Before he was a martial arts icon, Bruce Lee was a poet, philosopher and fledgling instructor in Seattle.
Now there’s an exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum that focuses on that time in his life.
Some of the memorabilia comes from a local collector who was inspired after meeting Lee.
Perry Lee (no relation to Bruce) remembers the first time he met Bruce Lee. It was 1964, and he was a sophomore at Franklin High. Back then, Bruce Lee was an unknown — an everyday guy who was into martial arts and had been invited to do a demonstration at the school assembly.
“He asked for the toughest person to come down,” Lee said.
The student who volunteered took boxing classes. Bruce asked the student to throw some punches, and Perry said what Bruce did next amazed him.
“I never saw anybody that was that powerful that could move fast, spontaneous, cat-like and so fluid,” he said. “Here he was, sparring with some of the best fighters in high school … blocking their punches, throwing them into the ground. It blew me away.”
And there was something else that Perry felt at that moment.
“It made me proud,” he said. “It made me proud because it was really the first positive image I saw of an Asian person. Like, wow. You know, back in the ‘60s, a lot of Asians were considered nerds or more academic than into the athletic field.”
The demonstration at Franklin High was one of several Bruce Lee did during his time in Seattle.
“Seattle was really a formative time in his life,” said Cassie Chinn, exhibit lead of the "A Dragon Lives Here" exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum. She said it’s the Bruce Lee that most people don’t know.
“It was a time where he dreamt his dreams and started to bring them to reality," she said. "So we get to dive in deep in regards to, what does Seattle mean to him? How did it lay the foundation for where he would go?”
Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco and grew up in Hong Kong. But Seattle was where he grew into a young adult. He was 19 years old when he came here and took classes at Seattle Central College. He later transferred to University of Washington, where he studied philosophy and met his wife.
“One of his favorite places to go was Lake Washington," Chinn said. "We have a number of poems that Bruce wrote related to Lake Washington especially."
He liked Lake Washington partly because it reminded him of the waters of Hong Kong.
“You can connect the waters of Hong Kong and the waters of Lake Washington,” she said. “There was a familiarity there. But also it was an integral place for him to think of his philosophy. One of his famous quotes is, be like water.”
Bruce Lee’s time in South Seattle was short, but it created a foundation for how he lived and taught. He was inclusive, teaching martial arts to anyone who wanted to learn.
Bruce Lee later moved to California, taking part in competitions and opening another martial arts studio. It was around that time that he was discovered by Hollywood and was invited to play Kato, the sidekick of Green Hornet.
Perry Lee followed Bruce Lee’s career. He also started collecting things associated with him, including magazines and action figures (especially those from the Green Hornet era).
“He exploded in the small screen,” he said. “His popularity just went through the roof … so they started putting [out] all these toys to appeal to all the young people.”
So, how many items are in his collection?
“Thousands,” he said. Enough to fill up two rooms of his house. And there are more in boxes.
He admitted it’s way too much.
“Collectors, we just like to keep collecting," he said. "It’s hard to break out of that mold. Until our wives get mad at us. I don’t know if I should be saying this, but I have to hide a lot from my wife," he said tongue-in-cheek.
Perry Lee loaned many parts of his collection to the Wing Luke exhibit. He said Bruce Lee still has special meaning for him today, even after his untimely death in 1973.
“I think it still holds true what’s been said about Bruce through the decades; he brought people together,” Perry Lee said. “Whether you were black, white or Mexican, everybody loved Bruce … To this very day he inspired people through his philosophy.”
Perry Lee recalls the first time he met Bruce Lee at Franklin High School
In case you're wondering what some of that early Bruce Lee poetry was like, here's a look.
Walking along the bank of Lake Washington | Bruce Lee, 1963
The breeze on the bank
Already blows cool and mild;
The distant merging of lake and sky
Is but a red trace of sunset.
The deep silence of the lake
Cuts off all tumult from me.
Along the lonely bank
I move with slow footstep:
Alone the disturbed frogs scurry off.
Here and there are houses,
Cool beads of light spring out from them.
A dazzling moon
Shines down from the lonely depths of the sky.
In the moonlight slowly I move to a Gung Fu Form.
Body and soul are fused into one.