Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America

Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America

Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America

Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America


In the spring of 1959, eighteen-year-old Bruce Lee returned to San Francisco, the city of his birth, and quickly inserted himself into the West Coast's fledgling martial arts culture. Even though Asian fighting styles were widely unknown to mainstream America, Bruce encountered a robust fight culture in a San Francisco Bay area that was populated with talented and trailblazing practitioners such as Lau Bun, Chinatown's aging kung fu patriarch; Wally Jay, the innovative Hawaiian jujitsu master; and James Lee, the no-nonsense Oakland street fighter. Regarded by some as a brash loudmouth and by others as a dynamic visionary, Bruce spent his first few years back in America advocating a more modern approach to the martial arts and showing little regard for the damaged egos left in his wake.

In the Chinese calendar, 1964 was the Year of the Green Dragon. It would be a challenging and eventful year for Bruce. He would broadcast his dissenting view before the first great international martial arts gathering and then defend it by facing down Chinatown's young ace kung fu practitioner in a legendary behind-closed-doors high noon-style showdown. The Year of the Green Dragon saw the dawn of martial arts in America and the rise of an icon.

Drawing on more than one hundred original interviews and an eclectic array of sources, Striking Distance is an engrossing narrative chronicling San Francisco Bay's pioneering martial arts scene as it thrived in the early 1960s and offers an in-depth look at a widely unknown chapter of Bruce Lee's iconic life.


Alameda, California-1964

Wally Jay spent the past two days cooking four whole pigs in the narrow confines of his backyard.

A native- born Hawaiian with a bright disposition and vertical build, Wally knew how to construct a proper “Imu,” even if the islander earthoven was poorly suited for mainland suburbia. Following his usual routine, he dug the pit, stacked the firewood, arranged the rocks, and spread the banana leaves. the barbecue’s pyre ascended high over his backyard fence, quickly igniting a flurry of 9-1-1 calls on rotary dials. and like clockwork the Alameda Fire Department sent an engine over just as the rich aroma began to pervade Eagle Avenue.

Their inspection, however, was little more than a formality. Wally had been hosting his giant luau parties twice a year for almost a decade now, and the firemen from nearby Station 3 had long since become accustomed to the massive Hawaiian barbecue that preceded the event.

Fire Chief William Hilbish had even become chummy with Wally over the years, noticing that the jujitsu master seemed to exude nothing but humility and good manners. For someone with a reputation for tossing grown men about like rag dolls on the mat, Wally appeared to be a gentle soul. Besides, Hilbish’s guys were always fascinated to see the island-style earth-oven blazing away in a neighborhood yard.

“All right, Wally, we’ll see you in six months,” Hilbish said, as he departed alongside the training studio at the rear of the house. “Enjoy your luau.”

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