We celebrate the legendary kung fu star’s would-have-been 82nd birthday with these little-known nuggets about his life and works
Bruce Lee was many things: a kung fu legend, a pop culture icon of the 20th century and the biggest movie star in both the Hong Kong and international film industries. But his most enduring contribution was perhaps changing how Asians were represented and perceived in Western media. That’s why even nearly half a century after his untimely death, Lee remains one of the most instantly recognisable Chinese entertainers the world over.
But as well-known and loved as he was, there might still be a few facts that even his most ardent fans may not know about. To mark what would have been his 82nd birthday on November 27, here are some fun facts about this global icon that might come in handy on quiz nights.
1. He had many nicknames
Growing up on Nathan Road in Kowloon, Hong Kong, Lee was an extremely energetic child who had trouble staying still. He often spent his time playing with his best friend Siu Kee Lun, who remained his close friend into adulthood and the two even appeared in films together, such as Fist of Fury (1972) and Way of the Dragon (1972).
While his sister Agnes called him “Little Dragon”, his lively personality also earnt Lee the nickname Mo Si Tung from his family, which translates to, “one who never sits still”.
2. He had been in 20 films by the time he was 20
Lee appeared in his first film at three months old, playing a baby girl in Golden Gate Girl (1941), a Cantonese-US production shot in San Francisco, where he was born. By the time he was 20, he had already amassed 20 film credits, but was mostly cast as a delinquent or street urchin. However, Lee was always aiming higher and vowed to be as famous as Steve McQueen, a Hollywood leading actor of the sixties and seventies.
3. He once asked his brother to stab him
Lee’s dedication to and passion for his craft came from the heart... but perhaps seemingly less so from the head. Once, he asked his brother to stab him with a knife so that he could practise disarming an opponent. Of course, Lee knocked away the knife before it could come even remotely close to him.
4. He has inspired many video games characters
Countless characters in video games—from their stance to their facial expressions—have been inspired by Lee. This can be traced back to 1984, when Datasoft launched an adventure game called Bruce Lee, which was played on Apple II and Commodore 64.
The passing decades have done nothing to diminish Lee’s popularity in the world of video games: a Bruce Lee/Naraka crossover game became one of the fastest-selling Chinese PC games ever, with six million copies sold within three months since its launch in August 2021.
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5. He was the one person Chuck Norris couldn’t beat in a fight
Chuck Norris, an American martial artist and actor, as well as Lee’s opponent in The Way of the Dragon (1972), confessed that Lee was the only person he couldn’t best in a sparring session. However, Norris, who trained with Lee regularly, greatly influenced the latter’s fighting style.
6. He didn’t believe in the word ‘master’
Though Lee gave many celebrities kung fu lessons—including NBA player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, American actress and model Sharon Tate, and even Lee’s own acting idol, Steve McQueen—he never liked being called a “master”. He preferred the term “student-master”, because teaching was as much a learning experience for him as those he was teaching. He also forsook what he called martial arts “clans”, because he saw using the power of kung fu to bring people together regardless of race as his calling.
Lee taught kung fu to anyone willing to learn, even those who were non-Chinese, which resulted in backlash against Lee from traditional Chinese kung fu masters, all of which he ignored. And perhaps this is the greatest reason why his legacy remains relevant even today.
7. He has statues dedicated to him all over the world
From Lee’s very own Hong Kong to his second home in California, the kung fu superstar’s statues—in his signature fighting pose—can be found all over the world.
In Mostar, a city in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina that is plagued by cultural tensions and division, a statue of Lee by sculptor Ivan Fijolić was unveiled in 2005 as a symbol of unity, as he was iconic and loved by the city’s Muslims, Serbs and Croats alike.