The Time Bruce Lee Was Challenged to a Real Fight

When David Chin walked through the entrance of Bruce Lee’s martial arts studio in Oakland, California in the fall of 1964, he found Lee stretched out on the floor. Classes were not yet in session, and the 23-year-old instructor was passing time by reading a novel.

Chin approached Lee and handed him an envelope. The contents were written in Cantonese; when Lee finished reading, he looked at Chin and laughed.

The letter expressed a measure of irritation at the way Lee had conducted himself during a demonstration in San Francisco just a few days earlier. It was authored by affiliates of the Gee Yau Seah Academy, some of whom had been in attendance to see Lee’s display of skill and bravado. At the time, Lee had some brash, heated words for anyone who felt they could match his skills.

The letter proposed a meeting between Lee and Wong Jack Man, a fellow Wing Chun stylist who ran a school less than 15 miles away. It was the second such request for Lee to back up his words in a physical confrontation—this time hand-delivered, to ensure Lee received it.

Lee quickly wrote a letter of his own accepting the match, which he gave to Chin. In less than a month, he and Wong would be standing opposite one another. Before they engaged, Lee told Wong about Chin’s messenger services.

“You've been killed by your friend,” Lee said.

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In October 1964, Bruce Lee had a pregnant wife, an unfinished drama education from the University of Washington, and little else. He had left Hong Kong in 1959, eager to bring the martial art of Wing Chun to Western students. Though he had been a child actor in his native Hong Kong, international film stardom was several years away.

To promote his school, the Jun Fan Gung Institute, in Oakland, Lee frequently gave demonstrations of his skills. Though he had not fully sculpted the action figure physique he would become known for, Lee had a series of theatrical displays that usually left audiences impressed.

The best known was Lee’s “one-inch punch,” a strike with no wind-up that was delivered from an incredibly short distance. While appearing at the Sun Sing Theatre in San Francisco that October, Lee invited a spectator to come and hold a pad. It was expected the man would be knocked backward, just as Lee had done dozens of times before.

Lee threw his punch, but the man was unmoved. Frustrated, Lee committed to a second, which sent the volunteer flying and complaining he wasn’t prepared for another strike.

It played like a comedy routine, and the audience began laughing. Lee, who had a tendency to lose his temper in record time, began seething. Some spectators flicked cigarette butts at his feet.

Annoyed, Lee invited anyone who thought they could do better to the stage. He was the best man there, he said, and the best fighter in San Francisco, and would welcome any challenges to be proven wrong.

While Lee was likely trying to recover from a rare embarrassment, not everyone in the audience took his comments lightly. The martial arts establishment thought his attitude was cocky. The man on stage, after all, wasn’t yet celebrated for his onscreen presence; he was a newcomer to the area who was running his mouth, and it wasn’t appreciated.

David Chin, a Wing Chun enthusiast who wasn’t present for Lee’s speech but had heard of it, suggested his friend Wong Jack Man could offer a needed dose of humility. Wong’s Wing Chun was slightly different than Lee’s—three inches taller, he preferred fighting at more of a distance—but he was roughly the same age and still made decisions based on a surplus of pride. Wong agreed, and Chin helped compose the letter agreeing to a match before delivering it.

Lee was no stranger to fights, having grown up getting into altercations in the streets and occasionally brushing against the law. After Chin visited, he insisted Wong come to his school in Oakland; after a few phone calls to finalize a time, he welcomed his challenger in the evening hours.

As Lee had his friend, Jimmy Lee, lock the front door, Wong and his associates came to a realization: there was a discrepancy in how each man was approaching the bout. Wong saw it as a sparring match with the volume turned up, a demonstration of skills; Lee was going to treat it like one of his street fights, where nothing was off-limits.

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Lee would later tell Black Belt magazine his encounter with Wong would change his way of thinking forever, evolving from a strict Wing Chun style to his own Jeet Kune Do, which incorporated a variety of techniques. But while he later dismissed his fight “with a kung fu cat” as nothing more than a rabbit chase where his hands swelled from pummeling his foe, other accounts have presented a very different take.

According to writer Rick Wing, who tracked down as many of the surviving 11 spectators as he could—along with Wong himself—the fight was not as one-sided as Lee described it. Lee began by lashing out immediately after a handshake, cutting Wong’s forehead, and then proceeded to launch a series of groin kicks and high-volume punches, most of which Wong absorbed in the chest.

Wong moved laterally, and was not as aggressive as the temperamental Lee; he had told his friends he wouldn’t be using kicks, which he considered his most dangerous weapon, because he didn’t want to permanently injure Lee. He did, however, sport a pair of leather bracelets he wore over his wrists, and one of his strikes caught Lee near his neck, staggering him. Wong followed up with a headlock, but chose not to strike while Lee was doubled over.

After 20 minutes of Lee pressing the action and Wong picking his spots, Wong lost his footing and fell to the ground, where Lee tried to pounce on him. Observers told Wing they feared Lee was getting too heated and stepped in to break up the bout.

Lee later told his wife, Linda, he felt the fight had gone on too long, and that he should’ve been able to dispatch Wong easily. The frustration led to an increased devotion to training. In a few months’ time, his son, Brandon, would be born, and his screen test for a television series would lead to a co-starring stint on The Green Hornet. When he returned to San Francisco for martial arts exhibitions, he referred to Wong as “the runner.”

Though the men had agreed not to discuss the fight, news circulated in Chinese newspapers. The printed version started as gossip fodder, distorted to attribute the reason for the bout as being over a woman—a Chinese actress, Zhang Zhongwen, who had briefly danced the cha-cha with Lee before his infamous demonstration.

It wasn't true, and Lee agreed to be interviewed to correct the story; Wong then tried to refute Lee’s version, which had him winning. The scene was also dramatized in 1993’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, where a stand-in for Wong breaks Lee’s back.

Now in his 70s, Wong still resides in the San Francisco area. He rarely speaks of the Lee bout. When the actor died in 1973, he sent flowers.

Though no one can say for certain, it appears Lee and Wong met just once more after the fight, when Lee came to the café where Wong was a waiter. A relaxed Lee mentioned they were both Chinese, had come from the same martial arts lineage, and had no reason to quarrel.

“Hey, man,” Lee said, “I was just trying to advertise my school.”

Additional Sources:
Showdown in Oakland.

5 Odd Suggestions About How To Fight the Dust Bowl

It was a disaster of mankind’s own making. By the 1930s, chronic overfarming in the Great Plains had devastated the native grasses that had held topsoils in place. As the plants were uprooted, the dirt dried and loosened, setting the stage for an environmental catastrophe.

In 1931, a drought hit the region—it would last eight years—and the exposed soil was blown away by a series of gigantic dust storms. Mountain-sized dirt clouds became a common sight all over Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. Nobody who lived there had ever experienced anything like it: skies were blackened, barnyards were buried, and millions of farmers became homeless refugees. As the crisis raged on, people piped up with some wild ideas about how to finally put an end to this “dust bowl.” Here are five of the most peculiar suggestions.

1. PAVE OVER THE GREAT PLAINS.

Many well-meaning citizens assumed that if they could just cover up the loose dirt somehow, it would stop getting blown around so much. New Jersey’s Barber Asphalt Company reached out to the federal government and offered to pave over the afflicted area. Their price? Five dollars per acre. Sounds like a bargain—until you consider the fact that the dust bowl had engulfed around 100 million acres. Meanwhile, a Pittsburgh steel manufacturer wanted to install wire netting over multiple counties, and a company known as Sisalkraft proposed blanketing the ground with its rugged brand of waterproof paper. A similar idea involved laying concrete down over every field in the region and leaving a few holes for future crops.

2. COVER THE TERRAIN WITH BROKEN-DOWN CARS.

One North Carolinian’s suggestion ideally would have killed two birds with one stone. As environmental historian Donald Worster wrote in his book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, “Mrs. M.L. Yearby of Durham, North Carolina saw an opportunity to beautify her own state by shipping its junked autos out to the plains to anchor the blowing fields.”

3. BOMB THE SKY.


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Explosives expert Tex Thornton tried ending the drought with dynamite. In a sales pitch given to the citizens of Dalhart, Texas, he explained that if the explosive was launched skywards and detonated aerially, immediate rainfall would follow. Embracing Thornton’s idea, the town gave him $300 to cover his expenses. Judgment day came on May 1, 1935, when the would-be hero set up shop by a local lake. Thousands of curious onlookers watched from afar as Thornton tied balloons to his dynamite sticks, which had been fitted with timed fuses.

Things quickly went awry once a violent dust storm arrived on the scene. The high winds made it too dangerous for Thornton to even think about releasing the explosives, especially now that a crowd was present. So in a last-ditch effort to deliver the goods, he buried his dynamite and set it off under the ground. Thornton’s Plan B backfired spectacularly: The blast just propelled extra dirt into the dusty atmosphere.

After a few more attempts, rain did come to Dalhart—as well as in regions too far away to be affected by his explosions. A victorious Thornton left Dalhart supposedly saying, “I’m mighty glad that the people of Dalhart and the Panhandle got moisture—and if I had anything to do with it, I’m doubly glad."

4. USE DEAD REPTILES AS YARD DECOR.

Contemporary folklore claimed that if you hung a deceased snake belly-up over a fence post, it would rain the next morning. When all else failed, some farmers actually tried this during the dust bowl years. Ironically, live snakes would have been far more useful to them. Back then, famished jackrabbits regularly turned up in droves to devour the few crops that were still being grown on the Great Plains. In western Kansas, the situation was so bad that citizens responded by organizing what became known as “jackrabbit drives.” Those involved formed huge lines and marched side-by-side for miles on end. Using their own bodies, they’d corral every rabbit in sight into an enclosure and club them to death. Yet if the species’ natural predators—like certain snakes—had been a bit more common, this drastic measure might not have been necessary. Who knows?

5. BRING THE RAIN WITH A FAUX MILITARY BATTLE.

Many of the more intense showdowns in the American Civil War, including Gettysburg, were followed by severe rainfall. This and other accounts over the years helped give rise to the once widespread belief that artillery caused downpours—a notion that was still fairly pervasive in the 1930s (and was broadly the same hypothesis that Thornton was working with).

One soldier from Denver petitioned the federal government for $20 million worth of ammunition, after which he would round up 40,000 members of the Civilian Conservation Corps for a couple of phony battles. After some non-lethal cannon fire, the rains would return—or at least, that was the plan.

“Try it, if it works, send me a check for $5000 for services rendered,” wrote the soldier.

This story originally ran in 2016.

The Kansas Shoe Salesman Responsible for Veterans Day

Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The reason we celebrate Veterans Day on November 11th dates back to 1918, when an armistice between the Allies and Germany was signed that essentially ended World War I. The first Armistice Day was celebrated the following November 11th.

World War I was billed as the war to end all wars, but of course it didn't. So by the 1950s, with so many American men and women veterans of World War II and the conflict in Korea, some thought the term "Armistice Day" was outdated.

A NEW DAY

There's a shoe salesman from Emporia, Kansas, who probably isn't in many history books, but he deserves at least a paragraph.

In the early 1950s, a gentleman by the name of Alvin King thought Armistice Day was too limiting. He'd lost family in World War II, and thought all American veterans of all wars should be honored on November 11th. He formed a committee, and in 1953 Emporia, Kansas, celebrated Veterans Day.

Ed Rees, Emporia's local congressman, loved the idea and took it to Washington. President Eisenhower liked King's idea, too. In 1954, Eisenhower formally changed November 11th to Veterans Day and invited some of Emporia's residents to be there when he signed the bill. King was one of those invited, but there was one problem: he didn't own a nice suit. His veteran friends chipped in and bought him a proper suit and paid his way from Kansas to the White House.

In 2003, Congress passed a resolution declaring Emporia, Kansas to be the founding city of Veterans Day.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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