50th anniversary of Bruce Lee’s death: The greatest martial artist of all time

Bruce Lee is only 32 when he suddenly dies. His tragic end on July 20, 1973 drove his popularity to skyrocketing heights.

He was as irresistible as a tornado. Flammable and unpredictable. When he whirled through the air like an arrow, many millions of cinema-goers were over the moon. This is how Bruce Lee became the “King of Kung Fu”. To the icon of the martial arts film – although he’s been dead for 50 years.

He is only 32 when he suddenly dies. His tragic end on July 20, 1973 drove his popularity to skyrocketing heights. He took part in 32 films, as an actor, director, above all as an omnipotent fighter. His cinema hits were “Bruce Lee – The Death Fist of Cheng Li” (1971), “Bruce Lee – Death Greetings from Shanghai” (1972), “The Deathclaw Strikes Again” (1972) or “The Man with the Deathclaw” (1973). The fights he choreographed went down in film history, but the perfect martial artist saw himself primarily as an actor.

Born as a Lee Jun fan in San Francisco

He probably was, too, at least in terms of ancestry. His Chinese father, Lee Hoi-chuen from Hong Kong, was one of the leading actors in Cantonese opera, and his mother, German-Chinese Grace Ho, came from one of Hong Kong’s most powerful clans. The couple were touring the United States, where Lee Hoi-chuen was performing in Chinese communities, when the heavily pregnant Grace Ho gave birth to her fourth child on November 27, 1940 in Chinatown, San Francisco.

The boy, who now also had US citizenship in addition to Chinese, was given the name Lee Jun-fan. A doctor probably gave him the English first name Bruce, Lee only used it much later as a young adult during his time in the USA. As a child, his parents often called him “Saifon” (“little phoenix”) and “Mo Si Ting” (“one who is constantly active”), which also described his nature.

Three months after the son’s birth, the family returned to Hong Kong, although the Second World War had also affected the British Crown Colony and Hong Kong was occupied by the Japanese from 1941 to 1945. Lee’s mother later told the cute story that her four-year-old son often raised his little child’s fist on the balcony of her house at the sky, where Japanese fighter planes were constantly circling.

His first steps in martial arts

He made his debut as an actor in infancy. More films followed when he was six and eight, earning him the name “Lee Xiaolong” (Little Dragon Lee). At 17 he had his first starring role in The Orphan, and by the time he was 18 he had appeared in 20 films.

As a child, he also found his way to Asian martial arts, which was partly due to the friction with English students who harassed their Chinese classmates at the renowned Catholic La Salle College, and on the other hand, more and more dangerous street gangs were also making the better parts of Hong Kong unsafe. His first teacher was his father, who taught him the Wu style of shadow boxing, which was much too slow for young Lee.

When he turned 13, his mother got him a legendary grandmaster of Wing Chun Kung Fu with the famous Yip Man as his trainer. Lee went to school for five years. Initially, other Chinese students refused to train with Lee because his mother was not of pure Chinese descent and the knowledge of Wing Chun Kung Fu should only be passed on to pure-blood Chinese. But that didn’t change Yip Man’s relationship with his student Lee, who worshiped him like a god until the end of his life.

In addition, young Lee loved to dance. He had an infallible sense of rhythm and was a cha-cha-cha master in Hong Kong by the age of 18. He later adopted many of the fast dance movements in his acrobatic fighting style.

In Seattle he opened his first “Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute”

In April 1959, his parents sent him to the United States, a measure of disciplining because Lee brought home bad grades, was rebellious and, apart from kung fu, only thought of pretty girls. He was also threatened with imprisonment for repeatedly seriously injuring his opponents in physical altercations. His father gave him just $100 to take with him on the 17-day voyage, which Lee supplemented with dance lessons for first-class passengers.

He also worked as a dance teacher in San Francisco, then he went to Seattle, got his high school diploma and studied philosophy and acting. He also taught kung fu to other students. In 1963 he founded his first “Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute”, a year later he married the American Linda Emery, whom he had met during his martial arts lessons, and moved to Oakland (California), where his son Brandon was born in 1965, “the only blond and blue-eyed Chinese in the world”, as Lee proudly announced.

He also founded a “Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute” in Oakland, and a third in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. By now he had become a California great. His “Jeet Kune Do” (“The Way of the Intercepting/Intercepting Fist”) style had also garnered attention in the film world. Stars like Steve McQueen (1930-1980) and James Coburn (1928-2002) learned to fight from him, Chuck Norris (83) took private lessons. And Hollywood star hairdresser Jay Sebring (1933-1969) drew the attention of TV producer William Dozier (1908-1991) to Lee.

With his films he became a world star

Series appearances followed, e.g. as a masked Kato in “The Green Hornet” or in “Batman” and a first appearance in a full-length Hollywood film: In “Marlowe” with James Garner (1928-2014) he was allowed to dismantle an entire office with his feet within seconds. His role as Kato caused an enormous wave of enthusiasm, especially among the Hong Kong Chinese. The producer Raymond Chow (1927-2018) and his Golden Harvest studio in Hong Kong made Lee a world star with his last four films.

Death came out of the blue. Apparently, the shooting of “The Man with the Deathclaw” had taken him so badly that he collapsed on May 10, 1973. He was examined in Hong Kong and then in Los Angeles, the doctors gave the green light, Lee traveled back to Hong Kong. There he was taken lifeless to Queen Elizabeth Hospital on the evening of July 20, 1973. He had previously lain down with his film partner Betty Ting Pei (76) and given her a painkiller because he was complaining of a severe headache.

Wild speculation about his death

His sudden death sparked wild speculation without the slightest truth content: it was said that his film partner had poisoned him, or that the Chinese and American mafia were involved in his murder. In fact, Bruce Lee died of fatal brain swelling caused by an allergic reaction to a painkiller, the autopsy found. According to an investigation from 2005, the cause of death could also have been an epileptic seizure in which the heart and lungs failed.

Then, 20 years later, came the theory of a curse on the Lee family. It was triggered by another tragic event: On March 31, 1993, the son Brandon Lee died at the age of 28, who also became an actor, while shooting the fantasy film “The Crow”. He was shot from a prop pistol that was not supposed to be loaded. In fact, there was a bullet in the gun that hit Brandon Lee in the abdomen. He died twelve hours later and was buried next to his father in Seattle.


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