- By Matthew Polly
- Simon & Schuster
- 656 pp.
- Reviewed by James Tate Hill
- August 4, 2019
An engrossing account of the martial-arts and cultural icon who died far too young.
The first Kung Fu movies I ever saw played on a loop in the house where my cousins and I caught the school bus. Most often they starred Chuck Norris or actors we didn’t recognize, but any morning Bruce Lee flew across the screen, the oldest brother of the house, getting ready for a construction job, lingered in the living room.
A man of few words, he once explained to us — not wanting our day’s education to begin with any misunderstanding — that Lee could kick Norris’ ass.
I was a little surprised by his proclamation. In rural 1980s West Virginia, where precisely one kid of Asian descent attended our school, where playground humor employed ethnic voices and racist jokes, Bruce Lee was my first lesson in racial transcendence. In the same way that much of white America didn’t see Eddie Murphy or Michael Jordan as black, Bruce Lee was not Chinese.
He was Bruce Lee.
Strangely, for a cultural icon and iconoclast, Lee’s story has long remained shrouded in mystery. Some of this stems from his unexplained death months before the release of his first English-language film. He was 32 and had only starred in four movies, the other three in Hong Kong.
Another reason little is known about the life of arguably the greatest figure in martial arts history is that, as recently as 2017, a search for Bruce Lee biographies turned up few, if any, results. Matthew Polly’s Bruce Lee: A Life represents the first deep dive into the childhood, career, and legacy of the actor, and it’s difficult to imagine a future biographer putting together a more definitive or entertaining take on the subject.
The child of a Cantonese opera- and film-actor father and an aristocratic mother who was a quarter European, Bruce Lee was born an American citizen in 1940 during one of his father’s opera tours. Polly provides a useful primer on pre- and post-WWII Hong Kong and the toll Japanese attacks took on the island.
Wise investments by Lee’s father after the war allowed him to gain a foothold in the still-young Hong Kong movie industry, and his charismatic son, billed as Little Dragon, found early success as a child star in sentimental features.
When he wasn’t acting, young Bruce Lee was a troublemaker and prankster. Stories like one in which he and a friend sought revenge on a theater owner — the climax of which involved an explosion and a bucket of feces — are alternately amusing and horrifying.
In school, Little Dragon antagonized teachers and picked fights with classmates. Lessons in martial arts, rather than calming his belligerent tendencies, only made him more of a problem. A natural student if not an instant prodigy, Lee frequently tested his skills by challenging kids his own age and older. The precise infraction that got him expelled from high school is one of the only mysteries Polly’s exhaustive research doesn’t completely solve.
Feeling he had disgraced his family, Lee headed to America, the birth country from which he would lose his citizenship if he did not register with the civil service by his 18th birthday. Lee settled in Seattle, eventually enrolling at the University of Washington.
Polly has unearthed a composition essay Lee penned as a freshman, which shows an evolving worldview and a philosophy that will form the basis of his unique approach to martial arts, to “never be in frontal opposition to any problem, but control it by swinging with it.”
His great epiphany occurred when he punched water out of frustration: “Although [the water] seemed weak, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world,” Lee wrote. “I wanted to be like the nature of water.”
Of the countless fighting styles native to Hong Kong and mainland China, Lee had chosen Wing Chun, a technique dependent on sharp reflexes and intended for close-quarters combat. Once in America, he began to see the limitations of any single style. Martial arts purists, which is to say all martial artists at this time, regarded the blending of techniques as an affront to centuries of tradition.
Another no-no was any non-Asian being taught what only Asians were supposed to practice, but when a young African American in Seattle asked Lee to become his teacher, Lee’s hesitation was brief. Lee, too, possessing a measurable amount of European lineage, had been the victim of discrimination in Hong Kong. Classmates used to approach their teacher, pleading for him to refuse lessons to Lee because he was not racially pure.
With a small number of devoted students, Lee and his legend began to grow. “Bruce was like a brilliant young professor who refuse[d] to teach introductory freshman lectures and only [kept] a group of graduate students to assist him with his own research and discoveries.”
Around this time, he began to hone his one-inch punch, which astonishes in print almost as thoroughly as it astonished the many doubters on its receiving end. Using the testimony of firsthand witnesses, Polly recounts Lee’s demonstrations and fights with prose as thrilling as any retelling of an Ali boxing match.
Lee married a classmate — a white woman, it’s worth noting, years before the Loving v. Virginia case brought an end to anti-miscegenation laws — from the University of Washington. Not long after their move to Hollywood, he landed the role of the sidekick, Kato, on the first and only season of television’s “The Green Hornet.”
Decades before Lee was “Bruce Lee,” he was an Asian man in American show business, where roles for Asian actors ranged from non-existent to problematic. Meanwhile, “In a time when so many Asians were trying to convince themselves they were white, Bruce was so proud to be Chinese he was busting with it.”
Unfortunately, in post-World War II America, Asian men were desexualized and ostensibly barred from playing romantic leads. Lee, as irresistible to the women of America as he had been to the Chinese, wasn’t about to play weak men or stereotypes.
Now a father, he needed gainful employment. He found it most often as a movie-fight choreographer and personal instructor to the stars. Stories involving Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Roman Polanski, and many, many more make for a colorful and eccentric window onto 1960s Hollywood.
Unable to parlay his talents or connections into more than bit parts after “The Green Hornet,” Lee reluctantly accepted a project in Hong Kong, where he was both native son and an enticing blend of East and West. “If anyone needed a shot of ethnic boosting,” Polly writes, “it was the Hong Kong Chinese, who suffered from not only an inferiority complex, but also an identity crisis.”
The relationship between country and countryman proved mutually beneficial, and soon Lee would have another chance at American stardom. His unexpected death months before the release of his English-language debut, “Enter the Dragon,” seemed to close the chapter on his brief celebrity. The author’s credible explanation for Lee’s death and the scandalous inquest that followed make for compelling material, but the legacy and legend of Bruce Lee were only beginning to take shape when he passed away.
At the time of his death, there were fewer than 500 martial-arts schools in the world. “By the late 1990s, because of [Lee’s] influence, there were more than 20 million martial arts students in the United States alone.”
His influence, of course, was greater than these numbers. Lee changed the way fight scenes are choreographed and filmed. Most of all, his hybrid approach to Kung Fu led to a new paradigm in martial arts. UFC founder Dana White calls Lee the godfather of mixed martial arts, or to put it another way, he “put the mixed into mixed martial arts.”
That Lee accomplished so much in such a brief life recalls Alfred Kazin’s assessment of Jack London, another icon of masculinity who died very young: “The greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the one he lived.” Reading Matthew Polly’s Bruce Lee, one finds a life far richer and more fascinating than his movies could convey.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2018.]
James Tate Hill is the author of Academy Gothic, a novel. Fiction Editor for the literary journal Monkeybicycle, his work appears at Literary Hub, Writer’s Digest, and Story Quarterly, among others. Follow him on Twitter at @jamestatehill.