Wong Shun Leung student, sometimes Wing Chun teacher, and full-time movie star Philip Ng (of Once Upon a Time in Shanghai ) is breaking into English language cinema soon with his new movie Birth of the Dragon.
The film apparently follows a white guy in the early 1960s who becomes a student of Bruce Lee’s back in his Oakland/San Francisco days and culminates in the famous fight between Bruce and Wong Jack Man. From what I can see, the film is highly mythologized, but frankly, the more I find out about the history of Asian martial arts, the more I realize that a large chunk of what we think we know is in fact myth.
I’m in the middle of a bunch of reading about martial arts history and discovering how many of our most basic ideas are probably false (like, the idea that Kung Fu came from Shaolin or that Judo and Jujitsu are ancient arts). There has been a recent upsurge in the serious academic study of martial arts history in the West. I first heard about this material on Ben Judkins’ Kung Fu Tea website. Ben is the Wing Chun student and professional academic who wrote The Creation of Wing Chun (with Jon Nielson) .
Its an odd contrast that I had read about half of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America when I saw the the trailer below for Birth of the Dragon. In the book, I’m getting an historians best take on what happened. In the trailer, clearly we are getting the highly stylized movie version.
But I do think I will like Sifu Ng’s “cool” version of Bruce Lee. Bruce was by all accounts a cocky bastard and highly polarizing — people loved him or hated him in real life. He was clearly able to polish a lot of his rough edges and more irritating characteristics when inventing his screen persona.
The book is very interesting and for me in particular, very close to home. There are many correspondences between Bruce’s experiences in the Bay Area and my own. I live about two miles from the location of Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu school on Broadway Avenue. Bruce was good friends with Wally Jay, founder of Small Circle Jujitsu who headquarters was in Alameda. I studied Small Circle with Professor Lee Eichelberger, one of Wally Jay’s protegees, in the back room of an Alameda church. One of my training partners studied with Wally Jay for many years and we frequently discussed his methods.
Bruce was significantly aided in his development of that ripped physique by his friendship with Allen Joe, an Oakland martial artist, champion bodybuilder, and disciple of Jack LaLanne. I met LaLanne at the gym I frequented for many years on Harrision Street in Oakland (in a warehouse behind a chiropractic practice), which was owned by another LaLanne protogee/bodybuilder.
I learned the Wong Shun Leung version of Wing Chun from Greg LeBlanc and occasionally Gary Lam, who studied with Wong Sifu for 15 years. Bruce also learned from Wong Sifu, as did Philip Ng! Round and round we go.
Reading the book was like 2-3 degrees of separation in every direction!
The thing that keeps occurring to me as I learn more about Bruce Lee’s life and development were all the other people who contributed to his becoming the larger than life Bruce Lee we all know from the movies, TV shows, and interviews. Bruce was like the tip of this iceberg of people all thinking about martial arts and testing them scientifically, specifically in the context of streetfighting.
Basically the subject of this website!
I think this is probably true of many people who reach legendary status. They say “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Bruce started off in Hong Kong learning Wing Chun from Ip Man, who took a very Western scientific approach to his art, and who edited and modified the system significantly, stripping out a lot of the more mystic elements. Bruce learned most of what he knew from Wong Shun Leung, who was, among his Wing Chun peers, the fighter most influenced by Western boxing and his own street fighting experiences. Then Bruce landed in Seattle and attracted a group of fighters (Jesse Glover, Taky Kimura, etc) who were also studying Eastern martial arts but who were most interested in finding what worked. Later, he hooked up with a group of fighters in Oakland (Wally Jay, James Yim Lee, Ed Parker) who were doing the same thing. Everyone was learning different fighting arts then examining and field testing and discarding and modifying. All trying to find what really worked.
Bruce Lee become the breakout poster child for this intellectual movement which would eventually have such off-shoots as MMA and the UFC.
But back to Birth of the Dragon. Apparently Wong Jack Man is a Shaolin monk in this version?
I’ve heard many versions of this fight, some from people who knew people, etc.
Its well-known that Bruce was put in traction by a back injury and that this period of incapacitation was when he did most of the work on what would later become Tao of Jeet Kune Do. In the 90s movie Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, where they called the opponent “Johnny Sun, ” Bruce got his back injury in this fight (if I recall, from a cowardly sneak attack when his back was turned). Other sources say he got this injury doing Good Mornings with too much weight (I think this is the true story).
This article covers various interpretations of the fight. Here is another version of how the fight went down. Interesting how in the movie version, the opponent hit Bruce from behind. In the version from the Man Jack Wong student, Bruce himself claimed to have been hitting Man Jack Wong in the back of the head! It is interesting, and to my knowledge, accurate, that Bruce revised his ideas about fighting significantly after this fight. In Tao of Jeet Kune Do, he makes a big point about how he had a fight in which he got badly winded, to the point he could barely raise his arms to hit the opponent. This led to his fanatical adoption of cardio-building practices, especially running.
Some versions make out that the fight was due to Bruce teaching gwailo (white people). But this doesn’t make any sense because as the book Striking Distance makes clear, TY Wong (Wong Tim Yuen) was teaching Al Novak (a friend of James Yimm Lee) as early as 1960. How come no one went after him?
Its very interesting to me to see these representations of kung fu in the media, especially now as I get better and better at it myself and rub elbows with some of the best people in the world and I begin to realize what is real and what is a myth in terms of the ultimate capabilities of the systems and of fighting in general.
While some Bruce Lee fans might take offense at all these dings to Bruce’s reputation, but I don’t really mind. I know people are human and I think you can pretty clearly see among all these contradictory versions a very talented and intelligent but cocky (and touchy) fighter who was a bit of a fanatic about his interests and someone who became fixated on becoming unbeatable. I feel bad for the guy, really. Check out the article by Wong Shun Leung about his visits and letters with Bruce, and you see how Bruce was almost haunted by this need to stand up to every perceived challenge and to keep testing and striving to become someone who couldn’t be beat.
I think Bruce’s big failing was he liked to talk smack. Of course, generally, he could back it up. But the fact is, anyone can be beaten. As someone once said, a 12 year old with a sharp knife can kill a Grandmaster who isn’t expecting an attack.
Martial arts aren’t magic. We are all subject to he laws of physics.
I think Bruce’s demons (the psychological ones, not the literal ones from Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) helped drive him to work harder than most and turn himself into a truly formidable martial artist. And his own inquisitive nature and philosophical bent combined with good-luck encounters with teachers and associates like Ip Man and Wong Shun Leung and Wally Jay and James Yimm Lee and even Gene LeBell. These experiences allowed him to codify and popularize a new direction in martial studies which is still in process.
At the same time, previously segregated systems (by race and nation) like Karate and Judo and Jujitsu and Wing Chun all landed in new places like Hawaii and the Bay Area and New York and LA and started to mix and gell and morph. People like the men discussed above were able to study many of these arts and examine what made them work and what their weaknesses were.
I think we are living in an era of fight study heavily influenced by all these predecessors.