Litquake author reveals SF legacy of martial arts master Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee was known for Hong Kong moves and Hollywood glamour, but not many people know about his deep San Francisco roots.

“Bruce Lee is one of the most famous people in the world,” says Charles Russo, author of the new book “Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America,” yet “his local legacy isn’t known or celebrated at all here.”

Russo is sharing that legacy — along with rare photographs of the film icon’s early years — on Oct. 13 as part of the nine-day Litquake literary festival, which opens Oct 7.

Lee’s story begins in 1940 at Chinese Hospital in Chinatown, where his father, Hong Kong opera star Lee Hoi-chuen, was touring.

“This was at a time when there was no Chinese immigration to the U.S. because of very strict immigration laws,” Russo says. After a few months, the family returned to Hong Kong, where Lee began honing his martial arts skills in the high-intensity street-fighting scene.

By the late 1950s, a teenage Lee had “essentially gravitated back to the Bay Area, because it was where things were happening for the martial arts in America.”

While Hawaiian jujitsu artist Wally Jay and others were breaking ground in the East Bay, kung fu stalwarts like Lau Bun’s Choy Li Fut school ruled San Francisco.

“The old guard in Chinatown, they did not get on well with him,” Russo says. One of the old kung fu masters dismissed Lee as a “dissident with bad manners.”

“He had a very realistic approach to what worked within the martial arts, versus what was sort of just flamboyant embellishment,” Russo says. “He pushed for it with little regard for the egos that he was damaging,” including in a full-contact showdown with local master Wong Jack Man in 1964.

“Bruce really found a more like-minded crowd over in Oakland,” Russo says. Lee set up schools there before taking a role in TV’s “The Green Hornet” and continuing to film stardom.

While researching “Striking Distance,” Russo found “a treasure trove of forgotten history” that was about to disappear.

“The first two guys that I interviewed were 94 and 88. I very quickly realized the window was closing, as far as being able to talk to people who were there and experienced this all firsthand,” he says.

Several sources, including Lee’s friend George Lee and Chinatown insider James Wing Woo, have died since their interviews.

Russo is currently putting together a walking tour of Chinatown’s martial arts landmarks (check his website,, for updates). Stops will include the Great Star Theater on Jackson Street, where Lee shot his film debut in director Esther Eng’s “Golden Gate Girl” when he was three or four months old. “He played the part of, unsurprisingly, a newborn baby,” Russo says.

One Lee landmark is noticeably absent, Russo notes.

“There are full-size statues of Bruce Lee on four different continents,” he says. “Los Angeles’ Chinatown has a statue of Bruce Lee. It’s a little puzzling to me that the city that he was born in doesn’t have like a mural or even some sense of that history.”

Lee — who died of a cerebral edema in 1973 at age 32, days before the release of his fourth feature film, “Enter the Dragon” — left a more lasting legacy on celluloid.

“To me, ‘Enter the Dragon’ is where Bruce Lee really hit his stride,” Russo says. “It’s almost frustrating to watch, because it makes me think, ‘Wow, can you imagine what he would have gone on to do after?’”

Striking Distance: Bruce Lee in the Bay Area
Presented by Litquake
Where: American Bookbinders Museum, 355 Clementina St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 13
Tickets: $10


Shakespeare@400-Litquake Opening Night Gala: Poet Gary Soto, Celtic harpist Shelley Phillips, a performance by San Francisco Shakespeare Festival and refreshments kick off 2016 festivities. 8 p.m. Oct. 7, $30-$35. Green Room, Veterans Building, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

GONZO-50 Years of Hunter S. Thompson: Family, friends and contemporaries of the late journalist pay tribute to his legacy, accompanied by a screening of ESPN short film “Gonzo @ The Derby” and an airing of Thompson’s many voice mails to sexpert-editor Susie Bright. 8 p.m. 8 p.m., Oct. 8, $20-$25. Swedish American Hall, 2174 Market St., S.F.

Riding Out Doomsday-Michelle Tea with Daniel Handler: Novelist-poet-performer Tea discusses her latest book, “Black Wave,” with fellow San Francisco native Handler, aka “A Series of Unfortunate Events” author Lemony Snicket. 7 p.m. Oct. 9, $15-$20, American Bookbinders Museum, 355 Clementina St., S.F.

An Evening With Terry McMillan
: The best-selling “Waiting to Exhale” author discusses her new book “I Almost Forgot About You” with novelist Ellen Sussman. 7 p.m. Oct. 11, $15. Swedish American Hall, 2174 Market St., S.F.

Lit Crawl: Raise a glass, unwrap a burrito or make a discreet purchase at Good Vibrations while supporting the literary arts as quirky Mission district venues host readings (and more) showcasing some 400 authors. 6 to 9:30 p.m., Oct. 15, free. Varied locations, many in the Mission

Lit Crawl After Party: The City’s biggest literary bash offers cocktails, swag and dancing to DJ music. 9:30 p.m., free. Chapel, 777 Valencia St., S.F.

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