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Getting to know Bruce

    Wing Luke Museum volunteer Liz Weber stands near a wall-sized image of Bruce Lee that is part of a new exhibition in Seattle.
    "Enter the Dragon" was mainstream America's introduction to Bruce Lee.
    The Wing Luke Museum’s Bruce Lee exhibit features 300 photos, poems, letters and artifacts. Many of the items were loaned by Lee’s wife and daughter. Pictured in the middle is a boxing glove Lee used for free-style sparring, his preferred training method.
    Lee filled spiral notebooks with texts and drawings of hand-to-hand combat.

SEATTLE » Although he was floundering at the University of Washington with a 1.84 GPA in March 1962, Bruce Lee was teeming with confidence and ambition, as if he knew success was around the corner. And he could smell it. He filled an endless stream of spiral notebooks — not on class lectures, but on Eastern philosophy, kung fu principles and fight diagrams. He stored much of his writing and drawings, even his stream-of-consciousness jottings and his scribbles on the trivialities of everyday life.

"My father was prolific when it came to writing: Day-Timers (planners), journals," his daughter Shannon Lee said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. "He wrote on pieces of loose-leaf paper that he held on to, and he wrote in spiral notebooks."

It was as if Lee knew he would be somebody important, somebody worthy of having his body of work archived or encased behind glass one day, to be scrutinized or fawned over.

A new exhibit at Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum called "Do You Know Bruce?" offers a rare insight — Hong Kong has the only other exhibit in the world — into Lee’s formative years in Seattle. The show features 300 photos, poems and letters, many from his days in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, the University District and the Chinatown International District.

Shannon Lee and Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Caldwell, loaned artifacts to the Wing Luke Museum for a rotating exhibit that will be showcased in three installments over the next three years. The first part focuses on Lee in his hometown. Next summer’s exhibit will focus on his five martial arts movies and his time in Hollywood. And the year after that, the exhibit shifts to Lee the artist.

Lee’s estate has cataloged his memorabilia and kept in touch with friends who possess other mementos. The family plans to one day open a Bruce Lee Action Museum in Seattle, though about $50 million still must be raised to do so.

Shannon Lee said the exhibit is a glimpse into what the public will see whenever a permanent Lee museum is realized. No time frame has been set, but a fundraiser has been hired and the family is looking at potential sites.

One thing is clear. The permanent museum can be located only in Seattle, for the same reason Lee is buried there: It is home, his family says.

His daughter said that after Lee’s death, his wife "started thinking back to when life was simple and when were they the most happy. … It was when they lived in Seattle. It’s where they fell in love and started their journey together."

That’s underscored in the exhibit with Lee’s love letters to his wife and to the Emerald City. He waxed poetically about Lake Washington, about how he loved the breeze and the walks along the beach. He meditated there, and it reminded him of the harbor in Hong Kong where his father took him fishing. Lee attended Seattle’s Edison Technical School, then studied at the University of Washington for three years, taking philosophy classes.

As his college report card shows, he was struggling. (Even in gymnastics he got only a C.) He was more focused on being a martial-arts instructor, bent on opening studios in Seattle and Oakland, Calif.

In fact, while still a student he was working on his first book, "Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense," which included fight photographs shot in the parking lot of Ruby Chow’s Restaurant on Jefferson Street, where he worked as a waiter to make ends meet.

He also filled spiral notebooks for other projects, written in blue and black ballpoint pen, filled with cursive texts scratched out and written over. There are also extensive diagrams and stick-figure drawings of hand-to-hand combat, with obsessive details about leverage points and various scenarios for attacks and counterattacks.

They were affirmations and instructions that may have formed the foundation for his later teachings to his celebrity students such as Lee Marvin, Roman Polanski and James Garner.

There are also pictures of him training in a studio in what is now Ho Ho Seafood Restaurant in the Chinatown International District. (From a window at the exhibit, you can also see the other building where Lee trained; it’s now Szechuan Noodle Bowl.)

A gallery of 100 magazine covers and portraits features a handsome, sinewy Lee. He is forever young, having died at age 32 from brain swelling caused by an allergic reaction, likely to painkillers.

The tone of the exhibit, though, is upbeat. Here is a wide-eyed Lee with a glint of Horatio Alger, a distracted college student who had swagger long before he had fame, a Bruce so cool that Steve McQueen took fighting lessons from him.


1. Lee vs. Bob Wall in "Enter the Dragon"

In what’s known as the "O’Hara Fight," Lee takes revenge on his sister’s killer. All of Lee’s signature moves — the acrobatics, the modern-dance-like footwork, the textbook-perfect kicks and the screeching — are captured in this short, tightly edited fight. Martial arts schools reportedly saw a spike in enrollment after this groundbreaking movie. Former welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard cited this fight scene, among others, as an inspiration for his boxing style.

2. Lee vs. Chuck Norris in "The Way of the Dragon"

Norris, who was a karate champion in real life, fights Lee at the Colosseum. Lee starts off fighting in a mainstream form of karate like Norris and gets the stuffing beaten out of him before resorting to his signature, free-flowing style to win. To Americans, it was just a cool fight scene. But to a generation of Asian-American kids, it was an allegory, a lesson on not succumbing to pressure and expectations in America and being true to who you are.

3. Lee vs. Danny Inosanto in "Game of Death"

The famous scene in this awful movie was the showdown with basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But Lee’s nunchaku fight with Philippine martial artist Inosanto was a better-choreographed duel. Quentin Tarantino paid homage to Lee by having Uma Thurman’s character don Lee’s iconic yellow-and-black tracksuit in "Kill Bill." (In the "who wore it better" department, Lee gets the nod.)

4. Lee vs. Sammo Hung in "Enter the Dragon"

Hung became a major action star in his own right. (Jackie Chan also had a cameo later in the movie.) But the other significance: This was mainstream America’s introduction to Lee. He’s in tights and gloves in a makeshift ring, presumably to box. But the audience got a surprise when the kicks start flying and Lee throws his opponent around before winning with a submission hold. It looks like a modern-day, pay-per-view mixed martial arts fight. Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White calls Lee the grandfather of MMA.

5. Lee vs. a Japanese dojo school in "The Chinese Connection"

Lee wipes out everybody in this karate school. Luckily the janitor wasn’t on duty. There were many Lee-takes-on-a-platoon scenes, but this one resonates because it was a political statement, a jab at Imperial Japan’s rule over China, a theme that’s made a comeback in recent years in kung fu flicks made on the Chinese mainland.

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