Shannon Lee on Bruce Lee’s legacy and how their family dealt with racism
The martial artist’s daughter discusses the ESPN documentary ‘Be Water’
Shannon Lee was only 4 years old when Bruce Lee died in 1973. But the daughter of the famous Chinese American martial artist and worldwide movie legend can still feel her father’s presence today.
“I was very young when my father died, but I remember this feeling of him and the feeling of his love. And I still feel it, and this beautiful wisdom, and positivity, and energy that made up him,” Lee, 51, recently told The Undefeated.
“And at times, I have felt like I had big shoes to fill and that I wasn’t good enough or strong enough. And I think that is probably the human condition in all of us, and compounded slightly by having this superawesome figure as a father. But his own philosophy on self-actualization, on just trying to be the best version of yourself and not trying to copy anybody else or walk in anyone else’s shoe, is definitely something I return to again and again.”
Bruce Lee’s story will be told in the upcoming ESPN documentary, Be Water, which airs at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday. The documentary takes viewers on a trip through Bruce Lee’s life from childhood, chronicles the racism he fought in America and Hong Kong in his road to becoming a movie star, and also delves into his background as a martial arts instructor and philosopher before his death at the age of 32.
Shannon Lee took part in a Q&A session with The Undefeated about her father’s legacy and Be Water.
How excited are you for the world to finally see Be Water?
It’s been an interesting journey. In this particular piece, Bao Nguyen, the filmmaker, had been wanting to do a documentary on my father for many years. And we had at one point been talking about working together to do one. And then for whatever reason, that drifted away for a little while. And then he came back around with ESPN and 30 for 30.
I didn’t produce the documentary or anything. But he is a friend and I know he’s passionate about the subject matter. And so, when this opportunity came around, I was happy to be supportive as much as possible.
What do you think this documentary will do in terms of awareness of your father and his story?
It’s wonderful that this is on the ESPN platform. That my father’s life, and struggle, and philosophy will get to reach to a whole segment of the population that are sports fans, that are interested in challenges of all sorts. And I think that the point of view of the film is really beautifully done in portraying, in a way that other documentaries haven’t, about other struggles with institutional racism, and finding his way, and how to champion himself continuously in an environment that was extremely challenging.
And I must say my father was a fan of sports of all kinds, which I believe Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] says in the documentary. And he really was. He studied movements, generally. He was interested in biomechanics, and kinesiology, and physics like the laws of motion, not astrophysics or anything like that. So, he was a fan of physical challenge, mental challenge and challenges of the spirit, of how to live life. So, this platform is perfect for him. And I’m excited for audiences to get to have a closer relationship with him.
What do you think your father would think about the current state of the world as it relates to George Floyd’s death, police brutality and the inequality of America?
It’s hard for me to say definitively and specifically what my father would be doing right now in this moment. He faced plenty of prejudice in his day, as the documentary speaks about, but I want to acknowledge it was not on the level of the experience of African Americans who have been intentionally targeted, marginalized and literally suffocated in this country. My father was disgusted by racism, prejudice, ‘us versus them’ mentality, exclusion and bullies. He liked genuine, hardworking people and cherished people’s differences as the things that made them unique individuals.
From his own words, I can tell you he believed in the oneness of all things, the equality of man, personal responsibility, self-examination, helping your neighbor and that we are all one family on this earth.
How much racism do you think stayed in the way of your father’s success?
It was a huge factor … from the Hollywood standpoint, for sure. It’s mentioned in the doc — even though he got the part as Kato in The Green Hornet, he didn’t have many lines, initially. And he was relegated to always having to fight for any amount of significance in a role that he did. … He had to fight so hard to prove himself and his ability, and try to show all of these different people that he had value and that he had worth. And from a Hollywood standpoint, it was definitely an extremely systemic issue, and remains so to this day, even though strides have been made.
But also, on the martial arts side. They don’t get into it so much in this film, but my father had a policy of teaching anyone who was interested. He just didn’t believe in categorizing people by virtue of their race, or their gender, or their religion, or any of it. Right? And his own community had backlashed against him as well, for those reasons, and for not being 100% Chinese. So, it played a big role in his life. But primarily, it was fuel for his fire.
What doors did your father open as an Asian pioneer in the Hollywood industry?
He definitely, through 1970s, blew the doors off of this notion that an Asian cannot be a strong lead in Hollywood. Unfortunately, because he passed away, I think there was a lot of strides that were lost. Because there was not a way for him to continue to set the stage for that. But I do think he did that back then, and did bust through a lot of stereotypes about Asians and Asian men, and all of that back then.
I do think that there is still a ways to go. Obviously, we’ve had a couple of better years with representation, but it’s still got a long ways to go with. … There’s still a heavy dependency on a white lead to carry and get the financial backing for projects.
Why do you think black America loves him so much?
From my perspective, he was a nonwhite hero who, in a lot of his films, was setting himself up from the story perspective to take on, in some instances like in the fight in Way of the Dragon against Chuck Norris, sort of like him going up against this strong white adversary. And I also know that his films were readily more accessible in urban neighborhoods growing up. And so, there was more access to him. And he really had so much style, so much strength … and I think a lot of people see themselves in him.
What did you think about your father’s fascination with Muhammad Ali and his footwork?
My father loved Muhammad Ali. He would watch his films, and he would sometimes run them backward so that he could see them in the other direction, because my father fought strong side forward. … And he loved the sweet science of boxing. The minimal number of tools to work with. He loved Muhammad Ali’s work. And it’s such a shame that they never got to share any time together. I think it would have been fascinating.
My father was a huge fan of a number of boxers. He had a number of boxing books in his collection, and he even wrote letters to some of the boxers of the day, just sort of asking them questions and things.
Have you talked much with NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who your father taught?
I have not really. We’ve talked on the phone a couple of times. I would love to spend time with him and talk with him. He is so intelligent. And I would love to be able to sit with him and really hear his stories. We have pictures from when we were kids of him picking my brother up and putting him on the roof of our house. He would be over in the backyard training, and all that. But I was just a baby at the time.
Your father also studied philosophy at the University of Washington and was known for his thought-provoking quotes on society. Can you talk about his philosophical mind?
It’s really important. It’s one of the things I try to get across in supporting my father’s legacy, is how much of a philosopher he really was. And not just did he sort of preach philosophy, he lived his philosophy. And, in fact, he incorporated it into his martial arts deeply. But also into his life.
So, everything was a bit of an experiment for him. He was talking about being like water. He was also attempting to exemplify that in his martial arts and in the way he lived his life. So, it’s a huge foundation for his success, for his strength of mind, for his ability to rise up and keep going, as it were.
One of his notable quotes was, “I want to think of myself as a human being … under the sky, under the heaven. It just so happened that people are different.” How did he gain that mindset?
My father gained that perspective over his lifetime. He was born in the United States, but he grew up in Hong Kong. When he moved back to Hong Kong, it was occupied by the Japanese in World War II. And then it was under British rule all that time when he was growing up. He himself was coming up against racism even within his own art of Wing Chun kung fu, when he was expelled from his school once the other students found out that he was not a 100% Chinese, but he had some European blood.
And then he came to the United States where he was enthusiastic and an avid and experimental learner. He didn’t want to be categorized or held back himself for the things that he wanted to do and wanted to pursue. And I think he just felt like racism was essentially a tradition that is just passed down without question from one generation to the next. He was a person who likes to question these traditions, and buck the status quo if it was not in integrity.
So, I think that’s where he came from, that was just a lifetime of not wanting to be limited. And wanting to give that experience. And even later, like at that moment in the interview when he says, ‘I want to think of myself as a human being.’ People are always trying to categorize you, ‘Well, are you this? Or are you this?’ And he’s like, ‘People just happen to be different.’ All of our differences, like our background, where we come from, our customs are, those are just the flavors of us. But at the core, we’re all very much the same. We’re all human.
As a family, even after your father’s passing, it seemed like there was also a lot of racism that your mom dealt with being white. How did your family deal with racism?
This is something that I take from my father, which my mother has also taken from my father. He was just so good at not getting down on that level. Obviously, you want to speak out when confronted with anybody who is being caustic or marginalizing in that way. But one of the great things that I take from my father was that he was very good at just rising above, continuing to be himself, looking people in the eye, moving forward no matter what, finding a way. Which is why I think the film is called Be Water. It’s why my book is called Be Water, My Friend. It is about just continuing to flow and push downstream toward your goals, toward your dreams. And you know, when people have been rude or distasteful to my family, to my mother, to myself, whatever, obviously it’s hurtful. And at the same time, that is their sickness, not mine.
What is your main focus in life today?
I have dabbled in many things. I have a degree in vocal performance. I was a classically trained singer for a minute. I’ve done a little bit of music here and there. I acted for a little while. But my main things of the last almost 20 years has been cleaning up, looking after, protecting and promoting my father’s legacy. And I do that because of the value that I see in his legacy from the mental, physical, spiritual side of it all.
That said, I’m producing projects. I just wrote a book, actually, that’s coming out this fall, called Be Water, My Friend, which is all about my father’s philosophical teaching, and to use it in your own life, and how he used them. And I told some stories about him and about me. But mostly, what I have been doing is that I’m raising a beautiful daughter.
Your father also was a director and writer in the early 1970s. Do you think that’s something his followers should know more about?
Definitely. My father wrote, directed, starred, and choreographed and produced Way of the Dragon. He was headed to do the same on Game of Death. He was the choreographer, star, and uncredited writer and producer on Enter the Dragon. Many of the key scenes in Enter the Dragon that people love, the finger-pointing at the moon, they are fighting without fighting, he wrote those scenes, and in fact, fought for them to be in the movie very, very hard.
And he was an entrepreneur. He set up a production company within Golden Harvest Studios called Concord Production. Concord Productions produced Enter the Dragon, on behalf of Golden Harvest, alongside Warner Brothers. He was the first to bring that sort of model to Hong Kong, certainly. And he influenced greatly Hong Kong film industry, as well as Hollywood film industry, with his approach to filmmaking and his approach to martial arts fighting on screen, and storytelling.
And he was extremely creative. We did a show called Warrior for Cinemax. Season two will be coming out this fall. That is based on an idea that my father wrote and created. And I have a number more of those types of things in our archives. And anyone who works in Hollywood, especially if they’re like a writer or filmmaker, when they read some of these treatments, they’re like, ‘Wow, this is really good.’ Like, ‘This is really well-written.’ I’m like, ‘Thank you.’ But obviously, that’s not what people are thinking. They’re surprised that that is well-written. My father was extremely creative, extremely self-educated.
What do you think of the timing of this documentary with the racism that is going on for Chinese people and Asians during the COVID-19 pandemic?
I think and hope that it will be extremely beneficial during this time. Racism across the board is a horrible practice. And in particular during COVID, and the attacks that have been made on Asian people. And it has been terrible and uncalled-for. And not that it’s ever called for to attack another person. But I just do hope that the timing of this is good timing, to open people’s eyes a little bit more to systemic racism, and to interpersonal racism. … So yes, if this can be in any way influencing in that regard, that would be phenomenal. And I hope that it can be.
You have a podcast about your father. What do you want listeners to get from it?
It’s called the Bruce Lee Podcast. … There is a treasure trove of 130-something episodes in there for people to listen to. And it is what we call an applied philosophy podcast. But we have a lot of fun. We laugh a lot, we talk, tell stories. We’ve had my mom on it a handful of times, as well as a handful of other guests. We talked about my father’s philosophy … which is why when I say, ‘He was a philosopher,’ like, for real. We break it down, and talk about how you can use it, what he meant by it.
What does your father’s legacy mean to you?
My father’s legacy is extremely nutritive to me. It feels like food. It feels like fuel. It has sparked my imagination. It has helped me to be a better person. It has made my heart beat wildly in interesting ways, whether that was because I was learning martial arts, or whether that was because I was just full of life, and energy, and love.
I think, sometimes, it’s been challenging for me to separate my identity from his, in some ways. But at the same time, I think we’re all striving to understand who we are, and promote and cultivate our true selves and our own identities. And so, in a lot of ways, it’s no different than anyone else. And because I find so much value and so much nutrition in who he was as a human being, and his words, I’m grateful to have that be a part of who I am also.