I've done various types of kung-fu and general scrapping on and off for most of my life. Never to any level of real expertise - enthusiastic amateur probably sums it up best, as it's my lack of control over my gangly limbs and pointy elbows that is genuinely dangerous - but always with genuine interest in provenance as well as technique. For anyone who's ever been even half interested in it, there are certain characters we all hold dear: Jackie Chan is the don, genuinely tough and a serious badass but with genius comic timing; as well as being a big ol' hairy bear, Chuck Norris is hard as nails and not someone to mess with (originally Korean-taught, he invented his own system, Chun Kuk Do); and (one, two skip a few) Bruce Lee is the progenitor of it all - he brought it to the silver screen in the West, but he was also a tireless innovator of martial arts.
We're told the Chinese didn't want Westerners to learn their martial arts, that Bruce Lee - who learnt his own Wing Chun from the legendary Ip Man - was challenged by a shady cabal of Kung Fu masters in a fight to the death over the matter, and that he won, winning for us the right to open the doors and teach whoever he wanted.
At least that's what I always thought.
I stumbled across this amazing article today, originally printed in "Official Karate" in 1980, which is food for thought and then some. Not just about the circumstances surrounding the fight, but also about general perceptions of internal/external martial arts. I've put a few highlights below, but thoroughly recommend you read the whole thing (click HERE to do so) and get it in context.
What you're about to read is a fascinating alternative to that Hollywood legend. A clash between Bruce Lee's aggressive new style and Wong Jack-Man's traditional Chinese methods (below). But, crucially, not necessarily the version from the movie.
"Considering the skill of the opponents and the complete absence of referees, rules, and safety equipment, it was one hell of a fight that took place that day in December.
It may have been the most savagely elegant exhibition of unarmed combat of the century. Yet, at a time when top fighters tend to display their skills only in huge closed-circuited arenas, this battle was fought in virtual secrecy behind locked doors. And at a time when millions of dollars can ride on the outcome of a championship fight, these champions of another sort competed not for money, but for more personal and passionate reasons.
The time was late winter, 1964; the setting was a small Kung Fu school in Oakland, California. Poised at the center of the room, with approximately 140 pounds packed tightly on his 5'7" frame, was the operator of the school, a 24-year old martial artist of Chinese ancestry but American birth who, within a few years, would skyrocket to international attention as a combination fighter/film star. A few years after that, at age 32, he would die under mysterious circumstances. His name, of course, was Bruce Lee.
Also poised in the center of the room was another martial artist. Taller but lighter, with his 135 pounds stretched thinly over 5'10", this fighter was also of Chinese descent. Born in Hong Kong and reared in the south of mainland China, he had only recently arrived in San Francisco's teeming Chinatown, just across the bay from Oakland. Though over the next 15 years he would become widely known in martial arts circles and would train some of America's top martial artists, he would retain a near disdain for publicity and the commercialization of his art, and consequently would remain unknown to the general public. His name: Wong Jack Man (below).
...From the few available firsthand accounts and other evidence, it is possible to piece together a reasonably reliable picture that reveals two overriding truths. First, considering the skill of the opponents and the complete absence of referees, rules, and safety equipment, it was one hell of a fight that took place that day in December. And second, Bruce Lee, who was soon to rival Mao Tse Tung as the world's most famous Chinese personality, was dramatically affected by the fight, perhaps fatally so.
Linda Lee, in her book Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew, initially dismisses the fight as follows:
"The two came out, bowed formally and then began to fight. Wong adopted a classic stance whereas Bruce, who at the time was still using his Wing Chun style, produced a series of straight punches. Within a minute, Wong's men were trying to stop the fight as Bruce began to warm to his task. James Lee warned them to let the fight continue. A minute later, with Bruce continuing the attack in earnest, Wong began to backpedal as fast as he could. For an instant, indeed, the scrap threatened to degenerate into a farce as Wong actually turned and ran. But Bruce pounced on him like a springing leopard and brought him to the floor where he began pounding him into a state of demoralization."
"Is that enough?" shouted Bruce. "That's enough!" pleaded Wong in desperation.
So the entire matter was just another quick triumph for the man who frequently boasted he could whip any man in the world. Or was it?
That the fight with Wong was the reason Lee quit, and then later repudiated the Wing Chun style, was confirmed by Lee himself in an interview with Black Belt. "I'd gotten into a fight in San Francisco (a reference, no doubt, to the Bay Area rather than the city) with a Kung-Fu cat, and after a brief encounter the son-of-a-bitch started to run. I chased him and, like a fool, kept punching him behind his head and back. Soon my fists began to swell from hitting his hard head. Right then I realized Wing Chun was not too practical and began to alter my way of fighting."
For those who have difficulty believing that a quick if clumsy victory over a worthy opponent was sufficient reason for Lee to abandon a fighting style that had seen him through dozens of vicious street fights as a youth in Hong Kong, where his family had moved shortly after his birth in San Francisco, a more substantial reason for Lee to change styles can be found in the account of the fight given by Wong Jack Man.
According to Wong, the battle began with him bowing and offering his hand to Lee in the traditional manner of opening a match. Lee, he say, responded by pretending to extend a friendly hand only to suddenly transform the hand into a four-pronged spear aimed at Wong's eyes.
"That opening move," says Wong, "set the tone for Lee'�s fight." Wing Chun has but three sets, the solo exercises which contain the full body of technique of any style, and one of those sets is devoted to deadly jabbing and gouging attacks directed primarily at the eyes and throat. "It was those techniques," say Wong, "which Lee used most."
There were flurries of straight punches and repeated kicks at his groin, adds Wong, but mostly, relentlessly, there were those darting deadly finger tips trying to poke out his eyes or puncture his throat. And what he say he anticipated as serious but sportsmanly comparison of skill suddenly became an exercise in defending his life.
Wong says that before the fight began Lee remarked, in reference to a mutual acquaintance who had helped instigate the match, "You've been killed by your friend." Shortly after the bout commenced, he adds, he realized Lee's words had been said in earnest.
"He really wanted to kill me," says Wong.
In contrast to Lee's three Wing Chun sets, Wong, as the grand master of the Northern Shaolin style, knew dozens. But most of what he used against Lee, says Wong, was defensive. Wong says he parried Lee's kicks with his legs while using his hand and arms to protect his head and torso, only occasionally delivering a stinging blow to Lee's head or body.
He fought defensively, explains Wong, in part because of Lee's relentless aggressive strategy, and in part because he feared the consequences of responding in kind to Lee's attempt to kill him. In pre-revolutionary China, fights to the finish were often allowed by law, but Wong knew that in modern-day America, a crippling or killing blow, while winning a victory, might also win him a jail sentence.
That, says Wong, is why he failed to deliver a devastating right-hand blow on any of the three occasions he had Lee's head locked under his left arm. Instead, he says, he released his opponent each time, only to have an even more enraged Bruce Lee press on with his furious attack.
"He would never say he lost until you killed him," says Wong. And despite his concern with the legal consequences, Wong says that killing Lee is something he began to consider. "I remember thinking, 'If he injures me, if he really hurts me, I'll have to kill him."
But according to Wong, before that need arose, the fight had ended, due more to what Linda Lee described as Lee's "unusually winded" condition than to a decisive blow by either opponent. "It had lasted," says Wong, "at least 20 minutes, maybe 25."
Though William Chen's recollections of the fight are more vague than the other two accounts, they are more in alignment with Wong's than Lee's. On the question of duration, for example, Chen, like Wong, remembers the fight continuing for "20 or 25 minutes." Also, he cannot recall either man being knocked down. "Certainly," he says, "Wong was not brought to the floor and pounded into a 'state of demoralization.'"
Regarding Wong's claim that three times he had Lee's head locked under his arm, Chen says he can neither confirm or deny it. He remembers the fighters joining on several occasions, but he could not see very clearly what was happening at those moments.
Chen describes the outcome of the battle as "a tie." He adds, however, that whereas an enraged Bruce Lee had charged Wong "like a mad bull," obviously intent upon doing him serious injury. Wong had displayed extraordinary restraint by never employing what were perhaps his most dangerous weapons - his devastating kicks.
A principal difference between northern and southern Chinese fighting styles is that the northern styles give much more emphasis to kicking, and Northern Shaolin had armed Wong with kicks of blinding speeds and crushing power. But before the fight, recalls Chen, "Sifu Wong said he would not use his kicks; he thought they were too dangerous." And despite the dangerous developments that followed that pledge, Chen adds that Wong "kept his word." Though Chen's recollections exhaust the firsthand accounts, there are further fragments of evidence to indicate how the fight ended.
Ming Lum, who was then a San Francisco martial arts promoter, says he did not attend the fight because he was a friend of both Lee and Wong, and feared that a battle between them would end in serious injury, maybe even death. "Who," he asks, "would have stopped them?" But Lum did see Wong the very next day at the Jackson Cafe, where the young grand master earned his living as a waiter (he had, in fact, worked a full shift at the busy Chinatown restaurant the previous day before fighting Lee). And Lum says the only evidence he saw of the fight was a scratch above one eye, a scratch Wong says was inflicted when Lee went for his eyes as he extended his arm for the opening handshake.
"Some people say Bruce Lee beat up Jack Man bad," note Lum. "But if he had, the man would not have been to work the next day." By Lum's assessment, the fact that neither man suffered serious injury in a no-holds-barred battle indicates that both were "very, very good."
Both men were no doubt, very, very, good. But Wong, after the fight, felt compelled to assert, boldly and publicly, that he was the better of the two. He did so, he says, only because Lee violated their agreement to not discuss the fight.
According to Wong, immediately following the match Lee had asked that neither man discuss it. Discussion would lead to more argument over who had won, a matter which could never be resolved as there had been no judges. Wong said he agreed.
But within a couple of weeks, he says, Lee violated the agreement by claiming in an interview that he had defeated an unnamed challenger. Though Lee had not identified Wong as the loser, Wong says it was obvious to all of Chinatown that Lee was speaking of Wong. It had already become common knowledge within the Chinese community that the two had fought.
In response to Lee's interview, Wong wrote a detailed description of the fight which concluded with an open invitation to Lee to meet him for a public bout if Lee was not satisfied with Wong's account. Wong's version of the fight, along with the challenge, was run as the top story on the front page of San Francisco's Chinese language Chinese Pacific Weekly. But Bruce Lee, despite his reputation for responding with fists of fury to the slightest provocation, remained silent."