Reporter Journal / William Hennelly

Birth of the Dragon: Film to tell story of legendary Bruce Lee fight in 1960s

By William Hennelly (China Daily USA) Updated: 2016-01-14 12:15

Bruce Lee died in 1973, but the image of the superbly conditioned martial artist unleashing lightning-fast kicks and backfists to whiplike sound effects is etched in martial arts lore.

Now, a movie financed by China's Kylin Films is in production (scheduled for release later this year) that recreates a legendary battle that the San Francisco-born jeet kune do master had in Oakland, California, in December 1964.

Birth of the Dragon tells the story of Lee's showdown with Shaolin kung fu master Wong (Sifu) Jack Man. Both men were in their 20s at the time.

 Birth of the Dragon: Film to tell story of legendary Bruce Lee fight in 1960s

Statue of Bruce Lee on the Avenue of the Stars in Hong Kong. Wikimedia Commons

Wong, a Hong Kong native, is still living in the Bay Area, having retired in 2005 after 45 years as a martial arts instructor.

"We're thrilled to be telling one of the great untold stories in martial arts history, especially at this unique moment when China and Western audiences are opening up to each other as never before," producer Michael London told Variety. "To work with a Chinese film company like Kylin on a story that has so much significance in China has been a wonderful collaboration, and, we hope, the first of many."

Hong Kong-born Philip Ng will portray Lee. Yu Xia from Qingdao will play Wong, and Billy Magnussen will portray martial arts student Steve McKee. Director George Nolfi will work off a script by Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele, who also have writing credits on Ali and Nixon.

Birth of the Dragon: Film to tell story of legendary Bruce Lee fight in 1960s

Groundswell Productions in Los Angeles is the producer, led by London and Janice Williams, along with Wilkinson, Rivele and Kylin's James H. Pang. London is known for producing Sideways, starring Paul Giamatti, which won a Golden Globe Award for Best Picture of 2005.

The film recreates the fight between Lee and Wong from McKee's vantage point. After the fight, Lee supposedly reinvented his approach to kung fu.

Published accounts of the fight say that Lee thrashed Wong in short order. But Wong's version was that it went more than 20 minutes, and that Lee did not fight fair.

According to Lee's wife, Linda Lee Cadwell, Bruce Lee's teaching of Chinese martial arts to Caucasians made him unpopular with Chinese martial artists in the Bay Area.

Wong refuted the notion that Lee was fighting for the right to teach Caucasians, because not all of Wong's students were Chinese.

Other observers said it was because Lee was rankling San Francisco's Chinese martial arts community with his attitude.

Wong said he requested a public fight with Lee after Lee had brazenly issued an open challenge at a Chinatown theater in which he claimed he would defeat any martial artist in San Francisco.

Wong said that it was after a mutual acquaintance delivered a note from Lee inviting him to fight that he showed up at Lee's school to challenge him.

Persons known to have witnessed the match included Cadwell, James Lee (an associate of Bruce Lee) and William Chen, a teacher of tai chi chuan.

According to Linda Lee, the fight lasted three minutes, with her husband scoring an emphatic victory.

In an interview with Black Belt magazine, Bruce Lee discussed a fight at that time but didn't specifically mention Wong.

"I'd gotten into a fight in San Francisco with a Kung-Fu cat, and after a brief encounter, the son of a bitch started to run. I chased him and, like a fool, kept punching him behind his head and back. Soon my fists began to swell from hitting his hard head. Right then I realized Wing Chun was not too practical and began to alter my way of fighting."

A July 1980 account in Official Karate magazine had Wong striking a conciliatory tone, with complaints about Lee's approach.

Wong said the fight began with him bowing and offering his hand to Lee, who pretended to extend a friendly hand only to suddenly thrust a spear-fingers strike at Wong's eyes.

"That opening move," said Wong, "set the tone for Lee's fight."

Wong told the magazine that there were straight punches and repeated kicks at his groin, but mostly there were the fingertips to his eyes and throat. Wong said he also refrained from using his own devastating kicks that were prevalent in the Northern Shaolin style.

Wong disputed Lee's version of the fight in an account in Chinese Pacific Weekly in San Francisco. He invited Lee to a rematch if Lee had found his retelling unacceptable. Lee never responded publicly to the article, Wong said.

Regardless of the film's veracity, it should attract martial arts devotees.

Kylin CEO Pang Hong said in December that the film would have a budget of $33 million.

"Chinese films recently reached 15 percent of the global market share," he said. "We can't only entertain ourselves in China. We have to go out. Not only do we want RMB, we want dollars and euros."

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