By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
2023 might be a spectacular year for Bruce Lee. Oscar-winning director Ang Lee will be directing his own son, Mason Lee, in a Bruce Lee biopic. If the movie is released in 2023, it will tie in with the 50th anniversary of Lee’s death.
Aside from the Wing Luke Museum’s permanent Bruce Lee exhibit, Seattle has been important in nurturing Lee’s developmental years. Although he was born in San Francisco and raised in Hong Kong, Lee came to Seattle when he was 19, and stayed with the late King County Councilmember Ruby Chow under his father’s arrangement.
It was in Seattle where he began his vision of forging his own brand of martial arts, a fusion of the West and East, Jeet Kune Do. It was federally recognized as a uniquely Asian American innovation.
Bruce might be an icon, but his humble beginnings in Seattle, where he founded his first martial arts school, has remained elusive. Where was it exactly? Was it on South King Street, South Weller Street, or South Jackson Street?
The book, “Bruce Lee: A Life,” written by Matthew Polly said it was on South King Street. Was it? Thus began my pursuit of Lee’s first kung fu school. It was shocking when I finally tracked it down. It’s not the place I would have imagined and my husband even worked there for years!
“Why are you suddenly interested in kung fu?” asked Tony Au, a kung fu master who knows that I don’t know anything about the sport. I couldn’t explain at the time why I was obsessed with finding the place. It was more than an interest in preserving our community’s history. Perhaps, intuition had propelled me to do so. When we discovered the location of his first school, it was ironic as it would be the last place I would consider and yet, it had been right in front of my eyes for decades.
By an unlikely twist of fate, I was linked to the icon half a century ago…
When he was an unknown martial arts teacher in Seattle, I was a child in Hong Kong. When he returned to Hong Kong as the hottest star in 1971, I had left Hong Kong for America, and arrived in Seattle the same year. When he died, all I knew was that he was a big star. Unexpectedly, his death impacted me in the summer of 1973.
“Bruce Lee just died,” my former editor, from the University of Washington (UW) Daily, informed me over the phone after learning about his death. “I want a story on the community’s reaction.” It was my toughest assignment as a student journalist that summer.
On July 20, 1973, Bruce Lee suddenly died of a brain edema in Hong Kong, found in a Chinese actress’ home. His cause of death is still a topic of debate. Even 50 years later, fans are still intrigued by his tragic death and the mystery surrounding it, and the number of admirers are growing.
”What’s the connection between Bruce and the UW?“ I asked my editor.
“Well, he attended UW,” he replied.
“Oh!” I was surprised to learn that he had even lived in Seattle. I didn’t know anything about him except that he was a martial arts movie star. I didn’t know then that I had watched two of his movies, “The Orphan” and “Thunderstorm,” in Hong Kong in the 1960s when he was a child actor. I too was a kid then, so I couldn’t associate his Chinese actor’s name, “Little Dragon,” with his English name. Nor could I recognize that he was the same actor in those Hong Kong movies. He looked quite different as a grown man.
But I couldn’t say no to my editor, the boss. Who could he ask to do the job? I was the only Asian reporter. Yet my world as an international student was mostly focused on campus. I had little contact with the outside world, including Chinatown.
“I want the story for the next issue,” he said. Thank God, UW Daily was a weekly during summer. I still had the weekend to work on it. Before I uttered another word, he hung up. I was completely lost, like being stuck in the woods, not knowing which direction to go. Where should I begin?
My only lead was the UW. So I called up UW’s admission office, which verified that Bruce had indeed enrolled for a couple of quarters, but he never graduated. Bruce was also a mediocre student with poor grades. However, the Hong Kong media then claimed that Bruce graduated from the UW with a philosophy degree. None of that was true. There was no internet then. I guessed they all copied one another, and didn’t have the time to verify the facts. My UW story at the time had the only accurate information.
Tracing Bruce’s connection to Chinatown
A reporter’s job is like a detective’s, fitting pieces of a puzzle together. In my UW story, I interviewed three people—Ju Fu Yeung, Lee’s former roommate; Dr. Isabella Yen, UW Chinese-language professor; and Sue Palmason, Lee’s former student. Both Yeung and Yen died decades ago. I couldn’t remember how I got Sue’s name as a source 50 years ago. Probably, Yen was the one who suggested Sue. Yen wasn’t my professor, but she was always eager to help students.
I often wondered if Sue was still alive, and spoiler alert, she is! And I have met her. But never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed who she was. She had a different last name then when she was married briefly.
Dr. Yen said in my UW article that “combining Chinese philosophy and Chinese kung fu was [Lee’s] dream.” What she told me next was priceless.
“He used to work and live at the Ruby Chow’s Restaurant,” Yen said. I was in the restaurant two years prior when my roommate’s parents from Hawaii took me to visit the restaurant. The Chows were good friends with my roommate’s parents. But I never had a chance to talk at that meeting. I was a nobody, tagging along.
When I called for her at the restaurant, the person replied, “Just a minute.” My heart was pounding, and I was hoping that I would get some unusual tidbits about the icon. No Seattle media then had known the connection between Chow and Lee. Serving as a bridge between the mainstream and Chinese community, Chow was a community leader with strong connections to elected officials, including the mayor of Seattle and Seattle police officers. Lee’s father, a Chinese movie star, had asked Chow and her husband Ping, former Cantonese opera star, to take care of his son.
“This is Ruby Chow,” Chow said as she picked up the phone.
“Mrs. Chow, I learned that Bruce Lee had worked for and lived with you,” I said. “I am a UW Daily reporter. Would you like to share something about Bruce?”
“Why do people have to ask me about Bruce Lee?” she said angrily. Before I could ask another question, she hung up on me. I was shocked, not knowing what to do next. Obviously, there was some bad blood between them. I didn’t find out why until recently—50 years later.
“Bruce never respected my mother,” Brien Chow, now a community leader, said. “He never called her Aunt Ruby or Mrs. Chow. He never addressed her.” Brien said Bruce was also disrespectful of the two elders (Brien’s parents) who helped him.
Lee stayed at Chow’s place for four years. Perry Lee, a Bruce Lee historian and long-time collector, said Bruce did not get along with Chow, but he showed me proof of Chow’s influence on Bruce. Perry has a copy of Bruce’s early business card and stationery for his martial arts school, which has the same design and format as Ruby’s. The similarities between the two was stunning—it was a match.
Locating Lee’s schools
According to Polly’s book on Bruce Lee, the icon first started his schools in two places, S
outh King Street and South Weller Street. Polly was both right and wrong. I couldn’t verify the South Weller location, but I was able to on South King.
In searching for one of Lee’s earliest kung fu students, I asked Perry to locate Sue Palmason, who was quoted in my UW story that she and Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Caldwell, were great friends. Perry texted Linda—who was this Sue and was she still alive?
A few days later, the answer arrived, and it was shocking as well as delightful. Sue is none other than the prominent community activist, Sue Kay, whom the Northwest Asian Weekly has interviewed and quoted from time to time. Kay, 77, was briefly married with her husband’s name.
“Will you help me to locate Bruce Lee’s (first) kung fu school?” I asked Sue. So we embarked together on a mission to set the historical record straight.
Sue identified two buildings located side-by-side near 8th Avenue South and South King Street, as the location of Lee’s school in the Chinatown-International District (CID), across from the Wing Luke Museum. However, she couldn’t remember which building was the one where she took lessons six decades ago. It was this place that she recruited Lee’s future wife to take martial arts lessons, and that’s how they met.
At the corner of 8th Avenue South and South King Street is Hip Sing Association, a fraternal club headquarters with tenants. The other building was the location of the first home of the Wing Luke Museum, from 1967-1987, and also the home of the Northwest Asian Weekly, after the Wing moved out.
Au arranged for me and Kay to visit Hip Sing leader Tony Wong, who was aware of our quest.
“Have you heard about Bruce Lee’s martial arts school in Chinatown?” I asked.
“Everyone (old timers) said it’s in our (building) basement,” Wong said. He unlocked the door and let us explore the basement.
“Sue, did you remember this place?” I asked. “Can you identify…?”
Sue examined carefully as she passed through the stairways one step at a time, reflecting episodes of her life 60 years ago. The basement is now used mostly for storage.
“I don’t recall that it was located in a corner lot,” she said. “I wasn’t sure.”
Hmmm, I responded. “Should we go to the next building (414 8th Avenue South)?” The ground floor of the building, the former Wing site, has now been converted into a restaurant.
Au knocked on the basement door. There was no response. He pushed and the door was unlocked, so the three of us wandered down into the dark basement.
Sue tried to connect her past with the present quest for Lee’s first school. As we continued to roam down, I had goosebumps on my shoulder. If this was the place, all these years, the Northwest Asian Weekly folks were toiling up above, and my husband was doing camera work and photo prints, and pre-press digital screening in the basement for 15 years. The basement was the reason why we bought the second-hand camera to speed up our production so we didn’t have to outsource to another printer. And we were clueless that Bruce Lee was once here, young and vibrant, first breaking out in the world with optimism and drive in the same dingy nest. That’s where Linda and Bruce met. That’s where they fell in love…
“This (place) is more like it,” Sue said, where she once learned self-defense skills using an umbrella. “There were few self defense classes for women in the 1960s.”
Yet, Sue was hesitant to confirm the place right away.
“Let me confirm with Linda?”
Days later, Linda responded, “The space was DEFINITELY NOT on the corner. It was mid-block for sure. Trying to recall my impression of the place, I remember it was basically cement walls and a lightbulb suspended from the ceiling. [It’s] certainly not glamorous. I don’t recall anything on the walls. But I remember having fun there and going to dim sum after practice.”
So it was the building where the former Wing and Asian Weekly’s office were housed. It’s the basement where Sue learned Chinese philosophy and martial arts, “doing the frog jump around the space, sparring, and learning the salutation and sticky hands.”
Polly was also right that Bruce had taught on South King Street. Sue’s brother, Roger Kay of Hawaii, also Bruce’s student, told me that his father had invited Bruce to teach the Boy Scouts martial arts at the old Chinese Baptist Church on South King Street.
According to Roger, Bruce had taught not only in Chinatown, but all over Seattle and Bellevue in people’s homes, public garages, parks, Ruby Chow’s restaurant, and the old Beacon Hill School (now El Centro de la Raza).
Au is connected to the 414 building. Gee How Oak Tin Family Association (with last names Chin, Woo, and Yuen) bought the building last year. His wife is a Chin and his father-in-law is an elderly leader of the Association.
When we told Au that the Association building was once home to Lee’s first martial arts school, he said, “I am touched. The building has an amazing history, a unique combination of both culture and martial arts. It was once home to the Wing, Seattle Chinese Post, the first Chinese newspaper in the Pacific Northwest (since 1927), and Bruce Lee’s kung fu school. This was also the place the Northwest Asian Weekly got its new name as it was changed from Seattle Chinese Post’s English edition.” In Chinese culture, it is a rare asset for a person and place to possess both culture and martial skills.
The building’s history also reflects visible evidence of racism. When the state decided to expand I-5 in the 1960s, it was cut right in the middle of CID. Consequently, 30% of the building was chopped off at the back to make way for the freeway.
“Members of the Association would be surprised to learn this building is so unique,” Au continued. “The City should buy the building and turn it into a landmark and highlight Chinatown-International District’s important history.”
My husband George has another perspective.
“No, the City shouldn’t buy it. The Wing should. It will come in full circle as it was the Wing’s first home.”
On another fun note, Sue told me that she and Bruce and friends frequented the old Kokusai Theater (the Asian Weekly’s current office) to watch movies. Roger said he remembered watching Bruce’s old Chinese movies such as “The Orphan” at the Kokusai. So Bruce had stepped foot in our current property before.
“That’s the will of heaven” as Au would say about coincidences. We call it “fate.” Whatever it is, it inspires me to discover hidden history and connections among human beings, I am all for that.
Editor’s note: Sue Kay, one of Bruce Lee‘s former students, is contacting other students to verify the location of his studio or classes, whether it was at 414 8th Ave. S. or 420 8th Ave. S. We are also checking on the location where Lee first met his future wife, Linda, and where she learned kung fu from him.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.
Readers respond to story about Bruce Lee’s studio
Taky Kimura was Bruce Lee’s senior student. It was stated in his book “Regards from the Dragon Seattle” that the storefront of Ho Ho Restaurant at 609 South Weller Street, when it was empty, was Bruce Lee’s first informal school where he taught and trained.
The second location was in the basement below 420 1/2 8th Avenue South. Both these two locations are accurate. Bruce also taught at the Chinese Baptist Church basement
in Chinatown to the Chinese Boy Scout troop. Another location where he taught was in the parking lot of the Blue Cross building down from Ruby Chow’s restaurant, which is now a Swedish Orthopedic Institute. He also taught Jesse Glover, James Demille and a small group of friends at his rental house on East Jefferson and Broadway. It’s hard for me to consider any of these locations as Bruce Lee’s first school because it was so informal with students training in street clothes, no written policies, advertisements, class tuition fees, or rent payment. To me, his first formal school was at 4750 University Way.
We would like to point out that there is some inaccurate and misleading information in your recent article on Bruce Lee that somehow 414 8th Avenue S was Lee’s first studio.
414 8th Avenue has never been referenced by Bruce Lee or his students or historians as a location for training.
Lee’s first school, according to Taky Kimura, Bruce Lee’s senior student, was the basement of the Ho Ho Restaurant on 609 South Weller Street and his second school was 420 1/2 on 8th Avenue South, now the location of Szechuan Noodle.
We know these locations as confirmed by Taky Kimura who stated these were Bruce Lee’s schools in his book “Regards from the Dragon Seattle” published in 2009, page 197.
“Bruce’s first school was at 609 South Weller St. in Chinatown. The second school was at 420-1/2 8 Ave South in Chinatown. The third school was the most popular and well known; it was located at 4750 University Way.”
We are updating our nomination to the Landmark Board on Lee’s third dojo
on University Way and are dismayed you have not recognized the Ho Ho restaurant as the first studio, and it appears you are making assumptions that the Gee How Oak Tin Association building next to Szechuan Noodle was the “first studio” in your photos. This is false and misleading.
Charlette LeFevre and Philip Lipson
Seattle Bruce Lee Fan Club