Building the brand of Bruce (Mythmaking in the martial arts, Part 2)
Back in 1995, in the early days of the internet, a guy named Martin Eng created a website with the domain name brucelee.com. The site displayed,
[P]hotos of Bruce Lee, a chronology of his life, images of various martial arts paraphernalia used by him, a list of movies that feature him, and text from a book authored by him.
Eng claimed fair use, saying it was a non-commercial site, which included the following disclaimer:
With due respect to Bruce and his family, and fellow fans. This is a non-profit web site. The fans’ products aren’t for sale if there are any, and I receive no financial benefits before, now and whatsoever.
Eng was a minor local celebrity himself for a time, the owner of the Russian Hill home that provided the setting for MTV’s The Real World in 1994, he also was a candidate in San Francisco’s 1999 mayoral race as part of the “hyena pack” attempting to unseat Willie Brown, the lion in the scenario. A tech-savvy entrepreneur, Eng once owned as many as 1,400 domain names, including asians.com.
Setting his notoriety aside, Eng might seem like a basic domain troll, but his interest in Lee seems to have been genuine; he is listed in the credits a photo scanner for a series of unauthorized biographies of the film star, by Sid Campbell, and Greglon Yimm Lee.¹
In 2005, he was sued by a company called Concord Moon LP. This entity was described in legal documents thus:
Linda Lee Cadwell, the widow of Bruce Lee, and Shannon Lee Keasler, the daughter of Bruce Lee, are the legitimate heirs of Bruce Lee and the principals of Complainant Concord Moon LP.
The case was a slam dunk as so many others from those days were—it was clear that mass registrations such as Eng had performed were specifically intended to usurp the trademarks others had legitimate claims to during the Wild West of the nascent internet, either hoping to be paid off to release them or to profit directly from their use. Eng’s claim that his site was “non-commercial” didn’t hold water, since even though he didn’t sell anything on his site, it linked via ads to those who did.²
Eng seems not to have been harmed particularly by the loss, nor by the fire that destroyed the massive house on Lombard Street that Puck’s roommates booted him out of. His internet domains and real estate holdings rendered him permanently far more than well off. The house has since been rebuilt, as I’m sure you’ll be pleased and relieved to learn. Oh, and Puck ended up doing jail time, surprising no one.
Lee’s heirs have engaged in legal disputes with many others. Another of the entities they control, Bruce Lee Enterprises, won a well publicized suit in 2010 against A.V.E.L.A., Inc. (the Art and Vintage Entertainment Licensing Agency), that “licensed” images of Bruce without actual authorization for T-shirts also involving Marc Ecko Enterprises—a “global fashion and lifestyle company”, according to their company profile on Bloomberg, behind such clothing brands as Eckō Unltd., Avirex, and Zoo York—who produced the shirts, and Target and Urban Outfitters, who sold them. The legal wrangling did determine that A.V.E.L.A.’s claim that the images they were licensing out were of the personas Lee portrayed in films, rather than images of him, per se, held no water.
Bruce Lee began the first of the businesses intended to control his legacy in 1971 in partnership with Raymond Chow (鄒文懐): Concord Production Inc. (協和電影公司). Although Linda sold Bruce’s share of the company to Chow in 1976, she and her children, Brandon Lee and Shannon Lee (later Keasler) retained all rights to the deceased icon under California code Section 3344.1 (as well as continuing to use the “Concord” name). The law confers onto the immediate family the rights of a person,
[W]hose name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness has commercial value at the time of his or her death.
Over the years there has been a hard-to-trace web of entities run by Cadwell, and later by Keasler. Here are those I was able to identify:
- Concord Moon, LP
- Concord Moon Management, LLC
- Bruce Lee Holdings, LLC
- Bruce Lee Educational Foundation
- The Bruce Lee Family Company
- Bruce Lee, LLC
- LeeWay Media Group
- Bruce Lee Entertainment
- Bruce Lee Beverage (Bruce Tea)
- Bruce Lee Foundation
Let me put in here that I support the rights of Lee’s heirs to profit from his stardom, no matter how ghoulish or crass their efforts (seriously, Bruce Tea?). But if you were shocked about my revelations in Part 1, you should know that the effort to build up and proliferate the legend of Bruce Lee is a massive one—one that goes far beyond his legitimate heirs, with many people seeing his status as a cultural icon as an opportunity to cash in, including the creation of a new sub-genre of film: Bruceploitation (A portmanteau of Bruce and exploitation, these generally low-budget films starred “Lee-alikes” and were in their heyday from 1974–1981).
There have been several biopics over the years, and it’s important to understand that these are not thoughtful, earnest documentaries executed by disinterested parties, but ways of establishing as fact a great many things that reflect well on Lee but are simply untrue and denying the reverse. Even a quick perusal will turn up a large number of inconsistencies, contradictions, the whole-cloth manufacturing of material, and a persistent conflation of Lee’s onscreen personae with reality. This last element is particularly interesting given the gambit the Lees sued A.V.E.L.A. over.
Although Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story is the clearest example of these, being based on Cadwell’s book Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew, there is a direct involvement by Lee’s heirs in other efforts, which escalated to the level of media carpet bombing in the early ’90s and shows no signs of letting up.
In the list below, in addition to pointing out work by Cadwell, Keasler, and deceased family member, Brandon Lee, I’ve also noted the involvement of John Little, who seems to have been the group’s go-to writer, Taky Kimura, student, longtime friend, and still board member of the Bruce Lee Foundation, and Dan Inosanto, another longtime student and friend, but who seems to have recently fallen from favor:
- Little Dragon (upcoming): Keasler—producer, writer
- The Bruce Lee Project (upcoming): Keasler—executive producer
- Conspiracy (2015): Little—interviewee as Bruce Lee’s biographer
- Bruce Lee: Die Faust Hollywoods (Bruce Lee: the Faust of Hollywood, German documentary, 2015): Inosanto—interviewee
- I Am Bruce Lee (2012): Cadwell—interviewee; Keasler—executive producer, interviewee; Lee—archival footage; Inosanto—interviewee
- How Bruce Lee Changed the World (2009): Keasler—executive producer, interviewee; Kimura—interviewee
- Bruce Lee: In Pursuit of the Dragon (2009): Little—director, producer, interviewee
- The Legend of Bruce Lee (2008): Keasler—executive producer
- Blood and Steel: Making ‘Enter the Dragon’ (2004): Cadwell—archival footage
- The Unbeatable Bruce Lee (2001): Lee—archival footage
- Reflections on ‘The Little Dragon’ (2001): Inosanto—archival footage
- Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (2000): Cadwell—interviewee; Little—director, producer, writer, voice; Kimura—interviewee; Inosanto—archival footage
- The Story (documentary about Game of Death, 2000): Little—director, producer, narrator; Inosanto—archival footage
- The Lees: Action Speaks Louder (1999): Cadwell—interviewee; Keasler—interviewee; Lee —archival footage; Kimura—interviewee; Little—interviewee; Inosanto—interviewee
- Bruce Lee: The Legend Lives On (1999): Cadwell—archival footage; Lee—interviewee; Kimura—interviewee
- Bruce Lee: In His Own Words (1998): Cadwell—archival footage, special thanks; Keasler—archival footage; Lee—archival footage; Little—director, producer, musical arrangement
- Bruce Lee: The Path of the Dragon (1998): Keasler—interviewee; Lee—archival footage; Kimura—interviewee; Inosanto—interviewee
- Masters of the Martial Arts Presented by Wesley Snipes (1998): Keasler—interviewee; Little—interviewee
- Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do (1995): Cadwell—special thanks; Lee—narrator, interviewee; Kimura—interviewee, thanks; Inosanto—narrator, interviewee, special thanks
- Bruce Lee—Martial Arts Master (1994): Lee—interviewee; Kimura—interviewee
- Bruce Lee: The Immortal Dragon (1994): Cadwell—interviewee, special thanks; Keasler—interviewee, special thanks; Lee—archival footage; Little—interviewee; Kimura—interviewee; Inosanto—interviewee
- Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993): Keasler—actress, performer: “California Dreamin’”
- The Curse of the Dragon (1993): Cadwell—interviewee; Keasler—interviewee; Lee—interviewee; Inosanto—interviewee
- Death by Misadventure: The Mysterious Life of Bruce Lee (1993): Lee—interviewee
- Bruce Lee, the Legend (1984): Cadwell—interviewee, Keasler—archival footage; Lee—archival footage; Kimura—interviewee; Inosanto—archival footage
- Bruce Lee: The Man and the Legend (1973): Cadwell—interviewee; Keasler—interviewee; Lee—interviewee; Kimura—interviewee; Inosanto—archival footage
Another person who frequently appears in these docupics is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but he seems to do so quite genuinely as a close friend and former student, and only in the role of an interviewee on those topics—after all, he has his own tremendous successes to manage.
On top of all the films, there have been a large number of books penned by the various members of this group, Little was also the longtime Associate Publisher of Bruce Lee Magazine, and Keasler a writer on the recent comic book series Bruce Lee: the Dragon Rises. Most important of the books, apart from Cadwell’s bio, which I’ve already mentioned, are Tao of Jeet Kune Do (1975), which Cadwell and Inosanto also helped to edit, and another Cadwell-backed effort, Bruce Lee’s Fighting Method (1978). Additionally, there is the so-called Bruce Lee Library, all of which Little wrote using a variety of materials from the Lees:
- Vol. 1—Words of the Dragon—Interviews, 1958–1973 (1997)
- Vol. 2—The Tao of Gung Fu—A Study in the Way of Chinese Martial Arts (1997)
- Vol. 3—Jeet Kune Do—Bruce Lee’s Commentaries on the Martial Way (1997)
- Vol. 4—The Art of Expressing the Human Body (1997)
- Vol. 5—Letters of the Dragon—Correspondence, 1958–1973 (1997)
- Bruce Lee Artist of Life (1999)
- Bruce Lee Words From A Master (1999)
- Bruce Lee Striking Thoughts (1999)
- Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (1999)
In short, there is an almost absurd amount of media about Bruce Lee—the number of these authorized works alone is staggering, and the unauthorized ones are likely still greater, especially if Bruceploitation is considered. Compared to this, Lee’s actual body of work was a single, fairly basic book (Chinese Gung-Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self Defense, 1963), four and a half films, one season of The Green Hornet, and a few bit parts on other US films and TV shows.
The image of Bruce Lee that you have in your mind is a product, a brand. One that has been carefully honed and refined to continue to be relevant and maintain its financial value so that media placements are worth paying for and merchandise continues to be sold. And they’ve done quite well: the Lee brand continues to pull down $5–10M yearly—impressive considering their golden goose has been gone for 45 years.
All this is why what you know about Bruce Lee is what Bruce Lee, LLC wants you to know about Bruce Lee.
Read Subsequent Articles in this Series
Read Previous Articles in this Series
- The series consists of The Dragon and the Tiger, Volume 1: The Birth of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, 2003; The Dragon and the Tiger, Volume 2: The Untold Story of Jun Fan Gung-fu and James Yimm Lee, 2005; and Remembering the Master: Bruce Lee, James Yimm Lee, and the Creation of Jeet Kune Do, 2006.
- National Arbitration Forum. 3 Aug. 2005. The Heirs of Bruce Lee and Concord Moon LP v. Martin Eng.