Friday, March 9, 2012

I am (not) Bruce Lee

The other night I watched the documentary, I Am Bruce Lee, on Spike TV which followed a broadcast on that same channel of Enter The Dragon. Fans of Bruce Lee will enjoy the documentary which has a lot of “never before seen footage,” and many interviews with his wife, Linda, Kobe Bryant, Shannon Lee ) Bruce Lee’s daughter), and others, some to praise and some to criticize the praise in devil’s advocate style. It covered the well known biographical data, offered numerous clips, including interviews with Bruce Lee speaking about his philosophy. And so, ya, it was worth the watch. But I guess you either idolize the guy or you don’t.

What intrigued me was learning about Lee’s early life in Hong Kong (he was born in san Francisco but raised in Hong Kong) and his study of Wu style Tai Chi Chuan and Wing Chun which he learned under Master Yi Man. This plus the real life experience of street fighting led him to develop his own style of martial arts which he called Jun Fan Gung Fu (Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu), which he later evolved into what he termed Jeet Kune Do (The Way of Intercepting Fist) and which supposedly influenced, if not gave birth to, the phenomena called Mixed Martial Arts (A.K.A. kick ‘em in the groin, the face, anywhere--- there ain’t no rules!)

Wikipedia has a good entry on Wing Chun and I won’t go into it here except to point out a few of the similarities between Wing Chun and Tai Chi, similarities that may stem from some neighboring branches of the martial arts family tree. The origin story of Wing Chun involves a maiden who observes a crane fighting a snake--- sound familiar? Fundamental to Wing Chun is softness, relaxation, centered stance and good balance. The concept of simultaneous attack and defense is similar to Tai Chi’s sticking and following where you are never left in a vulnerable position but can flow with the energy of your opponent.

Wing Chun punches are Fa Jing: short bursts of energy where tension comes only at the end of the extension of the strike.Arms are held close to the body for the most part and kicks are also similar to those found in the Tai Chi form(s). So, although Tai Chi Chuan is characterized as an “internal art” and much of the other Kung Fu forms are “external,” there is something the student of Tai Chi can gain by observing the Wing Chun form(s). This also gives a certain perspective to watching those Bruce Lee films or old episodes of Green Hornet. The Wikipedia mentions a popular culture icon in the person of Donnie Yen. He played Yip Man in a recent movie:

Donnie Yen has also caused tremendous impact in the martial arts world through his various films. Yen is widely credited by many as the person responsible in popularizing the traditional martial arts system known as Wing Chun. Donnie Yen played the role of Wing Chun Grandmaster in the 2008 movie, Ip Man, which was a huge box office success, re-defining the genre of action films. This has led to a tremendous increase in the numbers of people taking up Wing Chun, allowing hundreds of new Wing Chun schools to be opened up in Mainland China and other notable parts of Asia. Ip Chun, the eldest son of Ip Man even mentioned that he is grateful to Donnie Yen for making his family art popular and allowing his father's legacy to be remembered. ---

Here is a clip from that movie:

Another part of the Bruce Lee legend that intrigues me is the story of his fight with Wong Jack Man in 1964. Lee was teaching his style of Wing Chun. Lee was part Caucasian and the local Chinese community took exception to his teaching non-Chinese students in the Chinese martial arts. Supposedly, Wong Jack Man, a student of Ma Kin Fung and a master of Xingyiquan, Northern Shaolin, and T'ai chi chuan, was sent to challenge Lee to a fight which, if he lost, he would consent to refrain from teaching non-Chinese. And shut down his school. From Wikipedia:

Individuals known to have witnessed the match included Cadwell, James Lee (Bruce Lee's associate, no relation), and William Chen, a teacher of T'ai chi ch'uan. Wong and witness William Chen stated that the fight lasted an unusually long 20–25 minutes. According to Bruce Lee, Linda Lee Cadwell, and James Yimm Lee, the fight lasted 3 minutes with a decisive victory for Lee. "The fight ensued, it was a no-holds-barred fight, it took three minutes. Bruce got this guy down to the ground and said 'do you give up?' and the man said he gave up" – Linda Lee Cadwell

One last thing about the documentary, it pointed out that Lee admired Muhammad Ali and studied his fighting style by viewing numerous films. He wanted to fight Ali but never got the chance. Well, he wooped Chuck Norris, so, you never know!


  1. Please check out this article written by a student of Wong Jack Man in the 80's. Michael was one of the few people who got Wong Sifu to talk about the fight. It's definitely a more balanced view of the fight than the one that Linda Lee who wasn't there has published.

  2. 07-09-15
    I've studied Wing Chun under Sifu Chris Chan(who was a direct student under Sigung Yip Man at the same time as Bruce Lee in Hong Kong) & Yang Style Tai Chi under William Chen both in San Francisco. I think, in the realm of Kung Fu, Tai Chi & Wing Chun flow nicely together... Originally as a child I started out training Judo, as a teenager in Northern Shaolin Tan Tui and cross trained with some cousins that were Kajukenbo Karate & Hapkido practitioners. I just happened to be fortunate to be introduced to Sifu Bill Chen by (my Si Hing) Sifu Al Carrie under Sifu Chris Chan. Sifu Al Carrie has trained under both of them since the 1973. Being born & raised in San Francisco has been amazing to be able to train under Traditional Martial Artist of their calibre.