Showdown in Oaktown (Mythmaking in the martial arts, Part 1)
Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote:¹
[A]ll wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.
Late in 1964, in a small martial arts studio in Oakland, with few eyewitnesses, Bruce Lee (李振藩) lost a fight to Wong Chia Man (黃澤民—in all printed accounts I have seen, his name is given as Wong Jack Man, but those who knew him used the name I have given here) and ever since Lee and his heirs have been fighting to change the memory of that encounter.² Wong responded by asking for a rematch with more people to judge the outcome but the Lees chose the fight they could win instead.
So for over half a century, Bruce, and after him, his wife, Linda Lee Cadwell, and his daughter, Shannon Lee Keasler, have used their money and influence and his stardom and celebrity to feed the public lies about what happened.
I was pleased to see that Birth of the Dragon at least purported to present a balanced view of events; Wong’s portrayal in the officially endorsed biopic, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story was absurdly one dimensional, as was Linda’s version of events in other accounts. I heard from a friend who was a student of Wong’s when the film was released that the Sifu would say, “I am the monster,” referring to the shadowy figure of the Demon of Fate that stalks Lee in the film. Unfortunately, the new film scored a solid 21% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the plot was nonsense with a coat of whitewash, so I’ve opted to skip it (after the fight, they team up to battle a crime boss?).
Instead, let’s begin with the events that led up to the fight. Cadwell claims,³
It became an unwritten law that the art should be taught only to Chinese. Bruce considered such thinking completely outmoded and when it was argued that white men, if taught the secrets, would use the art to injure the Chinese, he pointed out that if a white man really wanted to injure a Chinese, there were plenty of other ways he could do it. ‘After all, he’s bigger.’ However, Bruce soon found that at first his views were not shared by some members of the Chinese community in San Francisco, particularly those in martial arts circles.
She goes on to state that Wong’s pupils were all strictly pure Chinese.
That this is pure bullshit I can proclaim from personal knowledge: Peter Ralston, the Caucasian who taught me, was an early student at The Chinese Physical Culture Association (精武體育㑹—精武体育会 in simplified characters—which transliterates as Jing Mo Tai Yook Woey⁴). And I’ve run across many other non-Chinese students of Wong’s; he remained a central figure in the martial arts community of the Bay Area for 45 years. To give her the benefit of the doubt, the story could have been what Bruce told Linda, but it’s still categorically false.
Even Wong has admitted that early on, his students were mainly Chinese, but rather than the result of exclusionary policies, it was because while interest in the Chinese martial arts had already begun to spread, the Japanese martial arts such as Judo (柔道) and Karate (空手) were best known to Westerners at this time and also because of his school’s location within the enclave of Chinatown. The fact is borne out by the tales Ralston would relate of how he would join the other students in making fun of any “white barbarians” who visited the school.
Lee already had a school in Seattle but that was the small time. San Francisco was the epicenter of Asian martial arts in the US, with its large and diverse population of Asians and an interest in Eastern philosophies that the Beat Poets had rekindled and which was to fully flower in the Summer of Love. So Lee left Seattle in the hands of one of his students and opened another school on Broadway in Oakland and tried to gain recognition.
His opportunity came in late August of ’64, when Hong Kong starlet, Diana Chang Chung-wen (張仲文), came to the US to promote her latest film, Between Tears and Smiles (《故都春夢》). Lee, presumably connected via the Hong Kong movie scene, acted as her escort. When her film was screened in the Sun Sing Theater in San Francisco’s Chinatown, he took the opportunity to try to make a name for himself and his kung fu school. This included, by most accounts, some incendiary words about more traditional schools, and an open challenge to come fight him.
His loudmouthed braggadocio did get the attention of the leaders of the local martial arts community, who settled on Wong, another newcomer, as the guy to shut Lee up. The choice made a lot of sense: both were 23 and they,⁵
[…] shared a symmetry between them: the quiet ascetic and the boisterous showman, traditional against modern, San Francisco vs. Oakland, Northern Shaolin against Southern.
And this seems a good point to fill in some backstory.
Lee was born in 1940 in San Francisco’s Chinatown. His father was an actor in Chinese opera and film, and his mother was a half-Caucasian from a wealthy Hong Kong family. They returned to Hong Kong, and Bruce became a child actor because of his father’s connections. His was a family of wealth and privilege, with two maids and a chauffeur.
The mythmaking stretches back to Lee’s high school days, when he was clearly a troublemaker, starting a gang called The Eight Tigers of Junction Road (八虎聯合道), getting kicked out of La Salle College for his poor academic record as well as behavioral difficulties, and switching to St. Francis Xavier’s College—both high schools despite their names—which he also didn’t finish.
In 1957, Lee did begin studying Wing Chun (詠春), which he promptly began using in street fights. His parents sent him to the US in order to keep him out of jail, though there is a thin and likely apocryphal claim that he had beaten up the son of a powerful Triad and fled to avoid retaliation (there are many other such tales). His brother’s recollection makes no mention of any specific incident:⁶
The police detective came and he says “Excuse me Mr. Lee, your son is really fighting bad in school. If he gets into just one more fight I might have to put him in jail.”
In any case, he finally completed his high school education in Seattle. Despite him and others in his coterie claiming that he majored in philosophy at the University of Washington, he was a drama major and a dropout at that.
And even though he had received only two years of training in some combination of Western boxing, Wing Chun, and Wu style Tai Chi Chuan (吳氏太極拳) at best, Bruce decided he knew enough not only to open a school, but to name it after himself in 1959: the Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute. I say “at best” because he was a full-time student, a cha-cha dance champion, and appeared in film roles—20 by the time he was 18, so when did he have time to study martial arts? The famous master of his Wing Chun school, Yip Man (葉問), is known to have not considered Lee a serious student.
What Lee taught was his own version of Wing Chun. It’s difficult for me to think of his school as anything but disreputable—he was simply not qualified. I think a good characterization of Lee is a flim-flam artist cashing in on the martial arts craze that was sweeping the US.
He was not some savant who combined a deep study of philosophy with day-and-night martial arts discipline; he was a high-school and then college student, who also worked as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant. But just as he knew enough to become a street bully in Hong Kong, he knew enough to pass himself off as a martial arts instructor in Seattle.
He had not yet started engaging in a rigorous physical regime, which was to include a great deal of weightlifting. The flashy moves of the martial arts showman were far in the future. It’s noteworthy that because of the citizenship conferred by being born in the US, he was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War in 1963 but was passed over 4F because of his congenitally poor eyesight. You can see the earpiece of his glasses, which he could not be without, protruding from his suit jacket pocket in the picture with Chung-wen. In his second Hong Kong action film, Fist of Fury (《精武門》), he wore his real glasses as part of his onscreen costume. This is the central problem of the Lee-Wong fight: the revisionists want to place the myth of Lee there, as well as turning the clock back—way back—on that legend.
Turning to Wong, he was born in Taishan (新寧, located in the province of Kwantung (廣東), formerly Romanized as Canton, not far from Hong Kong). in 1941, and raised in a very different way. Unlike Lee, he began his training in the martial arts at the age of eight, learning Northern Sil Lum Chuan (北少林拳) from Yim Shan Wu (嚴尚武), the top disciple of Gu Ruzhang (顧汝章). The origins of this style come from the famous Shaolin Temple in Henan (河南), in the person of Monk Zhao Yuan (朝元 和尚), a member of the Ming (大明) royal family who became a monk when they were overthrown by the Qing (大清) in 1644. Sil Lum is the Cantonese rendering of the more familiar Shaolin. As with my previous article about martial arts, I apologize for the combination of Mandarin and Cantonese, as well as the sometimes odd Romanizations; I’m using these terms as I learned them.
After distinguishing himself in his studies, Wong went on to be taught personally by a cadre of Great Grandmasters. Dedicated study for 15 years with these martial arts luminaries allowed him to finally become the first person to complete the Northern Shaolin program of studies since WW2.
In martial arts schools, rather than diplomas, the images of the masters who make up that school’s lineage hang on the walls. It is from the pictures at Cheng Hsin (中心), Ralston’s Oakland school that I know Wong and Gu. Gu was a distinguished student himself, sent south to spread the art in Canton, and famed for his powerful Iron Palm (铁掌功) technique. All this is the martial arts heritage that Wong represented when he came to San Francisco Chinatown in 1964.
Lee himself had been discriminated against because he was one quarter Caucasian, with other students of Yip Man refusing to train with him. But this was pretty far from the mission of Jing Mo, founded by Huo Yuanjia (霍元甲) , who was was portrayed by Jet Li (李阳中) in Fearless (《霍元甲》—note the Chinese name is simply the name of this famous martial artist). One of the main goals of Jing Mo was to spread the Chinese martial arts both within China as well as internationally and to do away with the secrecy and insularity that had prevailed in the past. Ironically, Lee played a fictitious student of Huo’s, named Chen Zhen (陳真), in his 1972 film Fist of Fury. For anyone who knows anything about the history of the Chinese martial arts, the Lees’ attempt to tar Wong with a brush of race-based exclusionism holds zero water.
If you’re thinking things aren’t looking so great for Bruce Lee about now, I agree. And that night in the Fall of 1964 did not go well for him either, which I’ll dig into in subsequent articles.
Read Subsequent Articles in this Series
- Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, 2016.
- The details given here are from Michael Dorgan, “Bruce Lee’s Toughest Fight”, Official Karate, July, 1980.
- The Linda Lee Cadwell-penned bio, Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew, 1975 is my main source for the Lees’ version of events.
- Note that Wong chose an idiosyncratic version of this name, which typically ends with 會 including a character in Jing Mo, that was beyond my ability to decipher in the image of his school, which reads right to left
- The quote comes from Charles Russo, “Bruce Lee Vs. Wong Jack Man: Fact, Fiction And The Birth Of The Dragon”, Fightland Blog, 2016.
- Bruce Lee: the immortal Dragon, 2002.