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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.

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Instead of Lighting Fireworks, People in This Chinese Village Celebrate by Flinging Molten Iron
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Fireworks are a cultural symbol in China, but they weren't always easy to obtain. In a village in Yu County, China, people use a 500-year-old trick to achieve the same effect as fireworks with cheaper pyrotechnics.

This video from Great Big Story highlights the Chinese art of Da Shuhua, or splattering molten iron against walls to produce a fireworks-like shower of sparks. It started in the village of Nuanquan in the 16th century as a way for poor residents to imitate the expensive fireworks shows enjoyed by rich people in different parts of the country. Blacksmiths noticed that molten iron burst into dazzling sparks whenever it hit the ground and thought to recreate this phenomenon on a much larger scale. The townspeople loved it and began donating their scrap metal to create even grander displays.

Today, Da Shuhua is more than just a cheap alternative to regular fireworks: It's a cherished tradition to the people of Nuanquan. The village remains the only place in China to witness the art as it was done centuries ago—the people who practice it even wear the same traditional cotton and sheepskin garments to protect their skin from the 2900°F drops of metal flying through the air. As Wang De, who's been doing Da Shuhua for 30 years, says in the video below, "If you wear firefighter suits, it just doesn't feel right."

[h/t Great Big Story]

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Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
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10 Radiant Facts About Marie Curie
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland in 1867, Marie Curie grew up to become one of the most noteworthy scientists of all time. Her long list of accolades is proof of her far-reaching influence, but not every stride she made in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine was recognized with an award. Here are some facts you might not know about the iconic researcher.

1. HER PARENTS WERE TEACHERS.

Maria Skłodowska was the fifth and youngest child of two Polish educators. Her parents placed a high value on learning and insisted all their children—even their daughters—receive a quality education at home and at school. Maria received extra science training from her father, and when she graduated from high school at age 15, she was first in her class.

2. SHE HAD TO SEEK OUT ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION FOR WOMEN.

After collecting her high school diploma, Maria had hoped to study at the University of Warsaw with her sister, Bronia. Because the school didn't accept women, the siblings instead enrolled at the Flying University, a Polish college that welcomed female students. It was still illegal for women to receive higher education at the time so the institution was constantly changing locations to avoid detection from authorities. In 1891 she moved to Paris to live with her sister, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne to continue her education.

3. SHE'S THE ONLY PERSON TO WIN NOBEL PRIZES IN TWO SEPARATE SCIENCES.

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Agence France Presse, Getty Images

In 1903, Marie Curie made history when she won the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre, and with physicist Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, making her the first woman to receive the honor. The second Nobel Prize she took home in 1911 was even more historic. With that win in the chemistry category, she became the first person of any gender to win the award twice. She remains the only person to ever receive Nobel Prizes for two different sciences.

4. SHE ADDED TWO ELEMENTS TO THE PERIODIC TABLE.

The second Nobel Prize she received recognized her discovery and research of two elements: radium and polonium. The former element was named for the Latin word for "ray" and the latter was a nod to her home country, Poland.

5. NOBEL PRIZE-WINNING RUNS IN HER FAMILY.

Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Central Press, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, won their Nobel Prize in 1903, their daughter Irène was only 6 years old. She would grow up to follow in her parents' footsteps by jointly winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1935. They were recognized for their discovery of "artificial" radioactivity, a breakthrough made possible by Irène's parents years earlier. Marie and Pierre's other son-in-law, Henry Labouisse, who married their younger daughter, Ève Curie, accepted a Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of UNICEF, of which he was the executive director, in 1965. This brought the family's total up to five.

6. SHE DID HER MOST IMPORTANT WORK IN A SHED.

The research that won Marie Curie her first Nobel Prize required hours of physical labor. In order to prove they had discovered new elements, she and her husband had to produce numerous examples of them by breaking down ore into its chemical components. Their regular labs weren't big enough to accommodate the process, so they moved their work into an old shed behind the school where Pierre worked. According to Curie, the space was a hothouse in the summer and drafty in the winter, with a glass roof that didn't fully protect them from the rain. After the famed German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald visited the Curies' shed to see the place where radium was discovered, he described it as being "a cross between a stable and a potato shed, and if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke."

7. HER NOTEBOOKS ARE STILL RADIOACTIVE.

Marie Curie's journals
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When Marie was performing her most important research on radiation in the early 20th century, she had no idea the effects it would have on her health. It wasn't unusual for her to walk around her lab with bottles of polonium and radium in her pockets. She even described storing the radioactive material out in the open in her autobiography. "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products[…] The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

It's no surprise then that Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, likely caused by prolonged exposure to radiation, in 1934. Even her notebooks are still radioactive a century later. Today they're stored in lead-lined boxes, and will likely remain radioactive for another 1500 years.

8. SHE OFFERED TO DONATE HER MEDALS TO THE WAR EFFORT.

Marie Curie had only been a double-Nobel Laureate for a few years when she considered parting ways with her medals. At the start of World War I, France put out a call for gold to fund the war effort, so Curie offered to have her two medals melted down. When bank officials refused to accept them, she settled for donating her prize money to purchase war bonds.

9. SHE DEVELOPED A PORTABLE X-RAY TO TREAT SOLDIERS.

Marie Curie circa 1930
Marie Curie, circa 1930.
Keystone, Getty Images

Her desire to help her adopted country fight the new war didn't end there. After making the donation, she developed an interest in x-rays—not a far jump from her previous work with radium—and it didn't take her long to realize that the emerging technology could be used to aid soldiers on the battlefield. Curie convinced the French government to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and persuaded her wealthy friends to fund her idea for a mobile x-ray machine. She learned to drive and operate the vehicle herself and treated wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Marne, ignoring protests from skeptical military doctors. Her invention was proven effective at saving lives, and ultimately 20 "petite Curies," as the x-ray machines were called, were built for the war.

10. SHE FOUNDED CENTERS FOR MEDICAL RESEARCH.

Following World War I, Marie Curie embarked on a different fundraising mission, this time with the goal of supporting her research centers in Paris and Warsaw. Curie's radium institutes were the site of important work, like the discovery of a new element, francium, by Marguerite Perey, and the development of artificial radioactivity by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie. The centers, now known as Institut Curie, are still used as spaces for vital cancer treatment research today.

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