The following contribution comes from Charles Russo, author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America (Nebraska, 2016).
Silver Screen Mythology
A few months back, I was explaining the content of my book to a small group of people during a fundraiser for the Sacramento Public Library. That can be difficult, explaining a nonfiction book about Bruce Lee to the high brow literary crowd of Tolstoy and T.S. Eliot. Anyhow, when I began conveying that the climax of my book entailed a high noon showdown in which Chinatown’s young kung fu ace Wong Jack Man challenged Bruce Lee to a private no-hold-barred fight, one of the ladies in the group smiled as if I was now just inserting scenes from my favorite kung fu movie, then she looked puzzled, and then she said, “Wait, this all really happened?”
The fight that occurred in late autumn of 1964 between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man is indeed the stuff of legend. Not only is it well-known around the world, but it remains a matter of controversy fifty years later, still hotly debated in both internet chat rooms and dojo locker rooms alike. In this sense, urban mythology and third-hand exaggerations have shaped popular perceptions of this incident for over half a century now. Last week, Hollywood put its latest hyperbolic rendering of the showdown up on the silver screen with Birth of the Dragon, an over-the-top imagining of the actual events that will culminate with Bruce and Wong teaming up to take down the Chinese mafia (…or kill vampires or something). Back in 1994, the fight was portrayed in similar hallucinatory fashion within the Bruce Lee biopic Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story, where it was framed as a dungeon battle in front of some sort of elder ninja council, and culminating with a defeated Wong cheap-shot-kicking Bruce in the spine.
These renderings are all especially peculiar when considering that the factual history is far more compelling—and yes, even more cinematic—than all of the locker room exaggeration and silver screen mythology.
Above all else, the match-up was spectacular. It saw two highly skilled twenty-three year old martial artists who shared a uniquely yin/yang-like symmetry between them. Wong Jack Man’s quiet and reserved demeanor was the inverse of Bruce’s boisterous and often brash attitude. Bruce practiced a Southern Shaolin style of kung fu, and represented the more modern martial arts camp of Oakland. By contrast Wong was a prodigy of Northern Shaolin, and represented the traditionalists of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Bruce’s style was compact and economical. Wong’s expansive and acrobatic. Collectively, it had all the characteristics of a fight promoter’s dream match-up.
However, this oddly interwoven congruency would also apply to their fates, as the fight would impact the long-term trajectory of their lives. Bruce’s sloppy victory would forever alter his approach to the martial arts as he soon evolved into his own nuanced approach, before passing all-too-young at the height of his global fame. For Wong, his loss would cast a perennial shadow over his long career, as he would often find himself made into a convenient villain for many decades to come.
Above all else though, it has been the exact cause of the fight which has been the most contentious, and typically credited to the old guard in Chinatown taking issue with Bruce teaching the art of kung fu to non-Chinese students. There is some context for this, but most of the people close to these events know that this explanation has more to do with the aura surrounding Bruce’s fame than the reality of factual events. Yet in the face of both international superstardom and all the schoolyard gossip attached to a good fight, there has been little room for this kind of nuance. Realistically, the incident had more to do with Bruce’s increasingly outspoken viewpoints towards the martial arts status quo, in which he loudly pushed for a more viable approach by way of a modern paradigm. This is why Bruce was regarded by one of the old masters in Chinatown as “a dissident with bad manners.”
There is some agreement, however, on the specific event that largely sparked these tensions. In late August of 1964 Bruce gave a controversial kung fu demonstration before a capacity crowd in one of Chinatown’s oldest opera houses. Bruce had been in attendance that night to accompany Hong Kong starlet Diana Chang—“The Mandarin Marilyn Monroe”—on a promotional tour of her latest film. During a down moment in the program, Bruce took the stage to air his dissident martial viewpoint, and all hell broke loose. A brawl nearly erupted on stage, as the crowd hurled insults and cigarette butts. Bruce then signed off with what sounded like a challenge to all the martial artists of Chinatown. A fight was inevitable. The question was who would step forward to challenge the young dissident.
All told, there is no shortage of material here to make a good film. Enough is known about the topic that it can be done with enough nuance and insight to convey what really happened, and to do so with cinematic flare. Instead, these events still remain stubbornly in the realm of hokey hyperbole and action movie-mythology.
But like I said, this can all be hard to explain to a literary crowd at cocktail hour. So I just left it at, “Yes—this all really happened.”