|Even in Death, Bruce Lee Larger Than Life|
By Kristin Dizon
July 7, 2003
In life, Bruce Lee didn't like to be called a "star."
In death, Lee can't escape the word.
Thirty years after he died, the first Asian-American to star in a Hollywood film still is considered to be one of the greatest martial artists ever.
His primal physicality and screen intensity exploded American interest in martial arts movies, paving the way for later stars such as Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal.
In Seattle, where Lee lived for 41/2 years and is buried, the new "Bruce Lee Collectors Exhibit 2003: The Beginning of a Legend, the Story of a Man" has opened with items from one of the biggest collectors of Bruce Lee memorabilia.
"The thing that makes me the most happy to this day is that his image isn't diminishing," said Taky Kimura, one of Lee's closest friends and students. "It's still growing."
Lee's image, resurrected digitally, will even star in a new film, "Dragon Warrior," set for release next year.
At the first major Bruce Lee Convention coming up this summer in Santa Monica, the Bruce Lee Foundation will award a scholarship in his honor. Schools around the world still teach Lee's innovative Jeet Kune Do, or "way of the intercepting fist."
There are informal letter-writing campaigns to get a postage stamp and a posthumous Oscar granted to Lee, who died on July 20, 1973, from cerebral edema, or brain swelling.
Smashing stereotypesSo why is a man who died before his first major movie hit in the United States still larger than life?
"He's the first Asian that broke a lot of stereotypes -- that has a lot to do with it," said Doug Palmer, a Seattle attorney and former student of Lee's.
The first time Palmer, a high school boxer, saw Lee's moves, he was mesmerized. "I'd never seen anything like it before," said Palmer, who believes Lee's skill was without parallel. "The combination of the artistry and speed and power and grace were all wrapped up in one."
Born in San Francisco as Lee Jun Fan in 1940, "Bruce Lee" was coined by a hospital nurse for the first son of a Chinese opera star. Raised in Hong Kong, Lee was nicknamed "Never Sits Still." An average student who got into a lot of fights, Lee was also a child movie star, making more than 20 films by age 18. As a teen, he began studying martial arts, developing a lifelong interest in philosophy.
When he got in trouble for fighting with rival martial arts students, Lee and his mother decided it was best for him to return to his birth country and find his own way. The 18-year-old arrived in San Francisco in 1959 with $115 in his pocket.
Within a few months, Lee went to Seattle to stay with family friends Ping and Ruby Chow, and cleared tables at Ruby Chow's restaurant. Lee wowed crowds and attracted students with his demonstrations. That's how Taky Kimura, 79, first met the "little dragon."
"Bruce was a very gregarious, very popular guy," said Kimura, who was Lee's best man at his 1964 wedding. "He could be telling you the raunchiest joke one minute, then spouting Zen or Taoism the next."
"Pound for pound, he was one of the strongest and the fastest martial artists," said Kimura, who still teaches Lee's June Keet Do to about 70 students for free, as a way of giving back to Lee. He also tends Lee's grave, which an estimated 50-75 people visit each week.
The Elvis of martial artsThe man who stood 5 feet 7 and weighed around 140 pounds was an awesome blur of cobra-fast fists and kicking heels to Perry Lee.
It was 1964 and Perry Lee was a 14-year-old high school student watching a demonstration by the unknown martial artist. "He was able to do things you never saw anybody else do," said Lee, now 55, who was impressed with Bruce Lee's cool, confident demeanor.
Perry Lee became a martial arts enthusiast and began collecting Bruce Lee memorabilia.
"Bruce Lee still sets the standard," said Lee, a restaurant inspector for King County. "Bruce Lee is to martial arts what Elvis was to rock 'n' roll or what Michael Jordan was to basketball or Muhammad Ali to boxing."
Bruce Lee started his first studio, or kwoon, while studying philosophy at the University of Washington. A plain-spoken iconoclast, Lee held little regard for traditional martial arts.
"To me 99 percent of the whole business of Oriental self-defense is baloney," Lee once said. "It's fancy jazz. It looks good, but it doesn't work."
He deemed most martial arts full of "unrealistic stances" and mechanical moves. "A guy could be clobbered while getting into his classical mess," he told reporters. Lee developed his own fighting system, June Keet Do, which focused on eliminating wasted motion and expressing one's individual talents.
He left Seattle in 1964 before graduating from the University of Washington, to open one of his Jun Fan Gung Fu Institutes in Oakland. One of his students, Linda Emery, became his wife.
When he expanded his martial arts schools to Los Angeles, Lee attracted celebrity clients such as Steve McQueen, James Garner and James Coburn, who paid the then-huge sum of $250 an hour to study with the charismatic master.
Going HollywoodHis first role was as Kato, the fighting chauffeur and sidekick in "The Green Hornet," which ran from 1966 to 1967. The TV series died, but Lee stayed in Hollywood, snagging small roles in films and television and staging fight scenes.
At a time when Asian characters on American screens were largely limited to Hop Sing and Charlie Chan, Bruce Lee refused what he called "ah-so" and "chop-chop" roles.
He developed the premise for TV's "Kung Fu," though it stung when he wasn't considered for the leading role. Frustrated by the snail's pace of earning lead roles in Hollywood, Lee moved back to Hong Kong, where he was an overnight sensation in martial arts films. Soon, Warner Bros. knocked on his door.
They co-produced his last full-length film, "Enter the Dragon," which was seen as Lee's ticket to stardom in the States. But before its debut, the fanatically fit Lee died at age 32.
Much like other celebrities who died young -- Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, James Dean -- there is the tantalizing thought of what could have been.
The new exhibit, which runs through November, tells the story of the whole man: actor, martial artist, philosopher, icon, husband, father.
Several hundred of Perry Lee's and others' collectibles are displayed for the first time in nearly 4,000 square feet in the old Uwajimaya store, along with multimedia clips and Lee's quotations.
An autographed drawing by Bruce Lee of the "Green Hornet" and Kato is worth an estimated $10,000-$15,000. Perry Lee's entire collection, with emphasis on the "Green Hornet" period, numbers more than 10,000 items, purchased and traded over nearly 40 years.
Lee's widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, and daughter, Shannon Lee Keasler, aren't involved with the exhibit but are expected to visit next month. (His son, Brandon, was killed in an accident on the set of a movie in 1993. The two are buried side by side.)
Sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Wells Fargo and Uwajimaya, the exhibit is a fund-raiser for InterIm, a nonprofit group in Seattle's International District that plans to build low-income housing there.
One thing they discovered was that Lee's legend lives. "He's probably just as popular with the young people as he was with the generation of us who grew up with him," said Bob Santos, executive director of InterIm.
Perry Lee hopes his collection might form the basis for a permanent museum dedicated to the star. "What better place to do it then in Seattle, where he's buried?" he said.Quote this article on your site