In the world of martial arts, very few icons rival the popularity of Bruce Lee. Even after over 40 years since his passing, millions of people around the globe, both those practicing martial arts and those who don’t, still very much view Bruce Lee as their idol and role model. Though most people are familiar with the part of his life where he became a famous actor, what many may not know is that he had faced tremendous challenges throughout his life before gaining fame.
Born in San Fransisco, California, to a Chinese father and a Chinese/German mother, he and his family moved to Hong Kong shortly after his birth. Growing up, Bruce often found himself as the victim of bullying. By the time he was 13 years old, after having been severely beaten up by a local street gang, Bruce decided that it was time for him to fight back and began to extensively train in Kung Fu at a school taught by Sifu Yip Man, a master of the Wing Chun system of Kung Fu.
As he found confidence through his Kung Fu training, Bruce never backed down from a fight. When he was 19 years old, he even found himself beating up the son a well-feared Chinese mafia (Triad) official. This incident made his parents feared for his safety and made the decision to send Bruce Lee back to the US.
With only US$ 115 his pocket, Bruce went back to San Fransisco and stayed with an old friend of his father’s and worked at a Chinese restaurant before venturing off on his own eventually settling in Seattle, Washington. During this time, Bruce was still committed to his Kung Fu practice and felt compelled to share it with and to teach it to a society that does not know much about the Eastern ways. It was then he began holding Kung Fu classes in backyards and at the city parks until he enrolled in the University of Washington as a student where he started to teach Kung Fu to his peers.
As a martial arts teacher, Bruce never cared about race as he had a mission of teaching Kung Fu to anyone who had the desire to learn. However, in the 1960s, race was very much a touchy subject across the United States and Bruce often found himself being the victim of prejudice and racism. He also found opposition from the local Chinese community because they felt that he was violating their code to not share secrets about Kung Fu to those who are not Chinese. Not long after, Bruce was challenged by Jack Man Wong, a leading Kung Fu practitioner in Oakland’s Chinatown District. If Jack were to win the fight, Bruce would have to stop teaching Kung Fu to Caucasians, on the other hand, if Bruce wins then he is able to continue to teach Kung Fu to anyone that wishes to learn. Needless to say, the fight only lasted 1 minute with Bruce as the victor but even so, the experience made Bruce wonder why it took him “so long” to beat Jack. It was then he re-evaluated his style of Kung Fu and began incorporating other martial arts into his practice including Karate, Muay Thai, and Judo.
Fast forward to 1966, Bruce had gotten his “foot in the door” in Hollywood when he was chosen to play the part of Kato, alongside actor Van Williams, in the television series, The Green Hornet. Though the producers initially thought that Bruce’s “oriental” looks would be a turn off to viewers, his martial arts ability was so phenomenal on-screen that his character became more favored with audience viewers than the main character. When the television show was syndicated in Hong Kong, the show was even relabeled from The Green Hornet to The Kato Show. Though the show was a success, it only ran until 1969 when Bruce, feeling that he had enough appeal to star in his own series, pitched a TV series idea called “The Warrior” to Warner Brothers studio. The Warrior storyline followed the challenges faced by a displaced Shaolin monk wandering the old west. This idea evolved and became a show called “Kung Fu”. Though Bruce had worked hard in the project, the studio decided to select a Caucasian actor, David Carradine, for the main role instead. Bruce found himself once again overlooked as the studio believes American viewers were still not ready for a Chinese leading man.
Bruce felt angry for being dismissed for the role and frustrated at the lack of opportunities in Hollywood but he remained undeterred and confident he is able to make it big as an actor. It was during this time that he headed back to Hong Kong and found immense success in martial arts focused movies such as “The Big Boss”, “Fists of Fury” and “Way of the Dragon”. Thanks to these opportunities, Bruce was finally offered a leading role in a Hollywood movie called “Enter the Dragon” which placed him among not only as one of the greatest action stars but among Hollywood's most iconic figures of all time. Sadly, Bruce Lee never had a chance to enjoy the success of “Enter the Dragon” as he passed away just 3 weeks before its release.
Though Bruce had untimely passed away at the tender age of 32, he was able to leave a lasting legacy. Bruce was a relentless and dedicated individual who was able to defy all odds that were set against him. He overcame major obstacles in his path on his rise towards personal success including poverty, racial prejudice, financial woes, injuries, and lost opportunities. Rather than feeling defeated, he successfully used each one of the obstacles and challenges he faced as fuel to propel himself into greatness. For this reason, Bruce Lee more than earned his well-deserved reputation as an exceptional role model. His inspirational legacy will undoubtedly live on for many generations to come.
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