The Life of the Dragon

Jun 01, 2009
*Special to asia!
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To this day, few believe the official cause of death: cerebral edema caused by an allergic reaction to Equagesic, an anti-anxiety agent. To be precise, Lee died of a cerebral edema—that’s unequivocal.

The controversy is in the cause of that edema. Dr Donald Langford, a Baptist missionary and Lee’s doctor in Hong Kong said, “Nobody dies from one tablet of Equagesic. No analgesic killed Bruce.” Around the time of his death, numerous wild, unfounded and scandalous reports were appearing in the media.

While Lee was hugely popular, he had detractors, some say enemies. It didn’t help that Lee was found dead in Betty Ting Pei’s apartment, the lead actress in Enter the Dragon, with whom he was rumoured to be having an affair. In order to avoid more bad publicity, Raymond Chow conspired to deceive the media about Lee being found at her apartment. Betty also lied. No sooner than their versions appeared in the press, the lie was uncovered and caused banner headlines.

Moreover, who could believe someone as superbly fit, as rigorously disciplined with his body as the Dragon himself, could be killed by a couple of commonly available anti-anxiety pills? This disbelief spawned speculation: he refused triads from his participating in his movie business, other studios were losing money as a result of his success, he offended a gongfu master who laid a dim-mak death touch on him… whatever the imagination could concoct, the press printed.

Dr Peter Wu, the neurosurgeon who saved Lee’s life a month earlier in May is quoted as saying, “He would have died in May from severe brain edema… it was sheer luck that experienced medical people were able to help him.” Dr Wu is known as an authority on cerebral edema in Asian males. He says, “Bruce was in a very critical condition. We removed quite a lot of hashish from his stomach. In Nepal there have been all kinds of neurological problems associated with hashish, especially cerebral edema. Bruce said he was chewing hashish because he was under a lot of pressure. He would have been exposed to all the chemicals full-strength. We gave Bruce a long talk before he was discharged. We told him that his level of stress could dramatically magnify the effects.” From numerous other reports, it appears true that Bruce Lee was going through a period of severe pressure around the time of his death.

Why wasn’t any of this information published? Explains Dr Langford, “You have to understand something about Hong Kong Chinese culture. When Bruce’s body was wheeled into the emergency room, all the Chinese vanished. There Chinese weren’t about to be connected with, to be blamed for, the death of Hong Kong’s most famous hero.”

“The same is true of the inquest: people weren’t about to step up and say Bruce Lee had died from eating cannabis or some related product. At the beginning of the inquest proceedings, Dr Wu and a couple of other doctors and I were pulled to the side and asked to play down the role of cannabis in Bruce’s death. For years, I was suspicious that this might have been some sort of cover-up. Now I realize that it was something else: they simply wanted to present a socially acceptable explanation. There was no recorded incidence of this drug as a cause of death. Hong Kong authorities felt his death put them on the world stage. They were trying to avoid embarrassment. Amazingly, not one single Hong Kong reporter ever interviewed me about Bruce or his death.”

Joe Lewis and James Coburn both confirm Lee’s Hollywood drug use. Bob Wall, who acted in Enter the Dragon, tells another story: “I was in Bruce’s study in Hong Kong while we were making Enter the Dragon. He had this plate of pot brownies on the desk and while we were talking he kept eating brownies and offering them to me.”

From the well-researched book about Bruce Lee by Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist, Davis Miller: “Among released findings—Lee had eaten cannabis not only on the day of his death, but shortly before his May 10 collapse.”

Did Bruce Lee die from an allergic reaction to cannabis-related alkaloids? There is no definitive conclusion on this matter and speculation continues. A sudden resurgence of speculation and mystery was fuelled by the sudden death of Brandon Lee, his son, who died in an accident at the age of 28 while on the movie set filming The Crow, a symbol of death.



1940, November 27: Born Li Jun Fan in San Francisco

1953: Studies Wing Chun under Grandmaster Yip Man and Wong Shun Leung. Introduced by William Cheung.

1959: Departs Hong Kong for the US. Arrives in San Francisco and then moves to Seattle.

1964: Opens Jun Fan gongfu school in Oakland, California.

1964: Marries Linda Emery.

1965: Birth of son, Brandon Bruce Lee.

1966: Moves to LA. Shooting of Green Hornet TV series begins.

1967: Gives his martial art the name Jeet Kune Do, The Way of the Intercepting Fist.

1967: Appears in one episode of Ironside.

1968: Acts in the movie Marlowe starring James Garner. 1968: Films an episode of Blondie for Universal TV.

1969: Birth of daughter, Shannon Emery Lee.

1970–71: Collaborates with James Coburn and Stirling Siliphant on screenplay The Silent Flute, a movie about the philosophy of martial arts. The movie never takes off and is revived after his death by David Carradine who re-titled it Circle of Iron; the revised script bears little resemblance to Lee’s original.

1971: Works with Warner Brothers to develop TV series, The Warrior (later renamed Kung Fu, starring David Carradine).

1971: Shoots the first episode of Longstreet, a Paramount TV series.

1971: Films The Big Boss in Thailand for Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest. Movie breaks all previous box office records in Hong Kong.

1972: Films Fist of Fury (Released as The Chinese Connection in North America), his second movie for Golden Harvest. Movie does even better at box office than The Big Boss.

1972: Forms his own production company, Concord and directs The Way of the Dragon (Released as Return of the Dragon in North America). Smashes all previous Hong Kong box office records.

1972: Begins filming fight sequences for The Game of Death, jointly produced by Concord and Golden Harvest.

1973: Postpones filming of The Game of Death to work on Enter the Dragon for Warner Brothers. The film grossed over US$200 million.

1973: July 20, Bruce Lees passes away in Hong Kong. Over 25,000 friends and fans attend his funeral.

1973: July 31, Bruce Lee is buried in Lakeview Cemetery, Seattle. Pallbearers are younger brother Robert Lee, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Dan Inosanto, Taky Kimura and Peter Chin.


lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


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