Written by April Wolfe, LA Weekly
Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, is holding open a tiny, leather-bound planner for me to take a photo. She says it’s from 1968 and it shows her martial arts superstar father transforming into the sculpted fighter with the bulging batwing muscles that were later showcased in his classic film, Enter the Dragon.
Scrawled in neat cursive penmanship, here’s just a single day’s worth of notes from Bruce Lee’s journal: One thousand punches on the right, 500 on the left. Eight sets each of side bends, sit-ups and leg raises. Two miles each of running and cycling. Wife Linda Lee’s birthday party. The All American Open Karate Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Two thousand more punches. A spar with “Ted.” A Jeet Kune Do demonstration for “Lewis.” James Coburn’s new phone number and address with his birthday. The Kalidasa poem reading, “Look to this day, for it is life, the very life of life, and within its brief span lies all the verities and realities of your existence.”
Shannon corrects me when I call his entries “fragmented.”
“They’re fluid,” she says, “‘Be like water,’ right?”
While most know Bruce Lee from his badass fight scenes in kung fu movies, such as Fist of Fury, The Big Boss and Way of the Dragon, Shannon says that too few realize he was also a writer and philosopher, adapting ancient Chinese wisdom with his own accessible, modern phrasing. He wanted everyone to find enlightenment, not just the philosophers.
Shannon says her father — who died in July 1973 — was in life the same man of honor he was in his films. And he saw those films as a mechanism to share his philosophy. Shannon raises her eyebrows with a smile. “My father was an entertainer, and he knew what he was doing.”
Bruce Lee Enterprises, the company Shannon founded — originally with her mother Linda Lee Cadwell and chief operating officer Kris Storti in 2008 — creates T-shirts, coffee mugs, keychains and jewelry. Yet instead of just churning out widgets with Bruce’s famous visage — handsome with a broad nose, square chin and knowing smirk — Bruce Lee Enterprises also adds his words. A leather bracelet reads: “Summon the courage and walk on.” A hoodie suggests: “Be water, my friend.” The comic books from BLE’s Dragon Rises series feature a hero with great will and no weapons.
“He’s this ultimate philosopher, but he’s packaged as a kung fu action star,” says Chief Creative Officer Sharon Lee (no relation). “He was a Trojan horse. What he’s saying is, ‘Look at my awesome kung fu, and you’re close to me now, so let me tell you about Asian philosophy.'”
BLE’s latest venture is the Bruce Lee podcast, which in each episode uses Bruce’s sayings as a jumping-off point for conversation between Shannon and Sharon. Shannon’s favorite: “The medicine for my suffering I had within me from the beginning.” For 50 minutes, they dig deep, espousing anti-guru, self-help techniques for a better mind. Just five weeks into production, and with little promotion, the show’s already been downloaded more than 224,000 times.
“In today’s Kardashian and Trump moment, to go, ‘I think the global millennials will appreciate a long-form conversation about philosophy’ was counterintuitive,” Sharon says.
Shannon also created a wildly successful Facebook fan page — it has reached 21 million subscribers in two years — where they post his adapted aphorisms. “Memes are the gateway drug to bigger thinking,” Shannon jokes.
Shannon Lee with her father, Bruce Lee
Courtesy of Shannon Lee
She calls her father the absolute expression of yin and yang. She motions to a yin-yang hanging on the wall, which belonged to Bruce. “If you take the yin-yang, it has a piece of the other inside itself,” she says. “You can’t be too much of one thing and be balanced.”
Bruce wasn’t too much of one thing, either. He was born in San Francisco but raised in Hong Kong. He was a quarter white, living in a British-ruled area of China that was occupied by Japan. He embraced both Western and Eastern writings; his book collection contains a volume on Chinese boxing side by side with John F. Kennedy’s Official U.S. Physical Fitness Programmanual.
When he opened a school in Oakland to teach his brand of martial arts called Jun Fan Gung Fu, the entire Chinese martial arts community supposedly challenged him to a fight — their best guy against him — because they didn’t like that he would teach every person who wanted to learn, no matter their race, religion or gender. Bruce Lee won this fight and then started developing a style-less martial arts philosophy he called Jeet Kune Do.
Bruce Lee was a man of harmonious paradoxes. He shaped his body to be a weapon but trained his mind and spirit so he would rarely resort to violence. People often seem surprised, Shannon says, to find that such a hyper-masculine man also had such a developed “feminine” side. Bruce Lee penned poetry on his lunch breaks.
As their podcast and social media presence grew, revealing this other side of Bruce Lee, Shannon and Sharon noticed another curious trend. They had expected the audience devoted to self-help through Asian philosophy to skew female, but their fan base is made up primarily of young men and boys. Sharon, who has a background in cultural anthropology, has a theory. “I’ve been in the field with young people for almost 20 years, and I know what they need and want most are credible ideas and role models that they can believe in.”
Bruce Lee with wife Linda and their kids Brandon and Shannon
Courtesy of Shannon Lee
Having a famous father does not mean that Shannon’s life has been charmed. Bruce died when Shannon was 4. After his death, she and her brother, Brandon, were raised by her mother, Linda, who sold the rights to Lee’s films for a pittance so they could pay the bills. In the 1970s and ’80s, there wasn’t a developed market for the exploitation of dead celebrities’ images. But by the following decade, there was money to be made, and very little was going to Bruce’s family.
Shannon grew up getting a degree in music and felt lost. Her brother, actor Brandon Lee, balked when she announced that she’d like to come to Los Angeles, maybe start acting too.
“He told me, ‘If there’s anything else you think you could do that would bring you as much or more joy, you should do that instead,'” Shannon says. She’d already bought the plane ticket to L.A. when Brandon was killed in a firearms accident on the set of the 1994 film The Crow. A live round was mistakenly left in the gun’s chamber.
“My brother was gone, and I was in L.A. in this emotionally strange place,” she says. “And then I went to go do this movie in Hong Kong, something my brother — and obviously also my father — had done. But my heart wasn’t in it. Being Bruce Lee’s kid, everyone wants you to be an action-film star. I took martial arts, and it’s fun to do those types of movies, but I wanted to act, not fight.”
Shannon says the Hong Kong film industry in 1997 hadn’t changed much since her father left L.A. in the ’70s, to find a roundabout way into Hollywood through Chinese cinema. When Bruce made Way of the Dragon in 1972, he attempted to revolutionize China’s film industry. He insisted on writing a complete script, with multiple drafts, before shooting. He demanded cast and crew choreograph and practice the fighting scenes. He brought his Hollywood knowledge and battled with the director about camera placement and story, and later vowed to write and direct his own movies. One of his most overlooked accomplishments was adding touches of humor and whimsy to an often self-serious genre. Way of the Dragon changed Hong Kong’s movie industry for a hot second. But Bruce was around for only another few pictures, and after his death, progress quickly halted.
Brandon Lee training with his father, Bruce Lee
Courtesy of Shannon Lee
Fast-forward 20 years and China’s film industry was still rough. On set in Hong Kong, Shannon was hollowed by grief. Everything was recorded without sound, because actors spoke different dialects and languages. Fight scenes weren’t choreographed. There was no script. A guy would show up, teach her a routine and then scold her if she didn’t get it right immediately. Propmasters were handing her guns, showing her the empty barrels, assuring her over and over there were no live bullets in there, which only reminded her more of her brother’s death. Then the director looked at her and said, “Just do it the way your dad would do it.” Shannon remembers thinking, “I was, like, ‘OK, and you direct it like my dad would direct it.'” If Bruce had directed it, there probably wouldn’t have been any guns in the picture at all. Bruce was adamantly anti-gun in his films. He thought men with guns were weak.
“It was hard,” she says. “I cried a lot. In private, obviously.”
It was only when she began studying her father’s writings after her brother’s death that she first felt complete. It was then that she realized how powerful Bruce’s words were — and how far his circulated image had gotten from his intention. She launched a years-long battle to regain the rights to Bruce Lee’s name and likeness. She always had most of the archive, which consists of all those file cabinets of poems, love notes and planners, plus 10 large metal shelves housing things like his nunchucks, tiger-skin rug and the bongo drum he accidentally punched through (it helped him develop an arrhythmic fighting style to break into his opponent’s patterns). Even some family photos belonged to third parties. “Publishers actually told us, ‘But you gave them to us to make this book, so we own them now,'” Shannon says, rolling her eyes.
Shannon admits it could have been different — she could have been one of those kids looking to make a quick buck off her pop’s image. “You have no idea how many bags of money I’ve had to turn down. But if something doesn’t match up with our goals — if it’s too violent, or even if it’s just too boring — my father may have been a philosopher, but he was always an entertainer — we’re not going to take the money.” And if they can’t fit a positive aphorism on it, they’re not going to make it. Spreading the message is imperative.
“People can’t believe he was so positive all the time,” Shannon laughs. “But he was.”
Casual fans of Bruce Lee might miss that anger is not rewarded in his films, where violence is the last resort. Bruce Lee’s adage, “Be like water,” is physical and accessible. It’s simple. He even demonstrated the meaning, grabbing a fistful of liquid and letting it fall through his hands: Water is too slippery to catch. Vincent Brown of the History Design Studio at Harvard University, who studies cross-cultural effects of public figures like Bruce Lee, recalls a scene from Enter the Dragon in which Lee tricks an opponent into getting in a dinghy, which he then lets float away. “He wins the fight without fighting in that guy’s way,” Brown says. “It’s not about overpowering the world but changing the terms so you can come out victorious.”
No one knows this better than Aquil Basheer, the violence de-escalation specialist, who in 1971 founded the Academy of Tactical Street Fighters, one of the first black martial arts schools in Los Angeles — he also got his first black belt around the same time as Bruce Lee. Basheer recruited youths to train at his school, many of whom had been inspired by seeing Bruce Lee sparring with African-American actor/martial artist Jim Kelly. “You have to understand, this was a time when we didn’t see any black heroes on the screen,” Basheer says. “No Latino heroes, no Asian heroes. Nothing. So it was a period that brought a lot of happiness and a lot of confidence to people of color.”
Basheer, a former Black Panther, remembers showing up at rallies and protests all over Southern California in the early 1970s with his fellow martial arts practitioners. He says that while police would hassle the other black marchers, his group was left largely alone. His group was trained and confident, which led them to be calm and controlled; they fought on their own terms, using intellect, like the philosophies espoused by Lee. “If you have to resort to using the physical art, then you’ve already failed at the engagement,” Basheer says.
Lee himself dared in his films not to celebrate the dealing of death. In 1972’s Way of the Dragon — which he wrote, directed and starred in — Bruce’s character is forced to kill a karate champ played by Chuck Norris. As a filmmaker, he lets the camera linger on his own face as Lee, the actor, considers the gravity of what it means to snuff out a life. The climactic spar emphasizes thinking as much as fighting.
But today, many Bruce Lee fans forget the nuance beyond his kung fu moves. “The U.S. likes the competition part, the fighting part, the violence and aggression part,” Sharon Lee says. “The other stuff has slowly been stripped away, and what’s left is cage fighting. And it’s a far deviation from his original intentions.” But through their podcast and online community-building, Shannon Lee hopes to bring back her father’s messages of non-aggression to new audiences.
Shannon has monitored the positive effects that their Facebook and podcast community report having experienced from Bruce Lee’s teachings. At every event where Shannon is asked to represent her father, the rooms are packed with men from the military, martial arts and policing communities. And they are emotional.
“This is grown men weeping in front of [Shannon] on a regular basis,” Sharon says. It’s men “at great pains to tell her, ‘This never happens to me. I’m not emotional.'” She doesn’t quite have words for the phenomenon. “For men to have a space in a culture with strict male-identity rules, for them to show up in front of a woman, in public, and start weeping — I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
She says Bruce Lee perhaps showed men that they didn’t have to be just one thing, or fit inside a box. “You have a lot of men in our culture who are asked to be just one thing — manly,” she says, “But what even is that?”
Bruce Lee, she says, is filling some kind of cultural vacuum.”Right now, we’re at a point where self-help says you need to relinquish your control to someone else, a guru, who can tell you what to do. But what he’s saying is you already have it inside you. Like Shannon did.”
Shannon’s got every bit of Bruce’s perseverance gene in her. She’s now partnering with director Justin Lin (the Fast & Furious franchise, Star Trek Beyond) to bring her father’s TV series, Warrior, to life with a pilot for Cinemax — featuring a multidimensional Asian action hero in the honorable vein of Bruce Lee.
She also shares her father’s sense of humor. Shannon jokes that she’s “not just the president of the Bruce Lee philosophy club; I’m also a user, too. If it can work for me, it can work for everyone.”
And she shares her father with the world. Not once has she been alone at his gravesite, she says. Almost 10,000 tourists visit him annually. On the Bruce Lee online communities, she’s surrounded by millions who study his words. And now on the podcast, she’s breathing his spirit into the internet airwaves. She even speaks of him in the present tense. “I can feel him everywhere,” she says. “Once you get past the grief of losing the body, you can understand that.”