By Charles Russo, author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America (University of Nebraska Press, 2016).
So it Begins
At some point in late 1961, James Lee stormed out of the Kin Mon Physical Culture Studio in San Francisco’s Chinatown, effectively breaking off his tutelage under Sil Lum master TY Wong. Kin Mon, – or as the translation goes: “the Sturdy Citizen’s Club” – was located in a basement studio space on Waverly Place, directly across from the Hop Sing Tong, where TY was a longstanding member. James Lee had been studying at Kin Mon for a few years at that point, and had established himself as one of TY’s most notable students. Recently, they had collaborated on a book showcasing TY’s system, titled, Chinese Karate Kung-Fu: Original ‘Sil Lum’ System for Health & Self Defense. The two shared the byline, and the book has the historical significance of being one of the first (if not the very first) English language martial arts book by a Chinese master.
However, James Lee eventually ascended the steps out of Kin Mon in anger, concluding his time there on bitter terms. He encountered recently-enrolled student Leo Fong at the street level entrance, and let him know he was leaving: “I’m finished with this place. You wanna come with me to train back in Oakland?”
A perennially eclectic martial artist whose skills were anchored around an early education in American boxing, Fong also defected from Kin Mon on the spot with James. Years later, Fong laughs the whole misunderstanding off as trivial: “Jimmy fell out with TY Wong over just $10. They got real upset with each other over that. Can you imagine?”
While seemingly just another martial arts feud predicated on mundane matters of ego or just poor communication, James Lee’s split with TY Wong would have a significant impact on the emerging popularity of the martial arts in America and the kung fu craze of the coming decade, most notably with its effects on the long-term trajectory of Bruce Lee’s career.
You’re not likely, however, to find TY Wong’s name within any biographical accounts of Bruce Lee. Despite Bruce’s maxim of discarding “what is useless,” fans are probably far more familiar with a peripheral figure like Ruby Chow (his landlord and boss at a menial job) than a pioneering martial arts master like TY Wong, who dismissed young Bruce as little more than “a dissident with bad manners.” In fact, few Bruce Lee fans realize that the TY Wong/James Lee feud exists within the pages of Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense; the only book that Bruce Lee published in his lifetime.
The fallout between TY and James also gives key context to understanding the persisting tensions that led to Bruce’s legendary showdown with Wong Jack Man, an incident that would greatly influence Lee’s long term martial arts worldview. There is a lot to be learned from this obscure but notable history within the trailblazing martial arts culture of the San Francisco Bay Area during the early 1960s.
Enter the Dragon
Here’s an interesting question to consider: why did Bruce Lee relocate from Seattle to Oakland in the summer of 1964?
After all, things were going well for Bruce at that point in Seattle: he had a dedicated following of martial arts students and had finally found an actual location for his school. He was a popular student at the University of Washington, had just begun dating the woman he would eventually marry, and had defeated a rival martial artist in a challenge. During the summer of 1963, Bruce had traveled home to Hong Kong and greatly impressed his father with all that he had accomplished in Seattle. So why leave behind his business, his girlfriend and his education for a new situation in Oakland?
The immediate answer is James Lee. An Oakland native who was well-known for his younger exploits as a street fighter, James was already enacting the sort of martial arts future that Bruce was envisioning. He was publishing books, creating his own custom martial arts equipment, and conducting a modern training environment at his school. James was also putting a nuanced emphasis on body building, and perhaps most importantly, transforming his street experience into a gritty and realistic understanding of the true nature of fighting. Furthermore, James Lee had a unique network of experienced martial arts innovators within his orbit: Wally Jay, Ralph Castro, Al Novak, Leo Fong, and Ed Parker. As James Lee’s son Greglon characterized the appeal of this: “Bruce was smart. When he’s in his twenties he’s hanging out with guys in their forties, so he can gain their experience.”
Upon being introduced, Bruce and James had quickly found themselves upon a similar martial arts wavelength. And for a moment, James Lee considered moving his family up to Seattle to continue his collaborations with Bruce (they had already published Chinese Gung Fu… together in 1963). This idea was discarded for one main reason – the Bay Area had the most robust martial arts culture in America (with the possible exception of Hawaii, which James and most of his colleagues had ties to). In this sense, Oakland was a more logical place for their collaborations because it put Bruce close to the action. As kenpo master Al Tracy explained it: “The real significant early development of the martial arts in the United States was heavily based in the Bay Area. Many of the most important people came out of the Bay Area, not just for the Chinese but for so much of the martial arts.”
So by the summer of 1964, Bruce was operating out of Oakland, which was significant not just for his particular whereabouts, but for his commitment to his vision for the martial arts. Bruce was chasing something down. He could have easily stayed and thrived in his Seattle niche. Instead, the next step forward in his evolution was to be found in Oakland.
Amid their shared wavelength, Bruce and James at some point connected on their disdain for traditional approaches to the martial arts, and by extension – traditional masters.
Kung Fu in the Bay Area
To properly grasp the early martial arts culture of San Francisco’s Chinatown, it is necessary to understand the careers of the two practitioners that it was anchored around – Lau Bun and TY Wong. Both men were enforcers for the Hop Sing Tong, having been recruited for their martial abilities many years earlier upon arriving to town. Their duties involved a wide range of hands-on enforcement around the neighborhood, which included curbing excessive drunken behavior around the local nightclub, the collection of gambling debts, training of Tong muscle, and mediating disputes within the neighborhood as a means of avoiding law enforcement. Their schools emerged out of these roles, beginning with Lau Bun’s Hung Sing in the late 1930s (though originally known as Wah Kuen) and then TY’s Kin Mon a few years later in the early 1940s. Both practiced medicine, played music, and operated Lion Dance teams that were heavily involved in neighborhood festivals and holidays.
Lau Bun maintained a rigid order to the martial arts culture in Chinatown, never allowing it to devolve into the sort of daily fight culture that was happening among the Hong Kong youth upon the city rooftops throughout the 1950s. Even when Lau Bun’s relationship with other local martial arts teachers grew tense at times, order was still maintained.
The reality of Hong Kong’s challenge culture and the tenacious reputation of its Wing Chun practitioners had preceded Bruce Lee to San Francisco. During the summer of 1959, 18 year-old Bruce had a little-known incident in Hung Sung and was promptly thrown out by Lau Bun, sowing the seeds for future tensions within the neighborhood. (It is rumored that Bruce had a similarly confrontational incident with TY Wong in this period, which is certainly plausible considering the nature of his other interactions.) In the autumn of 1959, Bruce Lee left San Francisco for Seattle already on poor terms with the martial arts culture within the city of his birth.
It is important to point out that James Lee and TY Wong may have fallen out over more than just $10. Indeed, there is a compelling alternate theory to why James stormed out of Kin Mon in ‘61. In this version, James is practicing forms down in the studio when he notices TY Wong’s young son practicing a much more refined and meaningful version of the very same form. James, as the story goes, then realized he had been sold a water-down version of system, and promptly abandoned his enrollment. Although this version conflicts with the accounts of Leo Fong and the sons of both men, James himself would profess this version of events years later, writing in the intro to his 1972 Wing Chun Kung-Fu book: “I realized later that the whole repertoire was just a time-killing tactic to collect a monthly fee. In disgust, I quit practicing this particular sil lum style.” However, that was hardly the first insult to be put into print after his departure from Kin Mon, but was rather merely a postscript to an exchange of published put-downs a decade earlier.
In 1962, TY Wong responded to James Lee’s defection by publishing Kung-Fu: Original ‘Sil Lum’ System, which ran in similar instructional fashion to the first book. However, TY concluded this volume with an overt put-down of James Lee, ridiculing his Iron Palm abilities by running a picture of his eight-year-old son in the same breaking pose as James, under the headline: “See, I Can Break ‘Em Too!” TY distanced himself from what James had previously put forward on the topic by subsequently characterizing it all as gimmickry, and stating “Do not waste your time practicing this art.” James was well-known for his breaking skills, and his lively demonstrations were highly popular at local gatherings. TY’s vividly illustrated rejection of James’s abilities added a new layer of tension to their fallout.
Not long after, James Lee forges a new (and what will be a highly significant) partnership with young Bruce Lee, who begins regularly making the trip from Seattle to Oakland in support of a book project with James. The results of their collaboration – Chinese Gung Fu: the Philosophical Art of Self-Defense – would itself become a highly significant volume of martial arts literature. Ironically though, it was fairly innocuous in tone. As Tommy Gong recently pointed out in Bruce Lee: The Evolution of a Martial Artist, the content within Chinese Gung Fu “illustrated a more basic, generalized approach and primer to the theories of gung fu, including much of the classical approach Bruce later criticized. While Bruce showed a glimmer of his eventual unconventional approach to the martial arts, he expressed himself in this book from a traditional approach.”
On the other hand, Bruce and James added to an already tense relationship with Chinatown by devoting a section of the book to “Difference in Gung Fu Styles.” Here, Bruce distinguishes between what he sees as “superior systems” (namely, his own) versus “half-cultivated systems” (that of TY Wong and other “more traditional” masters). The sequence that follows has James Lee wearing his old Kin Mon uniform and being dismantled by Bruce in a photo-by-photo dismissal of specific techniques featured in T.Y.’s previous book.
By early 1964, Chinese Gung Fu… was on sale within San Francisco’s Chinatown, and the insults weren’t lost on local practitioners. Over time however, as Bruce’s fame became a global phenomenon, this highly local subtext fell into obscurity, as did the notion of Bruce Lee being simply “a dissident with bad manners, ” an identity that would firmly take shape after his book was published.
Critiquing the Classical Mess
Moving into 1964, Bruce Lee doubled down on his unabashed criticisms of what he saw as “inferior” practitioners and systems. His demonstrations took a pointed tone, and increasingly came off as heavy-handed lectures featuring stinging rebukes towards “dry land swimming” and the “classical mess.”
Although his performance at Ed Parker’s inaugural Long Beach Tournament in August is often painted in glossy terms, Bruce had actually delivered a scathing lecture disparaging existing practices, even ridiculing common techniques such as the horse stance, before an international audience of martial arts masters and their students. “He just got up there and started trashing people,” explains Barney Scollan, an eighteen-year-old competitor that day.
A few weeks later at the Sun Sing Theater in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Bruce went as far as to disparage the likes of Lau Bun and TY Wong – in their own neighborhood – by declaring “these old tigers have no teeth.” It was no small insult coming from a young out-of-town kid towards two heavily-involved and well-respected member of the community.
The sum total of all these events and tensions -from the published insults to the $10 argument– were likely to eventually culminate in a confrontation. That day arrived in late autumn when Wong Jack Man piled into a brown Pontiac Tempest with five other people to travel across the Bay Bridge to Oakland, and….as the saying almost goes – the rest is urban mythology.
About the Author:
Charles Russo is a journalist in San Francisco. He is the author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America (University of Nebraska Press, 2016). For more photographs and materials related to the book, see the Striking Distance Instagram account (@striking_distance) or the Facebook page. Russo has previously been a guest author here at Kung Fu Tea. If you are wondering whether to read his book check out this review.