By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Matthew Polly picked up karate when he was 12 years old, as a way to avoid being bullied. Growing up in Topeka, Kansas, martial arts became a passion of his and as like most, he became a fan of Bruce Lee. It led to the most complete, authoritative book on the famous martial arts star and now a documentary on Lee’s life.
Polly’s biography on Bruce Lee was optioned for a chance to become a documentary. Of all the suitors to convert his work into television form, he chose Bao Nguyen, an award-winning Vietnamese American filmmaker.
“When I met with director Bao, I told him that this was his baby,” said Polly, who received an executive producer credit for the documentary. “It’s the most complete and thorough documentary out there on Lee’s life.”
Polly’s role with the documentary was to mainly serve as a “rolodex,” in which he helped Nguyen and his staff talk to those he had interviewed for the book. Polly interviewed many people that knew Lee, including his family, friends, and even training partners.
Polly’s interest in Lee took on grand levels. As with every other kid interested in karate, he had a pair of nunchucks like in the movies. But his interest drew him to follow his hero’s footsteps.
One of Lee’s most famous movies, “Enter the Dragon,” became a favorite of Polly’s. In the movie, Lee plays a Shaolin monk that learns kung fu at the Shaolin Temple and is picked to fight in a high-profile martial arts competition.
“The idea to where Bruce Lee was a monk…it captivated my young imagination,” recalled Polly. So interested in the movie, Polly took a leave of absence while in college to go to China to train with Shaolin monks.
Obviously, there was some question as to whether a Shaolin Temple actually existed and whether the monks taught martial arts, let alone teach it to a westerner. Admittedly, Polly chalked up this adventure to being young and perhaps naïve. Without the itinerary fully answered, Polly left school and purchased a ticket to China. He had some money saved up so he planned on taking a year off. Polly stayed for two years.
Polly attended Princeton University in New Jersey, where he was studying East Asian Studies and Religion. With an interest in Buddhism and the ability to speak Mandarin, he set out to find the temple where Lee trained in the movie. Polly’s dreams did not resonate with his father.
“My father was a very conservative doctor and he believed he was sending me to college for an education and when I told him, ‘Dad, I want to be a Buddhist monk,’ he was less than happy.”
“That was a long argument and he didn’t talk to me for a long time after that.”
Sight unseen, Polly set out to find the Shaolin Temple. He had not contacted the Shaolin monks, nor did he know the location of the temple. In the early 1990s when Polly went to China, there was no internet and Polly noted that “36 Chambers of Shaolin” was the most you can do for research on the area.
“There were no books, you couldn’t go to a website, there was no Google Maps,” explained Polly about his quest to find a place he had seen only in a movie.
“I literally booked a hotel room [in Beijing] and asked the concierge.” After 5 days of looking and asking people in Beijing, he finally found an old lady who knew what he was talking about. “She said, I know where it is. It’s in my home province.”
He took a train to the capital city of the Hunan province and booked a hotel where he asked again about the temple. The woman working at the hotel told Polly that her brother worked there and gave him the information he had seemingly looked all over the country for.
“It took two weeks to find the Shaolin Temple, and I just showed up there.”
It (the Shaolin Temple) was being run by the Communist Party and they were interested in making money, said Polly. They told Polly that room, board, food, and training would cost $1,300 per month.
“If you got that, you can train here,” he was told. It was not until a couple months later that he learned that he was being “ripped off” as the actual cost was $500 per month. He did have one-on-one training with a Shaolin monk for 6 hours a day.
Polly had trained for 3 years in a mix of martial arts, which included tae kwon do and Southern kung fu. Polly recalls that the monks were interested in learning more about this ‘tall, white American’ training with them. On the first day, one of his instructors asked him how long he trained, to which he responded, “about 2 years.” The monk said, “It looks like about two weeks.”
Daily workouts would include calisthenics, stretching, and then practicing the various forms. Overall, Polly said that the monks treated him like ‘a big panda,’ meaning that they would never attempt to exert him or pummel him for the sake of doing it. However, there were other training groups that would visit and want to spar with Polly, for the sake of a challenge and the belief that white people did not know martial arts.
Polly recalls the food being horrible.
“There’s a reason there’s not a ‘Hunan-style’ Chinese restaurant here,” Polly joked about the less-than-appetizing food at the temple. He did teach the monks how to cook French Fries, which amazed them due to the amount of grease used.
Polly eventually returned to school where he became a Rhodes Scholar at Princeton. He went on to write about his time at the temple in his first book, American Shaolin. He also wrote about his time as an MMA fighter in his second book, Tapped Out. For his third book, Polly said he wanted to write about something where he was not punched in the face. The thought about writing a biography on Bruce Lee intrigued him because Lee was his idol. However, he thought that it was already done. It had not. Reaching out to a variety of people through interviews and communications over a lengthy period of time, Polly came up with one of the most comprehensive pieces on Lee’s life. Entitled, “Bruce Lee, A Life,” it debuted in June 2018. The popularity led to its eventual move to become a documentary.
“I think the most important thing [from the documentary] is that it’s hard to understand how difficult a thing it was that Bruce Lee achieved,” Polly said. “He was facing a level of racism that we can’t quite conceive.” Despite this, Lee became a movie star.
“It took an incredible amount of ambition, talent, and sheer will in his unwillingness to give up.” Polly added, “Some argue it’s what cost him his life as he spent all of his energy to achieve his dream.”
“It’s the story of what one single man can achieve if he’s willing to sacrifice everything for it.”
The documentary aired on June 7 on ESPN and is available on ESPN’s digital platform ESPN+.
Polly’s book, Bruce Lee, A Life, is available on Amazon and other online vendors. For more on Matthew Polly, visit mattpolly.com.
Jason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.