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.

12 Facts About Shirley Chisholm, The First African-American to Run For President

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Being the first black woman to serve on Congress would be a significant enough accomplishment for a lifetime, but it wasn’t good enough for Shirley Chisholm. Three years after she arrived in Washington, D.C., Chisholm became the first woman to run for president for the Democratic party. When announcing her intention to seek the nomination on January 25, 1972, Chisholm stated, “I’m a revolutionary at heart now and I’ve got to run, even though it might be the downfall of my career.”

Though her campaign was controversial at times, it wasn’t the downfall of her long and noteworthy career. And she's still making headlines. In late 2018, Oscar-winner Viola Davis announced that she would be producing and starring in The Fighting Shirley Chisholm, a biopic chronicling Chisholm's amazing life. On January 21, 2019—nearly 50 years after Chisholm announced her presidential run—California senator Kamala Harris announced her own 2020 presidential run and unveiled her campaign logo, which pays tribute to Chisholm.

Here are a few things to know about this bold educator-turned-politician.

1. She had international roots.

On November 30, 1924, Shirley Anita St. Hill was born in Brooklyn, New York to Ruby Seale and Charles St. Hill. Her mother was a domestic worker who immigrated to the U.S. from Barbados; her father, a factory worker, was originally from Guyana.

2. She was born in Brooklyn, but had a slight English accent.

In 1928, Chisholm and her two sisters were sent to live with their grandmother in Barbados, while her parents stayed in New York and worked through the Great Depression. Chisholm attended a one-room schoolhouse on this island in the West Indies. In addition to receiving a British education, she picked up an accent, which remained slight but noticeable throughout her life.

3. Education had a significant impact on her life.


Library of Congress

Chisholm returned to the U.S. in March 1934 at age 9 and resumed with a public-school education. Following high school, she studied sociology at Brooklyn College and earned her BA in 1946. (She was a prize-winning debater in college, a skill that would serve her well throughout her political career.) She continued her education at Columbia University and earned an MA in early childhood education in 1952. While she was still a student at Columbia, she began teaching at a nursery school and married Conrad Chisholm in 1949. They would later divorce in 1977.

4. Her first career was as an educator.

After working at the nursery school, Chisholm worked her way through the teaching ranks and by 1953 was the director of two day care centers, a position she held until 1959. Her expertise and experience led to her role as an educational consultant for New York City’s Division of Day Care from 1959 through 1964.

5. Her political career was revolutionary from the beginning.

Chisholm was a member of the League of Women Voters and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League before she ran for the New York State Assembly in 1964. When she won, Chisholm became the second African-American woman to serve on the state legislature. From 1965 to 1968, Chisholm served as a Democratic member and focused on unemployment benefits for domestic workers and education initiatives.

6. Redistricting inspired her run for Congress.

Chisholm with Rosa Parks (L) between 1960 and 1970.
Chisholm with Rosa Parks (L)
Library of Congress

Chisholm set her sights on Congress when redistricting efforts gave Brooklyn a new congressional district. Not one to shy away from the public, Chisholm used to drive through neighborhoods while announcing, “This is fighting Shirley Chisholm coming through.” She defeated three candidates in the primary election, including a state senator, before defeating well-known civil rights activist James Farmer in the general election. This victory made her the first African-American woman elected to Congress, and she would go on to serve seven terms.

7. She had a way with words and established herself as outspoken and ready for change early in her first term.

She was known for her bold declarations. After her upset victory in the congressional election, she boasted, "Just wait, there may be some fireworks." And she delivered on that promise. Given her campaign slogan “Unbought and unbossed,” it should come as no surprise that Chisholm quickly made her presence known in Congress. She spoke out against the Vietnam War within the first few months of her arrival and said she would vote against military spending. When she was initially relegated to the House Agricultural Committee, she requested a new assignment, claiming that she didn’t think she could best serve her Brooklyn constituents from that position.

After directly addressing House Speaker John McCormack on the matter, she was reassigned to Veterans’ Affairs, and then moved to the Education and Labor Committee in 1971. True to her desire to bring about change, Chisholm hired all women for her office, half of whom were African-American. She was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as the National Women’s Political Caucus.

8. Her presidential campaign was unexpected and historic.

Chisholm formally announced her intention to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in January 1972, making her the first African-American to run for a major party and the first woman to vie for the Democratic nomination. During her speech, which she delivered in her hometown of Brooklyn, Chisholm said, "I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that...I am the candidate of the people of America, and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history."

Although her campaign wasn’t as well-funded as her competitors’, Chisholm did get her name on the primary ballot in 12 states and won 28 delegates in primary elections. She received about 152 delegates at the Democratic National Convention, coming in fourth place for the party.

9. The campaign trail was full of challenges.

Political buttons from the collection of Alix Kates Shulman
Political buttons from the collection of Alix Kates Shulman
Polly Shulman

Chisholm likely expected challenges during her campaign, and she certainly encountered a fair amount. She received multiple threats against her life, including assassination attempts, and was granted Secret Service protection to ensure her safety. Chisholm also had to sue to be included in televised debates.

There was even controversy where there could have been encouragement. Her decision to run for the Democratic nomination caught many members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) off-guard, and they weren’t happy that she acted before a formal and unified decision could be made. But Chisholm was done with waiting; when the subject of the CBC came up on the night she announced her campaign, she told the crowd, “While they’re rapping and snapping, I’m mapping.”

10. She had an unlikely supporter in George Wallace.

Chisholm was well aware that her biggest source of support came from women and minorities and often advocated on their behalf, so it shocked many of her supporters and constituents when she visited political rival George Wallace after an assassination attempt sent him to the hospital—and ultimately left him paralyzed—in 1972. Wallace, who was governor of Alabama, was known for his racist comments and segregationist views, but Chisholm checked on him. She said she never wanted what happened to him to happen to anybody else.

Ultimately, their friendship benefited the public when Wallace came through for Chisholm on an important piece of legislation in 1974. She was working on a bill that would give domestic workers the right to a minimum wage. Wallace convinced enough of his fellow Southern congressmen to vote in favor of the bill, moving it through the House.

11. Following retirement, Chisholm didn’t slow down.

Chisholm retired from Congress in 1982, but leaving the political arena didn’t mean she was done making a difference. Although she planned on spending more time with her second husband, Arthur Hardwick Jr., she also returned to teaching at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and continued to speak at colleges across the country.

Chisholm passed away on January 1, 2005 at age 80 in Ormond Beach, Florida. She is buried in Buffalo, New York, and the inscription on the mausoleum vault in which she is buried reads “Unbought and Unbossed.”

12. She continues to garner accolades for her trailblazing work.

Chisholm was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. In 2014, the U.S. Postal Service debuted the Shirley Chisholm Forever Stamp as part of the Black Heritage Series. A year later, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and now Viola Davis will star in a movie about her life. But Chisholm never doubted what legacy she wanted to leave behind, once saying, “I want history to remember me ... not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.”

An earlier version of this article ran in 2017.

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