“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
“The real significant early development of the martial arts in the United States was heavily based in the Bay Area. Many of the most important people came out of the Bay Area, not just for the Chinese but for so much of the martial arts.”
Kenpo Master Al Tracy
“The rising tide raises all boats.”
New England Council
You may have noticed the articles on this site have slowed down in recent months. This has been because I’ve been working to finish both my free book and to begin framing out the book I plan to sell (someday!).
But for quite a while, I’ve been chipping away at a number of articles for this site, including one which provided a brief overview of the very interesting book Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America by Charles Russo. I did a number of drafts of this article, since Russo’s book covers Bruce Lee’s Oakland period, and this is a subject close to my heart.
Not only do I live within a few miles of Bruce’s old house and his school on Broadway, but I studied Small Circle Jujitsu in Alameda, the brainchild of Wally Jay, one of Bruce’s close associates during his Oakland period. And I feel a close kinship with the spirit of investigation that drew Bruce to Oakland from Seattle. The same ideas and goals drew me from New Hampshire to Oakland in 2000 (plus a job offer!). Plus I’ve been studying Wing Chun a long time, in Oakland and Berkeley.
Despite the fact that I wrote many drafts of my article, I discovered the author Charles Russo did a better job of a short summary, including supplementary info, for Viceland, in his article Bruce Lee and the Art of Scientific Street Fighting. So why reinvent the wheel? I encourage you to read that article, and then maybe the book, if you want more on the subject.
I did have some “value-added” content, which was mainly my observation that Bruce Lee was a man, but he was also a phenomenon, an idea really, incorporating input from the people he’d associated with. He started with the street fighting ethos of Ip Man and Wong Shun Leung’s Wing Chun in Hong Kong. Then he moved to Seattle and started trying his skills out on boxers (James DeMille) and Judoka (Jesse Glover, his first student). Later, he met Allen Joe who was visiting Seattle from Oakland. Joe was also a street fighter but also a disciple of Jack Lalanne (running one of his chain gyms). He introduced Bruce to bodybuilding but also to the Oakland scene of guys who were thinking outside the box about fighting . Guys who were beginning to think critically about different fighting styles with a single measurement: “Does it work?”
Bruce visited Joe in Oakland and met James Yimm Lee (classically trained in various arts in San Francisco) and Leo Fong (a successful boxer in college with 18 knockouts). Later he move down and become part of the larger scene which included Wally Jay, Ralph Castro, Al Novak, and Ed Parker.
I’ve observed the impact of finding a group of like-minded people and the synergy of success this can create. For me, a classic example of this phenomenon is the “Beats,” a group of writers and poets from New York in the 1950s. They were just a bunch of kids hanging out, trying to have fun but also being maybe a little more artistic and intellectual than the norm. Some of them were attending Columbia University, some working regular jobs but hanging out with that Columbia college crowd.
One of the older guys in the group, William Burroughs, wrote and published a book in 1953 which was a minor success. Then in very short order, four or five of the others all wrote books and started to have their own successes. The most famous members were Jack Kerouac (On the Road, 1957) and Allen Ginsberg (Howl, 1956), but there were five or six others more peripheral to this group who also published and launched careers as writers and academics.
I think when Burroughs wrote his book, the others thought to themselves, wow, he wrote a book! I know he’s no smarter than me and he wrote a book. Maybe I can too.
I think this same sort of group support happened in the Martial Arts scene in Oakland in the 60s.
Bruce probably would have always been “successful,” as driven as he was. But his unique development as a critic of Classical Arts, an early proponent of a “mixed martial arts” approach, with his unrelenting focus on finding “street ready” training and methods I think was a result of this serendipitous mix of his nature and his environments. He was a scrappy Hong Kong boy who then discovered Seattle, Oakland, and LA, all places that were hotbeds of this sort of thinking.
I’ve found a similar scene in Oakland. Although I’ve been studying Wing Chun, just because of the people I trained with, I also got some Muay Thai, Kadena de Mano, Escrima, and Jujitsu from various sources. Its just a rich environment where many people have been exposed to various arts and like to share. It really helps us avoid complacency!