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 Bruce turned him 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 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 nationwide success story in the U.S. 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 1966, Jimmy starred in a film called Tiger Boy. 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 literally 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 muscular 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. This is also fitting when you look at the 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. 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). 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). One of the visitors to the pagoda set was a 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 Lee. 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.”



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, and 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. 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. 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 Golden Harvest 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. 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.


“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 Ting Pei. One time, she had lost money at the game of fantan. He had to deal with a local Triad dai lo (i.e. big brother) to pay off her debts. They met the gangster and his goons on a side street in Kowloon Tong. The thug sneered as Asia’s greatest martial arts hero handed over the cash, and then gaped as Bruce proved his prowess by stabbing his finger into a full can of Coca-Cola. Bruce handed the spurting can to the sneering punk before driving away with Betty by his side. This is reminiscent of a Cantonese slang which goes “putting lice on tiger’s head” – to provoke a powerful person or organization. Anders Nelsson confirmed that Bruce could be quite arrogant when it came to gangs and Triad members 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 manslaughter or murder. Weeks after he died, she dated Charles Heung: a member of the Sun Yee On Triad – they were rivals of the 14K Triad who Sing Hoi was affiliated with.


“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). 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 Hung (who fought Bruce in the opening scene of Enter the Dragon) co-starred in a Kung Fu comedy called Two Toothless Tigers. Bruce’s younger brother, Robert Lee, remembered that there was a time at the dinner table when their mother (Grace Ho) 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.”



The above photo was used in issue #175 of a H.K. magazine called Milky Way. It came out in September 1972 – when 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 Mitchum, 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 plays a detective who fights like Bruce and reads comic books instead of Bruce-themed magazines because there was a concern that the Bruce Lee 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 Black Dragon’s Revenge (1975) a.k.a. The Death of Bruce Lee, 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 Ting. 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 actor/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 seventies, 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 via 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 Golden Harvest. After Bruce died, she acted in two more Lo Wei movies for GH – Chinatown Capers and Yellow Faced Tiger. When GH decided to do a movie starring Bruce’s younger brother, Robert, Sylvia was chosen to be his love interest. Released in 1977, The Lady Killer features a few faces from Bruce’s movies: Lee Kwan, Gam Dai, Ng Ming-Choi and Stephen Tung. Interestingly, Robert believes that Bruce was murdered. I wonder why that is. 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 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 Ban died of a cerebral hemorrhage caused by a heart attack.



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 character in place of the standard Chinese character for tiger: 虎. Either way, tiger represents Earth whereas the dragon represents Heaven. How apt since Bruce died. 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. In Bey Logan’s Hong Kong Action Cinema, a 1995 book, he mentioned that it was 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.”


* 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).

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