The early 60's in the Bay Area was a hotspot for martial arts in the US and Bruce Lee found himself in the right place at the right time. But how did he find himself there? See below.
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So it Begins
At some point in late 1961, James Lee stormed out of the Kin Mon Physical Culture Studio in San Francisco’s Chinatown, effectively breaking off his tutelage under Sil Lum master TY Wong. Kin Mon, – or as the translation goes: “the Sturdy Citizen’s Club” – was located in a basement studio space on Waverly Place, directly across from the Hop Sing Tong, where TY was a longstanding member. James Lee had been studying at Kin Mon for a few years at that point, and had established himself as one of TY’s most notable students. Recently, they had collaborated on a book showcasing TY’s system, titled, Chinese Karate Kung-Fu: Original ‘Sil Lum’ System for Health & Self Defense. The two shared the byline, and the book has the historical significance of being one of the first (if not the very first) English language martial arts book by a Chinese master.
However, James Lee eventually ascended the steps out of Kin Mon in anger, concluding his time there on bitter terms. He encountered recently-enrolled student Leo Fong at the street level entrance, and let him know he was leaving: “I’m finished with this place. You wanna come with me to train back in Oakland?”
A perennially eclectic martial artist whose skills were anchored around an early education in
American boxing, Fong also defected from Kin Mon on the spot with James. Years later, Fong laughs the whole misunderstanding off as trivial: “Jimmy fell out with TY Wong over just $10. They got real upset with each other over that. Can you imagine?”
While seemingly just another martial arts feud predicated on mundane matters of ego or just poor communication, James Lee’s split with TY Wong would have a significant impact on the emerging popularity of the martial arts in America and the kung fu craze of the coming decade, most notably with its effects on the long-term trajectory of Bruce Lee’s career.
You’re not likely, however, to find TY Wong’s name within any biographical accounts of Bruce Lee.
Despite Bruce’s maxim of discarding “what is useless,” fans are probably far more familiar with a peripheral figure like Ruby Chow (his landlord and boss at a menial job) than a pioneering martial arts master like TY Wong, who dismissed young Bruce as little more than “a dissident with bad manners.” In fact, few Bruce Lee fans realize that the TY Wong/James Lee feud exists within the pages of Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense; the only book that Bruce Lee published in his lifetime.
The fallout between TY and James also gives key context to understanding the persisting tensions that led to Bruce’s legendary showdown with Wong Jack Man, an incident that would greatly influence Lee’s long term martial arts worldview. There is a lot to be learned from this obscure but notable history within the trailblazing martial arts culture of the San Francisco Bay Area during the early 1960s.
Enter the Dragon
Here’s an interesting question to consider: why did Bruce Lee relocate from Seattle to Oakland in the summer of 1964?
After all, things were going well for Bruce at that point in Seattle: he had a dedicated following of martial arts students and had finally found an actual location for his school. He was a popular student at the University of Washington, had just begun dating the woman he would eventually marry, and had defeated a rival martial artist in a challenge. During the summer of 1963, Bruce had traveled home to Hong Kong and greatly impressed his father with all that he had accomplished in Seattle. So why leave behind his business, his girlfriend and his education for a new situation in Oakland?
The immediate answer is James Lee. An Oakland native who was well-known for his younger exploits as a street fighter, James was already enacting the sort of martial arts future that Bruce was envisioning. He was publishing books, creating his own custom martial arts equipment, and conducting a modern training environment at his school. James was also putting a nuanced emphasis on body building, and perhaps most importantly, transforming his street experience into a gritty and realistic understanding of the true nature of fighting. Furthermore, James Lee had a unique network of experienced martial arts innovators within his orbit: Wally Jay, Ralph Castro, Al Novak, Leo Fong, and Ed Parker. As James Lee’s son Greglon characterized the appeal of this: “Bruce was smart.
When he’s in his twenties he’s hanging out with guys in their forties, so he can gain their experience.”
Upon being introduced, Bruce and James had quickly found themselves upon a similar martial arts wavelength. And for a moment, James Lee considered moving his family up to Seattle to continue his collaborations with Bruce (they had already published Chinese Gung Fu… together in 1963). This idea was discarded for one main reason – the Bay Area had the most robust martial arts culture in America (with the possible exception of Hawaii, which James and most of his colleagues had ties to). In this sense, Oakland was a more logical place for their collaborations because it put Bruce close to the action. As kenpo master Al Tracy explained it: “The real significant early development of the martial arts in the United States was heavily based in the Bay Area. Many of the most important people came out of the Bay Area, not just for the Chinese but for so much of the martial arts.”
So by the summer of 1964, Bruce was operating out of Oakland, which was significant not just for his particular whereabouts, but for his commitment to his vision for the martial arts. Bruce was chasing something down. He could have easily stayed and thrived in his Seattle niche. Instead, the next step forward in his evolution was to be found in Oakland.
Amid their shared wavelength, Bruce and James at some point connected on their disdain for traditional approaches to the martial arts, and by extension – traditional masters.