HomeBad Ass AsiansA different side of martial arts legend in The Bruce Lee Code

A different side of martial arts legend in The Bruce Lee Code

By Lia Reichmann, AsAmNews Staff Writer

When most people think of Bruce Lee they think of his jaw-dropping film stunts and formidable martial arts skills that helped popularize kung fu movies. However, his business and entrepreneurial side is just as important in understanding his life. 

This side of him is being explored by business journalist Thomas Lee (no relation to Bruce Lee) in his new book: The Bruce Lee Code. Thomas Lee first started writing the book last year, but he got the idea in 2020 when he started working as a lead curator and editorial director of the We Are Bruce Lee exhibit at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum in San Francisco.

Together with the help of Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, the exhibit showcases the “different personas” of Bruce Lee that “people could relate to, that they can identify with,” Thomas Lee said. The four personas of the actor on display are visionary, unifier, athlete and thinker. It was the visionary persona the author connected with and where he got inspired to write his book.

The Bruce Lee Exhibition at the Chinese American Historical Society Museum in San Francisco. Courtesy: Thomas Lee

“So with the visionary [persona], we are focusing on some of the entrepreneurial things that Bruce Lee did, perhaps people didn’t know about, or didn’t fully appreciate, such as launching his own production company called Concord Production. He also founded schools dedicated to his own brand of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do,” Thomas Lee said. “Just generally, I just noticed that he had a lot of attributes that are similar to entrepreneurs that we know today, such as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk…things like resilience, innovation, adaptation, creativity.”

Thomas Lee describes his book as a spin-off from the exhibit where he got to focus on “Bruce Lee as a brand.”

“He was very much ahead of his time, before the emergence of social media like Twitter, Tik Tok or Instagram where unknown people can literally be famous overnight. He didn’t have those things, so he built his brand from the ground up,” Thomas Lee said. “And I was amazed at how valuable it continues to be today in terms of his influence over things like, honestly, movies, but also fashion, music, comic books, mixed martial arts, things like that.”

Despite an untimely death in 1973 at the age of 32, Bruce Lee remains incredibly influential on pop culture, something Thomas Lee attributes to his ability to create a personal brand.

“I think he was aware of his brand and that’s what made him so innovative…not sure if he knew it was going to be as big as it is today, or affect so many different industries and people,” Thomas Lee said. 

According to Thomas Lee, since Bruce Lee was 21 years old he felt that he was destined to accomplish great things and so he had this “remarkable sort of self-confidence about himself” which he put “in his brand.” That confidence can be seen in the title of his movies Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon. The titles of those films aren’t referring to a “particular character or plot point in the movies,” it is in fact referring to himself, as his nickname was “The Dragon” or “The Little Dragon”.

“So especially Enter the Dragon, it’s like you knew that it’s his coming out party, you know that ‘Here I am Hollywood, I finally arrived,’” Thomas Lee said. “So, I can’t imagine anyone today who has that kind of hutzpah, or that kind of clout that they can name a movie after themselves.”

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Thomas Lee also said that by making himself a brand he would be able to accomplish what he believes Bruce Lee’s overall vision was, which was to “unite East and West” together. In doing so he would “communicate the beauty” and “greatness of Chinese culture” through the mass medium of film that would be able to reach the most people.

“So he saw himself as a brand, that wasn’t the end, it was more of a means to an end. So things like money and fame and a brand was a means [for] him to try to accomplish his vision,” Thomas Lee said.

The Bruce Lee Code also tries to answer and articulate why he has remained such an influential figure in pop culture. Thomas Lee believes it is because he had this “active energy”, where he was not just able to talk about things, but also do them and his brand emulated that.

“I think his brand represents…this kinetic sort of energy that is…expressed not just in physical form like martial arts, but just sort of a mindset and the mentality that I think some people will call it the ‘X Factor’ you know, that extra something that someone seems to have that makes them stand out and make them chief above everyone else,” Thomas Lee said.

He believes Bruce Lee represents the American dream story that we “like to tell ourselves”, of someone that “rose from nothing”, but through “sheer force of will and hard work and vision and ingenuity was able to become something big.”

“We need more Bruce Lee today because America has the strongest economy and biggest economy. I argue that we’re kind of in a funk,” Thomas Lee said. “I say our innovation is not that great, our productivity has been low, there’s a lot of conflict over immigration. It seems like we’re just sort of on a treadmill right now. And what we need is to remember someone like Bruce Lee…he stands for kinetic energy, to really snap us out of a funk and to really get things going. And in America to realize the best possible version of ourselves.”

2023 marks the 50th anniversary of Bruce Lee’s death and although Thomas Lee didn’t purposely release the book on this anniversary he thinks it was “kismet”.

Thomas Lee is currently in the preliminary stages of working with a foundation as a consultant to potentially bring a spin-off of the San Francisco exhibit to Detroit, where they might explore Bruce Lee’s connection with the Black community. 

Courtesy: Thomas Lee

After reading the book, Thomas Lee hopes readers feel inspired to accomplish what they want in life whether in business or something else. Readers who think they know a lot about him can still learn something new and look at him “in a different way,” Thomas Lee said. 

“So to see him beyond just [being a] martial artist and movie star, I hope that people will know that and hopefully they’ll be entertained and think like ‘Huh, that’s interesting, I didn’t know [that]’ and look at him a different way,” Thomas Lee added.

Thomas Lee has noticed after writing a book – “The Bruce Lee Code” is his second – that “each one of them has their own challenges” and he is experiencing “a big bag of feelings” right now.

“I’m sort of ambivalent I guess, yeah, of course, I’m excited. I think [I’m] probably nervous about what people will say about it, how [they react] to it, I think I always am,” Thomas Lee said. “But I also think that it’s, and I think a lot of authors will say, that it’s taking up so much part of your life, you know, once it’s done, you almost kind of inevitably feel like a sense of loss, because you had invested so much into it and now that it’s done. And then it’s sort of like, okay, what next?”  

“The Bruce Lee Code” is available for pre-order at major retailers, and will be released on April 3.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.


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