Exclusive: Bruce Lee's daughter Shannon Lee talks to us about her father's legacy and her new book
The legendary Bruce Lee can’t just be defined as an action hero or a martial arts prodigy. His iconic jaw-dropping moves, his charismatic personality and that cheeky, unforgettable smile make him more than just a movie star. He is a symbol whose image has transcended cultures, decades and generations, and who redefined what Asians stand for in Hollywood. This November 27, he would have celebrated his 80th birthday, but for his unfair, untimely death. Now, the actor’s daughter, Shannon Lee, pens down her father’s principles and ideas in the book, Be Water, My Friend. “He was passionate about learning and growing, as well as sharing and expressing whatever he knew,” says Shannon. Chock full of untold stories from his life and spiritual teachings, the book gives us an insight into what made Bruce Lee, Bruce Lee.
The title of the book, Be Water, My Friend, is taken from one of his most famous quotes — one that any Bruce Lee fan will know by heart. In a rare English TV interview in the 1971 edition of The Pierre Berton Show, Bruce said, “Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” The book is part biography, part self-help guide. Shannon illuminates her father’s thinking and also gives the readers real-life examples of how we can incorporate it into our lives. While Shannon did not have much time with him, the actress, businesswoman and mother, now presides over the Bruce Lee Foundation and wants to spread his teachings far and wide.
Through the course of the book, we get a picture of a very disciplined and driven man who knew exactly what he wanted from life and was ready to work hard to achieve it. Deeply philosophical, Bruce was always looking for parallels between his art and the meaning of life. Shannon’s book is peppered with many such learnings. While she says they never practised any formal religion in her household, the book shows a spiritual side of Shannon and that is no doubt the product of her upbringing and family.
Kung fu codes
Born in Chinatown in San Francisco, Bruce starred in over 25 films, the standouts being Fist of Fury (1971) and Enter the Dragon (released posthumously in 1973). His signature and remarkable fighting style was influenced not just by kung fu and karate, but also boxing and street fighting. In one of the most famous scenes of Enter the Dragon, Lee is asked, “What’s your style?” And he says, “My style?...You can call it the art of fighting without fighting” — this is the core of his ideas. Jeet Kune Do is a type of martial arts that is based on Bruce’s style and it has paved way for the modern and immensely popular mixed martial arts.
Bruce’s interests lay not just in martial arts, but also in philosophy and poetry. Shannon refers to her father as a Renaissance man. “He was a creator and an inventor, part artist and part scientist,” she says in the book. His dedication to further his craft and introduce it to the West also created a rift between him and traditionalists. The Chinese kung fu community in San Francisco were not happy when Bruce opened a school for people of all races and backgrounds to learn martial arts. While he may have ruffled many feathers, it didn’t deter the man. He went on to become the face of action movies and started a kung fu craze all over the globe. It is difficult to go to anywhere, even remote areas in India, and find someone who hasn’t heard of the great Bruce Lee.
Shannon was only six when tragedy struck. On July 20, 1973, her father died due to an allergic reaction to medication at the young age of 32. But in that time, the legendary actor had left several handwritten journals, notes and documents that Shannon has drawn upon for the writing of Be Water, My Friend. We ask her if it was difficult to revisit his work. “No, it was not difficult to engage with my father’s work,” she says, adding, “It was extremely rewarding. What was difficult was to make myself be disciplined about writing!”
But this was not the end of tragedy for Shannon and her mother, martial arts teacher Linda Lee Cadwell. “My brother, Brandon adored my father. My father was his hero in every regard. They loved one another powerfully and my father was so proud of my brother. It was very hard on Brandon to lose him. It affected him in a myriad of ways throughout his life, but Brandon was always resilient and thoughtful and always found his way,” Shannon shares about their relationship. In a cruel twist of fate, Brandon, also an actor and martial arts star, suffered an accidental death too. In 1993, Brandon, at the age of 28, was filming a scene for The Crow where his character is shot by gangsters. But a mix up with bullets led to his death in real life. “Here I was, 20 years later, and grief was thrust upon me like a wild animal...I knew how to go through each day, but I no longer knew how to live,” she recalls in the book.
Race to the top
The representation of his Asian culture and heritage on screen was very important to Bruce Lee. With his movies, he subverted many racial caricatures such as that of the emasculated Asian male. He gave the West a whole new outlook to the East that was till now shrouded in cliche-ridden stereotypes. Shannon recalls in the book how involved Bruce was in the making of the movie Enter the Dragon. “It was of utmost importance to my father that this film reflect his art and culture accurately and with depth. This was his moment to show the world who he was and what a Chinese kung fu man could do, and he was not going to settle for mediocre. So he rewrote the script and submitted his rewrites to the producers,” she says.
Of course, race representation in Hollywood is still a hotly debated topic today. Shannon herself had a tiff last year with director Quentin Tarantino over his portrayal of Bruce Lee in the film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. “He made his movie and made a mockery of my father and I expressed my disappointment. It never went anywhere. I have never had a conversation with Mr Tarantino, and I don’t expect I will,” she adds. But Shannon also admits that she thinks that things are starting to change. “I think that there is a long way to go in Hollywood. I mean, Hollywood is just a microcosm of the United States, which is a partial reflection of the greater world and so Hollywood reflects whatever is happening all around us. But the conversation has started in earnest and though I believe meaningful change will take time, I believe it will come. I continue to be optimistic. And I hope to be a part of the solution for oneness,” she tells us.
Shannon thinks and hopes that in his older age, her father would have deepened his practices, and strove to work hard and learn and discover more. She tells us, “I think he would have continued to pursue whatever course was intriguing him and would have most likely gone on to teach more, speak more, create more, do more!” She hopes that his fans not just preserve his legacy, but be a part of his legacy. “Follow his words and life on social media and through our programmes. Be yourself and be in harmony with your fellow humans. Look within and find the things in you that you can trust and start to cultivate those and express them. Learn to be joyful and sincere in your life. Make your insides and outsides match. Be like water!” Shannon sums up.