Bruce Lee's Journey From Street Tough to Cinema Legend

HTRA146_VV237_H
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.

The Hong Kong of Bruce Lee’s childhood was a sprawling urban jungle packed with the stories of more than two million residents hailing from almost every station of life and corner of the globe. The city also contained plenty of opportunities for danger and trouble, particularly as refugees from the Chinese mainland fled the Communist government to the British-ruled island. Most of these displaced citizens were men and women looking to live a respectable life free from the dictatorship of the proletariat. But many belonged to gangs affiliated with the triads, China’s ancient organized crime syndicates, and their presence in Hong Kong only added to the semi-controlled chaos of the city

Lee came from a well-to-do family and attended a reputable private school, placing him in the upper echelon of Hong Kong society. Even so, the future kung fu legend couldn’t completely escape the terror and allure of the violence prowling the streets. The English boys living in Hong Kong frequently bullied Lee and his Chinese friends, and his rough-and-tumble upbringing molded him into a young man who was sometimes quick to anger. He even led his own gang of street toughs, called the Junction Street Eight Tigers.

“I was a punk and went looking for fights,” he told Black Belt magazine in 1967. “We used chains and pens with knives hidden inside. Then, one day, I wondered what would happen if I didn’t have my gang behind me if I got into a fight.”

His question received a violent answer when, shortly before turning 13, an older student pummeled Lee using a kung fu technique. Determined never to experience the feeling of helplessness again, the teenager studied the Wing Chun style under esteemed grandmaster Yip Man. But his studies didn’t fully keep him out of trouble. It wasn’t until Lee had a run in with the law that he decided to swear off street fighting and start a new life for himself in America.

According to William Cheung, a school classmate and fellow student of Yip Man, members of Lee's gang shoplifted from a store. Even though Lee himself was innocent, he was picked up by the Hong Kong police because he fled with his guilty comrades. “This is the incident which caused him to stop seeing the Junction Street Eight Tigers and eventually to come to America,” Cheung told Blitz magazine in 1992.

Lee's days as a street tough may have been over, but his greatest battles still lay ahead of him.

This article written by Senior Editor James Ellis 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