The Hong Kong That Shaped Bruce Lee

A statue of Bruce Lee was unveiled on Hong Kong’s Avenue of the Stars in 2005. Other honorees include actors Jackie Chan and Gong Li. STEVE VIDLER/ALAM

In honor of Bruce Lee's 75th birthday, Newsweek explores the martial arts icon's journey, and the Hong Kong of Bruce's youth that shaped him into a hero. This article, along with others dedicated to Bruce, is included in a Newsweek Special Edition, Bruce Lee—75 Years of the Dragon, by Assistant Editor Elicia Kort.

Bruce grew up in Hong Kong during a tumultuous time in the city's history. When he was a little more than 1 year old, on Christmas Day, 1941, the British and Chinese surrendered Hong Kong to Japan. This occupation lasted four years before the British resumed control of the territory. For Bruce, the streets and roofs of the city known as the "Fragrant Harbor" functioned as his first training ground. In order to understand the martial arts expert and movie star, one needs to look back at his favorite haunts and hangouts in the city that would always feel like home to Bruce.

Childhood Home

The Lee family resided in a small two-room apartment on the floor above some shops at 218 Nathan St. in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong. The homeless would often sleep near the door of the building. Until Bruce was 5 years old, the building was across from a Japanese military camp, and as a small boy, he reportedly enjoyed standing on the balcony and shaking his fist at the Japanese. After the occupation had ended, Bruce didn't spend much time in the apartment as he was often exploring the city. The only time Bruce remained in his home was when he was immersed in a book, which he would read late into the night.

Hong Kong Cantonese Opera Company

Bruce's father, Lee Hoi-Chuen, was well-known in Hong Kong as an opera singer and film actor. When his father wasn't on tour, a young Bruce would sometimes accompany him to the opera house where the elder Lee would rehearse. Back in the 1940s, Cantonese opera was just becoming popular, so Bruce's father would perform in music halls rather than ornate opera houses. While hanging out at one of these venues, Bruce met another actor's son Siu Kee Lun—later known as Unicorn—whom the future star quickly befriended. Lun had a few years on Bruce, but the boys would practice fighting with each other. Unicorn would go on to become a famous Chinese actor in his own right.

Yip Man's Studio

After getting one too many black eyes, Bruce's parents agreed to let the trouble making teenager take kung-fu lessons in order to better defend himself from bullies. He began training in the art of Wing Chun at Master Yip Man's Studio. Bruce threw himself into martial arts and began spending every waking moment practicing, but he didn't necessarily stop getting into street fights. After an arrest when he was 17, his parents told him it would be safer and better for him to go to San Francisco.

La Salle College

In 1952, at the age of 12, Bruce began school at La Salle College, which was a boy's Catholic school. The adolescent was interested in learning but not in school. He quickly became known as a troublemaker and started his own gang called the Junction Street Eight Tigers. After school, the group constantly fought English boys from King George V School, who thought they were superior to the Chinese. Bruce eventually got expelled for his behavior.

This article is excerpted from a Newsweek Special Edition, Bruce Lee—75 Years of the Dragon, by Issue Editor James Ellis.

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