Bruce Lee opened the doors for Chinese Americans in television

When we think Bruce Lee, we think about his movies: Enter the Dragon, and Fists of Fury. We envision high kicks and stylistic punches. Bruce Lee completely changed the way the American public perceived a huge population of people, their traditions, and community; he changed prejudice by turning his abilities into a pop culture sensation.

On the set of 'Game of Death'
Chinese American martial artist and actor Bruce Lee on the set of Game of Death, written and directed by Robert Clouse. (Photo by Concord Productions Inc./Golden Harvest Company/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Despite being a movie and martial arts icon, there are many unanswered questions that surround Bruce Lee’s death death. On July 20, 1973, the “Little Dragon” met his end, and was laid to rest, but can we say the same about the cause of said death? Many speculate that Bruce Lee’s death goes beyond the physical realm.

James Bond was going to be in “Game of Death”

It all happened during a trip to Hong Kong, where Lee and his wife meet with film producer Raymond Chow to discuss Game of Death. It was in Hong Kong that Lee met with George Lazenby, the Australian James Bond, hoping the actor would be interested in playing a part in the film.

Photo of Bruce Lee
UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1970: Photo of Bruce Lee Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

To further discuss any further agreements, Chow suggested for everyone to meet for dinner and discuss the matter further. Lee and Lazenby agreed, hoping to add some appeal to what would be a box office hit. Lee, however, would not be joining them that evening. After that fateful night, it would be the last time Lee ever drew breath in this world. The reason? A family curse… Huh?

Bruce Lee’s family called him “Little Phoenix”

Since Bruce Lee’s death, there has been some buzz about the cause. He passed at the young age of thirty-two. It wasn’t until his son, Brandon Lee, was killed while filming The Crow in 1993 that the circumstances surrounding both their deaths sparked controversy. Let’s take it back to the beginning.

Lee was born on November 27, 1940, to a disowned heiress and renowned Hong Kong opera singer.

Bruce Lee And Family
KOWLOON, HONG KONG – CIRCA LATE 1950’s: Bruce Lee along with his mother and siblings pose for a family snapshot circa the late 1950’s in Kowloon Hong Kong. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

According to South China Morning Post, though Bruce Lee was known to be called the “Little Dragon” for being born in the Year of the Dragon on the Hour of the Dragon. However, his parents referred to their son as “Little Phoenix,” a girl’s name. The reason only fuels the myth.

They believed in the supernatural

Though Bruce Lee is considered the first-born son in his family, South Morning China Post report Lee’s mother gave birth to a son before Lee was born. Unfortunately, that child did not survive to adulthood and the family believed that a soul-robbing spirit was responsible for his death.

Bruce Lee In 'Enter The Dragon'
Bruce Lee in a martial arts position in a scene from the film ‘Enter The Dragon’, 1973. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

To combat against the malign entities, she believed in changing her son’s male name to a more feminine one. By switching gendered names, it would confuse evil spirits who wished to cause the family harm. To keep malicious spirits away, the Lees were to call their son a female name until he was older. As he grew into a young adult, his name was later changed to “Little Dragon.”

Bruce Lee trained with a legendary Kung Fu master

Danger temporarily aside, Lee grew into a rambunctious young man who often got into fights at school. To re-direct his aggression, his father decided to enroll him into martial arts where he was taught under Ip Man, a Cantonese martial artist and a master of Wing Chun (a Kung Fu style that specializes with close-range combat).

Bruce Lee In 'Enter The Dragon'
Chinese-American martial arts exponent Bruce Lee (1940 – 1973), in a still from the film ‘Enter The Dragon’, directed by Robert Crouse for Warner Brothers, 1973. (Photo by Fotos International/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

As a young adult, Bruce Lee was an attentive student who thoroughly enjoyed martial arts. However, Lee saw believed there was a life more promising outside of Hong Kong, and decided to make his next move overseas and try his luck in the US. His move would prepare him to become a legend. However, that legacy was later met with tragedy.

Bruce Lee was also a Cha-Cha master

Seeking the aid of friends and family, he settled outside of Seattle and took up work as a dance instructor. That’s right — the man could do a mean Cha-Cha. In fact, he competed in Hong Kong’s ballroom competitions and noted 108 different steps. He was an expert in the craft.

Bruce Lee on a motorcycle
(Wikimedia Commons)

Fun fact: He incorporated the Cha-Cha into his martial arts style, catering the fluidity of constant mobility, never standing still until he made his strike. Though he had an idea of what his life would be like when he emigrated to the US, life had a different path for him.

He taught martial arts

For a while, it seemed like life was golden, despite the racial unrest that was growing in the country. He found his rhythm and equilibrium when he realized he had an influence in teaching martial arts. He taught the Wing Chun style to his students, and it was in his class that he met Linda Emery, who he married in 1964.

Bruce Lee as an infant
(Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, many people didn’t approve of Lee’s teaching martial arts to American students. It was against martial arts tradition, and his teachings also added to the rumor that Lee’s death was not an accident but could have been a result of outside forces that were seeking to end Lee’s life.

His first television series was “The Green Hornet”

After marrying Linda Emery, the couple had their first child, Brandon Lee, in 1965 followed by their second child, Shannon Lee, in 1969. By then, Lee and his family moved to Los Angeles where Lee appeared on the television program, The Green Hornet.

Bruce Lee In 'The Green Hornet'
Bruce Lee (right) in publicity portrait for the television series ‘The Green Hornet’, 1966. (Photo by 20th Century-Fox TV/Getty Images)

His involvement in the show ushered Lee into the film industry, all while teaching martial arts to some of the most famous celebrities of his generation such as Steve McQueen (who was his neighbor while living in Los Angeles) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was an already practiced martial artist when he had the opportunity to work with The Dragon.

Bruce Lee trained Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Did you know Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was mentored by Bruce Lee for four years? At first, Abdul-Jabbar was hesitant about working with the famous Wing Chun master, but after he was referred by a martial arts magazine editor, he decided to give Bruce Lee a chance. “My first impression was this guy is really in shape,” Abdul-Jabbar said.

Bruce Lee 'Enter the Dragon'
Actors Bruce Lee, Jim Kelly, John Saxon and Ahna Capri appear on a poster for the movie ‘Enter the Dragon’, 1973. Lee is wielding nunchaku. (Photo by Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)

He knew what he was doing and was really committed to his style of martial arts.” Working patiently with the Lakers star, Lee learned Abdul-Jabbar’s established style and made it his own. As years passed, the two became quick friends and soon, the basketball superstar was going to be a movie star.

Lee offered Abdul-Jabbar a part in his film

If you haven’t seen the fight scene between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, once you’re done reading this article, you need to jump on to YouTube and look it up, because it is epic. He played one of Lee’s adversaries in Lee’s final film Game of Death. Though Lee never got to see the finished product, the film would prove iconic in its release.

On the set of 'Game of Death'
American actor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Chinese American martial artist and actor Bruce Lee on the set of Game of Death, written and directed by Robert Clouse. (Photo by Concord Productions Inc./Golden Harvest Company/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

As he appears on the big screen, Lee gave a face to Asian Americans. Lee showed American viewers that the Asian community was more than the stereotypes that were commonplace at the time. He was proud to be Chinese American, and showed his heritage proudly.

There’s new evidence about Bruce Lee’s death

But let’s get serious. How did Bruce Lee die? What was in his autopsy report? For over forty-five years, it was believed that Bruce Lee’s death was due to an allergic reaction to a painkiller he took prior to his death on July 20, 1973. Reportedly, the pill caused inflammation in his brain (cerebral edema) and died in his sleep.

Bruce Lee holding a striking pose
HONG KONG – 1973: Actor and martial artist Bruce Lee poses for a Warner Bros publicity still for the film ‘Enter the Dragon’ in 1973 in Hong Kong. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

However, a new theory from the recently released biography Bruce Lee: A Life by Mathew Polly might have insight into what really killed the martial arts legend –a nd it has nothing to do with the allergic reaction to a painkiller. If that were the case, then we can finally put Bruce Lee’s cause of death to rest and dismiss the curse.

It’s unclear how he developed his condition

It’s unclear how and when Bruce Lee developed cerebral edema (a condition that causes swelling in the brain), but the ailment caused complications for the Wing Chung master until his death. There was even an incident while re-dubbing the film Enter the Dragon where Lee fainted in a recording session.

Bruce Lee posing with nunchucks
Bruce Lee publicity portrait, 1972. (Photo by Getty Images)

The air conditioning was broken which may have caused him to overheat and collapse into convulsions. After that incident, Lee became very cautious of his body, taking the necessary medications needed to keep his cerebral edema at bay, including aspirin. Fast forward to China: That’s where things start to get blurry.

James Bond was supposed to be in the movie

So, when Bruce Lee and his wife arrived in Hong Kong to discuss Lee’s upcoming film, he and producer Raymond Chow agreed to have dinner with actor George Lazenby. However, Lee never made it to dinner. That day, Lee decided to pass some time with his friend, Taiwanese actress Betty Ting Pei, at her apartment.

On the set of On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Australian actor George Lazenby on the set of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, directed by British Peter R. Hunt. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Since his arrival in Hong Kong, Lee had been complaining about a headache. It worsened while he was at Pei’s apartment. Early evening approached, and feeling unwell, Lee told Pei that he was going to retire into the bedroom and take a brief rest. Wanting to help Lee with his headache, Pei offered him the painkiller Equagesic.

It was a tranquilizer

Equagesic contains a tranquilizer called meprobamate. The painkiller is supposed to help with pain, tension, and anxiety. Taking the medication, he disappeared into the bedroom. Later that evening, Chow called Pei’s apartment to check on Lee. He was supposed to attend dinner with him and Lazenby, but Lee was still asleep.

Bruce Lee In Fists Of Fury
HONG KONG CHINA – 1971: Bruce Lee and Malalene in a scene from the Kung Fu classic Fists Of Fury in 1971 in Hong Kong China. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

They hung up, and a few hours later, Chow calls again, and Pei once again, Lee was still asleep. Worried, Pei hung up with Chow and proceeded toward the bedroom where she saw Lee laying on his back, his shoes and shirt off. When she tried to wake him, Pei began to panic.

She was in hysterics

She repeatedly called his name, but he did not respond. In hysterics, she raced to her phone and called Chow at the restaurant. When he came to the phone, Pei was in tears and begged for the film producer to come quickly. He didn’t waste any time and raced to Pei’s apartment. When he arrived, he went straight to the bedroom and discovered Lee, lifeless on the bed.

Taiwanese actress Betty Ting Pei who was present during Bruce Lee's death
Undated photo of actresses Betty Ting Pei (left) and Yu Chien attending Standard Raido Corporation’s anniversary celebrating held in City Hall. (Photo by POST STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

He too tried to wake him, but it was no use. In Mathew Polly’s biography, he reports that Chow checked over Lee’s body but realized it was too late. Bruce Lee was dead. However, Polly claims there was more to the story than originally told.

They wanted to avoid scandal

Polly writes that after discovering Lee, he realized the seriousness of the situation. In his biography, he writes that Pei was Lee’s mistress (though Bruce Lee’s wife Linda Lee disputes this) and Chow realized that if the press caught wind that Lee was in the bed of another woman besides his wife, it would cause a great scandal — especially just before the release of his new film, Game of Death.

Movie Stars and Others at Bruce Lee's Grave Site
(Original Caption) Seattle: actor Steve McQueen straightens the sign on casket at Bruce Lee’s funeral. Coburn is behind Steve McQueen.

Chow had to think fast. He decided to call Pei’s personal physician, but didn’t convey who it was the doctor would be treating. It was crucial to keep Lee’s death quiet until a doctor examined him. However, despite the doctor’s best efforts, it was no use (and yes, that is Steve McQueen holding Lee’s coffin).

They drove his body to a hospital 25 min away

Chow called an ambulance to retrieve Lee’s body. But instead of taking him to the nearest hospital (only three minutes away), he curiously decided that the best route would be to take him to Queen Elizabeth Hospital — twenty five minutes away. The idea was to escape any kind of scandal. There, Bruce was officially declared deceased.

Bruce Lee In 'The Chinese Connection'
Bruce Lee demonstrates the technique of Kung fu in a scene from the film ‘The Chinese Connection’, 1972. (Photo by National General Picture/Getty Images)

When conducting the autopsy, his medical reports conveyed that his brain had swelled by 13%. For a while, doctors could not find what caused his brain to swell. Once more experts were involved, they concluded a reasonable cause of death: an allergic reaction.

Lee took a painkiller before resting

The coroners concluded that it was a death caused by misadventure, meaning, a death that was attributed to an accident occurring after taking a voluntary risk. Lee voluntarily took the painkiller but did not expect death. However, for years, something didn’t sit well with Lee’s passing. Pei reports that this was not the first time Lee had taken an Equagesic — he had taken them before.

Bruce Lee In 'Enter The Dragon'
Bruce Lee with fresh scratch marks on his face and chest in a scene from the film ‘Enter The Dragon’, 1973. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

So why hadn’t his brain swelled this dangerously before? Also noted: If the cause of death was due to an allergic reaction, sources believe that Lee wouldn’t just be affected by cerebral edema alone, but would show rashes in his mouth, throat and other symptoms. The official ruling was questioned.

They thought it was the painkiller

For over 45 years, it was believed that it allergic reaction that triggered his cerebral edema. However, a new theory has surfaced, and the idea may just contain plausibility. Months before his death, Lee had his sweat glands removed under his arms because he believed sweaty armpits were unattractive on the screen.

On the set of 'Game of Death'
Chinese American martial artist and actor Bruce Lee on the set of Game of Death, written and directed by Robert Clouse. (Photo by Concord Productions Inc./Golden Harvest Company/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

This caused his body to drastically change by changing how his body regulated temperature and heat. That day, when Bruce Lee first convulsed while remaking Enter the Dragon, Lee was enclosed in a small room with no AC and little air. It was the beginning of summer and temperatures would have been high. No one would have guessed the answer would be obvious.

It might have been heat stroke

Lee’s symptoms were similar, if not exact, to a victim of heat stroke. Athletes are most prone to it in the summertime, and all the symptoms were present: seizures and cerebral edema. In fact, one in every three high school and college football players who ass, die of heat stroke. And once an individual suffers heat stroke, they are more likely to have another.

On the set of 'Enter the Dragon'
Chinese martial artists and actors Kien Shih and Bruce Lee on the set of Enter the Dragon, directed by Robert Clouse. (Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Though doctors were on the scene of his first episode in just the nick of time, they didn’t know what had caused what they thought was a random turn of events. And if the reason was indeed heat stroke, then the doctors failed to mention one crucial detail.

It was unbearably warm the day of Bruce Lee’s death

According to History.com, the recovery period after a heatstroke is essential, and the patient should take it easy. Victims could experience multi-organ dysfunction during the immediately preceding days and weeks after a heat stroke, which increases the risk of long-term disability…and death. So, how does this connect to Bruce Lee’s death in Hong Kong? How did Bruce Lee die?

Bruce Lee In " The Chinese Connection"
(Original Caption) Picture shows actor, Bruce Lee, demonstrating a Kung-fu flip in the air of a Japanese boxing club member from a scene in “The Chinese Connection”. filed 5/27/73

Well, if you think about it, Bruce Lee died on July 20, 1973. July is smack dab in the middle of summer. When you put a recovering heat stroke victim in the middle of a very hot and humid Hong Kong summer, it can be a recipe for disaster.

It was too humid

According to weather reports at the Hong Kong Observatory, July 1973 was the hottest month that year. Not only was it hot, but Hong Kong is a city in a tropical climate, making it humid and feel much hotter than the actual temperature. Imagine a heat stroke victim working in a humid environment with his sweat glands removed.

On the set of 'Meng Long Guo Jiang'
(Photo by Concord Productions Inc./Golden Harvest Company/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Was Bruce Lee in especially high-risk danger of having another episode? It’s not impossible. However, for the longest time, conspiracies have surfaced over Lee’s death, and not just the family curse or a stolen token from his home. Some believed it was murder.

People went crazy

After Lee’s death, it was soon found out that he was in actress Betty Ting Pei’s apartment at the time of his death. Many point the finger at her, claiming that she was an assassin, or had poisoned Lee in his sleep. The blame was so aggressive that a month after Bruce Lee’s death, multiple bomb threats peppered the city.

Bruce Lee ready to strike
1973: Chinese-American martial arts exponent Bruce Lee (1940 – 1973), in a still from the film ‘Enter The Dragon’, directed by Robert Crouse for Warner Brothers. (Photo by Alan Band/Keystone/Getty Images)

Brown paper packages were discovered in heavily public areas, with messages written in Chinese: “Betty Ting knows the cause of Bruce Lee’s death.” Luckily, none of the bombs were legitimate (all turned out to be trash inside each parcel). However, the threat was real, and it forever altered the lives of Raymond Chow and Betty Ting Pei.

They swapped coffins

In China, cremation is the standard practice after the death of a loved one, because burials are fairly expensive. Bruce Lee’s wife, Linda, decided to take Lee’s body home to Seattle and have his body buried there. However, the plane was not pressurized, and the glass inside Lee’s coffin trapped the humidity from China, inside creating moisture and that dampened the coffin lining and Lee’s suit.

Bruce Lee In Fists Of Fury
HONG KONG CHINA – 1971: Bruce Lee in a scene from the Kung Fu classic Fists Of Fury in 1971 in Hong Kong China. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

Linda switched Lee’s coffin, but the fans soon found out and made accusations on switching Lee’s body. Lee’s death was difficult to process for fans. Some even believe he’s still alive. Others believe that the family curse was the real reason for his demise.

“Very superstitious” doesn’t even cover it

Yes, apparently many fans believed that despite what medical ailments Lee had before his death, his death was the work of the supernatural. Specifically, a family curse. But don’t believe in the superstition just yet: There is a varied list as to where the curse originated and why it was responsible for the death of the Jeet Kune Do founder.

bruce lee holding nunchucks
Chinese-American martial arts exponent Bruce Lee (1940 – 1973), in a still from the film ‘Enter The Dragon’, directed by Robert Crouse for Warner Brothers, 1973. (Photo by Fotos International/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

One rumor was that bad Feng Shui that caused his demise. Yes, the same Feng Shui used to arrange your sofa and houseplants. Apparently, his house on 41 Cumberland Road had some serious bad Feng Shui issues after his bagua mirror was removed, causing calamity to strike on Lee.

The curse revived after Bruce Lee’s son also died prematurely

Another rumor relates to Lee’s father. It’s speculated that Lee’s father was buried in a Catholic cemetery next to a child’s grave — a little boy’s grave. It is supposedly bad luck to be buried beside a child that had died so young, especially if it’s a male child. According to superstition, that could mean disaster for descendants of the family.

the graves of Bruce Lee and Brandon Lee
(Flickr/Tony Fischer)

And after the death of Bruce Lee’s son Brandon Lee in 1993, many more began to believe in the curse. It’s not just the fans who believe in the curse — even one of Lee’s family members has his questions. Bruce Lee’s brother, Robert Lee, thinks the curse is very real.

He died thirteen hours after he was shot

After their father’s death, Bruce Lee’s children had to move on. Though their father was no longer in their lives, that didn’t mean they couldn’t continue his legacy. Both of Bruce Lee’s children grew up learning martial arts an made appearances on television. However, that wouldn’t last long. In 1993, tragedy struck when Brandon Lee was killed while filming his only feature film, The Crow.

Photo of Brandon Lee before his death
Brandon Lee (Bruce Lee’s son) in Los Angeles, California (Photo by Barry King/WireImage)

A gun prop filled with blanks had been replaced with a real bullet. He was shot in the stomach and after thirteen hours, the 28-year-old passed away. It wasn’t until Brandon Lee’s death that the rumors of their family curse began to resurface.

His brother believes in the curse

After Brandon Lee’s death, many started to believe that something supernatural and sinister was at work in the background against the Lee family and their descendants. Even one of Lee’s surviving family members began to give the curse some more serious consideration.

Bruce Lee at a side
Bruce Lee publicity portrait, 1972. (Photo by Getty Images)

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Bruce Lee’s brother, Robert Lee, steps forward and claims that his family was trapped under a “dark cloud.” In the interview after Brandon Lee’s death, Robert claims he was never the type of person who lent credence to superstition. But after his nephew’s death, he couldn’t help but wonder if something bigger was at play.

The conspiracies were turning into something else

When learning his brother was buried next to a young boy’s grave, he believed that it could cause death and divorce in the surviving family members. So far, he counts his brother and nephew’s passing as a sign, along with his own divorce, and the divorce of his surviving brother, Peter.

Bruce Lee, Bruce Lee's wife Linda Lee, Bruce Lee's son Brandon Lee
KOWLOON, HONG KONG – CIRCA LATE 1950’s: Bruce Lee along with his mother and father pose for a family snapshot circa the late 1950’s in Kowloon Hong Kong. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

If you want to dig deeper into the conspiracy, Brandon Lee was Linda Lee’s age when Bruce died that day in 1973: twenty-eight. And like his father, he died while in the process of finishing a film, one that would go one to become a cult classic. The parallels are there.

His legacy will live on

After 45 years, Bruce Lee’s death still has unanswered questions. Though there is substantial evidence about how he truly met his end, it’s better to think that something metaphysical struck down a man who seemed immortal as opposed to the conclusion drawn in the official report. Regardless of the circumstances around his death, at the end of the day, Bruce Lee died a legend.

Bruce Lee with his son Brandon Lee
(Wikimedia Commons)

His accomplishments and legacy continue to reach millions as his love for martial arts are encompassed in his movies while breaking the social boundaries that open a conversation about race and cultural identity. He redefined the perception of Asian Americans, and started a movie genre that remains popular to this day. Rest easy, Bruce Lee.