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(Published in the Seattle Times online on Nov. 12, 2020
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Nov. 15, 2020)
The Seattle roots of Bruce Lee flow on his 80th anniversary
By Clay Eals
He was a global martial-arts hero, showcasing strength for Asian males while living in Seattle. And undergoing a 2020 revival is the late Bruce Lee.
Nationally, he’s the focus of a book by daughter Shannon and a documentary film, the titles of each invoking Lee’s fluid metaphor for mortality: “Be Water.” In Seattle, where Lee lived from 1959 to 1964 (he is buried at Lake View Cemetery), a Lee exhibit continues at Wing Luke Museum, and a local former student of Lee just released a memoir of their friendship. All of this precedes the 80th anniversary of the superstar’s Nov. 27 birth.
The memoirist, retired Mount Baker attorney Doug Palmer, was a Garfield High School senior when he began to bond with Lee. Four years older, Lee was building a local reputation with gung-fu shows in person and on public-TV’s KCTS Channel 9.
Lee’s time in Seattle, Palmer says, was pivotal. While working at and living in a walk-in closet above Ruby Chow’s restaurant at Broadway and Jefferson, Lee atypically welcomed students of all races to his gung-fu classes in the eatery’s basement, area parks and a garage.
In October 1963, as a University of Washington drama/philosophy student, Lee expanded to a live-in studio for 10 months on the ground floor of the three-story University Way Apartments at 4750 University Way N.E.
In our “Then” photo, Lee stands at 4750 with gung-fu student Linda Emery, whom he married in August 1964 in Seattle. Two years later, he played Kato in the “Batman” and “Green Hornet” TV series, soon cascading to Hollywood fame, followed by an untimely, mysterious death in 1973 at age 32.
Palmer’s memoir brims with anecdotes about Lee, who was born in San Francisco and raised in Hong Kong. Lee’s father was Chinese and his mother Eurasian. Palmer says Lee proudly identified as Chinese, while his parents urged him to embrace diversity.
This helped him in December 1963, when Lee was dating Emery, who is white. Palmer, who is white, was dating a Chinese woman at the same time. Both women’s parents objected to interracial dating, so Lee and Palmer picked up each other’s dates at the parents’ homes, then switched partners.
Lee, Palmer writes, could be a challenge: “He liked the limelight and had a tendency to suck all the oxygen out of the room.” This, he says, was “a small price to pay” to experience Lee’s magnetism and a cross-cultural vision. As Palmer notes, “We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!
Big thanks to Barbara Manning, firstname.lastname@example.org, for suggesting this column topic, for compiling an impressive dossier on the 4750 University Way N.E. site and for her stellar research skills, curiosity and generosity. Check out her 38-page report:
Below are 7 supplemental photos and, in chronological order, 11 historical clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and other online newspaper sources that were helpful in the preparation of this column.