The man behind the dragon
There are many facts about Bruce Lee that are well-known: that he was the first Asian-American actor to ever have a lead role in a Hollywood film; that he was nicknamed ‘Little Dragon’ (he was born on the Chinese Year of the Dragon, on the Day of the Dragon, and on the Hour of the Dragon, after all); or that his super speedy kicks were too fast for the cameras to follow during filming.
But, despite the fact that Bruce Lee has transcended being just a martial artist and has become a cultural icon, there are still some facts about his life and work that may surprise you.
1. A cha cha champion
Bruce Lee is known for his impressive moves: his high kicks, devastating punches, and quick legwork. But what about his... dance moves? In 1958, Bruce Lee became the Crown Colony Cha Cha dancing champion of Hong Kong. Yes, cha cha. Perhaps we have this early training in Latin dance to thank for the grace and poise of his martial arts style.
2. Child star
Bruce Lee started young. Not only did he begin martial arts at age 13, he was also a child actor, and appeared in over 20 films in Hong Kong before moving to the United States at age 18. His first screen time came at the very young, and very adorable, age of 3 months.
3. A good hair day
Bruce Lee got his big break in Hollywood in 1964 when he was discovered by celebrity hair stylist, Jay Sebring, at the Long Beach Karate Championships. Sebring told one of his celebrity clients, the producer and actor William Dozier, about the young, talented martial artist, and Dozier immediately contacted Lee. The rest is history.
4. Eyes on the prize
Despite his quick reactions and insightful precision, Bruce Lee actually had terrible eyesight. This meant that he wore large glasses all his life, and was even one of the first people to ever try out contact lenses.
5. Humble beginnings
Bruce Lee never intended to become an actor, and dreamed instead of opening up martial arts schools across the US. The first location of what could loosely be called Bruce's "school", The Jun Fan Gung-Fu Institute, was actually located in a parking garage in Seattle's First Hill area. From there it moved to a basement in Chinatown. But from these humble beginnings came a new philosophy of martial arts, Jeet Kune Do, and Lee’s school still operates in Seattle today.
6. A rebel with a cause
Martial arts is steeped in tradition, etiquette and protocol, so it’s no surprise that Bruce Lee ruffled some feathers in the martial arts community with his unorthodox practices. He often called out what were, in his opinion, the "inefficient" methods of the classical arts during his demonstrations. Added to this, Bruce Lee actively fought to take martial arts out of the rarefied, secretive schools and bring it to everyone. He was one of the pioneers of inclusivity in martial arts, and openly taught all walks of life, no matter their race, age or gender.
On July 18th, 2012, the United States House of Representatives made a tribute to Bruce Lee, saying, "Bruce had, and continues to have, an immeasurable impact on American and global popular culture through the important role he played in creating a bridge between cultures."
7. A boundary-breaking love
In the summer of 1963, a young woman by the name of Linda Emery began taking Gung Fu lessons from Lee in Seattle. After a class one day, Bruce asked Linda out on a date. Adorably, he took her to the Seattle Space Needle. A year later, Bruce and Linda were married, even though they knew their parents, and society at large, would not approve of their interracial marriage.
8. Bruce Lee: the… designer?
Bruce Lee was an innovator. To enhance his training regime, he designed equipment that was less-rigid, and more unpredictable, much like how a human would be in a real combat situation.
9. A man of many talents
After completing his GED at the Edison Technical School in Seattle in 1961, Bruce Lee enrolled at the University of Washington, majoring in philosophy. Lee was also a superb artist and even enjoyed writing poetry. Not only a scholar and a diligent student, Lee used his studies in everyday life. In developing his art of Jeet Kune Do, Lee studied not only martial arts, but also biomechanics, boxing, fencing, nutrition, self-help books and philosophy. Lee was a man of many talents.
10. Trainer to the stars
Bruce ran private martial arts lessons, even charging exorbitant fees to deter people from thinking that martial arts was quick or easy. Some of Bruce's celebrity students included Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Stirling Silliphant, Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In fact, Steve McQueen and James Coburn were pallbearers at Bruce Lee’s funeral.
11. Going head-to-head with the pope and Gandhi
In 2005, a statue of Bruce Lee was unveiled in the small town of Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bruce was chosen over other nominees, including the pope and Gandhi, after a residents poll revealed that Bruce Lee was the only name respected by both sides as a 'symbol of solidarity'.