43 Fascinating Facts about Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee is a film and martial arts legend known for his lightning quick fighting style, his grunts and facial expression he made while fighting, his pithy philosophical statements and more. He changed the film industry in Hong Kong and brought Kung Fu into Western popular culture.
He was a man of intense energy, with huge ambitions, who pushed his body farther than it ever wanted to go in order to reach new heights. He sadly died at a young age, leaving the world wondering what else he would have accomplished if he was given more time.
There are many fascinating facts about Bruce Lee. In this post, I mention 43 of them. They were all acquired while reading the biography, Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit by Bruce Thomas. It is a book that was entertaining, informative, and easy to read. I highly recommend it.
**Please note that we are assuming that the author of the biography was correct with their research.**
I hope you enjoy the following facts about Bruce Lee. There are videos included in this post. I apologize if the videos are no longer showing up, we are not the ones hosting them on Youtube and we have no control over them.
1. Bruce Lee’s father was an opera singer for the Hong Kong Cantonese Opera. (10)
2. Bruce Lee’s birth story (11)
Bruce Lee was born on November 27th, 1940 — “according to the Chinese zodiac, the Year of the Dragon” — in San Francisco, California, because his mother had been accompanying his father while he toured across the United States with the opera.
“To confuse any potentially unfriendly spirits, the child was given a girl’s name, Sai Fon (Small Phoenix) and one of his ears were pierced. Grace Lee soon renamed her new son Jun Fan (Return Again) because she had an intuition that he would one day return to his birthplace.”
The name Bruce Lee came about because the supervising doctor “nicknamed the boy Bruce and anglicized his family name to Lee.” His family wouldn’t call him by the name “Bruce Lee” until he was a teenager.
3. Bruce’s sister, Agnes, was the one who first started calling him “Little Dragon,” a nickname that stuck with him in Asia throughout his life. (13–14)
4. He never went into a swimming pool after a traumatic experience in his youth. (14)
When Bruce was young, he pushed his sister Phoebe into a swimming pool as a joke, and she responded by holding his head under water until he promised never to do it again. From then on, he never went into a swimming pool again.
5. Bruce Lee was a child actor in Hong Kong. (14–15)
6. Bruce Lee started on his journey of learning martial arts when he was thirteen, which is when he began learning Wing Chun from Yip Man. (19)
Sadly, his training with Yip Man didn’t end on a high note.
Yip Man was a traditionalist who didn’t believe Wing Chun should be taught to Westerners. After a while, some students found out that Bruce had German ancestors (from his mother’s side) and told Yip Man about it. Yip Man was okay with it because of his respect for Bruce, but the other students demanded that Bruce not be allowed to train there, so Bruce decided to leave. (29)
7. When he was seventeen years old, he won a boxing tournament put on by twelve Hong Kong schools even though he had no formal training in boxing. (29–30)
8. Bruce Lee emigrated to the United States right before he was eighteen so he could claim American citizenship before the option lapsed, which he was able to do because he was born in San Francisco. (31–32)
The city he arrived at was San Francisco, the city his mother had predicted he would return to one day.
9. Bruce ended up moving in with family friends in Seattle, Washington. He enrolled in a vocational school so he could earn a high school diploma, which would make him eligible to attend the University of Washington. (36–40)
10. After a martial arts demonstration he put on, he started teaching martial arts to a select group of students who were interested in the form he practiced; a form they had never seen before. (42–49)
Some of his students were already highly skilled in fighting, such as James DeMille and Jesse Glover. James had been a heavyweight boxing champion for the Air Force and Jesse was a black belt in Judo, but even with their expertise, they wanted to learn from Bruce because they had never seen someone with his talent and style of fighting.
11. During the summer of 1961 (a few months after starting at the University of Washington), Bruce paid for a business license and officially opened a martial arts school called the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute. He was only 20 years old. (51–52)
12. One reason for the change of Gung Fu to Kung Fu in America. (58)
Bruce met, and became friends with a man named James Lee who was an “author of several books on the fighting arts of the Orient, karate and kung fu. Bruce asked why’d he chosen to spell it ‘kung fu’ rather than the traditional Cantonese ‘gung fu.’ James replied that since most American’s didn’t know Chinese pronunciation he felt that his spelling would make it more accessible and marketable in the US.”
13. He dated a girl named Amy Sanbo for three years and asked her to marry him multiple times, even though she kept rejecting him. The last time was in the summer of 1963, before he was to return to Hong Kong to visit his family. She said no and they went on their separate ways. (56–66)
14. He had a great sense of humor.
I decided to add this one because I wanted to share the following story since I think it is hilarious. There are other stories in the biography about him having a sense of humor or being a practical joker too, but the one below makes me chuckle.
It is a story Doug Palmer shared about Bruce Lee, “He used to act like a geek and let a street punk goad him, then when the punk swung, Bruce would block it awkwardly and snap at the punk’s groin, incapacitating him with a blow that appeared to be an accident. As the punk rolled in pain, Bruce would cover his mouth with his hand and titter effeminately, then walk off.
‘A person can accept getting beaten by someone who is stronger or bigger than he is,’ Bruce would explain, ‘but if he thinks he’s been beaten by a fairy, he’ll be pissed off for the rest of his life.’” (68)
15. Bruce Lee became circumcised at the age of twenty-two while he was visiting Hong Kong because his father suddenly wanted Bruce to be circumcised. (69)
16. He didn’t have to sign up for the draft because he was deemed physically unacceptable by the army because of an undescended testicle. (70)
17. Bruce left school at the University of Washington and moved to Oakland in June 1964 so he could open up a martial arts institute with James Lee. (74)
18. Had a shotgun wedding to Linda Emery. (75–76)
Bruce returned to Seattle on August 12th, 1964 and secretly married Linda who was pregnant, using the wedding ring of James Lee’s wife, which she had let him borrow.
19. Brandon Lee was born on February 1, 1965. (83)
20. How his first screen test in Hollywood came about. (83–86)
Bruce did a kung fu demonstration in Long Beach at a karate tournament in 1964. A Beverly Hills salon owner, Jay Sebring, was in the audience and was impressed with what he saw from Bruce. One of the salon owner’s clients, who was a tv producer, was getting a haircut and mentioned that he was looking for someone to play the part of Charlie Chan’s son. Jay suggested Bruce Lee, and the producer listened and Bruce Lee ended up getting a screen test for the role. (83–86)
A part of the screen test is below. It is incredible how fast and precise Bruce Lee moves without hitting the other man in the video.
21. Charlie Chan was shelved, but the same producer offered Bruce the role of Kato in a new television series called The Green Hornet. (87)
22. He started to have severe back pain in the months before him and his family were to move to LA, and before the shooting of The Green Hornet. The back pain would be an on and off again issue for the rest of his life. (88–89)
23. The Green Hornet was the first time that Kung Fu had been seen in the West, besides in movie theaters in Chinatown districts. It should also be noted that Bruce had to slow down his fight movements because they became a blur while being filmed, and the show also used slow motion to play the fight scenes so they could capture the full effect of Bruce Lee’s skill. (90–93)
24. Bruce Lee and Dan Insonato coined the term and started the fighting philosophy, “Jeet Kune Do.” (96–100)
25. Many people considered Bruce Lee to have an anger issue. (mentioned throughout the book)
26. The famous actor Steve McQueen was one of Bruce Lee’s celebrity pupils. (100–101)
Some of his other notable pupils were Kareem Abdul Jabar, James Coburn, Roman Polanski, Stirling Silliphant, Joe Hyams, Tom Tannenbaum, Mike Stone, Chuck Norris, Bob Wall, Joe Lewis, and Mito Uyehara. (300)
27. Stirling Silliphant, a famous screenwriter who was training under Bruce, helped Bruce get bit parts in television shows, and helped him snag his first acting gig in a feature length film in America; a small role in the film Marlowe. (110–113)
28. He had financial problems because of his spending. Though he was struggling to meet his mortgage payments on his new house, he decided to buy a new Porsche and went racing with Steve McQueen along Mullohand Drive. (114)
29. Linda had their second child, Shannon, on April 19th, 1969. (118)
30. In 1969, Bruce “damaged a sacral nerve and was experiencing a severe muscle spasm.” For weeks he was sidelined on his bed as the bills piled up and stress mounted on him. It would lead him to write his famous “My Definite Chief Aim.” (119–120)
His definite chief aim was, “I, Bruce Lee, will be the first highest-paid Oriental superstar in the United States. In return I will give the most exciting performance and render the best of quality in the capacity of an actor. Starting 1970, I will achieve world fame and from then onwards till the end of 1980 I will have in my possession $10,000,000. I will live the way I please and achieve inner harmony and happiness.” (120)
After writing this, he started to train and teach again even though he was still in severe pain.
31. He didn’t know he was becoming a star in Asia because of The Green Hornet. (124–131)
Bruce had secured a role in a new television pilot called Longstreet and while he waited for it to start filming, he went to Hong Kong to “arrange for his mother to come and live in the US.” Upon arrival, he was greeted by multiple reporters and was requested to appear on talk shows because of his role of Kato. His new found fame in Asia was a surprise to him. (124–125)
The new found fame lead him to search for future film ventures in Hong Kong. He signed a deal with Raymond Chow to make two feature films in Asia. He would return to Asia after filming his role in Longstreet.
32. The Big Boss (132–137)
“The Big Boss’s budget was less than $100,000 which, at the time, wouldn’t have paid for a sixty-second TV commercial in the US.” There wasn’t much of a script for the film, as was common in Hong Kong films during that time period, and they improvised as they went along and shot very quickly.
A random fact about the film is that the prostitutes in the film were actual prostitutes, besides one of them, who was an actress. This same thing would happen again in Bruce Lee’s last film.
The film was a huge success in Hong Kong. “Within three weeks of its release, The Big Boss smashed all box office records, earning over $HK3 million.” (137)
33. Fist of Fury was the film that started the association of nunchakas with Bruce Lee. The film’s success would also change Bruce Lee and the Hong Kong film industry. (138–146)
His second film in Hong Kong, Fist of Fury, was filmed in six weeks on a budget of $100,000. It would end up breaking The Big Boss’s box office record in four weeks.
The nunchakas had been used by Bruce Lee briefly in The Green Hornet, but it was his use of them in Fist of Fury that cemented the association of him with the weapons. In the short video below, near the end, he uses the nunchakas to brutal effect.
After the film, Bruce decided he wanted to create his own production company, so he formed Concord Productions with Raymond Chow. He decided he wanted to write and direct the films he was in, and he wanted to receive a split of the profits. This sent shockwaves through the Hong Kong film industry because everyone involved in the film process in the past, including actors, had been poorly paid except for the producers.
The result of Bruce Lee demanding this caused other people in the film industry to demand better pay. It forever changed the way the Hong Kong film industry worked.
34. Bruce Lee wrote, produced, directed, and starred in Way of the Dragon. He also scouted the locations, cast it, chose the wardrobe, and choreographed the fight scenes. Essentially, he did almost everything for the film. (150)
Some other random facts about the film was that it was the first Hong Kong film to be shot in Europe, Bruce “played percussion on the music for the soundtrack,” Bruce “spent over forty-five hours on his fight scene with Chuck Norris,” and the film would break the box office record he had just set with Fist of Fury within three weeks. (151–152, 168)
35. Around the time of Way of the Dragon the Hong Kong press voted Bruce Lee “Worst-Dressed Actor of the Year” because he often liked to wear silk suits and other elaborate outfits. (156)
36. Bruce heard that Kareem Abdul Jabbar was in Hong Kong, and he arranged some action scenes to be filmed with him for Game of Death even though there was no script yet for the movie. (159)
37. Enter the Dragon would be Bruce Lee’s only starring role in a film that was financed by a United States company.
38. All the issues on the set of Enter the Dragon. (171–181)
The director of the film and Bruce butted heads. Bruce had trouble pronouncing certain letters at time, so supposedly, the director of the film asked the screenwriter “to change the name of the British agent in the script to fuck Bruce up.” (171)
There was a shortage of translators on the set, so there was difficulty in communication between the American and Chinese crews. The Americans weren’t familiar with the way that Chinese films worked, and vice versa, which caused conflict.
Bruce was extremely stressed with everything and went missing from the set. The film started shooting and went on shooting for at least two weeks without him.
Actual fights happened on the set between stuntmen and extras hired from Triad families. The prisoners in the film were actual derelicts from the streets of Hong Kong. The prostitutes on the set were also real prostitutes and earned more than most of the crew, causing ill will on the set. The actor Peter Archer almost drowned.
Bruce had to get stiches on his finger because he had sliced open his finger during a take of the fight scene with Bob Wall because they used real glass bottles, instead of fake ones.
As you can probably imagine, it was an extremely stressful film to make, and sadly was Bruce Lee’s last film.
39. Bruce Lee ordered a gold Rolls Royce Corniche in anticipation of the success of Enter the Dragon, but he would die before the release of the film and the arrival of the car. (183)
40. The studio changed the title to Blood and Steel, which Bruce disputed, and then they changed it to Han’s Island. He threatened to never work for them again if they didn’t change it back. They eventually set it back to Enter the Dragon. (187)
41. On July 20th, 1973, Bruce Lee went unconscious while in the apartment of the actress Betty Ting Pei. She had given him a equagesic headache pill, which he took before taking a nap. She was the last person to see him while he was conscious. (192–193)
Bruce had been having health problems leading up his death. In May of that year, he had passed out and been rushed to the hospital, where he would end up being diagnosed with cerebral edema. (184–190)
There are many rumors and different explanations of what caused his death: a reaction to the equagesic pill, him having eaten cannabis, being killed by the Triad and more. I’m not going to go into them. The book does talk about all the crazy theories though, so check it out if you are interested in that kind of stuff.
If you are wondering who Betty Ting Pei was? She was a woman who had acted with Bruce in some of his films, and according to the biography, he had an affair with her. (214–215)
42. He was buried in Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, Washington. His son, Brandon Lee, would be buried in the same cemetery after Brandon died in a tragic accident while filming The Crow.
43. A young Jackie Chan had a super brief cameo in Enter the Dragon. He played a guard who jumps into the frame and grabs Bruce from behind, and then Bruce promptly kills him.
I hope you enjoyed these fascinating facts about Bruce Lee. He is a film legend that lived an interesting life. If you are looking to learn more about Bruce Lee, then check out Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit by Bruce Thomas, which is where all of these facts were found. The stories about Bruce’s life are worth reading.
Thanks for reading these facts. I hope you enjoyed.
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