This is a research paper I did while I was a Freshman in high school. In actuality, this research topic is unfinished. There is still a lot more sources out there pertaining to the life and death of Martial Arts legend Bruce Lee. In a way, this research is my homage to him and his memory.
The True Death of Bruce Lee
by Matthew Pitaro
May 16th, 2002
There is much mystery behind the death of martial arts practitioner, Bruce Lee. This is particularly interesting because his son, Brandon Lee, also died of mysterious circumstances. Before his death, Brandon claimed that the men in his family had been cursed since his grandfather. In this research, the facts of these men’s deaths will be sifted through the hysteria of tabloid rumors.
Bruce Lee died in Hong Kong on July 20, 1973 from Cerebral Edema (“Kung Fu Curse”). Cerebral Edema is a collection of fluid and resulting swelling around the brain. Applying pressure on the brain can cause various neurological problems and death. Lee’s passing was three weeks before the opening of the blockbuster film Enter the Dragon. This movie brought him international fame and fortune. On July 25, 1973, 25,000 people attended his funeral in Hong Kong, but he was buried in Seattle to be close to his family (Dragon).
Though he was a star from his movies, he was remembered as a legend concerning the mystery surrounding his death. All of his followers were shocked at his sudden death. At the young age of 33 no one would believe, or accept the fact that he died, especially of his astounding good health.
According to Yeung Sze, better known as Bolo Yeung for being Bruce’s co-star in Enter the Dragon, “He was the best I’ve ever seen. No one has ever come close to his talents… he had all the charisma that helped make him an international star.
…I don’t think people realize the obstacles he had to overcome to achieve the fame he
did” (Cater, “They” 77).
Yeung was a former student of Bruce and his testimonial would match many other followers of him. This would explain why the news of his unexpected death would come to such a shock to his successors. This is the cause of all the rumors that were ignited at the time of his death. A man of structural good health could not have died so suddenly. Be that as it may, Bruce was not as healthy as he seemed and he also had some inner demons behind camera.
Lee may be remembered as a hero from the characters portrayed in his movies, but his life outside of show business was much different. He was addicted to drugs, and had many mistresses. Many of his followers claim that he indulged in this sort of behavior of his divine devotion and hard work towards his martial arts. Yet, his personal life may shed some light pertaining to his death.
It is said that Bruce was a “hell-raising teenager” (Bruce Lee). Could this sort of lifestyle have lead up to his demise? One theory dictates he was murdered by Lo Wei, the director of his first two movies (“Kung Fu Curse”).
Throughout filming of Bruce’s first film, Fists of Fury, Bruce grew to dislike Lo Wei. Contrary, Bruce continued working with him to make his second feature, The Chinese Connection. By his third film, Return of the Dragon, aka The Way of the Dragon, Bruce had taken over and become writer and director of the movie.
As far as the theory that he was murdered goes, many suspected his wife, his lovers, rival moviemakers, and the head of his film studio. Some say he was taken out be the Chinese Mafia for sharing ancient Kung Fu techniques to Westerners. This may sound bizarre, but there might be some truth to it.
“Everyone thought he was an arrogant guy who wanted to change the ways of the master’s martial arts,” Dan Inosanto, today’s top practitioner of Jeet Kune Do, once said (Bruce Lee). Did Bruce’s arrogance eventually be his own demise from the Chinese Mafia?
When Bruce was living in Oakland, he opened a Kung Fu studio. News spread of this and he was ordered to stop teaching the foreigners by the Chinese community. He refused. A representative of the Chinsese masters, and Bruce fought in a Kung Fu duel. Bruce won within 3 minutes, but he still thought the fight took too long. Because of this, he began to work harder, lift weights, improve his techniques, and developed Jeet Kune Do.
Jeet Kune Do, or Way of the Intercepting Fist in Cantonese, did target mistakes and errors in various different martial arts. But in preparation for documenting all this, Bruce studied many different fighting styles from Fencing to Judo.
Kareem Abdul Jabbar, one of Bruce’s former students, said he became extremely exhausted by May of 1973. Bruce and he were shooting stock footage for Game of Death. One day, he just collapsed inside a non air-conditioned Hong Kong sound studio. At the hospital, no clear diagnosis was made. He recovered quickly and returned to work.
According to the South China Mail, Hong Kong’s biggest English newspaper, it claimed “Death by Misadventure.” Lee ate cannabis, the plant used to make marijuana, and collapsed. This happened months before his death. The day of his death, he again ate cannabis. He went to a girlfriend’s house and complained of a headache. She gave him a prescription drug, Equagesic. He went to lie down and never got up. Investigators ruled
he was probably allergic to a substance in the Equagesic (“Kung Fu Curse”). The substance was Nacrolomine. Doctor’s reports stated he was “hyper sensitive” to it, much like a person may be allergic to penicillin (Bruce Lee).
However, the story according to A&E Biography is slightly different. Bruce did not collapse in a girlfriend’s house, but in a co-star’s apartment in Hong Kong while working on a script. These minor differences in the story explain how the rumors have an effect on the truth. Because of these countless rumors, it is difficult for us today to decipher the true causes of Bruce’s death.
In Game of Death, Bruce’s last produced film; he portrayed an actor much similar to himself, Billy Lo. In a movie Billy was filming, the scene required him to get shoot. But a person in the mafia substituted a “blank” bullet for a real one. This concept is eerily similar to the death of Bruce’s son, Brandon. Game of Death was produced between 1972-1979 and Brandon died from getting shoot on set while filming The Crow in March 31, 1993, almost 20 years to the day of Bruce’s death.
During filming of The Crow, a revolver was filled with “dummy” bullets that were made of lead slugs and empty cartridges so the scene would be believable for a close up. When they were taken out, a lead slug stayed in by accident. For the next scene, the gun was loaded with “blanks.” Generally “blanks” are harmless, but when the gun was fired at Brandon, the lead slug was driven into his abdomen.
Much like Bruce’s demise, the passing of Brandon sparked many rumors. One theory states that Hong Kong moviemakers had it set up as revenge for Brandon not being in their films.
According to Eliza Hutton, Brandon’s fiancée, “Brandon believed the males in his family had been cursed because his grandfather angered some Chinese merchants. …They had their revenge by hiring a mystic [that] placed an ancient curse that would bring death, destruction, and unhappiness” (“Kung Fu Curse”).
Bruce’s brother, Robert, also feels there is a curse in his family. He plans to share his opinions in a biography about Bruce he will write. Robert feels that even discussing the topic is dangerous. He believes that he’s next in line to meet his maker (Cater).
Even today, 30 years later, there is still much debate over the actual death of Bruce Lee. The world may never know what the absolute truth concerning the death of possibly the greatest martial artist ever known. As William Shakespeare would put it, his life was tragic because he has reached an international fame and fortune, but was suddenly stopped dead in his tracks right when his career began to take off. However Bruce has left a legacy that can’t be tainted through his movies, Jeet Kune Do, and a worldwide hero that every person can look up to.
Bruce Lee. Dir. Molly Thompson and Bill Cometti. With Peter Graves. A&E Biography, 1993.
Cater, Dave. “Signing His Own Death Warrant?” Martial Arts Legends Magazine September 1994: 69-74.
---. “They Call Him “Bolo”” Martial Arts Legends Magazine September 1994: 77-81.
Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Dir. Rob Cohen. With Jason Scott Lee, Lauren Holly, Nancy Kwan, and Robert Wagner. Universal, 1993.
Game of Death. Dir. Robert Clouse. With Bruce Lee, Gig Young, Dean Jagger, Colleen Camp, Hugh O’Brian, Chuck Norris, Danny Inosanto, Mel Novak, Bob Wall, Roy Chaio, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. CBS FOX, 1972/1979.
“Kung Fu Curse.” National Examiner 23 April. 2002: 28.