Bruce Jun Fan Lee was born in the hour and the year of the Dragon, on 27 November 1940 in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Bruce was the fourth child born to Lee Hoi Chuen and his wife Grace Ho. Lee Hoi Chuen was a comedian in the Chinese opera, and an actor in Cantonese films. At the time Bruce was born, Mr. and Mrs. Lee were on tour with the opera company in the United States.
At the age of three months, Lee Hoi Chuen, his wife Grace, and baby Bruce returned to Hong Kong where Bruce would be raised until the age of 18. Bruce was not a strong child, something that would change when he took up the study of gung fu at the age of 13. It was at this time that Bruce was introduced to Master Yip Man, a teacher of the Wing Chun style of gung fu, with whom Bruce trained for the next five years.
A natural showman, Bruce was always quick and agile on his feet, also proving to be a talented dancer, winning the Hong Kong Cha Cha Championship in 1958.
In addition to his studies, gung fu, and dancing, Bruce was a child actor under the tutelage of his father who recognized at an early age that Bruce had a streak of showmanship. By the time he was 18, he had appeared in 20 films.
At the age of 18, with $100 in his pocket, Bruce boarded a steamship and began his voyage to San Francisco, and then Seattle, where he enrolled at the University of Washington.
During the three years that Bruce studied at the university, he supported himself by teaching gung fu in parking lots, garages, and any other open space he could find. In 1963, Bruce opened his first gung fu school in Seattle, the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute.
One of his students in 1963 was a freshman at the University of Washington, Linda Emery. Bruce and Linda soon fell in love and married in 1964, before moving to Oakland where Bruce opened his second school.
Having now been in the United States for five years, Bruce had left behind any thought of acting as a career, and devoted himself completely to martial arts as a profession.
In 1964, just as Bruce was cementing his plans to expand his martial arts schools, he made a guest appearance at the inaugural Long Beach International Karate Championship in Long Beach, California. This exhibition resulted in Bruce meeting Hollywood producer William Dozier, who subsequently cast him as ‘Kato’ in The Green Hornet, a television series produced in 1966. Later that same year, Bruce and his family moved to Los Angeles, where he opened his third gung fu school. However, soon after, Bruce realised his love for martial arts was not something he wanted to turn into a business, leading him to turn his attention to acting full time.
In 1970, Bruce travelled to Hong Kong and was surprised to find he was widely recognized for his role in The Green Hornet. His popularity in Hong Kong led producer Raymond Chow to ask Bruce to join the cast of two upcoming film projects. The first of these two projects, The Big Boss, was released in 1971 and was a smash hit at the box office.
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This taste of success prompted Bruce to move his family, which then included a son, Brandon, and a daughter, Shannon, to Hong Kong to focus on his acting career. His second film, Fist of Fury, released in 1972, was an even bigger hit than the first.
Following the tidal wave of success created by these first two films, Bruce was able to write, produce, direct, and star in Way of the Dragon, released in 1972. Once again, the film broke records, earning Bruce recognition and fame not only in Hong Kong, but also in Hollywood.
Bruce’s growing popularity and success resulted in the first ever Hong Kong-American co-production which came about from Bruce’s relationship with Warner Bros. president Ted Ashley. Filming of Enter the Dragon commenced in 1972 and the film premiered in August 1973.
Unfortunately, Bruce would not live to see the opening of his film. On July 20, 1973, Bruce Lee passed away at the age of 32. His legacy as a martial arts actor enabled broader depictions of Asian Americans in cinema and created a whole new breed of action hero. His talents as a martial artist and instructor continue to be revered, and his spirit remains an inspiration to untold numbers of people around the world.
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