Young Bruce Lee, Part I: Street Brawling and Cha-Cha Dancing in Seattle

Bruce Lee was born on November 27, 1940, and in honour of what would be his 80th birthday, our correspondent Billy Potts spoke with many of the friends and associates who knew him as a young man. This is the first part of his story.

Everyone in Chinatown had heard about the young man staying with the Chows. He’d been banished to Seattle from San Francisco in the fall of 1959 because he was “a bad boy,” a street brawler. That’s what they’d heard. 

“Arrogant,” thought some senior residents. 

“Oh God, he’s so good looking!” noted several teenage girls, who had seen the stranger strutting around the neighbourhood, fists clenched by his sides. 

“I heard this guy thinks he’s pretty good – I’m going to show him a thing or two,” proclaimed a few of the local toughs. 

Some elders remembered the youth’s father, Lee Hoi-chuen, a Cantonese opera star who had breezed through the States in the 1940s. But to most, the cocky 19-year-old—who spoke city-boy Cantonese, instead of rural Toisanese—was a nobody. Just another Chinese immigrant in Seattle. 

“He’s from Hong Kong,” his formidable Auntie Ruby explained, her towering beehive adding to her commanding five-foot presence. “I know his parents. They’re good people. He wants to do martial arts or something like that here. His name is Bruce. If you know anyone, just help him out.” 

Slightly built and clean cut, with a neat side part, the newcomer smiled amiably.

 

The young master arrives in Seattle

“His father was demanding his return to Hong Kong,” says King County District Court Judge Mark Chow, on Chinese Radio Seattle in 2014. Chow was the youngest son of the late Ruby Chow—Auntie Ruby—who had taken Lee in when he first arrived in Seattle. Lee had been living in San Francisco, but as Chow explained, he had been “getting into trouble,” which led his father to ask him to return home. Instead, Bruce called up his mother, Grace Ho, and asked to stay in Seattle with Auntie Ruby and her husband, Uncle Ping. That initiated a flurry of phone calls as Lee’s mother secured him a reprieve. 

Bruce Lee

Ping and Ruby Chow photographed with their former charge, Bruce Lee, many years later in the 1960s. Courtesy Chow family

Bruce would live with the Chows rent free, but with conditions. First, he would follow Ruby Chow’s rules. Second, he would work like everybody else in the family. “He will be like one of my own children,” Chow cautioned, according to a family friend. “If he does wrong I will correct him. If he does well he will be praised.”

Ruby and Ping Chow bought their house on 1122 Jefferson Street, in Seattle’s First Hill neighbourhood, in 1948. They made their home on the upper floors, raising five children. On the ground floor, they ran a restaurant, Ruby Chow’s. It was successful, and Chow eventually parlayed her good fortune as a restaurateur and community organiser into a political career, becoming the first Asian American elected to the King County Council. In her opulent dining room, festooned with delicate lanterns and graced by a gilded Kwun Yum, notables like Bob Hope and Louis Armstrong feasted. 

Too timid to set foot in Chinatown, the great and the good flocked to Ruby Chow’s, a trendy alternative situated safely north of Seattle’s Chinese enclave. Unfamiliar Chinese foods became exotic delicacies. Chow mein, almond pressed duck, and sweet and sour chicken were chronicled in the restaurant’s crimson menu and paraded endlessly on monogrammed platters inscribed with the character zau1 (周, “Chow”). An accompanying cocktail menu even bore a charming illustration of the Kwun Yum statue drawn by a certain busboy from Hong Kong.

Lee made his first tentative steps into working life. “Now I am really on my own. Since the day I stepped into this country, I didn’t spend any money from my father,” he wrote in 1960 to Hawkins Cheung, a fellow student of Ip Man, the legendary kung fu master. “Now I am working as a waiter for a part-time job after school. I’m telling you it’s tough, boy! I always have a heck of a time!” 

Seating 300, Ruby Chow’s was hectic and Saturdays there were greatly anticipated by Trisha Mar, Ruby Chow’s 13-year-old niece. For Mar, a Eurasian, working at the restaurant was a badly needed affirmation of her Chinese identity. “Growing up, I didn’t understand how to interact in my community,” she recalls. “I was the only one that was… different.” Nobody dared question Ruby Chow about Mar’s identity. “She is who she is. She’s Chinese. She’s my niece,’” she would reply if asked. 

At the time, Mar could never have guessed just how much she had in common with Lee, another Eurasian who had experienced prejudice. But the unspoken bond was palpable. “[Bruce] was one of those guys who you couldn’t help but like. He’d fit into any group,” she says. Mar’s gang of cousins marked each Saturday with a ritual. “In the restaurant entrance, there was a beautiful hand-painted lantern with a tassel.” Each child jumped as high as they could, brushing that tassel with their fingertips. Lee watched and waited his turn then, limbs loaded like springs, he did a little dance and launched into a flying kick. The children watched, awestruck, as he booted the tassel in mid-air.

Collecting themselves, the crew got to work. “Ruby was a taskmaster,” recalls Don Wong, Mar’s cousin, who was 15 at the time and is now a guide at the Wing Luke Museum. Even so, life at the restaurant was fun. When Ruby wasn’t looking, Lee held court in the hallway, joking and telling stories. “He wanted to be the centre of attention,” says Wong. “We were just young people [and] we looked up to him.” 

As with most Saturdays, the kids filled wontons, sealing them with egg wash. “We were really good. Faster than a machine. We’d sit there and talk. It would be Bruce and Donny and me,” says Mar. “Getting together on a Saturday night to work, especially with Bruce, was just as fun as going out for an evening.” 

Fond of playing pranks, the three would slather stools with egg wash, waiting for hapless victims to sit in it. The congenial Lee liked to tease his friends, and in turn he was ribbed for his “pidgin English.” Looking back ruefully, Mar now realises how difficult Lee found the language. Conscious of his linguistic shortcomings, he was working hard to improve at the nearby Edison Technical School. When teased, he’d laugh, take it on the chin and fill another wonton.

Mar remembers one of those Saturday sessions particularly well. “I don’t know if it was Bruce or me [who] threw [the first] one,” she muses. However it started, someone returned fire and all of a sudden wontons were sailing through the air. The friends ran whooping through the restaurant, pelting each other under the serene gaze of the Eight Immortals statues that looked over the room. The melee lasted only five minutes, but when reality set in, the miscreants panicked. There were wontons everywhere. “All over the restaurant, on the tables, on the floor, on the chairs,” says Mar. “We thought we’d gathered them all.” 

They hadn’t. Later that evening, pulling a chair out for a customer, Chow was surprised to find a raw wonton staring back at her from the seat. Two more would emerge that night. “We got in so much trouble,” laughs Mar. “We felt really bad – but that was Bruce.”

Others are sterner in their assessment of Lee. “The guy didn’t like to work. From what I saw, he was all about himself and what he was mastering,” says Brien Chow, Ruby’s son. Brien was a child when Lee lived upstairs in a messy room, busily writing, drawing, building model ships and decorating in idiosyncratic fashion. Above the doorway he pasted a picture of a werewolf drawn in black ink. “It was a pretty scary werewolf. The man could draw!” exclaimed Brien. 

Though he wasn’t keen on punching the clock, Lee wasn’t workshy in all respects. In Lee’s room, a domino mask—not unlike what he would one day don as Kato in The Green Hornet—hung from the ceiling above the nightstand. He would jab its eye holes with his fingers, doing sets of 30 or 40, developing muscle memory to gouge eyes out. Striking quickly and precisely, the mask remained motionless. Greg Luke, a Chow family friend, recalls witnessing the speed which would one day bring Lee so much fame. Lee would entertain him by catching flies in his fists. “He’d do it and say ‘How many?’” recalls Luke, who is now a retired energy company supervisor. “I’d say, ‘One.’ Sometimes he had two or three of them.” 

For Lee, real work took place behind the restaurant, where he would practice Wing Chun, the kung fu style he had learned from Ip Man. It’s good to practice Wing Chun,” he wrote to Hawkins Cheung. “To be perfectly frank, I practice quite a lot on it nowadays.” 

Lee had arranged for a wooden dummy to be shipped to him from Hong Kong. This dummy—known in Cantonese as muk6 jan4 zong1 (木人樁)—was specially adapted by Ip Man to fit the needs of Wing Chun as it was practised in cramped Hong Kong apartments. Lee kept it under a fire escape by the bins outside Ruby Chow’s. Trisha Mar remembers hearing Lee raining kicks down on the wood figure. “He was making incredible sounds! When he practised he was another person. His intensity and the noises were almost animalistic. He was so fast and so incredibly strong. Whenever I was there he would really get into it. He was really showing off.”

In addition to the dummy, Lee kept a trash can filled with gravel; the jagged stones were for punching. “His knuckles were so calloused that if you were ever to get hit by them, it would probably have been like getting hit by some big old hunk of wood,” says Brien Chow. 

 

The man and the myth

By 1960, Lee’s kung fu was getting noticed. Moses Kay, a civil servant with the Seattle Police Department, and his son Roger first saw Lee at a kung fu demonstration. Impressed, they invited him home. Kay’s daughters, Jacquie and Sue Ann, remember him instructing their mother “to cook up a real good old Cantonese meal,” and how Lee bonded with their family, coming over often, sparring with Roger. Kay, the leader of Chinatown’s Boy Scout troop, eventually asked Lee to start teaching them.

“He didn’t charge very much money for the Scouts. It was more like a community service,” recalls Greg Luke, who was 10 years old at the time and rode with Lee to the Chinese Baptist Church, where classes were held in the basement every Tuesday. Parking a block away, the two would race to the church door. The child’s legs pumped busily as Lee gave him a half block head start. “That was a fun way of pushing me to be faster,” says Luke. “He would usually win but I got him a couple times.” 

Lee put his scouts through an improbably gruelling regimen: a warmup of 100 pushups followed by another three sets of 300, three sets of 500, then fingertip pushups and diamond pushups. “One of his requirements was to do the chicken walk around the room and you had to do that for about five or ten minutes,” recalls Brien Chow. “And that separated the people who were going to be good and the people who weren’t.” Chow says that’s when he realised he wasn’t going to be good. 

Fellow scout Gary Low recalls how Lee demonstrated a then obscure close range punch on him – it was not yet famously called “the one-inch punch,” one of Lee’s signature moves. Taking precautions, Lee furnished the boy with a pillow, which Low clutched in front of his chest, bracing for impact. Assuming the now familiar stance, Lee put his fist up close and threw the punch with no wind up. What he did not expect was Low’s involuntary reaction to the blow. “I was very surprised,” Low recalls. His hands shot up from the force, punching himself in the nose, drawing a tiny trickle of blood. Concerned, Lee and the scouts quickly leaped to their stricken comrade’s aid. Low chuckles at the memory. 

And yet, not everyone in Seattle’s small Chinese community looked on Lee favourably. Betty Lau, a Chow family friend, remembers asking Ruby Chow, “Why’s everyone so mad at him?” The elders felt Lee to be overconfident, with less experience than he let on. Some accounts say Lee began studying kung fu seriously in 1953, but others—including Ip Man’s nephew—have said he started later. Even Lee’s siblings classed him simply as “good to above average” in those early years, as recounted in the book Lee Siu Loong: Memories of the Dragon

To some, Lee was just a poseur. “Oh, he’s trying to grow a beard and moustache, trying to make everybody call him sifu,” Ruby Chow remarked dismissively to Lau. “He hadn’t earned the title of sifu by his wisdom or his experience [and] only the older men who had earned the right to have that moustache and beard should grow one,” explains Lau. The antipathy was mutual, she says. “[Bruce] didn’t like [Ruby] telling him what to do.” 

For some Chinatown residents, another problem went beyond Lee’s perceived arrogance. “His social interactions were not just with Asians,” says Don Wong. That was seen by some as a transgression in a community that had for generations battled racism and violence by outsiders. Lee’s embrace of non-Chinese people was a problem for the old guard of sifus who historically refused to teach outsiders how to fight. “[If] you teach them your style, you’re teaching them how to defend themselves against you,” says Wong. 

There were also rumours that a hot-tempered Lee was getting into fights. “He was up at Dick’s Drive-In,” says Greg Luke, recounting one such story. “And people tried to cut in. He didn’t appreciate that, so he took out like five guys with an umbrella.” Betty Lau also heard wild tales. “The boys on the dragon team were talking about going to watch some Japanese kid who’d challenged Bruce. [They said] he broke the guy’s arm and leg.” 

Tales like these horrified and entertained Chinatown, but the violent character starring in them was unrecognizable to those who actually knew Lee. “He was a fun loving prankster. Just an ordinary guy. Mostly he was willing to listen,” says Luke.

“He had that other side, of arrogance, cockiness, bragging,” remembers Don Wong. “But he was the nicest guy. He had those good qualities of leadership and charisma.” 

Wong’s elder sister, Vi Mar, waitressed at Ruby Chow’s. Lee addressed her as “auntie” and found some respite at her house. Sitting at Mar’s kitchen table while she cooked, Lee shared his thoughts and anxieties. “Bruce was an intelligent [and] sensitive young man,” she recalls. “He was sent to Auntie Ruby for discipline. She was kind but she was busy and they did not have this sort of relationship.” Having raised her younger siblings, Mar was accustomed to lending an empathetic ear. “He just wanted someone to listen to his thoughts. He was alone in a new place and didn’t know many people. Wouldn’t you be lonely?” Lee would sometimes linger, joining the family for dinner. Mar thinks back wistfully on the lonely young man, smiling at the memory of quiet evenings when he and the Mars would put on music and dance.

 

A Cha cha dance and Kung fu flyer from a later celebration, similar to Chinatown Night, with special appearances by Ping Chow and Bruce Lee, 1961 – Courtesy of Betty Lau and the Chow Family

Kung fu – and cha-cha-cha

In Seattle’s Chinese community, the Chinese Girls’ Drill Team was a rite of passage. “Your daughter is 12 years old,” Ruby Chow might inform a parent. “Get her down here!” Made dazzling by revered Cantonese opera costumier Chan Kwok-yuen , the team paraded everywhere from town fairs to Disneyland, even supporting John F. Kennedy’s election campaign. 

“Bruce [is] the Hong Kong cha-cha champion,” Chow announced during one team practice, referring to the Hong Kong Crown Colony Cha-Cha Championship, which Lee had won in 1958. “Who wants to learn cha-cha from him?”

60 girls excitedly hopped up and down: “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Betty Lau was there, unimpressed. “Everyone knows how to cha-cha!” she thought. Lee cued up a record and got on stage. The needle dropped onto the oily slick vinyl and he began to move. “He was so graceful, it was as though he didn’t have any bones in his body,” recalls Lau with a smile. “He was in total control of every muscle and I went, ‘Oh, my God. How am I going to learn this?’” 

Lee danced with each girl in turn. “He was a flirt,” recalls Trisha Mar. “Flirting with your eyes and flirting with—you know—your movements. Nothing inappropriate – but nothing you would do with your sister.” Ruby Chow forbade her Drill Team girls to date but this was no deterrent to Lee, who charmed the captain and then her lieutenant, Lilly Woo. Questioning Chow about these infractions, Lau received a brusque reply: “Never you mind!” The matter was dropped. Chow did not want to admit that Bruce was beyond her control.

In the summer, when Seattle’s perpetual drizzle gives way to bright, sunny skies, the city prepares for Seafair, a weekend of airshows, hydroplane races and neighbourhood festivals. Chinatown held its own block party, known as Chinatown Night, and Ruby Chow had selected Lilly Woo, a future Miss Chinatown Seattle, to perform the cha-cha with Lee. Woo remembers watching, horrified, as Lee modified her costume, a striped calypso skirt. “He was cutting it to the length he wanted and he kept on cutting it shorter and shorter,” she laughs. Eventually she cried out for him to stop. “Okay, that’s enough!”

The pair practised in Ruby Chow’s restaurant, Lee shuffling expertly and Woo acquitting herself with aplomb. “He was fun,” she recalls. “A very easy going guy, an easy teacher. Had a lot of charisma and a cute smile.” The pair danced and watched movies until the night of their performance when firecrackers reverberated through an illuminated Chinatown. Ping Chow’s Cantonese opera lilted on the evening breeze. A wooden stage was erected in front of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association and on it, acrobats delighted the crowd of two or three hundred people gathered on tree-lined 7th Avenue. 

Sudden Latin beats signalled a shift in mood. The cha-cha champion took the stage. Lilly Woo, in her calypso skirt and a bohemian top, joined him. Under the street lamps their hips swayed like water. “Oh, it was sexy,” Greg Luke recounts. Dipping and twisting with easy grace, Lee and Woo held the crowd under a spell. “He was almost bigger than life,” says Luke. As the number came to a crescendo, the crowd erupted in applause – but amongst them someone was carefully observing.

 

Part 2 will come soon. 

 

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