Although he was floundering at the University of Washington with a 1.84 GPA in March 1962, Bruce Lee was teeming with confidence and ambition, as if he knew success was around the corner. And he could smell it. He filled an endless stream of spiral notebooks — not on class lectures, but on Eastern philosophy, kung fu principles and fight diagrams. He stored much of his writing and drawings, even his stream-of-consciousness jottings and his scribbles on the trivialities of everyday life.
“My father was prolific when it came to writing: day-timers, journals,” his daughter, Shannon Lee said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. “He wrote on pieces of loose-leaf paper that he held on to, and he wrote in spiral notebooks.”
It was as if Lee knew he would be somebody important, somebody worthy of having his body of work archived or encased behind glass one day, to be scrutinized or fawned over.
“Do You Know Bruce?,” a new Wing Luke Museum exhibit opening this weekend, offers a rare insight — Hong Kong runs the only other exhibit in the world — into Lee’s formative years in Seattle. The show features 300 photos, poems and letters, many from his days in Beacon Hill, the University District and the Chinatown International District.
Most Read Local Stories
- Big gap between Pfizer, Moderna vaccines seen for preventing COVID hospitalizations
- Wondering why society went off-kilter during the pandemic? It was all predicted in this book
- 2 killed in crash on I-90 after car hydroplaned, officials say
- One killed in North Seattle shooting
- For older adults, isolation can lead to overwhelming loneliness
Shannon Lee and Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Caldwell (a 1963 Garfield High grad), loaned artifacts to the Wing Luke Museum for a rotating exhibit that will be showcased in three installments over the next three years. The first part focuses on Lee in his hometown. Next summer’s exhibit will focus on his five martial-arts movies and his time in Hollywood. And the year after that, the exhibit shifts to Lee the artist.
Lee’s estate has cataloged his memorabilia and kept in touch with friends who possess other mementos. The family plans to one day open a Bruce Lee Action Museum in Seattle, though about $50 million still must be raised to do so.
Shannon said the exhibit is a glimpse into what the public will see whenever a permanent Lee museum is realized. No time frame has been set, but a fundraiser has been hired and the family is looking at potential sites.
One thing is clear. The permanent museum can only be in Seattle, for the same reason Lee is buried at Capitol Hill’s Lake View Cemetery: This is home, his family says.
Shannon said that after Lee’s death, his wife “started thinking back to when life was simple and when were they the most happy … It was when they lived in Seattle. It’s where they fell in love and started their journey together.”
That’s underscored in the exhibit with Lee’s love letters to his wife and to the Emerald City. He waxed poetically about Lake Washington, about how he loved the breeze and the walks along the beach. He meditated there, and it reminded him of the harbor in Hong Kong where his father took him fishing.
Lee attended Edison Technical School on Capitol Hill, then studied at the UW for three years, taking philosophy classes.
As his UW report card shows, he was struggling. (Even in gymnastics he got only a C.) He was more focused on being a martial-arts instructor, bent on opening studios in Seattle and Oakland, Calif.
In fact, while still a student he was working on his first book, “Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense,” which included fight illustrations shot in the parking lot of Ruby Chow’s Restaurant on Jefferson Street, where he worked as a waiter to make ends meet.
He also filled spiral notebooks for other projects, written in blue and black ballpoint pen, filled with cursive texts scratched out and written over. There are also extensive diagrams and stick-figure drawings of hand-to-hand combat, with obsessive details about leverage points and various scenarios for attacks and counterattacks.
They were affirmations and instructions that may have formed the foundation for his later teachings to his celebrity students such as Lee Marvin, Roman Polanski and James Garner.
There are also pictures of him training in a studio in what is now Ho Ho Seafood Restaurant in the Chinatown International District. (From a window at the exhibit, you can also see the other building where Lee trained; it’s now Szechuan Noodle Bowl.)
A gallery of 100 magazine covers and portraits features a handsome, sinewy Lee. He is forever young, having died at age 32 from brain swelling caused by an allergic reaction, likely to painkillers.
The tone of the exhibit, though, is upbeat. Here is a wide-eyed Lee with a glint of Horatio Alger, a distracted UW student who had swagger long before he had fame, a Bruce so cool that Steve McQueen took fighting lessons from him.