By Michael Dorgan
Date: August 5, 2017
The story behind the story: Shaolin Grandmaster Wong Jack Man talks with Michael Dorgan about “Birth of the Dragon” and his epic fight with Bruce Lee that inspired the film.
Michael Dorgan: What did you think of “Birth of the Dragon?”
Wong Jack Man: I found the movie entertaining, a fun film to see with your family and friends. It has lots of action and comedy, and also offers a lesson to be learned. It’s about two martial artists who followed very different paths –one becoming the world famous movie star and the other a kung fu grandmaster of Northern Shaolin, Taijiquan and Hsingyiquan. I will tell my friends to see it because it will bring back many fond memories of their youth, when kung fu was very popular.
Michael Dorgan: What did you think of the actors’ portrayals of you and Bruce Lee?
Wong Jack Man: Xia Yu, who is a very famous actor in China, was excellent in portraying me. He was able to capture the essence of my reserved nature and my exceptional martial arts skills. He does not have a martial arts background but he is very athletic and convincing on film. Philip Ng, who portrayed Bruce, was also excellent. He resembles Bruce and has his body type. And he conveyed Bruce’s charisma and cockiness, as well as his accent and mannerisms. Also, he had the martial arts skills to play the part. He is known for his stunts and choreography in Hong Kong film. I see a future for him as an actor.
Michael Dorgan: Did you like the fight scenes?
Wong Jack Man: Yes, they were very exciting to watch. I think they kept everyone at the edge of their seats.
Michael Dorgan: What were some of your favorite parts?
Wong Jack Man: My favorite part was when I head locked Bruce, which actually happened three times during our fight in 1964. I also liked it when Bruce and I team up to fight the gangsters. It was very funny, with non-stop action. I heard it took two weeks just to film the fight between Bruce and me and our final fight with the gangsters. It took a lot of skills from the actors, stunt people, stunt choreographers and the talented director to pull it off.
Michael Dorgan: What do you think of the Steve character in the movie and the criticism some have made of making him a major character in a film about you and Bruce Lee?
Wong Jack Man: That was not a problem for me. He was the narrator who was driving and telling the story of me and Bruce. Who else could have told the story? Besides, he played as Bruce Lee’s white student – are they now saying Bruce Lee could not teach a white student? According to Linda Lee, the whole reason for the fight between Bruce and me was so Bruce could teach kung fu to the white man and others of a difference race. I really don’t understand all this nonsense. They created a little side story about the character Steve to make him a bit more interesting and to help set up the fight between my character and Bruce Lee and the fight the two of us had with the gangsters. This film is made for the international market - it should have an international cast. Most of the criticism is from some Bruce Lee fans and his daughter, Shannon. They don’t understand that this film is not a biopic about Bruce Lee but was inspired by the fight and is highly stylized and fictionalized. Bruce Lee was portrayed as he was in his early twenties. Are they just going to ignore that part of his history? He later matured and moved on to become world famous and put martial arts on the map. Bruce Lee’s films were fictionalized, too, so I don’t see a problem with it.
Michael Dorgan: You and Bruce Lee both grew up in Hong Kong and were about the same age. Did you ever meet him there, or had you heard of him?
Wong Jack Man: Bruce Lee was a year older than me. He was born on November 27, 1940, and I was born on December 1, 1941. I never met him or heard of him while I was in Hong Kong.
Michael Dorgan: What was your childhood like and how did you become involved in Kung Fu?
Wong Jack Man: My childhood was pretty normal. Like most boys my age, I became interested in martial arts by watching martial arts movies, reading martial arts stories and martial arts comic books, and watching street performers.
Michael Dorgan: What made you decide to immigrate to America and what did you hope to achieve here?
Wong Jack Man: I came to America to be united with my family. And I was asked by my teachers, Yim Sheung Mo and Ma Kin Fung, to spread the Northern Shaolin, Taijiquan and Xingyiquan to America and the world. My teachers were top students of the famed master Gu Ruzhang, widely known as Iron Palm because of his ability to smash even large stacks of bricks with his bare hand, and they were members of the non-governmental Jing Wu martial arts organization, whose motto is “Love your country, cultivate your character and be a good citizen of the community.” It is all about doing the right things and showing great concern for morals and ethics. Jing Wu has promoted martial arts training for men, women and children to build strong bodies and healthy minds since it was founded in 1909 in Old China. Fifty-nine branches of Jing Wu have sprung up in 22 countries since I first brought Northern Shaolin to America in the early 1960’s.
Michael Dorgan: Tell us about the San Francisco Chinatown martial arts scene in the early 1960's, when some schools were aligned “tong” organizations, the fraternal and social groups that sometimes ran gambling, prostitution and racketeering operations.
Wong Jack Man: When I first arrived in San Francisco, I taught at a social club for what you might call the “big shots” of Chinatown, who were interested in Taijiquan and other traditional Chinese martial arts. They were impressed by my skills, which they had seen at my demonstrations at various community locations, and I was asked to join the club by member Lau Yee Sing, the owner of the Great Eastern Café, who had a passion for martial arts. I worked part-time at his restaurant as a waiter to make ends meet until I became a full-time instructor, teaching all day and into the evenings. San Francisco Chinatown in the 1960's had a booming night life. There were six Chinese movie theaters packed every night showing martial arts movies, historical dramas and comedies. The restaurants were always filled with families and friends having late dinners or snacks after a night out to the movies. It was the best of times being in the middle of it. There were only two martial arts teachers who were members of a tong. One was Wong Tim Yuen, a.k.a. T.Y. Wong, of the “Sturdy Citizen's Club". He was a member of The Hop Sing Tong and taught a southern style of kung fu. The other tong-connected teacher was Lau Bun, chief instructor of the Hop Sing Tong Kung Fu Club, who taught the southern style Choy Li Fut. He taught private groups and tong members, and later renamed his school Hung Sing Studio. He also taught Lion Dancing. These two teachers were well respected and taught their students to be good citizens of the community. They were also “enforcers” for the community against troublemakers. The tongs were first established as places for the single men to go for help in finding housing and jobs, and in acclimating to a new country. They were able to share their roots and language, and were given a sense of belonging and community. Only a small number of tong members were involved in criminal activities at the time. Before I arrived in San Francisco in the early 1960’s, there were only a few traditional Chinese martial arts teachers and kung fu was not yet popular. All the young people, including the Asian kids, were learning Karate, the Japanese martial art system bought back by the serviceman after World War II. There were Karate schools everywhere, even in Chinatown. I was the new kid in town. I brought something new to the martial arts community through my performances and demonstrations by my students at schools and auditoriums. I was the only one doing these public shows. Later, other kung fu instructors and I organized the National Chinese Gungfu Exhibition at the San Francisco Civic Center to showcase various styles of Kung Fu. We invited Bruce Lee to participate but he declined. We later found out he came up from Los Angeles to watch it in a disguise. I did not see him but others recognized him and told me. I also gave solo performances at Chinese Family Association gatherings and participated in many Chinese New Year celebrations locally and outside of Chinatown. People were impressed because they never seen the Northern Shaolin system, which is both powerful and acrobatic. It includes high kicks, big leaps, aggressive long-range attacks and whirling, circular blocks. It also features traditional Chinese weapons, including staff, spear, straight sword, double butterfly swords, double tiger hooked swords, saber, chain whips, three-section staff and guan dao. Ming Lum, a local martial arts promoter, began taking my students to Karate tournaments, where they were often winners. That made people take notice. Soon, my reputation grew and I was teaching Karate Instructors and instructors of other popular martial arts. Once Karate Instructors and other types of martial artists learned from me, they changed their business signs to announce they were also teaching kung fu. It was the golden era of kung fu, and pretty soon everyone with a little knowledge was teaching it. By the early 1970s, kung fu became even more widely popularized by Bruce Lee through his films and by the “Kung Fu” television series starring David Carradine. The stunt coordinator for that TV series was also a student of mine. I never advertised my schools in the newspapers. My business grew by word of mouth of my reputation and from my involvement in my community and outside communities. I had a martial artist move here from Hawaii to learn my Northern Shaolin system and then move on to win many championships and become known as the “Godfather of Kung Fu in Europe.” His wife also studied with me and became the top-ranked women fighter in the United States. She also fought men and won. I also trained the first non-Asian full-contact fighter to ever win a gold medal at the World Championship full-contact Chinese Martial Arts Tournament in Taiwan.
Michael Dorgan: Bruce Lee's wife, Linda, wrote that you challenged him on behalf of the Chinatown kung fu teachers, who were angry that he was teaching Caucasians. Is it true? If not, what provoked the fight?
Wong Jack Man: What she wrote is absolutely not true. What provoked the fight was Bruce Lee’s arrogance and his insulting treatment of other martial artists. He trashed the teachers in Chinatown, calling them "old tigers with no teeth" and lectured them about his Wing Chun system being far superior to their traditional Chinese martial arts. The matter came to a head following a performance he gave at the Sun Sing Theater with Hong Kong actress Diana Chang, who was regarded as the Marilyn Monroe of Asia and was there to promote her new movie, “Amorous Lotus Pan.” She did a Cha Cha dance with Bruce, who was there to promote his school. In front of a packed house, he demonstrated his one-inch punch - a punch launched just an inch from the opponent. He demonstrated it with his friend, George Long, who taught the White Crane system. It did not go well and the audience laughed and booed him. That angered Bruce. He tried again and succeeded in knocking George backwards, but George was not pleased and complained that he had not been ready for the second try. Bruce was still upset and issued a public challenge to anyone who thought he was better then him. The Chinatown martial arts community decided it needed to respond and that I was the best-qualified person to exchange skills with Bruce Lee. A letter was written and hand delivered to Bruce at his Oakland school inviting him to discuss what happened at the Sun Sing Theater and to exchange martial arts skills with me. He refused to come to San Francisco, but wrote a note inviting me to his school in Oakland with the date and time to meet.
Michael Dorgan: Why were only a few people allowed to witness the fight and what were the agreed upon rules, if any?
Wong Jack Man: It was a private exchange of skills. There was no discussion of rules until moments before the match.
Michael Dorgan: Bruce Lee and his former wife both said he quickly defeated you. What is your account of what happened?
Wong Jack Man: I got a ride to Bruce’s school with an acquaintance. Four of his friends were also in the car, but I didn’t know them. I was wearing my traditional black kung fu uniform. It was a deserted part of town, and we arrived at exactly 6:00 pm. His school was an empty storefront with no business sign. We walked in. It was a small room with no furnishings. One of Bruce Lee's friends made the introduction, as it was the first time we had met each other. I was introduced only to Bruce. I asked him if he had issued a challenge at the Sun Sing Theater. He told me no, that he had not issued a challenge on stage. At that point, I thought he did not really want to spar or exchange skills with me. Our group all started to leave but then the person who let us in locked the door. Bruce became very angry and started yelling and cursing. He told me, "You have been killed by your friend," and "He is going to ruin your life." At that moment, I thought that was a strange thing for him to say. But Bruce knew that the person who hand-carried the letter to him had set us both up. When the letter was delivered, Bruce was angry and was ready to fight him. Now Bruce was so angry that he cursed him, and that person became very frightened and nervous. All the people in the room were scared, and the tension was high. Bruce told me he was not here to make friends and that we should fight to see whose skill level was higher. I think he felt he would lose face if he did not fight me in front of his friends and the others who were there. I told him we were just going to spar. I quickly laid down the universal standard rules in a match: no poking the eyes, no grabbing the throat or kicking the groin. He angrily responded, “No holds barred. No rules. We are going to fight to the death.” After the other people stepped to the side, Bruce asked me to come to the center of the room. I extended my hand for a handshake, as is customary in any open match. Bruce pretended to offer his hand but immediately curved his fingers like deadly claws and tried to poke out my eyes. My quick instincts blocked him from doing damage to my eyes, though he ended up scratching me with his fingernail above my eye. That attack set the tone of the fight. Then he started to make these loud, horrifying sounds - like a ghost screaming is the only way I can describe it. I never heard sounds like that before in my life, and they were scaring everyone in the room. He continued to swear, yell and utter the terrifying sounds as he repeatedly tried to attack my eyes, throat and groin in between throwing straight punches at my chest. It was these techniques he used the most, and I had to step backward to avoid his attacks. He was basically out of control and trying to do me serious harm. He chased me, arms swinging, but I side-stepped him each time so his blows were not effective. I also had to create distance so I could attack him using my long-range techniques to counter his attacks. At one point, I caught him as he charged at me and locked his head under my left arm. Both of his arms fell to his sides and he was shaking because of my strong grasp on him. I could have finished him off with my right fist or choked him out but did not since I feared the consequences if I seriously hurt him. After I let him go, he became even more enraged and continued to curse, yell and make god-awful sounds. I really thought he was on something at that point. And I thought he really wanted to kill me. He continued his aggressive but ineffective attacks. I ended up locking his head again but this time he was on his knees. I let him go again, then caught him again and locked his head for a third time. But he remained full of rage when I let him go. He continued to charge at me, swinging his fists. I used my windmill blocks and hit him three times in the head in rapid session. He staggered and spun around three times and all the sudden stopped yelling, cursing and making the noises. He was so winded he could not go on. That was how the match ended. Linda Lee later wrote that the fight lasted only three minutes but it actually lasted about 20 minutes. Before we left, Bruce Lee asked me not to discuss the fight with anyone and I agreed. But later he bragged to people that he had won, which is why I then I issued a public challenge on the front page of a local Chinese newspaper, inviting him to fight me in an open arena filled with witnesses. He did not respond.
Michael Dorgan: Bruce Lee at the time had trained only in Wing Chun, a southern martial arts style that emphasizes straight ahead attacks with fast, powerful punches. Your Northern Shaolin favors, longer, more circular strikes and blocks and more kicks. What did you learn from the fight as a martial artist? What did you learn as a man?
Wong Jack Man: As a martial artist, I learned nothing from the fight or from him. He threw away his system (Wing Chun) after the fight because it had not worked for him, and began developing his own system, Jeet Kune Do, which borrowed high kicks and many other movements from my system and from other systems. Bruce Lee later became famous only because he fought with me. That fight forced him to develop a new fighting system and philosophy that led to his success as a martial arts movie star. I was progressing in the internal martial arts way before the fight with Bruce Lee. He had nothing to teach me. As a man, I learned from the fight not to trust what I hear from others. I must analyze and research the truth and evidence before I act on it.
Michael Dorgan: Are you surprised by the enduring interest in the fight within the martial arts community? Why do you think people still like to discuss and debate it?
Wong Jack Man: I think the fight has enduring interest because we were two well-known martial artists and it was a closed-door event and the witnesses could not agree on what they saw or the outcome of the fight. This type of event should be held in public for all to see with rules, judges and referees, so the end results are very clear. My fight with Bruce Lee has been talked about and debated for over 50 years around the world and it probably will be debated for another 50 years. Who else can claim this? Not even Ali or Frazier.
Michael Dorgan: In China, there was a long tradition of secrecy surrounding martial arts, which often were taught only to men and only to family or clan members. You were one of the first Chinese kung fu teachers to open his school to men and women of all ethnicities. What benefits do you think martial arts offer to modern society?
Wong Jack Man: Kung fu teaches compassion, wisdom, positive thinking, gentleness, patience, harmony, diligence, perseverance, courage, honesty, righteousness, loyalty, self-discipline and responsibility. It promotes inner strength, healthy habits and the enjoyment of life, as well as a calm, clear mind and good spirits. Learning self-defense skills improves self-confidence, builds a strong body and allows you to help others less fortune then you. In other words, kung fu can help develop a well-rounded individual. This is helpful in modern society, where many people lack the skills to have a successful life.