88: Birth of the Dragon

It was an epic fight between two martial arts masters…Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man. But how much of the film that was inspired by this true event is actually true?

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About Birth of the Dragon

The writing pair of Stephen Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson teamed up to write a few movies we’ve covered here on the show—2001’s Ali starring Will Smith and 2014’s Pawn Sacrifice starring Tobey Maguire.

And while we haven’t covered them, the duo of writers have also teamed up for other films that might turn into future episodes…1995’s Nixon, 2006’s Copying Beethoven and this year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, just to name a few.

While some of those are more fictionalized than others, I think it’s safe to say Stephen and Christopher are no stranger to movies that are based on a true story.

Today, we’re going to be looking at yet another film of theirs that has a shred of truth. 2016’s Birth of the Dragon is based on a July 1980 article written by Michael Dorgan in the Official Karate magazine called Bruce Lee’s Toughest Fight. It’s the tale of a fight now legendary in the martial arts world between a young Bruce Lee and the Shaolin teacher Wong Jack Man.

After release, it received less than positive reviews that even warranted a public statement from Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon, who wanted to make it clear her family had nothing to do with the making of the film.

So why was there so much controversy about the accuracy of the film? Let’s find out as we attempt to separate fact from fiction in Birth of the Dragon.

Learn the true story of Birth of the Dragon

The movie begins with some text on the screen explaining the overall gist for what we’re about to see. According to that text, in 1964, Bruce Lee fought with a Shaolin master named Wong Jack Man who many believe was trying to punish Lee for teaching Westerners Kung Fu.

That’s all true—as long as we focus on the word “believe” being one of the key words of that phrase. There was a fight between the two martial artists and there are many who believe Wong Jack Man’s purpose for fighting Bruce Lee was retribution for coming to the United States and teaching Kung Fu.

But as we’ll learn today, just because some people believe that doesn’t mean everyone does.

After this brief bit of text to kick off the film, we’re whisked away to the beautiful countryside of the Henan province in 1963. Here we’re introduced to Yu Xia’s version of Wong Jack Man as he’s fighting a Tai Chi Grandmaster as played by Wang Xi’An.

With dozens of monks looking on from both sides, Wong Jack Man is on the losing end of the fight. He gets knocked down and, clearly upset, flips up before delivering a devastating kick to the chest of the Tai Chi Grandmaster. Just then, the movie cuts to black.

That’s all made up. At least, there’s nothing I could find to prove that this sort of fight happened or that Wong Jack Man lost his temper in a demonstration fight with a Tai Chi Grandmaster.

Then again, there’s a lot of undocumented history and Wong Jack Man’s personality was such that he specifically avoided the spotlight. He didn’t like to be in the public’s eye which, unfortunately, means there’s not a lot of reports and documentation on him. As a result, there’s a lot of facts we don’t know about him.

What we do know, though, is that Wong Jack Man was born in 1940 in Hong Kong. As a young man, he trained under a Northern Shaolin Kung Fu Master Kuo Yu Cheong.

In the early 20th century, Kuo Yu Cheong earned a name for himself as a legendary martial artist. He was referred to as one of the Five Tigers and is credited with reviving martial arts across much of China, in particular as he traveled southern China teaching his Northern Shaolin style.

As a youngster, Wong Jack Man joined his Sifu, or teacher, across southern China performing demonstrations and helping spread the desire to learn martial arts to as many as they could.

If you listened to the episode on the movie Ip Man then you’ll know about Bruce Lee’s legendary teacher, well, Kuo Yu Cheong may not have had a movie made about him, but he was legendary in his own right.

Speaking of Ip Man, the movie actually mentions him briefly when Philip Ng’s version of Bruce Lee mentions that after they found out Bruce Lee’s grandmother was white they made Ip Man stop teaching Bruce.

Then, at another point in the movie, Bruce tells Billy Magnussen’s character, Steve McKee, that he was sent to the United States after getting in a fight. Not just any fight, though. According to the movie’s version of events, Bruce Lee broke the leg of a kid who happened to be the son of a Ching Hou Tong boss. In retaliation, the Triad put a hit out on Bruce Lee, whose father appeased them by making a deal—Bruce would go to the U.S. and leave them alone if, in return, they’d leave him alone.

Together, these two stories give us an idea of how the movie implies Bruce Lee made his way to the United States. There’s elements of truth in there, but the full truth is a bit different.

You see, Bruce Lee was born in the United States.

Lee Jun-fan, which we hear Wong Jack Man say in the movie, was the young boy’s given name when he was born on November 27th, 1940 in San Francisco. The surname being flipped, of course, from what we’re accustomed to where I’m at in the United States.

As the story goes, he got the name Bruce from a nurse at the hospital where he was born and although his immediate family used his given name as a child, obviously we know him as Bruce Lee today.

When the movie mentions his grandmother was white, what they’re probably referring to was his mom’s mom. I say “probably” because, well, we don’t know a lot about his mother’s heritage. We know her name was Grace Ho and she was the daughter of wealthy man in Hong Kong named Ho kam Tong. But others speculate perhaps Grace was adopted since many believe Tong had some 12 wives and upwards of 30 kids.

While we don’t know a lot about Grace’s ancestry, what we do know is that despite growing up in a wealthy household, she became infatuated by a very famous opera singer and film actor named Lee Hoi-chuen.

Despite what had to have been some strong pressures otherwise, Grace followed her heart and ran off with the dashing young Lee. The two were married in 1907.

Earlier I mentioned the episode we did a few months back about the movie Ip Man. In that story, we learned about the Japanese invasion of China and how that affected the man who would become Bruce Lee’s teacher. Well, while that was happening to Ip Man, Grace and her husband avoided the conflicts at home thanks to his talents.

It was during a year-long tour of the United States for the Cantonese Opera Company that Grace and Lee welcomed Lee Jun-fan into the world.

He didn’t stay in the United States for long, though. Although many of his colleagues decided stay in the U.S. due to the conflicts in China, Lee Hoi-chuen decided to take his family back home after Bruce’s birth.

Only a few months later, the Lee family was one of many who endured Japanese occupation of their home during World War II. Thanks in no small part to the wealth from his mother’s side of the family, after the war ended Bruce received a great education.

But Hong Kong was hardly a stable place, even after the war ended. With communist China nearby while Hong Kong remained a British colony, that meant there was an influx of people flooding into Hong Kong trying to flee the violence erupting around them. As a result, there was plenty of violence on the streets of Hong Kong as well.

Even the Lee family fortune couldn’t keep young Bruce out of the fighting, though, and after being involved in numerous fights on the street, his parents decided they should find someone to train him in martial arts.

So that’s how Bruce Lee was eventually introduced to Ip Man, who himself had become local legend of sorts. That was before Bruce’s 17th birthday in 1957.

Ip Man taught Bruce Lee a style of fighting called Wing Chun, and although Ip Man wasn’t always hands-on personally with the training of his students—Bruce Lee was an exception. Ip Man found the young Bruce to be a quick, talented student and was one of the few who he taught personally.

OK, so that’s the first half of the stories we heard in the film about how Bruce Lee came to the United States. As we learned, the truth is a little more complicated than the movie makes it seem.

But the other part of the story according to the movie is from that scene I mentioned a few moments ago where Philip Ng’s version of Bruce Lee tells Billy Magnussen’s character, Steve McKee, that he broke the leg of a kid who happened to be a gang boss’ son. Then he was sent to the U.S. in an agreement between Bruce’s father and the infamous Triad crime gang.

Well, it is true that it was a fight that caused Bruce Lee to ultimately return to the United States.

If you remember, the whole reason why Bruce Lee started training with Ip Man was because of street fights—they were all too common, it’d seem. Well, in the early months of 1959, just a couple years after beginning his training with Ip Man, Bruce Lee got into another street fight. This time, the cops were called and the cops gave his parents an ultimatum: One more fight and Bruce gets sent to jail.

So in April of 1959, Bruce Lee moved in with Agnes, his older sister, who was already living in San Francisco.

As far as I can tell, there was no gang involvement in the decision for Bruce’s move to the United States. But then again, I guess if there were that wouldn’t really be something that’s well-documented.

Regardless of the means, the end result was the same: An 18-year-old Bruce Lee had returned to where he was born in San Francisco, California.

But not for long.

Just a few months after moving to the U.S., he moved to Seattle where he worked for a family friend while he finished his high school education. Then in March of 1961, Bruce Lee began his college career as he enrolled at the University of Washington with a major in drama. It was here that he met a woman named Linda Emery.

The two were married in 1964, and would end up having two kids together, Brandon and Shannon.

As a little side note, if you’ve ever seen 1994’s dark film The Crow, that lead role was Brandon Lee. Sadly, he passed away during the filming of The Crow when one of the guns used as a prop had a live round in instead of a blank.

So the movie is correct when there’s a brief mention from Philip Ng’s version of Bruce Lee that he married a white woman—Linda.

Speaking of which, back in the movie, one of the major plot points occurs with a character I’ve only mentioned briefly up until now, Steve McKee and his love interest, a woman named Quan Xiulan, who is played by Jingjing Qu.

According to the movie, Steve is trying to rescue Xiulan from Auntie Blossom, a character played by Xing Jin, and her gang by orchestrating the fight between Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee. That happens, as the movie’s story states, so the gang can place some $15 million in bets on the result of the fight.

All of that…is made up.

In fact, the addition of a fictional character named Steve McKee at the center of the entire story wasn’t received well. The character of Steve McKee was named by the filmmakers after the legendary Hollywood actor Steve McQueen.

Although the real Steve McQueen was a fan of martial arts, he had nothing to do with the fight.

So the addition of Steve McKee in the film was seen as whitewashing—basically, in truth, there weren’t any white people pivotal to the fight between Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee.

And that begs the question—if it had nothing to do with saving a girl from the clutches of a crime family, what was the real reason for the fight?

Well…we don’t really know.

You see, it depends on who you ask. Therein begins the shroud of mystery that surrounds the fight itself. Simply put, we don’t know the real reason why it happened. We don’t know the specifics of how it happened. We also don’t know who won.

With that said, let’s dive into some of the varying accounts to get an idea of what each side suggests.

And by side, I’m referring to there being basically two sides to the story. One side coming from Bruce Lee’s camp, the other from Wong Jack Man’s.

Even though the movie says the fight took place on November 24th, 1964, according to the article the movie is based on the fight took place in December of 1964.

Something else the movie claims as being the reason for the fight, other than freeing the girl, was because Shaolin didn’t like that Bruce Lee was teaching Caucasians—basically, teaching non-Chinese people martial arts.

And it is true that according to Lee’s side of the story, that’s the real reason for the fight. On the line, if Lee lost, was the agreement that Lee would have to stop teaching Caucasians.

But Wong Jack Man himself insisted that race had nothing to do with it. Instead, he said it was simply a reply to Bruce Lee’s open call for challengers. You see, Bruce Lee was positioning himself as the one that no one could beat—something that really helped gain students.

Wong wanted to challenge that in an attempt to gain students of his own. So while some believe Lee’s side of the story, others side with Wong’s side of the story, pointing to the fact that Wong Jack Man would go on to teach Caucasians himself as well.

How about for the fight itself?

According to the movie, it’s an epic battle of crazy talent on screen. At one point, I paused the movie and counted a grand total of 12 people in attendance. And that makes sense, because at one point Steve relays to Bruce Lee that one of the requirements for the fight was that it be in the warehouse by the docks that Wong trains in, and there would be no more than 12 people in attendance.

Oh, and he also suggests that there should be a few ground rules. Namely, no kicking the groin or eye jabs. In the movie, Philip Ng’s version of Bruce Lee agrees to the location but not the ground rules.

As a little side note, the movie’s explanation for the location was that the warehouse was where Wong Jack Man was training. But it never really explains how Wong, who the movie shows just arriving in San Francisco a little while earlier, has this access to this randomly abandoned warehouse that just so happens to look like a great set for a Kung Fu fight.

In truth, the real fight took place at Bruce Lee’s gym where he ran his martial arts training. They actually locked the doors so no one could get in, except for those who were allowed in.

And again, we’ve got differing accounts of how many people were there. According to Bruce Lee’s wife, Linda, there were a total of 13 people there, including herself. On the other side, Wong said there were only seven people there—Linda included.

Still another of the witnesses remembered 15 people being there.

In the end, we really only have three variations of the story. Well, I guess there was a very brief reference from Bruce Lee himself in an interview much later, but it didn’t give any details so it’s hardly worth mentioning. The two primary accounts we have of the fight were from Linda, Bruce’s wife, and Wong Jack Man.

And those accounts vary quite a bit from both each other and what we saw on screen.

According to Linda’s side of the story, which you can find in her book called Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew, the fight was heavily in Bruce’s favor. Wong held a classic stance while Bruce Lee used the Wing Chun style he’d learned from Ip Man years ago. With a no-holds barred fight, Bruce unleashed a flurry of attacks that Wong just couldn’t handle. Just a few minutes later, the fight was over with Wong begging for the fight to end after being pounded by Bruce.

Total fight time according to Linda was three minutes.

Wong Jack Man’s own version of the story is quite a bit different. While it’s true that there were no rules, referees or anything else to stop the fight, Wong said that he realized early on in the fight that Bruce Lee really wanted to kill him.

Wong went on to explain that there’s three sets of moves in Wing Chun. Bruce used all three of these, focusing on a brutalizing flurry of attacks that targeted kicks at Wong’s groin or using his fingers to poke Wong’s eyes.

But he was able to parry most of Bruce’s attacks, contrasting Lee’s three Wing Chun sets with the dozens of sets of attacks he’d learned with his Northern Shaolin style. According to Wong, the more he defended the more infuriated Bruce became.

Wong’s version of the story was that despite Bruce’s fury, Wong himself fought more defensively throughout most of the fight.

In the movie, there’s one moment during the fight where Wong has Lee in a headlock, but lets him go.

That’s something Wong said happened not once, but three times throughout the fight. While he delivered a few attacks to Bruce’s head and body, for the most part Wong explained he fought defensively. On this side of the story, Wong later told his friends he didn’t use any kicks against Bruce because he didn’t want to permanently injure Lee. About the fight, Wong would recall, “I remember thinking, ‘If he injures me, if he really hurts me, I’ll have to kill him.'”

Now if Wong’s version of the story sounds like it lasted longer than Linda’s three minute version, you’re right.

According to Wong Jack Man, the fight was at least 20 minutes—maybe around 25 minutes or so. He said the fight ended when, as Linda explained it, Bruce got “unusually winded.”

The only other account we have of the fight comes from another witness named William Chen. In his recollection, the fight lasted for about 20 to 25 minutes. William also said there’s no truth to Wong being beaten to the floor and begging for the fight to be over, like Linda’s account suggested.

So as you can tell, there’s different versions of the fight. And this is just my own speculation, but I think the mere fact that there’s differing accounts of the tale have really helped spawn the mythos around it. I mean, you have two wildly different versions of the story. On one side, Bruce Lee handily defeated Wong Jack Man. Or on the other side, Wong Jack Man fought defensively and the fight ended when Bruce was winded—no mention of Wong himself being winded.

No matter what happened, I’d venture to guess that it was quite an amazing fight. And even though the movie’s version isn’t going to be entirely accurate, if there’s one thing I’m guessing it had in common with the real thing—it’s that they’re both amazing fights to witness.

At the very end of the movie, there’s some text on screen that says Bruce Lee altered his fighting style after the fight with Wong Jack Man. It goes on to say it was in July of 1969 when he introduced Jeet Kune Do, the forerunner of mixed martial arts.

That’s true.

With Linda’s version of her husband’s fight, Bruce Lee spent the next decade of his life changing up his fighting style because the fight with Wong Jack Man had left him unusually tired—something that’d never happened before. After that, he realized the Wing Chun style wasn’t enough for him.

Although Wong Jack Man never offered any reasons why Bruce Lee changed his styles, many others have speculated on his behalf that perhaps the longer length—20 to 25 minutes instead of just three minutes—and the resulting draw after being winded were the reasons why Bruce Lee came up with a new style.

Regardless of the reasons, it was on July 9th, 1969 when Bruce Lee unveiled his Jeet Kune Do system.

In the end, unfortunately, we’ll likely never know the true story of what really happened.

After the fight, Wong Jack Man slipped into anonymity, largely by choice, as he focused on teaching martial arts until finally retiring in 2005.

As for Bruce Lee, we all know he went the opposite direction as far as being in the spotlight. Although plenty could argue he was already in the spotlight before the fight—after all his first role was as a baby in the 1941 film Golden Gate Girl—Bruce Lee blew up in popularity with the success playing the character of Kato in The Green Hornet TV series in 1966 and 1967.

In the early 70s, Bruce Lee was working on a film he was writing, directing and starring in called The Game of Death when Warner Brothers offered an unheard of amount, $850,000, to make the very first Kung Fu film produced by a Hollywood studio.

Pausing his work on The Game of Death, Bruce went to work the movie called Enter the Dragon with the idea that he’d return to The Game of Death when he was done with Enter the Dragon.

Sadly, that would never happen.

On May 10th, 1973, he was working on dubbing the voiceover for Enter the Dragon when he started suffering seizures and headaches, finally collapsing and being rushed to the hospital. A couple months later, on July 20th, he visited with a man named Raymond Chow, who was one of the producers on The Game of Death.

Together, the pair went to the home of an actress in the film, Betty Ting Pei, to go over lines. Complaining of a headache, Betty gave him an aspirin and Bruce laid down for a nap before meeting up with Raymond later for dinner.

When he didn’t show up to dinner, Raymond returned to Betty’s apartment and tried to wake Bruce up. When he wouldn’t wake up, they called for an ambulance.

Bruce Lee passed away in the ambulance before reaching the hospital.

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