Bruce Lee is Hollywood’s most famous martial arts master, even though he only starred in a few films. Even a chess set was made in his world-famous image.

Bruce Lee in his yellow tracksuit from the movie Game of Death, and Bruce Lee as the masked Kato from series The Green Hornet. These are some examples of chess pieces from the Bruce Lee chess set, which is part of the Rademaker Collection. The star actor also plays the leading role in his own chess game. Despite the fact that Bruce Lee only reached the age of 32 and died in 1973, the martial artist is far from being forgotten.

Accidental American

Eighty years ago, on 27 November, 1940, the famous actor and martial artist Bruce Lee was born. This happened to be in San Francisco, where his Chinese parents were on tour with their travelling opera company. They named their son Lee Yun Fan, but the nurse at the hospital where the boy was born wrote down Bruce Lee on the birth certificate. Due to these circumstances, the Chinese boy was given a Western name and American citizenship, which would come in handy later in life.

A young Bruce Lee in his first leading roll in Chinese cinema (1950).

After several months of being on tour, the opera company returned home to Hong Kong, where Bruce Lee grew up together with his four siblings. Father Lee taught his son Kung Fu and the boy had a talent for it. And not just for Kung Fu, Bruce was an athletic boy anyway and excelled at all kinds of sports, from boxing to dancing. Hailing from a family of entertainers with connections in the Chinese film world, Bruce came into contact with acting at a young age: he got his first part when he was just a baby. This combination of acting and Kung Fu would turn out to be essential for the rest of his life.


Kung Fu is not just a sport, it is a way of life. Bruce Lee began studying this martial art in his early teens. He had learned the basics from his father and he wanted to know more about the philosophical traditions surrounding Kung Fu, which originated in India, and is older than Christianity. Once he reached adulthood, he studied philosophy at the University of Washington, where he even wrote his essays on Kung Fu. These were not so much about the physical aspect as about a balanced mind.

When Bruce was eighteen, his parents sent him to stay with relatives in America, because he got into more and more trouble fighting with Hong Kong street gangs. Thanks to his American citizenship, moving home was no problem. In addition to going to college, Bruce earned money teaching Kung Fu. He got more and more students and decided to quit his studies to set up his own school. This was what he wanted to do with his life!

Personal style

Bruce Lee had read just about everything he could find about Kung Fu – he would leave one of the largest collections of martial art books – but, in his opinion, the techniques were actually not good enough when it came to actual fighting. Hence, Bruce Lee began to develop his own style, which he called Jeet Kune Do. The foundation of his style was simplicity, which makes it possible to achieve maximum results with a minimum of resources.

All in all, techniques should not be too cumbersome, everything unnecessary went out the window, and any strategy was acceptable in order to win. Lee allegedly claimed that 99 percent of all Eastern self-defence techniques were nonsense. They looked good, but that was about it. To paraphrase Lee: “The reality is that a lightly-built girl can only try to hit a giant of a man in the eyes, genitals and shins. Then she will have to run as fast as her legs can carry her.

First role

Bruce Lee playing Kato in the television series The Green Hornet (1966)

A renowned Kung Fu teacher, Bruce Lee was invited to give demonstrations at an international karate tournament in Long Beach. Hollywood noticed him and Lee was asked to come for a screen test. The teacher decided to get back into acting, but it took him a while to get his first role. In the meantime, he trained actors and stuntmen for film studios, and he had to deal with a lot of scepticism in those surroundings. How was this little, 60-kilo Chinese man supposed to teach them anything? But once they were facing him and getting a good beating, they would marvel at his technique.

In 1966, Lee finally got a part. He played Kato in the television series The Green Hornet, acting as the sidekick of a superhero. However, the viewers generally considered Kato to be the hero, with his tough fighting techniques. These kinds of roles, in which Lee had the upper hand in his fighting scenes, increased his fame and the applications at his Kung Fu school poured in. Among them were many then well-known actors who wanted to receive private lessons from Bruce Lee.

Despite his rising popularity, Bruce Lee did not get the coveted movie part he wanted. In the racist Hollywood of fifty years ago, he was unable to get leading roles and he was only allowed to appear on the scene as the stereotypical Chinese man with braided hair. He refused to settle for that. In Hong Kong, however, he was given the opportunity to make films. Although the quality of the films wasn’t very good, with bad scripts and dubious fight scenes, Lee considered them a stepping stone to Hollywood movies. Lee moved back to Hong Kong, this time with a family of his own: he had married his college girlfriend Linda by then, and they had become parents to a son and a daughter.

Films at last!

Bruce Lee and his friend Chuck Norris (at the right): togehther they starred in Way of the Dragon (1972) as well as on the chess board (Rademaker Collection).

While shooting his first action film Big Boss, Lee interfered with the script and rewrote the fight scenes. The film was released in 1971 and was an instant success. The following year, he shot his second fighting film in Hong Kong, Fist of Fury. Lee had become a big star in his homeland in no time at all and he went on to co-direct his third film, Way of the Dragon. He thought his first two movies were not good enough to show in America, even though that was the country where he wanted to continue his career as an actor.

He finally got the desired result. Film studio Warner Bros asked Lee to play the lead role as a martial artist in his first American film: Enter the dragon. Lee was extremely proud of the fact that this film would be released in America, Europe and Asia, and he could not wait to see how the film would be received by audiences and critics. However, he did not live to see the moment. Bruce Lee died just before the film´s premiere, possibly from brain swelling after suffering a heat stroke.

Ultimately, Enter the dragon would immortalise Bruce Lee, and his previous three action films, now dubbed in English, were released in the western world. These films are cult hits to this day and are still being aired on television as well. Bruce Lee has been gone for almost fifty years, but his image lives on in his films, and on the chessboard.

By Marjolein Overmeer