Friday marks the 45th anniversary of legendary actor Bruce Lee’s death. As his fans reflect on his life and career, the author of his recent biography, Bruce Lee: A Life is sharing a few insights from his extensive research and interview process. Below Matthew Polly reflects in his own words.
Bruce Lee died a month before the release of Enter the Dragon (1973), the movie which turned him into an international icon. His fame was almost entirely posthumous. Unlike James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, he lacked a well-defined celebrity persona. “I knew so little about him and wanted to know so much,” wrote a young woman from New Jersey to Black Belt magazine in 1973. “Suddenly, he is dead, and I just can’t accept it. It’s as if I knew him, and now I never will.” To satisfy fans ravenous for details about his life, dozens of special edition magazines and quickie biographies were cranked out, filled with fictionalized accounts of his heroic deeds. Many of these tall tales were cemented in the public’s consciousness by the Hollywood biopic, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993).
Six years ago, I set out to uncover the man buried beneath the legend. Shockingly, no one had ever written a comprehensive biography of the most famous Asian-American in the world. Most of the information about Bruce was spread out across martial arts magazines, self-published memoirs, and low budget documentaries — few providing sourcing for their claims. The legend had become fact, so they printed the legend. In the course of my research, I encountered five enduring myths about Bruce Lee that are taken as gospel by even his most well-informed fans.
1. He was a teetotaler
When Johnny Walker Whiskey released an advertisement in 2013 that starred a CGI “Bruce Lee” philosophizing in Mandarin for the Chinese market, I was in Hong Kong interviewing Bruce’s friends and family members. Fans erupted in outrage that their hero, who supposedly did not drink, was being used to endorse alcohol. The South China Morning Post ran an article entitled, “Bruce Lee Whiskey Advert Branded a Disgrace: Movie Legend Digitally Recreated for Johnnie Walker Commercial Despite Being a Teetotaler.”
The origin of this myth comes from a quote Bruce Lee gave to the martial arts magazine Fighting Stars explaining why he avoided most Hollywood parties: “I’m not that type of cat. I don’t drink or smoke and those events are many times senseless.” In truth, what he meant was he didn’t drink very much or very often, because alcohol did not sit well with him. His friends report that after a few sips he would turn red in the face, start sweating, and feel nauseous. It seems Lee suffered from alcohol flush reaction — more colloquially known as the Asian Glow, because over 35 percent of East Asians have the condition. Affected persons lack an enzyme needed to metabolize alcohol. The only type of booze Bruce Lee could drink without a severe reaction was sake.
2. He was the author of the TV series Kung Fu
I am often asked by fans and interviewers about the first Chinese martial arts show to ever air on American TV: “Bruce wrote Kung fu, right?” I always pause for a second before responding, “No, that’s not true. It was written by two Jewish comedy writers from Brooklyn, Ed Spielman and Howard Friendlander.” My reply is typically greeted with intense disappointment, as if I had told them that George Washington didn’t cut down that cherry tree.
This myth owes its strength to Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, which portrayed Bruce as coming up with the idea on the backlot of a Hollywood studio only to have it stolen from him and given to the white actor, David Carradine. Furious at this racist betrayal, Jason Scott Lee, who plays Bruce in the movie, abandons Hollywood for Hong Kong. In truth, Spielman and Friendlander wrote the Kung Fu screenplay for Warner Bros. in 1969. When the project failed to get made as a theatrical movie, the script was turned over to Warner’s TV division in 1971. Casting for the series began after Bruce had already completed his first Hong Kong kung fu movie, The Big Boss (1971). Bruce auditioned for the lead role of Kwai Chang Caine but lost it to David Carradine, because executives were concerned his Chinese accent was too thick for an American TV audience.
3. He fought Wong Jack Man over the right to teach kung fu to non-Chinese
No event in Bruce Lee’s life has been mythologized more than his challenge match with Wong Jack Man. Both sides continue to bicker over it to this day. In Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, which is based on Linda Lee’s biography of her late husband, Wong Jack Man is sent as an enforcer to Bruce’s newly opened Oakland school with an ultimatum from San Francisco’s Chinatown elders: Stop teaching kung fu to Caucasians. To keep his school open to students of all races, Lee has to defeat Wong.
Bruce Lee was the first kung fu instructor in America to accept students regardless of race or ethnicity, but that’s not why the fight happened. He had recently given a kung fu demonstration in Chinatown’s Sun Sing Theatre where he had insulted its traditional kung fu masters, calling them “old tigers with no teeth who teach nonsense.” When the crowd, filled with students of these traditional masters, became upset, Bruce said, “I would like to let everybody know that any time my Chinatown brothers want to research my kung fu, they are welcome to find me at my school in Oakland.” The audience gasped at what they perceived as an open challenge to all of Chinatown. After Lee’s performance, David Chin, a young Chinatown kung fu student, recruited Wong Jack Man, a waiter at a local restaurant and aspiring kung fu teacher, to take up Bruce’s challenge by convincing him he could make a name for himself by defeating Lee.
4. His fight with Wong Jack Man ended in a tie
While watching the Hollywood film Birth of the Dragon (2016) in a nearly empty theater, I began howling with laughter. A man two rows back asked me, “Excuse me, sir, but do you know this story?” I replied, “Actually, I do.” Since our conversation was more interesting than the movie, he asked, “What really happened?” I said, “Bruce Lee won.”
Wong Jack Man and his many kung fu students have long hated the villainous portrayal of him in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. They finally got their revenge 23 years later with Birth of the Dragon, which is told from Wong’s perspective and makes him out to a wise Buddhist monk who tutors the Westernized Bruce Lee in traditional Chinese values. During their fight, Wong is clearly winning but decides to back off and let it be considered a draw to demonstrate how evolved he is as a spiritual being. In truth, no one there that night, except Wong, believes it was a tie. According to David Chin, who arranged the match on Wong’s behalf, Bruce overwhelmed Wong with his opening series of attacks, causing Wong to turn his back and run. Bruce chased him around the room until Wong tripped and fell. Bruce jumped on top of Wong and rained down punches, forcing Chin to intervene and rescue Wong.
5. He was murdered
In a recent phone interview with a young reporter at the South China Morning Post, she said to me, “The consensus in Hong Kong is that he was killed.” I replied, “If only there was a consensus, it would have made my job easier.”
Bruce died at the age of 32 in the apartment of Betty Ting Pei, a sultry Taiwanese actress. To avoid a scandal, Raymond Chow, who was Bruce’s business partner, told the press that Bruce died at home with his wife, Linda. When a newspaper reporter uncovered the deception three days later, it unleashed a thousand conspiracy theories. Bruce was killed by Betty. No, it was Raymond. The more inventive blamed the Chinese Triads or Japanese ninjas. Maybe it was an ancient curse. The Hong Kong tabloids were particular fond of the sex and drug-filled orgy explanation. The public grew so upset there were protests and bomb threats, forcing the British colonial government to call for a full investigation. At the Coroner’s Inquest into his death, a British forensic expert posited that Bruce had died from an allergic reaction to an aspirin he had taken just prior to his death.
In truth, Bruce died from a cerebral edema (swelling of the brain). No one knows for certain what caused it, although I’m fairly sure it wasn’t ninjas. The aspirin allergy theory is the one cited in most respectable newspaper accounts, despite its obvious flaw: Bruce was a hardcore martial artist who took aspirin for pain most of his adult life without any side effects. In my book, I post an alternate explanation — heat stroke. A few months prior to his death, Bruce Lee had the sweat glands in his armpits surgically removed, because he didn’t like how his dank pits looked on screen. The day he died, July 20, 1973, was the hottest of the month in tropical Hong Kong. According to Raymond Chow, Bruce was vigorously performing scene after kung fu scene from his next movie in Betty’s small apartment when he began to feel dizzy. He complained of a headache, went to lie down, and never got back up again.