South China Morning Post, April 2013. Forty years after his death, two of Bruce Lee’s siblings reminisce about their famous brother’s life and a legacy that is inspiring a whole new generation of fighters. Jo Baker reports
Hard bodies abound. At the annual One Asia Mixed Martial Arts Summit, big names, tight muscles and a whole lot of spin are building an air of promise laced with testosterone.
The most highly billed appearances, however, are those of a pair who are not part of the fight club here at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands resort. As the first day of talks wind down, a convention room fills and falls quiet for two unassuming figures in their autumn years.
Neither compete, but they are happy to spin some eagerly received yarns about a long-dead fighting legend.
“Bruce was way ahead of his time in martial arts,” announces Bruce Lee’s younger brother, Robert Lee Chun-fai. “He wanted to show that there really is no set way in fighting and there is no limit. He believed that martial artists should not be bound to only just one or a few styles.”
Hong Kong’s most famous son is an unofficial figurehead for mixed martial arts (MMA) – not just as an iconic fighter, but as the man who pioneered its founding principles on a global scale. A fledgling but fast-growing sport that mixes fighting styles in showy, caged and sometimes vicious displays, MMA commands an estimated 60-million-strong television audience in more than 70 countries, and has in the past few years begun to reach the Asian mainstream. Its heroes may not be household names yet, but they are beginning to be tossed around in bars, gyms and school grounds, from the Philippines to Japan. And though popular opinion suggests that Lee would have struggled to make it in today’s top MMA tiers, 40 years after his death his name evokes a unique sense of affection among fighters.
“To ask the relevance of Bruce Lee to MMA is to ask the relevance of Picasso to modern art,” says Melvin Lee (no relation), who works at the Budo Academy in Penang, Malaysia. “You ask any top MMA guy, 90 per cent will say that he inspired them to fight.”
It was Bruce Lee’s system, or philosophy, jeet kune do (JKD), that saw a push for martial arts techniques to be cherry-picked to suit the skills of an individual fighter. Based on his principles “take what is useful, reject what is useless” and “be like water”, JKD was radical in a world of centuries-old combat systems closely protected by grandmasters.
Robert Lee, a retired musician now in his 60s, can remember the seeds of JKD being sown among the rooftops and schoolyards of Kowloon during Bruce Lee’s early teens, even before the body of his work was developed in the United States, and broadcast via American and Hong Kong movies.
“I think he started it off, though not intentionally; it was just what he believed in,” says Lee, sitting in a quiet corner with older sister Phoebe. “When he was young he realised that when you fight in the streets, wing chun alone doesn’t work. Bruce always believed in being able to do everything and using the techniques to your advantage, by knowing yourself and your limitations.”
Wing chun was famously Bruce Lee’s “mother” system – a Chinese kung fu style that emphasises straight line fighting and hand-trap-ping techniques.
He chose it, says Robert Lee, to suit Hong Kong’s dense urban setting and tight spaces. But to hone his skills he would join rooftop brawls with fighters of a rival style, choy lay fut, often throwing in techniques learned from boxing, wrestling and street-fighting.
“The bouts were held on rooftops to elude the police,” recalls Lee, with a grin. “The rules were simple, e.g. no gouging of the eyes, no biting and no hitting or kicking the groin.”
Robert Lee in 1968, two years after having founded popular local beat band The Thunderbirds.There were few serious injuries – the combatants were mostly school-age teens with little fighting experience; yet Bruce became known as one of the fiercest, says his brother. He was given the nickname “The King Gorilla” and his reputation began to cause problems.
“Because of his constant fighting, his notoriety became known to the Hong Kong police, and finally my mother was summoned to the local police station,” he says. “She was told that if her son continued his pugnacious behaviour the police would have no choice but to take him into custody. My parents made the decision that it was best for him to have a change of environment.”
This was the move that arguably allowed Bruce Lee’s philosophy to take shape. In the US, he was free to absorb various styles at school tournaments and demonstrations, from jiu-jitsu to judo. He taught kung fu throughout high school and college to earn his keep, and the environment there was more receptive to experimentation. In the late 1960s, Lee’s practice was given a name and gained a following. However, he always thought of JKD as a process of refinement, rather than a style.
“I have not invented a new style, composite, modified or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from this method or that method,” Lee told an interviewer in 1971. “On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or moulds.”
Robert Lee, who moved to the US in 1969, 10 years after Bruce, and lives in Los Angeles, remembers various discussions with his brother as he developed JKD.
“He told me that it could have been [called] ‘ABC’ or ‘123’ because he didn’t want the name to be mistakenly identified as a style of martial arts,” Lee says.
“I remember Bruce used to own a miniature grave replica made by one of his students, which had the engraving, ‘Here lies a once fluid man, overcome by the classical mess.’ It signified that Bruce did not believe that one should be bound by fixed forms and styles in fighting … One should learn how to relate to his opponent and be able to move with him – like in a non-improvised dance.”
Lee’s use of grapples, biting and other less dignified techniques in movies such as 1973’s Enter the Dragon thrilled much of his audience, young Asians and Western enthusiasts alike.
“I was about 10 when I saw my first [Bruce Lee] movie, and I was really impressed,” says Yung Ka-wai, a Hong Kong-born MMA instructor, at the summit. “It was totally different to any other kind of Hong Kong martial arts movies. What you saw was much closer to a real fight: more spontaneous and rough. Less ‘I’m a gentleman’. Not long after that, I began to train.”
Bruce Lee did not appear to hold back on this point. As well as commissioning that mock-epitaph, he derided traditional combat styles as “baloney” to journalists, and referred to martial-arts competitions as “dry land swimming”.
And as the Lees now recall, it made him a divisive figure among masters, particularly in the East.
“There was a lot of jealousy,” says Phoebe Lee, who was born in Hong Kong and moved, in 1970, to San Francisco, where she worked as a bookkeeper at a meat wholesaler.
Feathers were ruffled, she says, backs turned, challenges regularly thrown down.Yet Bruce Lee’s siblings reject the suggestion that he was ever downcast by this. “Bruce was street-smart, and he knew how to entertain the different masters. He’d taunt them gently and win them over by sharing knowledge,” says Robert Lee.
And when that didn’t work, he’d get physical. Lee recalls a story he heard from Bruce’s wife, Linda, in the 60s, in which a sifu (traditional Chinese master) arrived out of the blue at the Lees’ family home in Los Angeles. The sifu challenged Lee’s teaching methods and his Chinese identity. Then, family legend has it, the sifu lost a duel in the family garage and vowed never to deride Lee again.
Lee’s influence and inspiration went beyond his physical prowess. At the summit cocktail reception, over house wine and cocktail nuts, the siblings’ presence sparks fond reminiscences among fighters and promoters, ranging in topic from Lee’s mind-body philosophy to his holistic approach to health; his early protein shakes to his nunchucks. And, of course, his sartorial flair.
“He was always a sharp dresser, just like The Fonz,” says Robert Lee, grinning. “That’s how he was. He wasn’t trying to be cocky. He was 13, 14, going to school, dressing sharp every day.”
Contrary to more heroic notions, it is here that the seeds of Bruce Lee’s path as a warrior were sown.
“He’d basically get roughed up because of his confidence and his haute couture,” says Robert Lee, with a laugh. “Bruce decided that if he wanted to keep his image he would need to learn to defend it.”
It was also a sense of style he took seriously, according to his sister.
“I remember our servant ironing his trousers for him once, and he noticed it wasn’t right,” she says. “He took the iron and did it himself. He was hot-tempered and he wanted to do everything perfectly, beginning to end. Even ironing.”
Yet the Lees have less light to shine on one of the most intriguing parts of their brother’s story. Bruce was a strong, charismatic Chinese man in a world with few Asian icons. According to the president of MMA’s Ultimate Fighting Championship, Dana White, he made martial arts “the thing to do”, but he also made the world a better place in which to be Asian.
“Look at the way Asians were portrayed back then,” White said in an interview last year. “They were portrayed as kind of goofy and weak. And then here comes this Asian guy who every person of every colour in every country worshipped as the baddest dude in the world.”
But what of the idea – often proffered – that this was intentional; that Bruce Lee was fuelled in part by the sense of being an underdog?
“Bruce didn’t face those problems in Hong Kong,” says Robert Lee. “My mother’s uncle was Robert Hotung, the first knight of the city. He had a lot of businesses and influence in the government, and whatever we wanted to do we could.”
Rather than being in any way oppressed, the picture the Lees paint is of a well-off and well-connected family with chauffeured cars and opportunities aplenty. Bruce’s biggest problem in those early teenage years, his brother says, was defending his right to be fashionable.
In contrast, both Lees admit Bruce did face prejudice in America, but insist he rarely appeared bothered by it. When faced with open disrespect, he would simply counter it with a show of his physical prowess. They give anecdotes of calm, quick aggression and lessons soundly delivered, whether to rude drivers, disrespectful fellow students or taunting movie stars.
“Bruce just really believed in himself,” Robert Lee says. “In America there was no understanding among big guys there that an Asian could be a powerful fighter, and I’ve seen him go up against Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris. I’ve seen Bruce treat them like dolls. He would be like, ‘You think I’m no good? I’ll show you how good.’”
So Bruce Lee would be more likely to use force to make a point than his legendary on-screen charisma?
“Unfortunately, that’s who he was. But I think his self-confidence stopped him from going too far,” says Robert Lee. “If you really believe in yourself, there’s no need for it.”
Real-life stories aside, there is one thing on which everyone at the summit can agree. In the 40 years since his death, no role model has emerged from this region who can cast a shadow on Lee’s legacy. Many at the Marina Bay Sands hope that if one does materialise, it will be from the cocktail of street smarts and showmanship that is MMA.
“This is the first time you’ve had a gathering of this many real-life heroes in pan-Asia,” says Chatri Sityodtong, who founded renowned academy Evolve MMA. “And I believe that the few years to come will be viewed as the biggest inflection point in MMA since Bruce Lee in Asia. I’ll bet that in 10 years people will be saying, ‘Here comes Shinya Aoki,’ for example. It won’t be movie stars but real fighters.”
Robert Lee has yet to see a challenge to his brother’s legacy in the region, least of all in Hong Kong, where he considers the younger generation to be spoilt and restricted. He continues to work on projects to keep his sibling in the public eye, such as the 2010 movie Bruce Lee, My Brother (which he narrated and produced); but he gives the idea of a successor to Lee grudging consideration.
“To get close to matching him, not only do you have to put in hard work, you have to be mentally strong and mentally creative, to be able to know yourself,” he says. “Bruce always emphasised [that you must] really know yourself – your advantages and disadvantages – and that’s the mental part, the philosophy. Does MMA teach enough of this? I don’t know. But it seems like a good start.”
For now, the Bruce Lee legacy is something his surviving family members will continue to nurture.
“If Bruce was alive he would say, ‘Tell people about me as a person,’” says Robert Lee. “If people could just realise who he is, I think he could still have a lot to offer. His influence never ends.”