INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Bruce Lee’s Japanese American Connection



Last time out I wrote about how the police department in Anderson, Calif., has added nunchaku, a martial arts weapon popularized by Bruce Lee, to its arsenal of weapons. I also noted how beginning at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 15, Visual Communications has an event titled “Celebrating Bruce Lee” at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum in Little Tokyo.

It features the late martial arts superstar’s daughter, Shannon Lee, and Diana Lee Inosanto, the daughter of one of his senior students, Dan Inosanto. Tickets are $100 and $150, and at this writing, some are still available online at

I’ve also been informed by VC’s Francis Cullado that that tickets may be available at the door the night of the event for any last-minute types. Call, (213) 680-4462 if you need details.

The event takes place 13 days before what would be Lee’s 75th birthday. Interestingly, in 1990 I attended an event in Los Angeles sponsored by the Jeet Kune Do Society that was held in a Chinese restaurant in honor of what would have been Lee’s 50th birthday. That event was special because Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, and son, Brandon Lee, were present. (Brandon Lee, as is well-documented, would later be killed as the result of an accident involving firearms during the making of “The Crow.”)

So, why the need to revisit Bruce Lee’s legacy 42 years after his death in 1973 and on the eve of his 75th birthday?

The reasons are many, but for me, it’s that Bruce Lee was in so many ways a man ahead of his time — and in many ways, we’re only now catching up to how he lived and thought.

Examples: Lee had a dedication to training and physical fitness that was unusual in the 1960s, outside of maybe the bodybuilding community. (This, at a time when professional athletes thought nothing of smoking and drinking.)

Also, he was not bound to tradition for tradition’s sake and happy to abandon old ways when they were no longer relevant, while adding new methods and tools if they were helpful. (“Absorb what is useful.”)

Meantime, the adult Bruce Lee seen in his action movies — especially his earlier movies — didn’t necessarily represent Bruce Lee the man. In those early pictures, he played the underdog who fought for the honor of the oppressed Chinese people, who had a secret weapon — Chinese boxing, aka gung fu — against evil white folks and evil Japanese folks.

It was red meat for his Chinese audiences, seeing him take revenge against a crooked, murdering businessman (“The Big Boss”/“Fists of Fury”), beat an entire Japanese dojo single-handedly or destroy a Russian (“The Chinese Connection”) or American karate champion Chuck Norris (“Return of the Dragon”) in a one-on-one fight.

Bruce Lee the man was actually more open-minded and inclusive than what he portrayed in those early movies. He wasn’t opposed to teaching non-Chinese people — at the time quite controversial. He also had friends and students of many different Asian ethnicities: Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean.

He also had students from many backgrounds, with one of the more famous being future Laker star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as well as Hollywood stars James Coburn and Steve McQueen.

That inclusive mindset was also manifested in 1973’s “Enter the Dragon,” in which he co-starred with a white actor (John Saxon) and a black actor (Jim Kelly); his philosophical beliefs were to have been displayed in the unfinished, abortive “Game of Death.”

You might think that from how his character had it in for the Japanese in “Chinese Connection” that he didn’t like anything Japanese. Reality was, when he returned to the United States, the land of his birth, as a young man and landed in Seattle, Lee was quite fond of Americans of Japanese ancestry. (Later, that his “Green Hornet” character was named Kato was just coincidental.)

Lee would wind up in Seattle because he was promised a job and a place to stay with family friend, Ruby Chow. I spoke with a couple of Japanese American former Seattleites who knew Bruce Lee around that time. What’s well-known, of course, is that his most-senior student, good friend and later, pallbearer was a Japanese American: Taky Kimura.

But according to my sources, Bruce Lee during those years attended many Japanese American community events and dated several Japanese American girls.

According to one of those I interviewed, Bruce Lee was incredibly handsome, smart, charismatic and, as has been documented elsewhere, more than a bit cocky.

While he dated at least three Japanese American girls, it’s also been documented elsewhere that the one young woman Bruce Lee was most smitten with was named Amy Sanbo. He apparently really wanted to marry her — but that wasn’t part of Sanbo’s life plan. A dancer and singer, she left for New York City. Bruce Lee and Seattle were in the rear-view mirror.

Bruce and Linda Lee with son Brandon.

Bruce and Linda Lee with son Brandon.

Later, of course, Lee would meet and date Linda Emery and they would marry and have two children, and he would become the superstar we still remember today.

As for what would have happened had Bruce Lee married Amy Sanbo or another Japanese American woman, there is no way to know. I would like to think that a move to Los Angeles might have still happened and a career in Hollywood would have still occurred.

This is also pure speculation, but even with his marriage to Linda Emery, I think that had he not died, his life experiences in the U.S. of losing movie and TV roles because, as he was told, “American audiences weren’t ready for an Asian leading man,” would have driven him, after reaching superstar status where he couldn’t be denied, to make movies starring himself and other Asian Americans, and that as a producer, Asian American and Asian stories would have been told.

Today, TV shows and some movies that star and include Asian American actors would have proliferated long before this mini-boom we’re now experiencing had Lee not died so young.

I don’t think this speculation is too pie-in-the-sky. As I said, Bruce Lee was ahead of his time. To me, it makes perfect sense.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2015 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.



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