Wing Luke Museum’s new Bruce Lee exhibit shows another side of the martial artist

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1 of 8 Shannon Lee leads a tour of the exhibit about her father, Bruce Lee, at the Wing Luke Museum. Titled “Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee,” it tells a story of his learnings, philosophical approaches and the symbolism of water. “As hard as he worked on his body, he worked on his mind and worked on his energy,” she said. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
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2 of 8 Shannon Lee leads a preview tour of the exhibit about her father. Bruce Lee, at the Wing Luke Museum on June 8. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
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3 of 8 The interactive exhibit displays quotes important to Bruce Lee when the visitor steps into the circle of “water.” (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
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4 of 8 This well-known move of Bruce Lee guides visitors at the Wing Luke Museum to the exhibit, “Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee.” (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
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5 of 8 Yip Man gave Bruce Lee guiding principles in his life. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
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6 of 8 Wing Luke Museum Executive Director Joël Barraquiel Tan speaks to the important leadership role of the facility and attacks on Asian American culture and individuals. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
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7 of 8 Bruce Lee was an avid reader with a book collection approaching 3,000 on a cross-section of subjects. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
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8 of 8 Shannon Lee leads a tour of the exhibit about her father, Bruce Lee, that shows much more of the martial arts film star than is known to most. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Deep in grief after the sudden death of her brother, actor Brandon Lee, in 1993, Shannon Lee started flipping through her father’s writings — photocopied pages of book annotations stacked 2 feet high. She came by a note that she did not recognize, which was odd because she, along with a lot of other people, knew the majority of her father’s famous quotes — he was, after all, Bruce Lee.

“’The medicine for my suffering I had within me from the very beginning, but I did not take it,’ ” Shannon Lee recited from memory. “’My ailment came from within myself, but I did not observe it until this moment. Now I see, I will never find the light, unless like the candle, I am my own fuel.’ ”

The passage opened something in her, and she realized her suffering was not going to erase itself. Delving back into the knowledge her father left behind helped her cope. Within seven years, she said, she was the happiest she had ever been.

“As hard as he worked on his body, he worked on his mind and worked on his energy, and that is what made the difference,” she said. “That is why we’re still talking about Bruce Lee 50 years later.”

While he was most well-known for his movies and martial arts, Bruce Lee (1940-1973) was also strong in his own philosophy. After taking the helm of the Bruce Lee Foundation, Shannon Lee has made it her mission to tie her father’s image to his teachings as part of his legacy.

Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum, in partnership with the foundation, launched an interactive exhibit July 9 dedicated to Bruce Lee’s philosophy titled “Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee.” The exhibit, which is becoming a permanent part of the museum, is based on the martial artist’s 2,800-book collection. It opens with a glass cutout of his famous flying side kick embedded in a wall with books from his collection filling the image. Immersive storytellers Jessica Kantor and Eve Weston, the exhibit’s creative team, found knowledge in Bruce Lee’s work as they transposed the annotations hidden among his books into the exhibit’s works.

“He is a pioneer. He’s an entrepreneur. He’s an innovator. He’s an athlete. He’s an intellectual,” Weston said. “He’s incredibly hardworking and driven and thoughtful.”

The exhibit’s story is told on blue-colored walls. From his writing, Bruce Lee described losing his “theory of gentleness” once he entered a fight. He would remember the teachings from his only formal instructor, Yip Man, but was unable to put them it into practice. He spent an afternoon on a boat, realizing he wanted to be like water — going with his nature, instead of against it.

Between the story are stacks of books, black-and-white photos and a glass case of some of Bruce Lee’s possessions surrounded by plaques dedicated to his philosophy behind learning, known as the three stages of cultivation: partiality, fluidity and emptiness.

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1 of 4 Bruce Lee meditates on a pier on Lake Washington. (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation)
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2 of 4 Bruce Lee on a railing by Lake Washington, 1962. (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation)
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3 of 4 Bruce Lee reads in his personal library. (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation)
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4 of 4 Linda Lee Cadwell, Bruce Lee’s wife, works out with Bruce Lee and Taky Kimura. (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation)

The exhibit continues into a dimly lit room hosting three circles — representing the mind, body and spirit — on the floor with projected images of lily pads. When patrons stand on the lily pads, a bell will ring and a quote once highlighted by Bruce Lee will appear at their feet. Moments later, a screen in front of them will show photos, videos or more quotes. There are about 30 different pairings for the three circles.

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The interactive exhibit displays quotes important to Bruce Lee when the visitor steps into the circle of “water.” (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

The exhibit ends with a large image of Bruce Lee accompanied by a quote written across the wall in a font designed after his handwriting.

Exhibiting and celebrating stories of people like Bruce Lee and Wing Chong Luke — who is not only the museum’s namesake but also the first Asian American elected into public office in the Pacific Northwest — is vital in the current political climate, said museum executive director Joël Barraquiel Tan.

“This is the time to really bring our communities together to experience the kind of teachings and inspiration of someone as integral to Seattle as Bruce Lee, to remind us that we can actualize something bigger than we could have ever imagined,” Barraquiel Tan said.

The exhibit marks the permanent partnership between the museum and the Bruce Lee Foundation. The museum will host the Bruce Lee Gallery and several future exhibits dedicated to the martial artist and his legacy.

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Bruce Lee was an avid reader with a book collection approaching 3,000 on a cross-section of subjects. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

“Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee”

10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; Wing Luke Museum, 719 S. King St.; $10-$17, free for children under 5; wingluke.org

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Jayce Carral: jcarral@seattletimes.com; .