Bruce Lee's Fight to Spread the Art of Kung Fu in America

Bruce Lee throws down in a scene from Fist of Fury (1972). Allegedly, many of the martial artists Bruce employed as extras in his Hong Kong movies would challenge the celebrity to a tussle while the cameras weren’t rolling. MARY EVANS/GOLDEN HARVEST FILM COMPANY/RONALD GRANT/EVERETT COLLECTION

This article, along with others on the magnificent life and iconic career of actor and martial arts master Bruce Lee, is featured in Newsweek's Special Edition: Bruce Lee.

"Mere technical knowledge is only the beginning of kung fu; to master it, one must enter into the spirit of it," explained Bruce Lee.

As an instructor of this sacred Chinese practice, his initiative was to teach anyone that demonstrated skill, as well as the commitment to learn the art, regardless of their heritage or background. When Bruce opened his studio in Oakland, California, in 1964, he hoped it could be a place free of animosity, with students bonding together over a common dedication to kung fu. To sustain this sanctuary, he put a regulation in place within his institute, which implored students to keep the techniques they learned from Bruce to themselves. His hope was by keeping his school under the radar, he could avoid raising the ire of rival schools.

Despite Bruce's efforts to avoid any tension with nearby kung fu studios, trouble arose in December 1964. The traditional martial arts community objected to him teaching Westerners, whom they considered to already have a natural upper hand in terms of size and strength. They also did not approve of him sharing the "secrets" of their esteemed art to those who were not of Chinese descent. In order to stop Bruce from giving away what they saw as their culture's sacred secrets, they issued the young upstart a challenge: If a kung fu master of their choosing could defeat Bruce in battle, he would have to stop teaching kung fu to non-Chinese. Their champion was another kung fu master called Wong Jack Man.

Wong had recently arrived from Hong Kong and was teaching across the bay from Bruce in San Francisco. This formidable master enjoyed a greater reputation than the young Bruce as a practitioner of kung fu, and he was looking to make a name for himself in the U.S. Wong boldly marched into Bruce's own school and presented him with a written challenge to fight.

The duel took place in a small Oakland studio. The small number of eyewitnesses on hand has helped contribute to the mystery surrounding the exact, blow-by-blow details of the battle, but most agree it was an all-out exchange that left both combatants exhausted. Near the end of the fight, Wong reportedly turned to run but was intercepted, and Lee took the opportunity to begin punching him on the back of his head. In a 1976 issue of Black Belt magazine a friend of Bruce's quoted him as saying, "I chased him and, like a fool, kept punching his head and back; my fists were already swelling from his hard head. Then, I did something I'd never done before: I put my arm round his neck and knocked him on his ass. I kept whacking him as he lay on the floor—until he gave up."

Bruce's victory ensured the continuation of his teaching kung fu to all worthy enough to accept his lessons, and it helped solidify his place as one of the art form's greatest champions.

This article written by Editorial Assistant Amber Blossman was excerpted from Newsweek Special Edition: Bruce Lee. For more on the life and legacy of the timeless legend pick up a copy today.

Newsweek Special Edition: Bruce Lee Reprint Cover
Topix Media Lab