How Shannon Lee Is Keeping Bruce Lee's Legacy Alive
When you talk martial arts, the first thing that pops into anyone's mind — anyone anywhere on the planet — is the name Bruce Lee. Action filmmakers still look to his movies for inspiration for their fight scenes. Martial arts instructors still evaluate what they teach lest their students get mired in a "classical mess."
Many of us remember where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the news of his death. No doubt we all fervently hoped that the news was wrong. Even writing these words sparks memories, transporting me back to when I was 10 — watching Lee portray Kato in The Green Hornet, kicking and chopping his way through all sorts of bad guys.
Although it's been close to 50 years since he passed away, Lee still is and always will be the icon of the martial arts. That's why we still celebrate his birthday on November 27 — this year would have been his 80th. To commemorate the occasion, Black Belt chatted with his daughter Shannon Lee about her efforts to ensure the world remembers her father.
"Bruce Lee" is a registered trademark of Bruce Lee Enterprises LLC. The Bruce Lee name, image and likeness are intellectual property of Bruce Lee Enterprises LLC. Photos © Bruce Lee Enterprises.
Our story must begin with Shannon Lee herself. It starts in Los Angeles, where she was born on April 19, 1969. It may seem to some that because she's the daughter of a superstar, she's always had the world at her fingertips. But such is not the case. In fact, it would be a mistake to think that young Shannon grew up with a set of silver "nunchucks" in her hand.
Shannon was born at a time when her father struggled to find even bit parts and to get work as a fight choreographer after his gig as Kato ended. During the next four years, while she grew up, Bruce's fame did indeed shoot across the sky like a meteor — but then, in a tragic moment, it was all gone. The toddler was left fatherless. She headed back to Los Angeles with her mother and her brother Brandon, where they tried to build a normal life for themselves.
Her mother Linda Lee Cadwell, then a 28-year-old widow, had no way of knowing the longevity of her late husband's fame. And as such, she sold the rights to his films for what would now be considered a minimal sum just so she could support her children. Later, Linda was forced to become a kindergarten teacher to continue paying the bills.
Shannon's early passion was music, and she attended Tulane University in New Orleans, where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in vocal performance. While she would go on to cut albums and perform internationally, Shannon, like her late brother Brandon, also developed a passion for acting. In fact, she combined both interests in her movie debut, singing the Mamas and the Papas song California Dreamin' in the party scene in the 1993 Jason Scott Lee movie Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.
Like her father and brother, Shannon displayed a talent as a martial artist and actor that led her to roles in Hong Kong, where she starred in the 1998 fight flick Enter the Eagles, directed by Corey Yuen. Other roles would see her guest-starring with her father's Enter the Dragon nemesis Sammo Hung on his TV series Martial Law. Shannon even served as host of WMAC Masters, a fantasy martial arts competition series that featured such big-name talent as Olympic taekwondo gold-medalist Herb Perez.
Although she's had success as a singer, actor and martial artist, Shannon's focus for the past two decades has been on ensuring that the world remembers her father, his craft and life, and what she believes is his greatest legacy: his philosophy.
Shannon intuitively recognized that while her dad's movies would remain timeless, inevitably new action stars would grace the silver screen. And while jeet kune do would always grow, its reach would be limited to those who actually practiced it. However, Bruce's philosophies could, through modern technology, impact the lives of millions of martial artists, fans and ordinary people.
Her mission to bring her father's philosophies to the world started as a grass-roots movement out of her house in 2000. Her first step was to help her mother modernize and better control some business deals surrounding Bruce Lee's publishing rights, name and likeness. These agreements, some of which were entered into decades before, paid the Lee family only a nominal fee. Moreover, the family did not even have approval over how those rights were used. Even though she faced a corporate giant with unlimited resources — picture Bruce against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game of Death — Shannon wasn't about to give up without a fight. Knowing that she'd never win in a protracted battle of litigation, she used her father's teachings on the "art of fighting without fighting." Employing dialogue, cajoling conversations and other creative tactics, she negotiated a buyback of the initial rights in 2008 and all the rights by 2011.
Shannon now heads Bruce Lee Enterprises, a company she founded in 2008. She also runs the Bruce Lee virtual museum and is the driving force behind several exhibits on her father's life such as the ones at Seattle's Wing Luke Museum and the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. In addition, she ensures that Bruce's likeness is used only on appropriate merchandise that she hopes delivers "top-notch entertainment with his pearls of wisdom."
As stated earlier, Shannon is tech-savvy enough to use Bruce's thriving online presence to bring his philosophies to the world. One way she did this was in her TED talk, titled "What Bruce Lee Can Teach Us About Living Fully." In the piece, she explained that her dad's philosophy of life was self-actualization, or "how to be yourself in the best way possible."
Shannon said: "He didn't try to replicate someone but focused on [himself. He said,] 'When I look around, I always learn something, and that is to always be yourself and to express yourself and have faith in yourself.' Don't go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it, but start from the very root of your being, which is 'How can I be me?'"
According to Linda, Bruce lived his philosophies all the time, both in private and in public, in front of the cameras and behind them. Shannon believes that because her father lived his truth, this "made him the force of nature that he was and still engages us today."
She encapsulated the public's continuing interest in Bruce this way: "While his image is frozen in time at age 32, which is the age he was when he passed away, his legacy is timeless. His message is relevant. In some ways, he was so ahead of his time that we are only now starting to catch up to where he was. What he was able to accomplish, in such a short amount of time, during a time in history when everything was stacked against him … it's phenomenal. His philosophies are timeless."
Another method Shannon employs to get Bruce's message to the masses is podcasts. Key to the success of these chats is that they mix her dad's wisdom with what's relevant today.
A case in point is her recent podcast titled Quarantine Edition: What Would Bruce Lee Do? Shannon said that his words could be nourishing and uplifting as a "salve for the soul" for people who were struggling. Many asked how her father would have coped, to which she replied that Bruce had faced a similar situation when he was bedridden after suffering a back injury while weight training in 1969.She recounted to listeners that Bruce's first step was to meditate and quiet his mind so it could adjust to what had happened. Next, he took time to rest, as he believed in the restorative powers of downtime and sleep. Then she noted that he developed that mindset by reading books on how to heal his back, as well as texts on self-help, spirituality and philosophy for emotional recovery and forward movement.
It was also during this time when Bruce was unable to train that he elected to put his ideas down on paper. He wrote his Commentaries on the Martial Way, which later became Tao of Jeet Kune Do and Bruce Lee's Fighting Method. Clearly, his efforts to improve himself during his setback can serve as guidance for all of us.
When picking a topic for a podcast, Shannon said she often reads through her father's writings until a theme speaks to her. As well, she reflects on what's happening in the world and tries to respond to concerns expressed by listeners.
She recounted a particular fan story that impacted her. Once, she received a packet of letters from a youth-detention counselor in California who had been struggling for a way to connect with the young men in his charge. The counselor shared her father's quotes — anonymously — with them. When they learned that Bruce Lee was the source, they were blown away. Later, each wrote a letter to Shannon to express how her father's work had motivated them to shift their perspectives on anger, work and life.
Another Bruce Lee Foundation initiative is its annual Camp Bruce Lee for children. Previously held in Los Angeles and Seattle, the event was scheduled for Philadelphia this year, where it was to take place in conjunction with the Asian Arts Initiative. But because of COVID-19, the 2020 event will happen online. Much like her father, Shannon manages to find opportunity in any setback. Spreading the camp out over a longer period will be an interesting experiment, she said. "If something like this works, it could be a great way to offer this program more widely [throughout the year]."
As mentioned, November 27, 2020, marks the 80th anniversary of Bruce Lee's birth. Drawing on her father's famous quote — "To hell with circumstances, I create opportunities" — Shannon refuses to let COVID put a damper on the upcoming celebration. For her, the effort to honor her father's memory and legacy only begins on November 27. In reality, it will continue all year.
Among the festivities planned by the Bruce Lee Foundation: revamping exhibits at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle and the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, creating new exhibits at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, hosting special live events, orchestrating social media happenings and releasing limited-edition 80th-birthday pieces that will be available through their store at brucelee.com.
Shannon also plans to give the world a great big Bruce Lee birthday present. She's publishing a book titled Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee. Available in October, it promises to become an instant collectible for martial artists and Bruce Lee fans. She noted, however, that it's aimed at a wider audience because it can benefit people from all walks of life.
She said the book features stories about her father's life, her life and how his philosophies influenced both lives. It breaks down the "be water" principle in an easy-to-understand way. She said she hopes it will help readers, be they martial artists or not, learn how to apply his philosophies every day.
In June 2020, ESPN aired a new Bruce Lee documentary titled Be Water, directed by Bao Nguyen. It touched on the challenges that Bruce faced in Hollywood, as well as his place in America during the turbulent '60s. Shannon provided narration throughout the film.
In Be Water, Shannon reads many personal letters her dad wrote to family and friends. They provide rare insight into his hopes, aspirations and struggles. In one telling contribution, she offers her opinion about the obstacles he faced while trying to break through the ceiling placed on Asian actors. "[I] didn't think my father realized the behemoth that he was up against," she said.
For those readers who aren't familiar with the story, Bruce created a treatment for a TV series about a young Chinese kung fu master named Ah Sahm who comes to the Old West. Once in America, he uses his martial prowess to help workers fight exploitation by the Tongs. Reworked, the treatment became the Kung Fu TV series, starring David Carradine. Carradine played a half-American, half-Chinese Shaolin monk while wearing makeup that's known today as "yellow face."
In one of the funnier parts of Be Water, a Warner Bros. executive tries to justify why they didn't want to risk making a 13-episode TV series featuring Bruce Lee because of his accent. In discussing this, Shannon joked that her father "spoke on The Green Hornet [and] it wasn't like people were [asking], 'What is that guy saying? I don't understand him.'"
In an ironic twist of fate, a few short years later, the same studio risked millions to produce Bruce Lee's breakout American film Enter the Dragon.
Fate, however, gave the daughter an opportunity to right the cinematic wrong against the father. Appropriately, it came her way almost by accident.
One day, Shannon received a call from Fast & Furious director Justin Lin. He'd just heard the story of Bruce's treatment and wondered if she knew what had happened to it. She said she'd just run across it while going through his possessions. After reviewing it, Lin asked her to be part of the creative team — specifically, executive producer. The treatment was developed into a 10-part series called Warrior, which aired last year on Cinemax. "The treatment that my father wrote was written in more of a '70s TV vernacular — much more like the Kung Fu TV series, like an adventure-of-the-week setup," she said. "There was a very loose overarching setup story, but each week, it was who is the bad guy [and] what were the lessons that were going to be learned. It's just not the way people consume TV nowadays."
We wanted to take the essence, and we were also working off a treatment, not a fully fledged work with every character and all of that. But the interesting thing is that my father was very sensitive to that time period — that the Chinese Exclusion Act was happening, [that] the Tong Wars took place. All these things were the backdrop to what he was kind of hoping would have relevancy to Chinese culture in this country."
So we took these notions and decided to focus on these different layers and relationships, the different conflicts happening at the time, and make it this awesome, high-octane action entertainment.
"Warrior recently was renewed for Season 2. "Everything is being amped up from Season 1," she said. "The tensions are running much more high between the Irish labor workers and the Chinese workers — and the different Tong factions. Some great surprises [are planned]. It really starts to get more meaty in terms of the story, the conflicts and the tensions.
"She added that Warrior did more than right a wrong done to her father. It freed him from the pigeonholes people tried to put him in during his life. He was not "just" a martial artist; he was also an action star, a producer, a director and a fight choreographer. And a creative writer.
As my time with Shannon drew to a close, our discussion took on a more serious tone, one that mirrored the current state of the world. I mentioned that Be Water is one of the few films that contextualized the fact that her father's career happened during the upheaval of the '60s and the turbulence of the civil rights movement. I asked whether during these days of unrest, her father could have blended his fight for societal change with his peaceful message that "under the sky, under the heavens, there is but one family."
"It's so interesting to me that this documentary takes place in the '60s and '70s [but that it] is so reflective of where we are right now as a society," she said. "One of the things that seem to be so broken in this country right now is our communication with one another and our care for one another as human beings. I think that the feelings and the outrage are appropriate given how broken down [things are]."My father believed and all martial artists believe, once they reach a particular level in their training [and] in their studies, that violence is a last resort. It's not a first resort. His message is, 'I just want to be thought of as a human being.'"
Perry William Kelly has a sixth-degree black belt in jiu-jitsu and is an instructor in four other martial arts. He's the former national coordinator for use of force for the Correctional Service of Canada. In 2017 he was a karate gold medalist at the World Police and Fire Games, and in 2018 he received the Joe Lewis Eternal Warrior Award. His website is perrywkelly.com.
Fun Facts About Shannon Lee
- She is the mother of a beautiful daughter named Wren.
- In 2003 she released an album. She's even given concerts in Hong Kong and America with renowned Cantonese singer Sam Hui.
- She studied jeet kune do with Richard Bustillo and Ted Wong, taekwondo with Dung Doa Lin and wushu with Eric Chen. She also studied kickboxing under Benny "The Jet" Urquidez.
- She co-starred with TV's Incredible Hulk star Lou Ferrigno in Cage II.
- While she agrees with UFC President Dana White's opinion that Bruce Lee may be the father of MMA, she believes that the philosophical aspects of JKD make it more than just a collection of arts.
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