When two prizefighters du-jour square off for a match, it often gets hyped by the media as the “Fight of the Century.” Some of these events go on to become legends, but more often they just fizzle out. However, the legendary status of a fight that took place behind closed doors, more than half a century ago, has only grown with each passing year. The fight with Bruce Lee was made into the film Birth of the Dragon.
Back in 1964, a young Bruce Lee had yet to become a kung fu superstar. He was trying to make a name for himself as a martial arts instructor in San Francisco. Lee was challenged to a no-holds-barred fight by another kung fu master, Wong Jak Man. The fight took place inside Lee’s gym, with only a few witnesses. The fight became controversial and legendary.
Controversial, because witness accounts of the fight were all over the place. Not only could the accounts not agree on who won the fight, they couldn’t agree on how many people witnessed the fight, how long the fight lasted, who challenged whom to the fight, or even the reason for the fight.
Legendary, because Bruce Lee made significant changes to his fighting style and training regimen afterward, effectively making him the first MMA fighter decades before the term was coined. He went on to achieve international superstardom, and popularized martial arts the world over. What did he experience in that gym that day? What convinced him to make those changes? As we all know, Lee died prematurely at the age of 32, and Wong had stayed mum on the subject over the years. With each passing year, as the number of living witnesses dwindles, the mystery and legend of that fight only grow.
The movie Birth of the Dragon, directed by George Nolfi, is an entertaining attempt to recreate that event. Philip Ng, who played Bruce Lee in the movie, recently sat down to discuss his experience making the movie.
Like Bruce Lee, Ng spent his youth both in Hong Kong and the United States and grew up studying Wing Chun, Hung Gar, and Choy Lay Fut styles of kung fu.
Q: I saw the movie, and thought it was a really interesting story. To prepare for this interview, I looked at your bio. It seems like there’s a lot of parallel between your life and Bruce Lee’s. Can you talk about how that informs how you prepare for this role?
A: Absolutely. When I got the role… I was like: “Oh yes! I got the role!” [excited] and five seconds later: “My God, I got the role.” [dejected]
Because there’s a lot of pressure playing Bruce Lee. I’ve played other historical figures before, like in Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, I played Ma Yongzhen (famed boxer from Shantung). He’s a historical figure, but there’s not a lot of documentation on him, so there’s a lot of room to create this character and fill in the gaps. But with Bruce Lee, you cannot. Because you put his name into a search engine, bam, all his images come out and everything, and all his fans have an image of who Bruce Lee was.
But I was very fortunate, because I guess I’ve been unwittingly preparing for this role my whole life. For instance, we had the same Wing Chun teacher Wong Shun Leung. He was his si-xiong (kung fu brother), so Bruce would be my si-su, my kung fu uncle. There was a time when Ip Man, it wasn’t convenient for him to teach Bruce Lee, so he passed him along to my si-fu. So my si-fu Wong Shun Leung was his primary instructor. So while training with my si-fu, I heard a lot of stories about Bruce Lee as a person, outside of martial arts, outside of movies, as how he was as a person, which is very valuable because you can’t read about those things.
Then after moving to Hong Kong 15 years ago to make kung fu movies, I met a lot of people who were very close to him when he was around, they worked together, like Yuen Wah (Bruce’s stunt double). They would tell me a lot of stories too about Bruce Lee. The common theory was that Bruce Lee was a very naughty kid, but he always had a good heart.
He would always make sure the stuntmen, who sometimes were not fairly treated, he would use his status to make sure they were fairly treated. But at the same time, he would play jokes on people. He was very confident to the point of, maybe a slight arrogance. But you have to understand why, because his ideas were revolutionary.
Back then, people, maybe Wing Chun-style or Choy Lee Fut or maybe Hung Gar-style or karate, everybody thought their style was the best, and everyone else, no good. And they treated their styles like religion, so if you talk about someone’s religion, this is very bad. But people saw kung fu as a religion, but Bruce Lee knew it wasn’t; it was just a skill. So being so revolutionary back then, you almost had to be confident to the point of being a little bit arrogant. But he wasn’t mean about it.
So I took all these character traits, and instead of imitating him, like rubbing my nose the whole time in the whole movie, if I did that imitating, it would become sort of a parody. I don’t want to parody him; I wanted to embody this person. So I took all the research that I did, and also people that I’ve talked to, and I took common traits that everyone agreed upon and tried to embody those traits and react to different situations in the film, regardless if the situations were embellished or exaggerated.
Because in Hong Kong-produced movies like Ip Man or Once Upon a Time in China (Wong Fei Hong), they do the same thing. They took real historical figures and put them in situations. They may be exaggerated, but cinematically, it was very beautiful. But the characters still react the way the real person would react. So Birth of the Dragon is that type of movie.
Q: So you portrayed Bruce Lee in a way you felt was authentic or faithful to who you knew as a person.
A: Right, as a person, rather than a facsimile of the person. That was a very important part. Thank God there were a couple of screenings already, in SF and in LA. And the comments that came out, people were pretty satisfied with my performance as Bruce Lee. I didn’t want to imitate this person; I wanted to honor him. And to honor a person is not to imitate, but to embody what you believe he is. I did that with the best of my ability, and hopefully, it came out. It seems people are enjoying my performance, which I am very pleased to hear, cuz that’s the biggest pressure.
Q: You grew up studying kung fu, Wing Chun. Definitely, your skill came through. How quick your hands were. Had you not studied Wing Chun, would you be able to…
A: I don’t think so. I think the physicality of it… I worried very little about the physicality part of this role. Because thankfully, I had that 15 years of experience making kung fu movies, also being an action director, stunt coordinator, I can bring that skill set to America. The fact that I trained Choy Lee Fut as a kid and Wing Chun, a lot of these methods that Bruce Lee had done, it enabled me to not put so much concentration in this part, and be able to perform that, and place more of my focus on embodying him as a person. So I would say the training that I received in kung fu definitely helped me to do this role.
I think that’s another one of the reasons I was chosen for this role, because originally I wasn’t asked to cast for this role. They were asking a bunch of people, and one of the people asked was my best friend, Andy On. He was my co-star in Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, and he told the casting people that: “I don’t look like Bruce Lee, but I’ve got a friend who looks like Bruce Lee. He does the same kind of martial arts and he’s been kung fu.”
“So let’s take a look at this guy.”
So he and his fiancée and another friend spent like six hours helping me film the casting tape; then we sent it. But usually when you cast for American movies, you don’t get it in Hong Kong. And especially it was Bruce Lee, right? So we did the best we could, sent it out, and had dinner.
But very quickly I got a call-back. I got on a Skype meeting with George Nolfi, the director, and I think he felt that I had certain qualities that potentially can fulfill this role. So after a few more months of negotiations, I was confirmed for the role.
Q: I didn’t know too much about this fight before seeing this movie, but it really intrigued me. So afterwards, I went online to search the various accounts. The recollections, both in English and Chinese, of what actually happened are so divergent…
A: It is. My father has a friend who is a kung fu teacher. He was one of the witnesses at that fight. I don’t want to divulge his story, because everyone has a different story. But the story he told me, it’s in line with what some other people said. The story seems to be different between everybody — how it happened, the outcome, what happened during the fight and so on. That’s why it was legendary, right? Because there’s no clear answer, but also such a big event.
Because after this, Bruce Lee changed his thinking about training and martial arts, and evolved his idea into something he called Jeet Kune Do, which changed the landscape of martial arts forever. That’s why it was so legendary. And also because Bruce Lee is such a legendary figure. And it’s been so long and the fight was so controversial, this is something that’s going to be in the minds of people who study martial arts or popular culture forever.
Q: So can you divulge what your…
A: What am I thinking? I played Bruce Lee, so I’m gonna have to be biased on that. Also, I know my method, the Wing Chun method, and I know Bruce Lee’s mentality back then; he was very aggressive. Even if you read lot of the interviews, Bruce Lee was the aggressor and Wong Jak Man was a person who was not so aggressive in the fight, regardless of the why or what happens during the fight. So I think because I’ve seen so many fights and I’ve been in situations like that myself, the aggressor, sometimes not so much the technique, but the aggressor, the person who’s the most aggressive tends to overcome the other person in a fight. So in my mind, that’s probably what happened.
But I wasn’t there! I don’t know if I should add to the controversy, but if you ask me, I think Bruce Lee came up on top. Not to offend anybody.
Q: But he certainly recognized limitations to the Wing Chun style…
A: Absolutely, and in himself, and his training regimen.
Q: But I think there’s certainly some controversy over why the fight took place. A lot of accounts attributed the fight to Bruce Lee being kind of a loudmouth, not that he was teaching kung fu to white people.
A: I think it was a combination of both. Like I said, Bruce Lee, back in that time, he almost had to be confident to the point of arrogance, because the stuff that he said was very revolutionary.
Back in the day, (if you say to someone) your religion is wrong. Even though it’s not a religion but a skill set, that’s what people thought, so you almost have to be a loudmouth.
Q: I’d like to take you back to the philosophy of kung fu. The traditional philosophy, this is something that is equivalent to a form of cultivation, that you learn it, but you don’t necessarily learn it to beat people up. Is that how you understood it growing up…
A: No. Because it’s a skill set with a very specific goal. Like cooking or chopping wood. When I’m cooking, it doesn’t matter if I’m working at a five-star hotel or flipping burgers in the corner. I’m cooking food; I’m preparing food for a person to consume and absorb the nutrients. That’s the main thing. If I’m doing kung fu, it doesn’t matter if I’m fighting in the ring or in the street, or whatever, I’m trying to incapacitate the person in front of me, while doing minimum damage, right? That’s my goal, and that’s what martial arts should be about. Martial arts was created as this.
And even when I was very young, you respect martial arts like a knife. If you don’t look at it like a knife, you will cut someone else, or you’ll cut yourself. You have to know this is a weapon. As a weapon, when you put it in the wrong hands… It’s like a gun. When you put the gun in the hand of someone who is just, then he’ll do justice with it. You put it in the hands of evil, he’ll do evil.
It is a skill set; it is not a religion, it doesn’t think. It’s a skill set. I firmly believe what Bruce Lee said.
Philip Ng played Bruce Lee in ‘Birth of the Dragon’
Things he said 40 years ago are proven today in sports like MMA. An MMA fighter doesn’t have to defend a style. His goal is to win the fight to make money. He doesn’t get money for defending a style, right? So he’ll take different strategies from different martial arts that are useful to him and take away stuff that might be useful for someone else, but not him, and train those things that are important for him to win the fight. That’s the essence of what Bruce Lee was talking about. Because at this point, you don’t have to defend your style anymore. You’ll get paid for winning the fight.
I’m not saying martial arts doesn’t cultivate. When you focus and try to achieve greatness in any activity, you have to cultivate. You become cultivated, but you have to understand what that activity’s about. If you want to be a really great basketball player, working towards that, I’ll get discipline. I’ll get physical conditioning, you’ll get side benefits. But if I just want these side benefits, I’ll just go lift weights, I’ll go run, or I’ll go to church for spirituality. I’ll join the army for discipline. But you have to understand the nature and purpose of your skill-set. That’s my belief.