Culture Club

The fighter Bruce Lee was scared about his future before he was a star

Robert Lee, 66, Bruce Lee's younger brother reveals a tender moment about the fighter

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 November, 2015, 10:22pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 November, 2015, 11:41am

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

He looked very worried, not knowing what he’s facing. It was the first time I saw his vulnerable side
Robert Lee

“Be water, my friend” is one of the most famous Bruce Lee quotes. The kung fu legend, born 75 years ago today, is remembered not only for movies like Enter the Dragon and his unique martial arts style. The philosophy of the founder of Jeet Kune Do is what makes him an irreplaceable icon who no action star today can compete with.

But before the late star came up with the motto that has inspired millions of people around the world, he had a struggle that few people knew about.

Just before Bruce’s 75th birthday, the legend’s younger brother Robert Lee shared with me little known stories about the man who put Hong Kong and kung fu on the world map.

While we remember Bruce as a fighter, 66-year-old Robert told me his brother had a vulnerable side.

“I can still remember the day he left,” Robert said on the phone from Los Angeles.

He recalls being around nine or 10 years old when Bruce left Hong Kong to study in the US. He said his brother was always a happy go lucky, jovial person. But on the eve of his departure, Robert said he noticed something wasn’t quite right.

“The night before he left, he came by my bedside and woke me up. He was in a sombre mood. He said to me: ‘I’d be going to a place I’d never been, even though I was born there but I had no memories of that place’.”

“He looked very worried, not knowing what he’s facing. It was the first time I saw his vulnerable side.”

Robert said the other time that he saw a different side of his brother was just before Bruce returned to Hong Kong in the early 1970s.

“He hurt his back at that time. He was worried that he may not be able to continue his martial arts. He was also worried about his financial future,” Robert said. “He was really down … his bank account was drained — close to nothing. He had a lot of doubts about his future.”

But of course, things turned around and Bruce Lee rose to superstardom with his roles in a series of kung fu classics under Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest. And the rest is history.

Having talked about Bruce’s little known vulnerable side, Robert said his brother would’ve wanted his positive spirit to live on. “He believed in changes. To him life is constantly evolving. Bruce’s charisma is able to change people’s lives. Just putting a statue somewhere isn’t enough for people to think about Bruce’s influence on people.”

While there’s still no hope of turning Bruce’s former Kowloon Tong residence into a museum yet, the exhibition in collaboration with the Bruce Lee Foundation, operated by his daughter Shannon in the US, at Heritage Museum is still going strong.

Robert said some stories of Bruce will be told in the third instalment of the biopic Ip Man, starring action star Donnie Yen as the wing chun master Ip. Robert told me he served as a special consultant for this film as stories of Bruce studying wing chun under Ip will be told. “I was a witness,” he said. The film is scheduled for release on Christmas Eve.

And as for Robert, a well-known musician, enjoying retirement is now his priority, but he does not rule out the possibility of taking on other projects. “Whatever happens, I’ll take one project at a time,” he said.