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How Bruce Lee Became Hong Kong's Most Famous Son

Picture of Matthew Keegan
Updated: 3 August 2017
Despite being born in America, it’s Bruce Lee’s early years growing up in Hong Kong that helped to shape him into a hero and the city’s most famous icon. In the years since his premature death in 1973, he’s rightfully been declared Hong Kong’s most famous son.

Martial arts legend Bruce Lee remains Hong Kong’s best known international superstar. Despite only starring in five feature films as an adult, he is often credited with helping to change the way Asians were presented in American films, and his impact and legacy as one of the most influential martial artists of all time endure.

A 2.5-metre bronze statue of Bruce Lee erected along the Avenue of Stars in Hong Kong
A 2.5-metre bronze statue of Bruce Lee erected along the Avenue of Stars in Hong Kong | © Johnson Lau/Wikimedia Commons

Although born in America to Hong Kong parents visiting San Francisco in 1940, the year of the dragon, the family returned to Hong Kong when Lee was just a few months old. Bruce spent the majority of his childhood in Hong Kong, and it was this city that shaped him into a hero.

His family home was located above some shops at 218 Nathan Street in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong. Bruce’s father, Lee Hoi-Chuen, was a local opera singer and film actor. His father would often take Bruce to various music halls where he was rehearsing and performing. It was at one of these venues where Bruce befriended another actor’s son, Siu Kee Lun. The two boys would practice fighting with each other.

Bruce Lee with his parents
Bruce Lee with his parents | public domain/via Wikimedia Commons

From the age of 12, Bruce started attending La Salle College, a boy’s Catholic school in Kowloon, where he earned the reputation as a bit of a troublemaker. After being beaten up by a street gang, Bruce’s parents decided to allow him to take kung-fu lessons in order to better defend himself from bullies.

He began training in the art of Wing Chun at Master Ip Man’s Studio. Martial arts became Bruce’s life, and he spent every waking moment practicing, but he didn’t necessarily stop getting into street fights. After an arrest when he was 17, his parents told him it would be safer for him to go to San Francisco.

Bruce Lee and Grandmaster Ip Man practicing Wing Tsun sticky hands
Bruce Lee and Grandmaster Ip Man practicing Wing Tsun sticky hands | © שילוני/Wikimedia Commons

It was also during his early years in Hong Kong that Bruce got his first taste for appearing in movies. At age six, Bruce made his first major childhood movie, appearing in The Beginning of a Boy. He would go on to appear in 20 Asian films by the age of 18.

During his time in America, Bruce continued his studies in drama and philosophy, met and married his wife Linda Emery and became the proud father of two children – Brandon and Shannon. He also began teaching martial arts and developed his own philosophy and martial art he named Jeet Kune Do.

A martial arts exhibition in Long Beach in 1964 eventually led to the invitation by William Dozier, an American film producer, to star in a new television series titled The Green Hornet. Dozier cast Bruce as a crime fighting martial-art expert named Kato. The show, only produced for one series, ended up making Bruce a star back in Hong Kong.

Photo of Van Williams as the Green Hornet and Bruce Lee as Kato from the television program ‘The Green Hornet’
Photo of Van Williams as the Green Hornet and Bruce Lee as Kato from the television program ‘The Green Hornet’ | © ABC Television/Wikimedia Commons

Not happy with his supporting roles in the US, Bruce returned to Hong Kong in the mid-1960s. Producer Fred Weintraub had advised Bruce to return to Hong Kong and make a feature film that he could showcase to executives in Hollywood.

Back in Hong Kong, Bruce starred in five feature films that ended up putting Hong Kong cinema on the map. Notably, these films were The Big Boss (1971); Fist of Fury (1972); Way of the Dragon (1972), directed and written by Bruce; Golden Harvest and Warner Brothers’ Enter the Dragon (1973) and The Game of Death (1978).

Bruce’s kung fu films forever changed the way fighting was presented on screen. Before Bruce, fights were disorderly fisticuffs. After Bruce, most films with fight scenes incorporate kung fu movements – fights have become dances with acrobatic jumps and circus tricks.

The release of Enter the Dragon (after Bruce’s premature death in 1973) catapulted Bruce to international superstar status. The film exposed many Westerners to the idea of martial arts for the first time, and many sought out martial arts instruction as a result of this movie. The film’s impact helped the Hong Kong film industry eventually grow to become the third largest in the world behind India and the United States.

Today, Hong Kong commemorates the life and legacy of its most famous son with a 2.5-metre bronze statue of Bruce Lee erected along the Avenue of Stars, a Hong Kong attraction near the waterfront in Tsim Sha Tsui.

There’s also an exhibition called Bruce Lee: Kung Fu, Art, Life that opened in 2013 at Hong Kong’s Heritage Museum and will run for five years.

Bruce spent his last days in Hong Kong living with his family at 41 Cumberland Road before his untimely death from a seizure on July 20, 1973. He was 32. There are present calls for his final abode to be turned into a museum honouring his life and legacy.