Bruce had dropped out of school to essentially launch a martial arts startup with James in the East Bay, and the results of their collaboration would have a profound influence on both Bruce’s career and the future of martial arts in America.
Oakland native James Lee, left, was a menacing street fighter in his youth and a tireless innovator of the martial arts later in life. He shared a similar wavelength to Bruce Lee, right, despite their difference in age.
As this month marks the 50th anniversary of Bruce’s untimely passing, his days in Oakland remain an all-too-obscure, yet essential chapter for understanding his actual martial arts career, as opposed to the cinematic one that he is often more commonly known for around the world.
The anniversary arrives at a time when mixed martial arts competitions are the dominant combat sport of our era and embody so many of the principles that Bruce and James had cultivated in the East Bay. If Bruce is indeed a pioneer of present day mixed martial arts — as many practitioners correctly assert — then his garage startup years in Oakland were pivotal to that role.
The Bay Area’s Bruce Lee
There’s a telling archival interview from 1966 in which Bruce speaks with KCRA’s Harry Martin on a Hollywood lot during his time on the “Green Hornet” television show. After having Bruce explain what kung fu is, Martin asks: “Don’t you have some karate schools or something in San Francisco?” Although there were multiple issues with that question, Bruce was quick to correct him on the location, responding: “In Oakland, really.”
The perceptions of Bruce’s life in the Bay Area have long been subjected to muddled timelines and extensive urban mythology. While he certainly does have notable history on both sides of the bay, the nuance of it has often been lost.
An immigration document for 4-month-old Bruce Lee just prior to leaving San Francisco to return to his family’s home in Hong Kong.
Bruce was born in the Chinese Hospital on Jackson Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown in November of 1940, while his parents were on tour with the Hong Kong Cantonese Opera. His father was a successful comedic actor hired by the Mandarin Theater (later known as the Sun Sing) for a residency that spanned just over a year. His mother, who worked on the tour as a wardrobe manager, hailed from a highly wealthy and ethnically diverse family who were power players in Hong Kong politics.
Born an American citizen, Bruce was quickly immersed in show business, spending his first few months in a boarding house with the opera troupe on the Trenton Street alleyway in Chinatown. While living there, he also had his first movie role, playing a newborn baby girl in pioneering female director Ester Eng’s film “Golden Gate Girls.” After just a few months in San Francisco, Bruce returned home to his siblings in Hong Kong, where he grew up as a young child actor via his father’s show business connections.
A still from the film “Golden Gate Girl,” in which a 4-month-old Bruce Lee had his first role, as a newborn baby girl.
Amid the rough and tumble streets of post-war Hong Kong, Bruce gravitated as a teenager to studying Wing Chun kung fu with now-legendary master Ip Man, who encouraged his students to get hands-on practice. As Bruce’s classmate Hawkins Cheung explained, “Ip Man said, ‘Don’t believe me. … Go out and have a fight. Test it out.’” Bruce’s involvement in Hong Kong’s robust street fighting culture eventually led police to warn his parents that he was likely to soon be arrested.
Just weeks shy of his high school graduation in the spring of 1959, Bruce was sent by his father on an ocean liner back to San Francisco to spend the summer with his godfather in a tiny apartment on Jackson Street before relocating to Seattle for school in the fall. Bruce spent those interim months in San Francisco teaching the Hong Kong cha-cha at parties around the Bay Area, where he would often give impromptu martial arts demonstrations during intermissions.
Most notably during this brief return to the city of his birth, Bruce had quickly antagonized members within the Chinatown martial arts community. While his dance party demonstrations dazzled common spectators, Bruce’s brash and outspoken manner often polarized the martial arts practitioners in the crowd.
Lau Bun, center, with senior students in his Hung Sing School of Choy Li Fut, located in a basement studio along Portsmouth Square. In the summer of 1959, 18-year-old Bruce Lee had a little-known run-in with this group.
These tensions culminated that summer in a little-known incident inside of Hung Sing, the subterranean kung fu studio along Portsmouth Square belonging to Lau Bun, an aging tong enforcer who oversaw much of the community’s martial arts culture.
“When Bruce came to Hung Sing, he didn’t know anything about San Francisco,” recounts Sam Louie, one of Lau Bun’s senior students at the time. “There were seven or eight of us in class. He came down and tried to show off … so our sifu [teacher] threw him out.”
It was the first of a lengthy list of tensions which would earn Bruce a reputation with Chinatown’s kung fu masters as “a dissident with bad manners” and ultimately result in his legendary showdown with Wong Jack Man during the autumn of 1964.
But whereas Bruce repeatedly found conflict in San Francisco as a young adult, he conversely discovered an empowering and like-minded wavelength across San Francisco Bay in Oakland.
During the mid-20th century, there were three highly significant martial arts hotspots that spanned the Pacific Ocean, all of which developed along lines of immigration: Hong Kong, Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area. Amazingly, Bruce Lee had ties to all of three of them by his early 20s.
Taking his youthful Hong Kong fight experience into Oakland, Bruce was introduced by James Lee to an experienced group of innovative practitioners, nearly all of whom (including James) had close ties to the trailblazing martial arts melting pot in Hawaii. In addition, James had connected Bruce with Ed Parker, the Hawaiian-born kenpo karate master who was known for training the Hollywood elite (including Elvis Presley) and who would play a major role throughout his career in spreading martial arts culture around America.
A young Bruce Lee, left, conveying some ideas and techniques to Ed Parker, center, and Ralph Castro, circa 1963, at Castro’s school at 1132 Valencia St. in San Francisco. Parker and Castro had both emerged from the trailblazing martial arts culture in Hawaii of the mid-20th century.
“Bruce was smart,” says James Lee’s son Greglon Lee. “When he’s in his twenties, he was hanging out with guys in their forties, so he can gain their experience.”
Drawing from the sum total of these influences, Bruce worked with James in Oakland toward forging a new martial arts paradigm, first through a short-lived, spartan school location on Broadway before eventually settling back into their approximately 350-square-foot garage on Monticello Avenue. Amid James’ many homemade workout contraptions, the tiny space felt like a cross between a mad scientist’s laboratory and a boxing gym. They drew a small but diverse mix of blue-collar students, ranging from upstarts who were convinced by one of Bruce’s outspoken demonstrations to street tough locals looking to expand their skill set.
Bruce Lee, right, with his student Barney Scollan in front of James Lee’s home on Monticello Avenue, in Oakland, circa 1965.
Workouts in the garage would often transition into late night think tank sessions with their highly experienced group of colleagues: They analyzed old Muhammad Ali fights, discussed the nuances of footwork in different sports and recounted the details of past fights.
At a time when many Americans increasingly gravitated to the Asian fighting arts with the perception of them as the quasi-magical techniques of a mystical culture, Bruce and James calibrated their approach to the spontaneous and unpredictable realities of a street fight. They emphasized innovation and viability by embracing the mixing of different styles as well as assessing techniques with the brass tacks question: “Does it work?” As Bruce began referring to their approach as “scientific street fighting,” he increasingly aired brash criticisms of what other schools were teaching.
“There is no way a person is going to fight you in the street with a set pattern,” he argued. “Too many practitioners are just blindly rehearsing systematic routines and stunts.”
James Lee, left, in the driveway of his home on Monticello Avenue in Oakland. A welder by trade, James would often build his own workout equipment. At right, Bruce Lee practices on James’ homemade wooden dummy.
Throughout 1964, Bruce aired his polarized viewpoint with little regard for the damaged egos and rising tensions left in his wake. He gave contentious lectures that summer at both Ed Parker’s Long Beach International Karate Championships as well as at an event in the heart of Chinatown from the stage of the Sun Sing Theatre (where his father performed two decades earlier) in which he denounced the aging neighborhood kung fu masters by saying, “These old tigers have no teeth.”
Inevitably, a challenge soon followed.
During the late fall of 1964, young kung fu phenom Wong Jack Man traveled from Chinatown across the bay to Oakland for a behind-locked-doors fight with Bruce that occurred in front of just seven witnesses. Bruce prevailed, though in sloppy fashion.
In the years since, the showdown has become the stuff of (urban) legend, subjected to all manner of hyperbole and revisionism, (not to mention multiple Hollywood treatments). This noise often overshadows the significance of the fight, which was ultimately a referendum on the martial viability of what Bruce and James had been advocating in Oakland. It is a theme that would resurface and be qualified again years later during the illuminating results of the earliest mixed martial competitions in the mid-1990s, when many dedicated martial arts practitioners were proven woefully out of touch with the reality of actual fighting.
In the early 1960s, Wong Jack Man arrived from Hong Kong and quickly established himself within the Chinatown martial arts community. A young phenom in Northern Shaolin kung fu, his defeat in a challenge match with Bruce in the fall of 1964 would forever be attached to his reputation.
Yet for a practitioner who all year had been openly touting the superiority of his martial approach, Bruce saw his subpar victory over Wong Jack Man as cause for further evolution. He soon began to synthesize his “scientific street fighting” ideas into his own focused system — Jeet Kune Do, which integrated Wing Chun kung fu, fencing and boxing into an approach that emphasized the Oakland principles of viability and innovation.
Exit the Dragon
When the call from Hollywood came, it went to James Lee’s home on Monticello Avenue and was predicated not on a headshot, audition or any drive on Bruce’s part to get back into acting, but rather the result of a show business insider who had been dazzled by one of his demonstrations. It would lead to Bruce getting cast in the “Green Hornet” television show, effectively closing his chapter living in Oakland.
In total, he resided there for just short of two years, but his time was among the most eventful in his life, encapsulating a wide range of experiences — from authoring the only book he would ever publish in his lifetime (via James) to the birth of his son Brandon. His startup days in between, with James and his colleagues, was a key moment for the evolution of the martial arts. Within the field, the Monticello Avenue garage became legendary, and the students who had trained there wore their affiliation like a Super Bowl ring for the rest of their lives.
In the summer of 1967 — while living in Los Angeles during his days of making “Green Hornet” — Bruce invited James to perform a demonstration at Ed Parker’s Long Beach International Tournament. Dressed in their own makeshift protective gear (which looked like an augmented version of catcher’s equipment in baseball) they ran a live sparring session that showcased a new context for how martial artists could compete in a manner that was much closer to pro boxing than the light contact competitions (think “Karate Kid”) that were prevalent for so long. It was remarkably ahead of its time and a key example of why Bruce deserves his status as an MMA pioneer.
Unfortunately, James often goes unrecognized in this regard. Kenpo master Al Tracy called him “one of the great missing pieces to the martial arts in America.”
Bruce and James died within six months of each other. Their collaborations, which teeter between world famous and obscure, remain one of Oakland’s impactful, though often unsung, legacies.