There aren’t that many places where you won’t find at least one person that knows who Bruce Lee is or seen him in action. That makes the fact that he never had a proper biography until now all the more confusing, but that has finally been rectified.
Author Matthew Polly has lived in China training with Shaolin monks, and trained at Xtreme Couture to write another book, delving into MMA. This led to him having an actual MMA fight in the amateur ranks, showing he’s not just a casual observer.
While I reviewed the book already, I wanted to get a bit of time with the author Matthew Polly to cover some points in the book, but also to cover what it was like to pursue this project.
Victor Rodriguez: First off, you had written previously two books already housed in the realm of martial arts, American Shaolin and Tapped Out. You went from a very traditional modern art to a more modern setting, then you decided to go to a point that decided the modern evolution of martial arts overall. How did you come to that, or was that perhaps unintentional?
Matthew Polly: Well, the first thing I was looking for was something that didn’t involve me getting punched in the face (laughs). You know, after I studied MMA at Couture’s Gym (Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas), I had a cracked rib and a broken nose. I realized I only had so many brain cells left. As you know covering MMA, the hardest thing to do is to retire on time. I’m not a real fighter but I’m a partial one. So I thought I should switch up, I talked to some friends, you know, “what project should I do?“, and one of them suggested Bruce Lee.
I thought “that’s a terrible idea, there must be half a dozen great biographies about him and I just haven’t paid attention“. When I looked it up, I realized there was only one still in print written 25 years ago by Elvis Costello’s bassist. It was done by a very small press, it was very thin, there were no photos. And I was personally offended on Bruce’s behalf. You know, Steve McQueen has half a dozen good biographies, any white guy who does anything gets a biography. But the Asian Kung Fu master who fundamentally altered western culture and launched the Kung Fu and martial arts revolution into mixed martial arts, he couldn’t get one? I felt because my whole life had been changed because of Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon, this was something I could do to pay back that debt.
VR: You noted in the book that Enter The Dragon was the first Bruce Lee movie you saw, as is the case for many people. What age was that around and what did that lead you to eventually to start your path in martial arts training?
MP: Yeah, I was like a skinny, bullied 12-year-old. I saw that movie on the first VCR in my hometown in Topeka, KS. I had one rich friend and his dad bought a VCR. His older brother brought down the tape and was like “you little guys need to see this, it’s gonna blow your minds.“ It did, and it immediately led me to run out and buy a nunchaku, and I hit myself in the skull with it repeatedly (laughs). But I didn’t lose my desire to learn martial arts. I was like a lot of scrawny kids but I thought it was the way to gain courage and stand up to my tormentors. I was kind of a dojo-hopper. I studied Aikido, I studied Taekwondo, Southern Kung Fu, then eventually in college I ended up dropping out for two years going to the Shaolin temple in China in 1993, where Kung Fu supposedly was birthed and studying with the Shaolin monks. That really kind of launched me on a more serious martial arts career, and also how I became a writer.
VR: So you split yourself with the nunchucks like the fat Italian guy in Way of the Dragon? The alleyway scene?
MP: That is one of my favorite moments because I sympathize with him intensely!
VR: You find out there isn’t another biography out there already, how does the process begin? Obviously there’s so much to cover, do you start with the beginning of his life or find people that were still alive that knew him and work your way backwards? Do you go to his family first?
MP: I started with an article. A lot of times when you want to get a book project, the best way is to start an article as a proof of concept. And so I pitched to various places of doing a an anniversary special on Enter the Dragon in 2013, when I started, that was the 40th anniversary of Enter the Dragon. Playboy picked it up and I started writing that piece, and for that I spoke to everybody that was still alive who had been involved with Enter the Dragon. The writer, some of the co-stars like John Saxon, I talked to Shannon Lee at the estate and let them know what I was doing, and once I finished that piece I sort of sprung from that to working on the full biography.
VR: It’s funny, you’d think that I’d come across it because I only and exclusively read Playboy for the articles.
MP: (Laughs) Pages were stuck together?
VR: Not telling. But when do you eventually make your way out to Hong Kong and how do you even start when you get there? Did you have connections prior to arriving there?
MP: No, for the article itself I went to Hong Kong and I have a friend that lives there, and he graciously put me up because it’s a very expensive city to live in. He connected me to someone he knew in the publishing industry, and I hired a translator and sort of go-to person. I landed and tried to interview every single person in Hong Kong that knew Bruce or was associated with Bruce or was a Bruce Lee expert. Then I got lucky. One of the first two people I interviewed was Raymond Chow (founder of Golden Harvest studios), who was Bruce’s boss at Golden Harvest. He was very willing to talk to me and tell me his version of events. Then the second person I got to - or one of the top five people I met was (actress) Betty Ting Pei, who was the last person to see him alive and with whom he had an affair. Everyone had been pretending that the last day of Bruce’s life he had gone over with Raymond Chow to have a business meeting at her apartment, which is ridiculous. No one goes to someone’s apartment for a business meeting. She was finally able to reveal what everyone had suspected - that she and Bruce were lovers and that they had been for a while.
VR: I’m glad you touched on that, because it’s leading to what I wanted to get to next. Everyone sort of has an image of Bruce Lee in which he was always this very controversial but still seen as a morally righteous person. Yet you uncover certain elements of his personality that perhaps people may not find as savory. Was that difficult for you given the admiration that you had for him or was that a matter of you simply recognizing his humanity?
MP: It was hard to get my head around at first, because I came to it like most fans. All I know about Bruce is what’s in the martial arts magazines (at the time) and then the movie Dragon: The Bruce Lee story. Because no one had written a proper biography, these aspects of his life weren’t reported. They were sort of edited out in order to create a kind of “Saint Bruce“ image. What I had to do was put myself into his context, and that’s what I wanted to do for the whole book. To understand Bruce in the context in which he grew up. The image of Bruce exists almost unmoored to any context.
Basically, Bruce grew up in a culture in China which didn’t believe in monogamy. His grandfather had 13 concubines, his father had a child out of wedlock, and then he went to Hollywood in the 1960s, which definitely didn’t believe in monogamy. So when you put it in that context where everyone was acting that way, it made total sense. To me - growing up as a conservative Catholic in Kansas, we were taught something different. It just took a while to understand that you can’t judge someone in a different time and place by your own moral standards.
VR: You just mentioned the Bruce Lee movie (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story). I don’t understand why it is, but aside from romanticizing Bruce Lee’s image I was very disappointed after I read the book about how his life’s been portrayed (in popular culture). For example, there’s a lot of liberties that they took - as any biopic would, you don’t walk in expecting a documentary, necessarily - so much of the stuff that happened was just plain wrong. After doing all this work, do you have any thoughts on that?
MP: Yeah, at first I would rage at that movie. “Gosh, darn it, everything in this movie is wrong“. Then I accepted it as it was: a movie that is based on Linda’s (Lee’s widow) book, so it’s really telling the story from her perspective. Then they went on to take humongous liberties even with her version of events. But I think the thing that makes me most annoyed is not that “Dragon” exists, it’s that it was the only major representation of his life. My goal with the book was for Bruce Lee fans or people that perhaps had heard of Bruce but don’t know anything about him a more accurate one. There are other biopics that aren’t very accurate, but you can always go to the biography to get the truth. That is what annoyed me. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story shouldn’t be the only thing that people reference Bruce Lee by.
VR: You mention Steve McQueen having a bunch of biographies, and how the only references we had was Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and now your book. Why do you think there hasn’t been more work done on his life seeing the impact that he’s had and knowing what an interesting life he led?
MP: I think there’s two factors. One, you probably recognized. Even with the success of mixed martial arts, martial arts are still treated as kind of niche as a product, and lowbrow. It’s very hard to get mainstream, big-time publishers feeling that this is something worthy of them. Had Bruce Lee been a poet that introduced more people to Asian culture than anyone else, he would have had six biographies. The second reason is because he’s Asian-American. It’s very difficult to think of any book about an Asian-American. White guys get books all the time and Asian-Americans just don’t. They’re not treated as being as important in our culture. I think it’s latent bigotry, to be blunt.
VR: Speaking of other representations in media, I believe that in the acknowledgement or near the end of the book you cited the more recent Bruce Lee movie (Birth of the Dragon). I didn’t see it, I remember the trailer. The book just made me angrier, because this is clearly an action movie. It’s supposed to be set in San Francisco, but you’re seeing very clearly that it’s shot in various warehouses in Vancouver.
VR: It centers itself around the duel between Bruce Lee and noted rival, the infamous Wong Jack Man. Do you remember the trailer, did you actually get to see anything about it?
MP: Yeah, no. I saw the movie...
VR: Oh, god! So you suffered more than I did?
MP: Yeah, yeah. I was in the theater, there was one other person and I was howling, it’s so bad. And the guy behind me goes “excuse me, sir, do you know something about the story?“ (Laughs)
VR: (Laughs) “I got a Ph.D. in it, my guy!!“
MP: I said: “You just happened to tap the right person!“
VR: But the trailer ends with some sort of wild fight scene and then Bruce says to someone “Did I ever tell you about my one inch punch?” before he blasts the guy in the chest and sends him flying through something. So what is the market for this, exactly? Why do they have to go in this direction to sell Bruce Lee when it can be something so simple? You point out it may be something of a racial bias or perhaps a latent bias. Is it really that difficult in 2015-2016 when this film came out, did they have to take that route?
MP: I don’t know. I talked to some people that talked to the producer and they had they had an idea, which was to make Bruce Lee a comic book character, and that happened with the Bruceploitation flicks. This movie’s essentially a Bruceploitation film with a little more history thrown in. What was interesting about it was that they wrote it from Wong Jack Man’s perspective. He’s the hero, and Bruce is kind of the punk kid that needs to be taught a lesson in virtue and Chinese wisdom. That was what was unique about it. I don’t understand why they — Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story is the same thing - they start with aspects that are true and then turn it into a lowbrow Kung Fu movie. And Bruce Lee’s life was interesting enough if you just told it straight, so I don’t know why they did that. I think the real fight between Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee is hilarious! (Laughs) You couldn’t make a whole movie out of that, but that would be an amazing scene where Wong Jack Man turns around and runs and Bruce is chasing him. Like, the real thing that happened there is the kind of bizarre shit that happens in real life. Someone panics and everything goes crazy.
VR: Speaking of Bruceploitation films, how many of those have you seen? I’d imagine more than a few.
MP: I can’t even — I did my best, I saw about four of five and then they made my eyes kind of burn, so...
VR: You must have seen the one where they’re in hell and Bruce Lee teams up with Popeye and some other...
MP: (Laughs) Yeah!
VR: Goddamn Popeye? Really?
MP: Those movies are just horrific, man. And it reminds you that even though when you watch Bruce Lee movies they’re clearly low-budget and they have some flaws, but how amazing it is compared to the kind of shit the dredge that was coming out of Hong Kong at the time.
VR: Even Fists of Fury, you can tell that it was very much a low-budget project, but they take care to hide the imperfections in some way. Anyone who’s been around a set or who is familiar, marginally, at least with how production is done would be able to tell the difference between the two. But what do you think the film producers were trying to accomplish? It’s obviously capitalizing on the death of a guy that just died, but you’re essentially hiring a guy to play Bruce Lee as Bruce Lee in this other thing after he’s dead - do you think this was seen as disrespectful and maybe fans were a little sour on it?
MP: Yeah, I think it did end up souring some of his fans on his image. Originally these movies were put out specifically to trick audiences with people thinking Bruce Lee was still alive. And that’s one of the things that’s hard for us to realize in the internet age where you can uncover something like that in a minute. But these movies would be shipped off to New York City and I’d talk to people that were like ”yeah, I thought that was gonna be Bruce.“ They didn’t know, so it was a total con job, most of these movies, and then they just kept making them. Each one would make just enough money to justify the next one.
VR: Well, that’s like The Asylum, they’re the film company that makes deliberate knockoffs to confuse grandmas that are in line at CVS. Instead of Transformers, they have Transmorphers. Things like that, instead of Tremors it’s something like “Quakes”, etc. So they had all these guys and gave them names that were alternate spellings of Bruce Lee (Bruce Li, Bruce Liang, Bruce Lai, etc) and got them to look kinda like him. I guess a lot of people weren’t very good at telling Asian people apart. So you’re saying this could be something of a prototype of that model way back in the 70s?
MP: Oh, yeah. No, that’s exactly what they were doing. They did the titles that way, they did the names that way, relying on the “all Asians look alike“ mentality to get them through. They made money. There are more than fifty of those and no one makes fifty movies unless they’re making money.
VR: Yeah, if you’re selling, somebody’s buying. Speaking of buying, after I finished the book - actually my second go round - about two days later I’m on Netflix and I see there was a series in China that’s got like 50+ episodes, have you seen this?
MP: (Laughs) Yes, I have.
VR: I saw the first episode and yet again I’m sitting there frustrated because - alright, I’ve consumed copious amounts of Bruce Lee content and watched more than a fair amount of Chinese television. I understand why they do certain things based on the traditions of Chinese theater. A lot of it looks schlocky because that’s just the way things are done. But Ip Man (one of Bruce’s main instructors) isn’t even in it. There’s no mention of Bruce being a child actor, you know you’re not watching a documentary, but you have to wonder “why does it have to be this much of a departure?“ We already discussed the American movies based on him, but why do you think the Chinese series is the way it is? Is it because of a need to venerate him as a national symbol?
MP: I think that was the goal. That series is actually the most successful one Chinese TV’s ever put out, so it worked. They know something we don’t. But it’s horrible. I mean, it’s very hard too watch the whole thing, it’s got no basis in reality or relation to his life. And a lot of things in his life would have made for great TV. I don’t understand why, there’s one point later on in the series where he’s fighting a mechanized samurai warrior.
MP: And you’re like “WHY??“ so I think they stole a bunch of stuff from “Dragon” (The Bruce Lee Story).
MP: It’s really bad. But at various points Bruce will shout to the crowd “I am Chinese!“ and “I am a Chinese hero!“ So it was very much an effort to claim Bruce Lee as Chinese, which of course is fascinating because as I revealed in the book, he’s not fully Chinese. He’s a quarter English and an eighth Dutch-Jewish. He’s a mixed heritage Eurasian guy who doesn’t really quite fit in in either culture and I find it fascinating to watch who claims him. Who says “Bruce Lee is one of ours.“
VR: He got a lot of flack for not being Chinese enough when he was training in Wing Chun and coming up in the Kung Fu circuit, but once he became a film superstar and he was in everyone’s good graces after The Green Hornet (a story detailed in the book) - which was retooled and repurposed, then televised in Hong Kong - you noticed, quite astutely, that those factors were basically set aside for a while until his popularity started to get a little shaky. So say he doesn’t pass away after Enter the Dragon, he goes on with his career. You think he would have made a permanent transition into the director’s chair and just creating content?
MP: Yeah, I’ve always felt that although he wanted to be a bigger star than Steve McQueen, he modeled his career after Clint Eastwood. That’s who he would have continued to model his career on. I think he would have done action movies for a while, but then he would have transitioned to action-comedy, action-romance, then eventually become a director. For Bruce, being in control of his art was more important than the fame associated with being an actor. It was clear that the happiest time for him was making Way of the Dragon, because he wrote it, he directed it, he starred in it. I think he very quickly would have tried to figure out how to do that, because he hated - hated being told what to do. That’s one of his most defining characteristics. He fought with Raymond Chow, he fought with (Warner Brothers producer) Fred Weintraub, he wanted to be in control of every aspect. And so I think he would have been like Clint, he would have his version of Unforgiven, reinterpreted Kung Fu movies and then gone on and directed very interesting projects when he was too old to do the action.
VR: Hopefully without the racism of Gran Torino...
MP: (Laughs) That’s true!
VR: How did he not learn? God...
VR: But this reminds me of the contrast some bring up between Jimi Hendrix and Bill Hicks. Here’s someone that wasn’t that popular in their home country, they go to England and get huge. People say Hicks saw the success that Hendrix had in the U.K., and Jimi carried that momentum back to the U.S. but in Hicks’ case he saw that it doesn’t always play out that way. With Bruce it was a case of him finding success in the U.S. to a small degree, working his way to Hong Kong and filming The Big Boss in Thailand only to have essentially one foot on each side of the Pacific and building from there. You think that would have been untenable seeing as he was a terrible workaholic?
MP: Yeah, I don’t think he would have been able to sustain that. It would have been terrible for his personal life. Like, having whatever he was doing in Hong Kong and a family back in L.A.
It’d have been interesting if he could have sustained that. He was a terrible workaholic, that would have been a challenge. My feeling is that he would have calmed down a little bit once he felt a little bit secure in his success. And the problem was right when he did Enter the Dragon, he was still insecure and still desperate to make sure the opportunity didn’t pass him by.
VR: Him being a womanizer somehow didn’t surprise me as much, although it did catch me a bit off guard. But looking at how bad he was with money...
MP: (Big laugh)
VR: ...Seeing how he would stretch himself out in these situations, especially after he had two children, and a mortgage in the Hollywood hills, and an expensive car, he’d still go out for extravagant purchases. There were at least two points in the book where I had to put it down and hold my head with both hands and go “baby, what is you doin’?“ I’m audibly groaning while I’m reading the book because - look, I can’t ask you to play armchair psychologist with everything, but do you have any idea where that might have stemmed from?
MP: Yeah, I laugh because I think you and I agree because we both have young sons. The thing about having a young child is that you think about the money and the worry about that so intensely. I had the exact same reaction. The womanizing didn’t bother me nearly as much as when he bought that Porsche. I was so angry at him! I was like “Bruce, your back is about to go out, you need the money!” Like, “don’t do that!“ That was the angriest I ever was at him. I think it’s his upbringing. He grew up wealthy, his mother came from an extremely wealthy family, he just believed money grew on trees. He always thought that he’d be able to make more later. I think that when he was poor in America, that was the hardest thing for him because was more used to more comfort, and whenever he got anything he’d immediately go out and blow it. Money just burned a hole in his pocket. It was a distinctive quality of his. Fortunately, he was so talented he kept figuring out ways to make more money, but man, oh man, was he bad with it.
VR: Of all the people that you interviewed - especially when it comes to his former students or anyone that had him as a mentor or training partner - which one of them do you feel expressed the deepest connection to him?
MP: I think Taky Kimura loved him the most, he was by far the most loyal. He would go visit his grave on a weekly basis and leave flowers. I think Dan Inosanto, to me, best represents probably the best of who Bruce Lee was as a martial arts teacher. Kind and loyal, and also open and willing to new things. And I’ve always liked how Dan Inosanto has brought new styles in and learned different things. Really, I think Inosanto’s version of JKD (Jeet Kune Do) is the bridge to MMA, at least in the modern version of it. So I think Dan Inosanto was the most impressive person I talked to.
VR: Of all the friendships that he had, he did manage to burn some bridges in some very unfortunate circumstances, often due to misunderstandings that one would think or hope by the end of the book he would mend. Were there any of those friendship breakups that made you sad as well, that you wish he’d at least try to patch up?
MP: I think he had a tenuous relationship with the Karate champions, Mike Stone and Joe Lewis. I really wanted to get into that, because that was an interesting look into the way pride messes with martial artists. None of them were willing to be like, they didn’t want to call him “teacher”, and he wanted them to do that. That was like a thing they couldn’t get over. I would have hoped he would have found a way to get back together with them and help them, because both of them got into movies and I think they would have had good movie careers if they’d had Bruce’s help.
VR: The one that hit me the hardest was Jesse Glover for some reason. I think it was the fact that he was Bruce’s first student and there was a different bond there. Also the Mike Stone situation because of how frivolous that was. But I think it was Mike Stone that said something very interesting: “I was already a champion before I met Lee.” You raise a great point about the martial artist pride being a factor. Lee felt that there was a lack of gratitude, perhaps “You’re not appreciating the changes that you’ve made since we’ve come into each other’s lives“, etc. It’s just a shame that these fractures became irreparable.
MP: I agree. I hadn’t thought about it, but you remind me - Jesse Glover, I think his sadness at the funeral was tied to the fact that he’d split from Lee (note: Glover served as a pallbearer at Lee’s American funeral and helped dig the grave with a shovel). You really wish he could have been one of Lee’s assistant instructors and they’d have found a way to work that out.
VR: Well, he did reward his friends for their loyalty and friendship. As soon as he got a break with a gig, he’d bring them all in some capacity or another (in supporting roles or as extras). It’s like the negative traits that are seen and explored in the book are vastly overshadowed by the shows of generosity and—
VR: And loyalty, yeah. Paying for the medical bills of stuntmen he’d injured, things of that nature. But what was the charitable act that you felt was the most generous?
MP: I thought it was making Chuck Norris a star. That was the biggest one. The little ones are really touching the way he helped the stuntmen along, the money, he would look after people when he got famous. I didn’t talk about this much, but he got Jhoon Rhee, the DC Taekwondo guy...
VR: Yeah, legend.
MP: Yeah, he got him his own movie. “When Taekwondo Attacks”, I think it was called. And he just arranged for them to give him an entire movie. Now, that’s a good friend! (Laughs) I have friends, they don’t get me movie deals. That’s the thing I admire most about Bruce, was loyalty to his friends. If you were good with Bruce - small things, too. He would write letters to friends like Taky Kimura when he was going through a divorce, and Bruce would write him a letter in the middle of all all of his fame, a long letter telling him ”hold on, walk on, it’ll be better”. He didn’t forget his friends when he got famous.
VR: One of the things that struck me was what a politician and tactician he really was. You tell the story about Way of the Dragon where he asks Chuck Norris on a few weeks’ notice to gain 15-20lbs. You also note that this was to Bruce’s benefit in every way: Chuck is going to look larger, adding the David and Goliath narrative; Chuck would be a little puffier, making Bruce look more ripped by comparison, and Norris would be slower on account of the extra mass on his frame. Is there another example of that that didn’t make it into the book?
MP: Naw, I thought that was one of the best moments and examples of Lee stacking the deck. Another one I thought was brilliant was when he went around bragging that he was the cha-cha champion. Then I find out he picked his little brother to charm the judges! He’d already won before he started, because who couldn’t give it to the two brothers?
(Note: children were venerated at the time, giving the Lee brothers an advantage and allowing them to stand out since the younger brother was seen as adorable.)
Matthew Polly is an author and martial artist, the author of American Shaolin and Tapped Out. Bruce Lee: A Life was published by Simon and Shuster, who provided BloodyElbow with a review copy for publishing purposes.