Yesterday’s Crimes: The Brawl That Almost Broke Bruce Lee

American Shaolin author Matthew Polly sorts through the fact and fiction surrounding Bruce Lee's Bay Area grudge match in his new book, Bruce Lee: A Life.

Bruce Lee was born into a performing family; His mother gave birth to him in the year of the dragon on Nov. 27, 1940 in San Francisco’s Chinatown, while his parents were on tour with a Chinese opera company. His Chinese name, Li Jun Fan (李振藩), included the Chinese character for San Francisco (Fan), and can be translated roughly to “Shake Up and Excite San Francisco.” When Lee finally returned to the city of his birth in his early 20s, the future martial arts superstar did just what his name had prophesized.

Lee took the stage of the Sun Sing Theatre on Grant Avenue between Jackson and Pacific in August 1964. What started with Lee doing the cha-cha with Diana Chang Chung-Wen, “The Mandarin Marilyn Monroe,” soon became one of Chinatown’s most enduring controversies. It all began during a demonstration of the Wing Chun kung fu techniques Lee had honed on the streets of Hong Kong.

“In China, 80 percent of what they teach is nonsense,” Lee proclaimed during his show. “Here in America, it is 90 percent.

“These old tigers,” he continued, criticizing San Francisco’s traditional kung fu masters, “they have no teeth.”

“That’s not kung fu!” a man in the back of the theater shouted, while the Chinatown audience flung lit cigarettes onto the stage to show their disapproval of this young upstart.

Before Lee left the stage, he told the hostile crowd that if they wanted to research his Wing Chun, they could find him at his school in Oakland. To everyone at the Sun Sing that night, it sounded like the “Little Dragon” had just issued an open challenge to all of Chinatown.

“(Lee) was 24,” Matthew Polly, author of the hard-to-put-down new biography Bruce Lee: A Life, explains. “He was trying to make a name for himself, and he was going out there, poking people in the eye trying to get them to change their minds.”

Polly wrote about his experiences studying kung fu at the Shaolin Temple in Henan, China for his first book, American Shaolin (Penguin, 2007). He then trained in mixed martial arts for his follow-up, Tapped Out (Gotham, 2011).

“After writing Tapped Out, I was looking for a project that didn’t involve me getting punched in the face,” Polly says, but he couldn’t stay away from martial arts. When Polly realized the only Bruce Lee biography still in print was from 25 years ago, he was “personally offended.”

“The most important Asian American to ever live, and the most famous, couldn’t get his one biography when Steve McQueen has a half a dozen,” Polly says.

Polly spent seven years researching Bruce Lee: A Life, which had him untangling fact from the urban legends surrounding Lee’s rise to stardom, his mysterious death, and the challenge match that emerged from that appearance at the Sun Sing Theatre.

“Bruce lived a life that was a lot like his kung fu movies,” Polly says, pointing out that Lee accepted challenge matches well into his 30s. “And so whenever somebody wants to tell the story of Bruce, they want to tell it as if it was a kung fu movie, and of course they immediately go to the Wong Jack Man fight.”

Wong Jack Man was not at the Sun Sing on the night of Lee’s performance, but Lee’s critique of the high kicks of Northern Shaolin kung fu got back to him. Like Lee, Wong was a skilled martial artist in his early 20s who had come to America from Hong Kong. Unlike Lee, Wong venerated martial arts traditions.

“In the fight between Bruce and Wong Jack Man you have modernity versus tradition,” Polly says.

After weeks of negotiations, Wong arrived at Bruce Lee’s Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute at 4175 Broadway in Oakland’s auto row on a weeknight in early November 1964. Wong’s pal, David Chin, who had egged on this fight, attempted to negotiate some ground rules, but Lee wasn’t having it.

“You’ve already got your friend killed,” Lee spat in Cantonese.

James Lee, one of Lee’s students, locked the dojo door from the inside and took a seat close to where he kept a loaded revolver in case any more of Wong’s friends showed up. Bruce Lee’s pregnant wife Linda was the only other person there on his side, while Wong and Chin had brought four others with them.

When Wong reached out to shake hands, the tense Bruce Lee threw a powerful shot that crashed into Wong’s orbital bone.

“He really wanted to kill me,” Wong later recalled.

Lee followed up with a blistering series of Wing Chun chain punches. Wong backpedaled, blocking Lee’s shots. Lee kept coming. Wong struck Lee in the neck and drew blood with a studded wrist bracelet he concealed in his long sleeve.

“When Bruce felt the blood on his neck and realized the deception, he went berserk,” Polly writes.

Wong turned around and started to run. Wong stumbled on a raised platform in Lee’s studio leftover from when it was an upholstery shop. Lee got on top of Wong and pounded him. Chin and the others pulled Lee off of their fallen champion.

The fight in Oakland only enhanced the reputations of both men. Lee became a Hong Kong-to-Hollywood tragedy who died right before the release of Enter the Dragon (1973), his greatest triumph. Wong earned the title of grandmaster teaching Tai Chi Chuan and Northern Shaolin at Fort Mason Center until 2005. Wong’s subsequent students have claimed their beloved sifu vanquished the arrogant movie star.

The tiebreaker for Polly in determining just what happened that night in 1964 was that David Chin’s account jibed with Linda Lee’s.

“I took that as a pretty good guarantee of the truth if Wong Jack Man’s friend thought a certain thing happened,” Polly says.

“One advantage I have in writing this book over other biographers is that I was actually in a challenge match in China and fought another kung fu master,” Polly adds, recalling an incident he covered in American Shaolin.

“So certain things rang true to me just based on my own experience,” he says. “I’ve watched challenge matches where one guy freaks out and panics and starts running.”

Unsatisfied with how ugly the Wong Jack Man fight was, Lee committed to developing his own style, called Jeet Kune Do, and transformed martial arts in the process.

“What’s amazing with MMA is this is what it’s become,” Polly reflects. “The way (Lee) was teaching is the way a significant portion of the martial arts community now practices.”

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