The new Bruce Lee bio questions the official explanation for his death

by Gilbert Wong / 25 September, 2018
Bruce Lee was working on Game of Death when he died, in 1973. Photo/Getty Images

Bruce Lee was working on Game of Death when he died, in 1973. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Bruce Lee biography Matthew Polly

Matthew Polly delivers a comprehensive biography of Bruce Lee's action-packed life and death.

This quote will take the Bruce Lee tragics back: “If you try to remember, you will lose. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup; put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or creep or drip or crash! Be water, my friend.”

For the rest of you, the Asian superstar’s “Be water, my friend” sums up the philosophy of jeet kune do, the street-based martial art Lee invented and promoted as better than all other Eastern disciplines, more effective than kung fu, more deft than judo and a much more spectacular way to break bricks than karate.

How apt that the first Asian crossover movie star’s most famous words were scripted by Hollywood. Matthew Polly, an exhaustive researcher and often exhausting biographer, sources the words to screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, the Aaron Sorkin of his day, written for Lee’s character Li Tsung in an episode of Longstreet, a television show about a blind detective.

It was inevitable that Lee would end up in the movies. He was born in San Francisco, the son of Cantonese opera star Li Hoi Chuen and Eurasian heiress Grace Ho. Li’s troupe was on a tour in America when Bruce was born. Upon arrival, immigration officials had changed Li senior’s surname to Lee. Chinese-American friends suggested the Western name Bruce. The baby’s Chinese name was Li Jun-fan, translated as the prophetic “shake up and excite San Francisco”, though as a child he was always Little Dragon. Through his mother, Bruce was related to the fabulously wealthy Eurasian Ho Tung Bosman clan, though Grace’s marriage to a lowly “actor” saw her cut off, even if able to live a comfortably middle-class life.

Lee was born to perform. His father put his toddler in opera makeup, the young Bruce led a gang of street kids and in his late teens he was crowned Hong Kong’s king of cha-cha. As the Hong Kong film industry developed, Lee was a child actor in a range of melodramas. By heritage, he was a mix of East and West; by nature, he hated authority and tradition and cherry-picked what he wanted from Cantonese opera, Californian acting schools, martial art forms and philosophers from Plato to Lao-Tzu.

Polly writes with the authority of a martial artist trained in the Shaolin temple, but at heart he is a fan-boy. The biography is peppered with blow-by-blow accounts of Lee’s significant bouts, but Polly cannot bring himself to critique his subject to reveal fresh insights.

Shredded for action, around 1970. Photo/Getty Images

More could be made of Lee’s cultural impact. Hollywood had featured Asian actors before, but he was the first pan-Asian, pan-Western superstar. Young men from Bangkok to Budapest had his poster on their bedroom walls. Lee’s fame drove the 70s martial-arts boom in America that saw everyone from James Coburn to Elvis take a bow at the dojo. As the song went, “Everybody was kung fu fighting”, in a genuine pop-cultural moment.

Lee was staunch on representation. He turned down roles for house servants but grudgingly accepted the breakthrough role of chauffeur Kato in The Green Hornet, a show memorable only for Lee’s scenes where he kicks hoods around like skittles. In one of the more egregious early cases of Hollywood whitewashing, he lost the lead role in the influential TV series Kung Fu to the decidedly non-Asian David Carradine.

When Polly does try for the big picture, it becomes flimsy. “In Asia, his films presaged the rise of a more muscular and confident Hong Kong, Taiwan and eventually China. The Chinese were no longer the sick men of Asia, they were a superpower.”

The fact that Lee became a worldwide star from a single movie is enough. His sole Hollywood movie, Enter the Dragon, a title he thankfully demanded replace the schlocky Blood and Steel, was made for $850,000 and has since earned $350 million. Had he not died suddenly, aged 32, he might have had as venerable a career as Jackie Chan, a stuntman in two of Lee’s films, or one as illustrious as Steve McQueen, his Hollywood friend.

The best part of Bruce Lee: A Life is the close examination of his death. His death at the height of his powers meant his story became a tragedy and spawned bizarre conspiracy theories. Lee was assassinated by a rival martial artist with the delayed “touch of death” known as dim mak; he died enjoying rigorous sex with a mistress; the triads killed him for gambling debts – all fake news, 70s style.

The inquest earned daily front-page coverage in Hong Kong, and New Zealand pathologist RR Lycette, who performed the autosy, was at the centre of it. Lycette found only an abnormal swelling of the brain but no other sign of what might have caused his death – no needle marks, no sign of external injury. He concluded Lee had died from a rare hypersensitivity to aspirin or meprobamate, ingredients in an over-the-counter painkiller he had taken.

Polly rightly questions this verdict. Lee had never shown signs of hypersensitivity to painkillers and, as a martial artist, had consumed his share.

Polly’s theory is far more plausible. In the days before his death, Lee had been working long hours in post-production for Enter the Dragon. He had experienced nausea and vomiting.

The supremely shredded Lee had also shed weight and, concerned about his excessive perspiration on film, had had the sweat glands in his armpits surgically removed. July in Hong Kong is the hottest month of the year. Polly’s theory is that Lee died from heatstroke, an often undetected cause of death in otherwise healthy athletes.

Like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, Lee’s story is about the potency of his performance, frozen at its peak by his early demise. Lee was a limited actor, and delivered his lines poorly. It didn’t matter; he possessed the intangible qualities that separate movie stars from mere actors. He was magnetic on screen, but more than that, he brought the beautiful ballet of kinetic violence to the big screen. He was our first real action star.

BRUCE LEE: A LIFE, by Matthew Polly (Simon & Schuster $40)

This article was first published in the September 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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