Tiger spirit

Although the dragon is more associated with Bruce Lee, he didn’t have much to show in the way of ornaments relating to the creature as he did with the tiger. The tiger skin that you see in the cover was purchased by Bruce during his trip to Hong Kong in 1970. More specifically, he bought it at a store in the Tsim Sha Tsui area of ​​Kowloon where he also purchased a large panther skin. His wife-cum-widow, Linda Lee, would end up displaying the tiger skin on a wall in one of her offices as seen in a 1999 documentary titled The Tale of the Dragon (a TV one-off produced by England’s Channel 4). Back to 1970, Bruce told Mitoshi Uyehara (the founder of the Black Belt magazine) about his purchase. The tiger cost $7000 whereas the panther cost $5000. Uyehara didn’t think that it was a wise decision given Bruce’s precarious financial situation, but Bruce assured him that these animals were becoming extinct, therefore the skins would be worth more than what he paid. Uyehara wasn’t convinced, so Bruce bragged to him that James Coburn offered $10,000 for the tiger but got turned down.



In 1971, Paramount offered Bruce the chance to star in his own TV series called Tiger Force. This was fitting since he wore Onitsuka Tiger training shoes in a Paramount series called Longstreet. Bruce was later rejected as the lead for a Warner Brothers TV series called Kung Fu where the pilot was to be titled The Way of the Tiger, The Sign of the Dragon. Coburn convinced Bruce that TV wouldn’t serve him in the way that a movie would. Bruce’s mother, Grace Ho, claimed that the star of Longstreet (James Franciscus) also told him this. Bruce’s first starring role was a Hong Kong movie that was released in the year of the tiger i.e. February 17, 1950 – February 5, 1951. My Son A-Chang, a.k.a. The Kid, was released in May. The next year of the tiger went from February 5, 1962 to January 24, 1963. In September, Bruce wrote a long letter to his former sweetheart, Pearl Tso, laying out the mission statement for his life. Keeping it brief, he said that his aim was to establish a Kung Fu institute that would be a U.S. success story in 10 to 15 years time.


Later on in the sixties, Bruce said that if the mind is totally free from thoughts and emotions then not even a tiger is capable of sticking in its ferocious nails. Little did he know about Raymond Chow’s reputation for being known as the smiling tiger. Long before he became Bruce’s boss at the Golden Harvest film studio, Chow had worked as a reporter for a Hong Kong paper known as Hong Kong Tiger Standard. Fast-forward to when Bruce became Hong Kong’s biggest movie star, the tabloids reported how they were on the verge of setting up a challenge match to see who was the better fighter between him and Jimmy Wang Yu. In 1965, Jimmy starred in a film called Tiger Boy (released in 1966). In 1971, a Singaporean newspaper called Fanfare used an analogy to describe how both men worked for the same company: “Each is King in his own jungle. It’s like persuading two proud tigers to live in the same cage peacefully.”



In early 1972, Lo Wei wanted to direct Bruce for the third time for a Japan-set film called A Man Called Tiger. Bruce didn’t want to do it because the script was not only lacking but barely existent, so he chose to direct his own movie: The Way of the Dragon (partially filmed in Italy). After this, Bruce wanted to make a Korea-set film titled Yellow-Faced Tiger. However, Lo wanted this title as compensation for Bruce poaching an actress (Nora Miao) for his directorial debut. Retitled The Game of Death, Bruce wore a yellow jumpsuit with a black stripe so as to hold on to the tiger theme. He even wore two types of Onitsuka Tiger shoes – Limber Up and Tiger Corsair. Some people in H.K. thought that Bruce might have initially got the idea of the pagoda plot from the seven-storeyed Tiger Pagoda in Tiger Balm Garden a.k.a. the Haw Par Villa. The name of the latter means the villa of the tiger and leopard i.e. the last names of the founder and his brother. Skipping ahead to the late seventies, Raymond Chow bankrolled a sequel where one of the final fighters is a leopard-adorned Korean named Yang Cheng-Wu.


His anglicized name is Tiger Yang, which is all the more fitting since he played a character called Tiger in a Bruceploitation film called Blind Fist of Bruce. Back to the sequel, there is a tiger skin and tiger figurine in a scene where, like Bruce in real life, Roy Horan drinks beef blood. Roy is even wearing a gold pendant like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s character in the original film. Speaking of which, one of the people who Bruce fought in the pagoda is a Filipino whose throne is decorated with the same tiger skin that Bruce had bought. This is odd since it would have been more fitting for the skin to be used on the Kung Fu floor since one of the styles of Kung Fu is the tiger claw. Dan Inosanto’s floor, meanwhile, should have used the panther skin since his character is dressed in black. However, the tiger does match Bruce’s suit and nunchaku along with the curtains. Despite how much The Game of Death meant to Bruce in terms of his philosophy (it’s a Jeet Kune Do propaganda film), this can’t have been his favourite production to work on. Since The Way of the Dragon didn’t involve any H.K. stuntmen, Bruce didn’t get challenged at all.


The Game of Death, on the other hand, was the second time that he did business with a Triad film company called Sing Hoi i.e. Star Sea (e.g. Stephen Chow Sing-Chi became a memorable star partially because of his name). Although they didn’t produce the movie, one of their martial arts actors – Chieh Yuen – was cast. Just like how Bruce’s previous film had a Sing Hoi comedy actor: Gam Dai. In between both productions, Bruce was roped in by his childhood friend – Unicorn Chan – to work on a Sing Hoi film called The Unicorn Palm (retitled much later as Fist of Unicorn). A 1972 article by Unicorn was reprinted in a 1978 Hong Kong book called The Immortal Dragon where he described Bruce’s personality as being as wild as a tiger but only in situations where he felt someone was being unreasonable or abusive. Back to The Game of Death, Bruce was playing a character named Hai Tien. This is a Mandarin name that translates to Cantonese as Hoi Tin. Tien or Tin means field, so the name represents the Sing Hoi and Golden Harvest companies.



While The Game of Death was filming, Chieh Yuen and Gam Dai were acting in a film called Tiger. Bolo Yeung was also in this film, and he can be seen on the pagoda set of The Game of Death during a photo shoot of a cigarette commercial for the Winstons brand in early December of 1972. Cheng Lei was also present. When the Shaw Brothers film studio were gaining some serious traction in the sixties, he became one of the key actors in Chinese martial arts movies. There was even a name for this group – The Five Tigers. The others being Jimmy Wang Yu, Lo Lieh, Chang Yi and Chieh Yuen. In the `60s and `70s, Shaw Brothers started the trend of hiring Japanese and Korean directors to work in Hong Kong, and Cheng Lei always appeared in those productions. He would have been ideal for The Game of Death since the movie had a Japanese cinematographer, and it was going to be partially filmed in South Korea. Cheng would later be seen in Sing Hoi’s The Chivalrous Knight, which began filming a month before Bruce died.


Another visitor to Bruce’s pagoda set was a Sing Hoi martial arts actor/gangster named Michael Chan Wai-Man. He was a professional kickboxer who most likely wanted to see if he could beat Bruce. December 1972 was a strange time for Bruce, and he may have felt his world getting smaller. In the latest issue of Cinemart, photos could be seen of Betty Ting Pei and Robert Chan Law-Bat working on the same movie: No Exit for Outlaws (which was released in March 1975 as A Debt of Crime). The significance being that Betty was his mistress, and Robert was his childhood friend who introduced him to bodybuilding. Bolo Yeung can also be seen in one of the photos. The connection between Bolo and Robert is that they were both bodybuilders. No Exit for Outlaws starred Lo Lieh, who was being directed by someone who he had acted with a few times: Richard Chen Chun.


What Michael Chan, Lo Lieh and Bolo have in common is that they later appeared in Bruceploitation films. In Cantonese slang, there are many sayings about tigers. “To pretend to be a pig and eat a tiger” might as well have been Raymond Chow’s motto. “To force a tiger to jump a wall” can mean two things – getting someone to do something that is beyond what they can do, or to unnecessarily provoke someone so as to elicit an aggressive response. Slanderous hearsay is a good way to get an angry person riled up, hence why Bruce Lee biographer George Tan described Chow as the master of divide and conquer for how he tried to put a wedge between Bruce and Lo Wei. The latter’s wife, Gladys Liu, was crucial in this because she had an affair with the married Chow. This reminds me of another Cantonese expression – tiger female: a belligerent woman.



Linda Lee is another such woman given how she hasn’t been the most generous when dealing with the Chinese side of the Lee family. In Cantonese culture, a gang leader is often known as a tiger, especially in the area where they hold power. Generally in Chinese culture, it is believed that you can’t have two tigers roaming the same mountain. Bruce may have provoked a tiger when he decided to film several scenes of Enter the Dragon in an area that was run by the Sun Yee On Triad. During the making of his second martial arts movie, Fist of Fury, Bruce resented Lo Wei for having to pay a Triad who ran a park that was needed for one scene. Many stuntmen in H.K. worked for the Triads. A stuntman is known as lung fu mo shi i.e. dragon tiger martial arts master. There’s even a scene in Bruce Lee: His Last Days, His Last Nights (1976) where Betty Ting Pei is accosted by a quintet of thugs wearing T-shirts with a tiger on the front and a nunchaku on the back. Bruce, himself, was part of a gang when he was a teenager in H.K. The gang was called The Eight Tigers of Junction Street. When talking about the leader of the Ten Tigers of Canton in the 19th century, David Chin said: “When hunting a tiger, destroy it. Otherwise, a wounded tiger will return to harm you.”


This logic might apply to Lui Kei. He did 27 movies with an actress named Connie Chan Po-Chu, and was in love with her but she didn’t want to ruin his marriage. Connie was an object of Bruce’s affections. Looking at the below photo of her, it’s easy to assume that Bruce purchased a tiger rug to impress her. When she retired in 1970, she moved to America where she did a play in Los Angeles. Before the play, she saw Bruce and they had dim sum together. This is according to an interview that she did for a memorial special that was filmed on the day of Bruce’s H.K. funeral (July 25, 1973) but shown a couple of months later. She mentioned that they were childhood friends. In 1972, she returned to H.K. to do a temporary comeback in the form of a Shaw Brothers movie called The Lizard. Photos of Bruce visiting her on the set and on other occasions in 1972 suggest that he had moved on from his infatuation with Betty Ting Pei. Connie’s godfather was Shek Kin. They did 81 films together. He was photographed alongside Bruce at the press conference for The Unicorn Palm in May 1972. Shek wasn’t going to act in the movie, so it would appear that his presence was to bolster Bruce. The fact that Shek was later cast in Enter the Dragon seems to suggest that Bruce owed him a favour, so brokered a deal.



Shek had been in many films where his character’s name was Tiger. Although Lui Kei had love for Connie Chan that would last for many years after 1970, even he knew when to back off. Lui did 13 films with Shek Kin but they didn’t act again after 1970. After Bruce split up with Betty in 1972, Lui directed her in Adultery Chinese Style. Chinese people are more sensitive about losing face than anyone else. Although Bruce was kind enough to pay medical fees to challengers who he defeated, no friendships were formed. “To let the tiger return to the mountain” means to let an enemy go and risk the fear of retribution. “If you go up the mountain often, you will run into a tiger” means keep taking risks and remain lucky until you get into trouble sooner or later. This can apply to someone who is either a drug addict or a gambling addict. Bruce was a drug addict who had an affair with a gambling addict: Betty. One time, she had lost money at the game of fantan. He had to literally deal with a local Triad dai lo (i.e. big brother) to pay off her debts. They met the dai lo and his associates on a Kowloon Tong side street. The dai lo sneered as the number one martial arts hero handed over the cash, and then gaped as Bruce used his index finger to pierce an unopened can of Coca-Cola.


Bruce handed the spurting can to the dai lo before driving away with Betty by his side. This is reminiscent of a Cantonese slang which goes “putting lice on a tiger’s head” – to provoke a powerful person or organization. In the August 1996 issue of Martial Arts Illustrated, Anders Nelsson confirmed that Bruce could be quite arrogant when it came to Triads challenging him. “To raise a tiger and court disaster” means to go into an arrangement that will end up causing one harm, especially if you support someone who will end up attacking you. Bruce dating Betty was a big mistake because she was an affiliate of the Sing Hoi film company. She has often been blamed for his death whether it be murder or manslaughter. Weeks after he died, she dated Charles Heung: a member of the Sun Yee On – they were rivals of the 14K Triad who Sing Hoi was affiliated with. In a 2009 book called Bruce Lee Conversations, William Cheung claimed that Betty had to marry a gangster because a hit had been placed on her since she knew too much about Bruce’s death. Like Betty, Sing Hoi actor Gam Dai came from Taiwan. He did 11 movies with her from 1973 to 1978.


“This night, beat old tigers” can sometimes mean “How are you?” because the Cantonese words “Gam mahn dah lo fu” sounds like a French saying – “Comment allez-vous?” In a 1991 Wong Jing movie called God of Gamblers III: Back to Shanghai, the protagonist is given this nickname by one of the female characters. Jing is a huge fan of Bruce, so he often incorporates this into his movies. In this movie, one of Bruce’s stuntmen – Peter Chan Lung – plays a gangster named Tiger Lui*. Jing also cast Tien Feng as the Shanghai Mayor since Fist of Fury took place in Shanghai, and Peter played a bully in that movie. “A powerful tiger is not equal to a local bug” means that local knowledge and contacts can defeat powerful opposition from outside. This joke applies to Jing’s movie because not only is the protagonist from out of town, he is out of time (i.e. he’s an accidental time traveller). The below photo was used in issue #175 of a H.K. movie magazine called The Milky Way Pictorial. It came out in October 1972. In September, a British TV series began airing. Titled The Protectors, the first episode reminded me of Bruce for a few reasons. The protagonist, played by Robert Vaughn, has a tiger rug. His assistant is like Kato in Bruce’s `60s TV series, The Green Hornet (a one season wonder).



Finally, a moment of fist violence near the end is shot similar to a Bruce Lee fight i.e. a point-of-view shot of someone being hit followed by a POV shot of the hitter. The man next to Bruce in the above photo is Wu Fung, who many years later had acted in a movie called Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon where Sammo Hung plays a detective who fights like Bruce and reads comic books instead of Bruce-themed magazines because there was a concern that Bruce’s estate would sue. Funny how that didn’t stop Sammo from doing what he did with Enter the Fat Dragon (1978). It reminds me of the double standards involving Bruce’s surname being silenced by the distributor of The Death of Bruce Lee (1975), but The Chivalrous Knight (1974) got away uncensored when it was screened in America with the opening featurette: The Last Day of Bruce Lee – a documentary produced by Sing Hoi and narrated by Betty. In Bey Logan’s 2018 book, Bruce Lee and I, he included an alternate account of Bruce’s death as relayed to him by a Sing Hoi producer named Fan Mei-Sheng. This man, a member of the 14K Triad who looks like Gam Dai, claimed that he was responsible for introducing Betty to Bruce in 1972.


As for what happened in 1973 on Bruce’s final night, Fan claimed that some guys had asked Bruce to meet up with them at Tak Hing Street under the pretext that Betty would also be there. There was a playground nearby, which suggested that something fun would take place. Once there, he was ambushed by men armed with rods who attacked him from behind**. Fan’s account of Bruce’s death reminds me of a nocturnal scene in Jackie Chan’s Police Story Part II (1988) where Jackie’s character is tricked into going into a playground where he is ambushed by similarly-armed thugs. There is a similar set-up in Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon (1990) where Carrie Ng’s character tells Fatty to meet her at a construction site where he is surrounded by gangsters armed with rods. It seems like the rod fight in Jackie’s movie had inspired Sammo to do his own kind of hint-dropping, especially since 1990 was going to be the fiftieth anniversary of Bruce’s birth. In the `70s, there were Bruceploitation movies with similar scenes. Fists of Bruce Lee had a nocturnal scene where Bruce Li is walking with his girlfriend before being besieged by thugs who chase them into a playground, whereas New Game of Death had a daytime scene where Bruce Li walks into a park before being chased into a playground.


No metal rods in either scene but the second scene has one thug armed with two bamboo rods. Bruce’s demise was announced towards the very end of July 20 (the 38th birthday of director Joseph Kuo), so most people in H.K. only knew about the death on July 21 – the 20th birthday of Sylvia Chang. She joined Golden Harvest in 1972 because of Lo Wei. She apparently had a crush on Bruce and once saw him holding the script of The Game of Death. According to the Chinese web, she lived in his “old home” but it’s not specified as to which one this was. Before he died, Sylvia had acted in two movies – The Flying Tiger and The Tattooed Dragon. The latter was a Jimmy Wang Yu movie directed by Lo Wei and produced by GH. After Bruce died, she acted in two more Lo Wei movies for GH – Chinatown Capers and Yellow-Faced Tiger. Chuck Norris, Bruce’s friend and on-screen combatant, was cast in the latter almost immediately after Bruce died. When GH decided in 1976 to make a movie starring Bruce’s younger brother, Robert, Sylvia was chosen to play his love interest. Nora Miao, Robert’s ex-girlfriend, could have been cast but she left GH in 1974.



Released in 1977, The Lady Killer features a few faces from Bruce’s movies: Li Kun, Gam Dai, Ng Ming-Choi and Stephen Tung. Interestingly, Robert believes that Bruce was murdered. July 20, 1973 was the 56th birthday of an actor named Hoh Ban. He acted in three movies with Betty – The Brain-Stealers (1968), The Yellow Muffler (1971) and Stock Fever (1973). He also also did four films with Taiwanese Triad actor Ko Chun-Hsiung: The Mystery of Jewellery (1971), Pei Shih (1972), Love is Smoke (1972) and Crimes Are to Be Paid (1972). Ko is pictured above with Betty. Hoh Ban did two movies with the aforementioned gangster, Michael Chan: The Chivalrous Knight (1974) and Bravest Fist (1974). This is of particular concern to me given how Sing Hoi produced The Chivalrous Knight and went out of their way to incorporate photos of Bruce into a scene just like they did with Fist of Unicorn. On December 11, 1981, Hoh died of a cerebral hemorrhage caused by a heart attack. In the May 30, 1983 issue of People Magazine, William Cheung (a member of Bruce’s teen tiger gang) claimed that the reason why he felt confident to make a movie about Bruce was because “a certain, once very powerful and wealthy individual is no longer in circulation.”


There is a late 1972 photo of Bruce at a publicity event where he is laughing with a missing tooth on the far left side of his mouth. This reminds me of a Cantonese term – toothless tiger, which means paper tiger. In 1980, Sammo (who fought Bruce in the opening scene of Enter the Dragon) co-starred in a Kung Fu comedy called Two Toothless Tigers. In 1973, Enter the Dragon continued the tiger theme by having the tournament fighters dressed in yellow Karateka outfits with black belts and a logo that consists of a black pattern in front of a yellow background. The Chinese title for Enter the Dragon is Struggling Dragon, Fighting Tiger. It’s never been clarified as to whether Bruce was aware of this and approved of it. In fact, every H.K. poster that I’ve seen for the film uses a different Chinese character in place of the standard one for tiger: 虎. Either way, tiger represents Earth whereas the dragon represents Heaven. How apt since Bruce died. Flashbacking to ten years earlier, Bruce put on a martial arts demonstration with Dan Inosanto in San Francisco. Referring to San Fran’s traditional Kung Fu masters, Bruce said: “These old tigers, they have no teeth.”



The Chinese importance of respecting one’s elders informs the Chinese title for Enter the Dragon. This might explain why the second English title for a 1976 Bruceploitation film was Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger instead of Exit the Dragon, Enter the Phoenix – which would have made for a reference to Bruce’s first birthname: Sai-Fon (i.e. little phoenix). In Bey Logan’s Hong Kong Action Cinema, a 1995 book, he mentioned that it was Lee’s need to prove himself superior at whatever cost to his opponent’s face that has led many H.K. Chinese to still believe that he was murdered. Kwan Tak-Hing told Bey about the man who played Han in Bruce’s first and final Hollywood starring vehicle: “When they started choreographing the fights, Lee wanted to try him out a little bit. I met Bruce, too. That was his character, very competitive. Shek Kin was smart, though. As soon as he realized how superior Bruce Lee’s health and strength were, he stopped and said Okay! You’re better, but be careful nephew; there are many hidden tigers in Hong Kong.”


The Chinese title of Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger is Emperor Superstar whereas the English title used in the East was Bruce Lee: The Star of All Stars. The plot is suspiciously similar to The Death of Bruce Lee (a.k.a. The Black Dragon’s Revenge) in that the protagonist investigates Bruce’s death. In the Blaxploitation movie, it’s claimed that drugs were planted in Bruce’s system. In the Bruceploitation movie, it’s claimed that Bruce was blackmailed into smuggling drugs. One of Jimmy Wang Yu’s friends, Lung Fei, plays a Triad named after himself. One of the fight scenes involves Bruce Li fighting Lung in a playground. Lung also played a villain in another Bruce Li film – Lee Koon-Cheung’s Golden Sun (a.k.a. Dragon Dies Hard). Like in the 1976 movie, this 1975 movie has the star play both Bruce and a character. Golden Sun refers to the name that Golden Harvest used for telegrams. Watching Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger makes me think about Bruce Lee’s mysteriously confiscated interviews for the TVB network. For all we know, he probably said something in his final interview that was similar to what the Bruce Lee character in the Bruce Li movie says (“If I die, find out why”). Maybe Lee said: “If I die, now you know why.”


According to a 1978 book called The Fighting Spirit (which was published by the Hong Kong Bruce Lee fan club), Bruce intended to meet his mother in San Fran circa late July of 1973. The decision by Lo Wei to film Yellow-Faced Tiger there is malicious. Going by the Chinese titles, there was a matchless number of films released in 1973 that had tiger in the title. Among the 14 films was A Man Called Tiger. Despite 1974 being the year of the tiger, there were only 11 films released with a tiger title including Chuck’s second and final H.K. film which is also known as Slaughter in San Francisco. Bruce’s younger brother, Robert, remembered that there was a time at the dinner table when their mother complained that Bruce seldom talked to her. The actor answered: “Mom, let me tell you a story. One day, if you and I walk into a jungle and there’s a tiger going to attack you, I will not hesitate to fight with the tiger and let you run away. End of story.”



* Tiger Lui is the name of a chief inspector character played by Kenneth Tsang in To Be Number One – a 1991 film that was released four months before Wong Jing’s threequel. Both films feature an actor named Ray Lui. In 1938, a film called The Adventures of Fong Sai-Yuk featured a character named Tiger Lui. In 1993, a new Fong Sai-Yuk film came out that was co-produced by Jing. It also has a character named Tiger Lui except not played by Peter Chan Lung, who plays another character. Interestingly, Peter plays a variation of the character that he played in Sammo’s second Wing Chun film: The Prodigal Son (co-written by Jing). Besides the fact that Bruce Lee was a Wing Chun student, the 1981 film is connected to him in two separate incidences – music from the film was used for the Cantonese re-release of The Big Boss in 1981, and behind-the-scenes footage of The Prodigal Son was included in a 1983 Golden Harvest documentary called Bruce Lee: The Legend. Back to Jet Li’s Fong Sai-Yuk, the name of Peter’s character is derived from the fact that Peter was credited as Mao Ku in a Bruceploitation movie called Last Strike (starring Bruce Li). Mao Ku was his nickname. It means unfortunate.


** In Robert Clouse’s Bruce Lee: The Biography, Charles Lowe (an Enter the Dragon cameraman a.k.a. Charles Luk) said: “That night, I got a call from a reporter at the press club telling me something bad had happened to Bruce. He said that Bruce had a big fight in Tsim Sha Tsui with 10 or 20 men who had beaten him to death! Crazy!”

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