet Kune Do (The Way of the Intercepting Fist). Lee held dual nationality of Hong Kong and the US.
Lee’s father, Lee Hoi-chuen, was one of the leading Cantonese opera and film actors at the time, and was embarking on a year-long opera tour with his family on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. Lee Hoi-chuen had been touring the United States for many years and performing at numerous Chinese communities there.
Although many of his peers decided to stay in the US, Lee Hoi-chuen returned to Hong Kong after Bruce’s birth. Within months, Hong Kong was invaded and the Lees lived for three years and eight months under Japanese occupation. After the war ended, Lee Hoi-chuen resumed his acting career and became a more popular actor during Hong Kong’s rebuilding years.
The young Bruce Lee grew up in an affluent and privileged environment. Despite the advantage of his family’s status, the neighborhood in which Lee grew up became overcrowded, dangerous, and full of gang rivalries due to an influx of refugees fleeing communist China for Hong Kong, at that time a British Crown colony.
After Lee was involved in several street fights, his parents decided that he needed to be trained in the martial arts. Lee’s first introduction to martial arts was through his father, from whom he learned the fundamentals of Wu-style t’ai chi ch’uan.
The largest influence on Lee’s martial arts development was his study of Wing Chun. Lee began training in Wing Chun when he was 16 years old under the Wing Chun teacher Yip Man in 1957, after losing several fights with rival gang members. Yip’s regular classes generally consisted of the forms practice, chi sao (sticking hands) drills, wooden dummy techniques, and free-sparring. There was no set pattern to the classes. Yip tried to keep his students from fighting in the street gangs of Hong Kong by encouraging them to fight in organized competitions.
After a year into his Wing Chun training, most of Yip Man’s other students refused to train with Lee after they learned of his mixed ancestry, as the Chinese were generally against teaching their martial arts techniques to non-Asians. Lee’s sparring partner, Hawkins Cheung states, “Probably fewer than six people in the whole Wing Chun clan were personally taught, or even partly taught, by Yip Man”.
However, Lee showed a keen interest in Wing Chun, and continued to train privately with Yip Man and Wong Shun Leung in 1955. Wan Kam Leung, a student of Wong’s, witnessed a sparring bout between Wong and Lee, and noted the speed and precision with which Lee was able to deliver his kicks. Lee continued to train with Wong Shun Leung after later returning to Hong Kong from America.
After attending Tak Sun School (several blocks from his home at 218 Nathan Road, Kowloon), Lee entered the primary school division of La Salle College at the age of 12. In around 1956, due to poor academic performance (or possibly poor conduct as well), he was transferred to St. Francis Xavier’s College (high school) where he would be mentored by Brother Edward, a teacher and coach of the school boxing team.
In the spring of 1959, Lee got into another street fight and the police were called. Until his late teens, Lee’s street fights became more frequent and included beating the son of a feared triad family. Eventually, Lee’s father decided his son should leave Hong Kong to pursue a safer and healthier life in the United States. His parents confirmed the police’s fear that this time Lee’s opponent had an organized crime background, and there was the possibility that a contract was out for his life.
The police detective came and he says “Excuse me Mr. Lee, your son is really fighting bad in school. If he gets into just one more fight I might have to put him in jail”. In April 1959, Lee’s parents decided to send him to the United States to stay with his older sister, Agnes Lee, who was already living with family friends in San Francisco.
At the age of 18, Lee returned to the United States. After living in San Francisco for several months, he moved to Seattle in 1959, to continue his high school education, where he also worked for Ruby Chow as a live-in waiter at her restaurant.
Chow’s husband was a co-worker and friend of Lee’s father. Lee’s elder brother Peter Lee would also join him in Seattle for a short stay before moving on to Minnesota to attend college. In December 1960, Lee completed his high school education and received his diploma from Edison Technical School (now Seattle Central Community College, located on Capitol Hill in Seattle).
In March 1961, Lee enrolled at the University of Washington, majoring in drama according to a 1999 article in the university’s alumni magazine, not in philosophy as stated by Lee himself and many others. Lee also studied philosophy, psychology, and various other subjects. It was at the University of Washington that he met his future wife Linda Emery, a fellow student studying to become a teacher, whom he married in August 1964. Lee had two children with Linda Emery, Brandon Lee (1965–1993) and Shannon Lee (born 1969). He died in Kowloon Tong on July 20, 1973 at the age of 32.
On May 10, 1973, Lee collapsed during an ADR session for Enter the Dragon at Golden Harvest in Hong Kong. Suffering from seizures and headaches, he was immediately rushed to Hong Kong Baptist Hospital where doctors diagnosed cerebral edema. They were able to reduce the swelling through the administration of mannitol. The headache and cerebral edema that occurred in his first collapse were later repeated on the day of his death.
On July 20, 1973, Lee was in Hong Kong, to have dinner with James Bond star George Lazenby, with whom he intended to make a film. According to Lee’s wife Linda, Lee met producer Raymond Chow at 2 p.m. (HKT) at home to discuss the making of the film Game of Death. They worked until 4 p.m. and then drove together to the home of Lee’s colleague Betty Ting Pei, a Taiwanese actress. The three went over the script at Ting’s home, and then Chow left to attend a dinner meeting.
Later Lee complained of a headache, and Ting gave him an analgesic, Equagesic, which contained both aspirin and the tranquilizer meprobamate. Around 7:30 p.m., he went to lie down for a nap. When Lee did not come for dinner, producer Raymond Chow came to the apartment, but was unable to wake Lee up. A doctor was summoned, who spent ten minutes attempting to revive Lee before sending him by ambulance to Queen Elizabeth Hospital. By the time the ambulance reached the hospital he was dead. He was 32 years old.
There was no visible external injury; however, according to autopsy reports, Lee’s brain had swollen considerably, from 1,400 to 1,575 grams (a 13% increase). The autopsy found Equagesic in his system. On October 15, 2005, Chow stated in an interview that Lee died from an allergic reaction to the tranquilizer meprobamate, the main ingredient in Equagesic, which Chow described as an ingredient commonly used in painkillers. When the doctors announced Lee’s death officially, it was ruled a “death by misadventure”.
Lee’s wife Linda returned to her hometown of Seattle, and had him buried at lot 276 of Lake View Cemetery in Seattle. Pallbearers at his funeral on July 25, 1973 included Taky Kimura, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Chuck Norris, George Lazenby, Dan Inosanto, Peter Chin, and Lee’s brother Robert.