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Wing Luke Museum Exhibit Showcases Bruce Lee's Seattle Roots

TM & © Bruce Lee Enterprises, LLC. All Rights Reserved
This photo shows Bruce Lee during his days as a student at the University of Washington in the early 1960s.

As someone whose job it is to pay attention to the history and legacy of Asian Americans, Cassie Chinn, deputy director of the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, had, of course, heard about Bruce Lee and knew some basic things.

She knew he had been a groundbreaking star in Hollywood: a Chinese face cast in the 1966-1967 TV series “The Green Hornet.” She knew he was a legend in martial arts circles. She knew that following his death at age 32 from a swelling of fluid in the brain, he was buried in Seattle at Lake View Cemetery.

“My grandmother is also buried in Lake View Cemetery. Every time you go there, a car will pull up and ask, ‘Can you tell me where Bruce Lee’s grave site is?’” Chinn says.

But as she put together the new “Do You Know Bruce?” exhibit about the iconic film star, she came to realize how deeply-forged his Seattle connection is. Bruce Lee opened his first martial arts school in Chinatown International District. He taught children judo in the old Ruby Chow’s Restaurant on First Hill. He worked out in a Beacon Hill park, walked the lip of Lake Washington, wrote poems about Seattle’s rain.  

“I didn’t understand how multi-faceted he was,” Chinn says. “I didn’t appreciate the depth of his legacy.”

Photos, Drawings, Even A Report Card

The museum worked with Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, and the Los Angeles-based Bruce Lee Foundation  to compile more than 300 items on display for its newest show. Items from a local collector were also gathered. The exhibit is the largest of its kind outside Hong Kong, where Bruce Lee lived until his late teens and where he started his action film career.

It’s an intimate exhibit, highlighting many of the ordinary aspects of the legend’s life, particularly those that occurred locally. There are black-and-white photos of his first years dating Linda Emery (now Linda Lee Cadwell) of Seattle, a copy of his college report card as well as papers he wrote while studying at the University of Washington. Also on display are notebooks filled with drawings of martial arts technique and philosophy, as well as worksheets showing how he meticulously practiced his English-language skills.

How Bruce Lee Came To Seattle

How Bruce Lee wound up in Seattle has to do with his father, who had been a Chinese opera star and who knew another Chinese opera singer, Ping Chow, who lived in Seattle. Bruce Lee was actually born in San Francisco’s Chinatown but grew up in Hong Kong. And when it was decided that he would return to the U.S., Chow’s invitation — a job and a place to live in Seattle — became a destination.

Credit TM & © Bruce Lee Enterprises, LLC. All Rights Reserved
TM & © Bruce Lee Enterprises, LLC. All Rights Reserved
This undated photo shows Bruce Lee in Seattle.

“He was a waiter and a busboy. He didn’t have a regular shift,” recalls Donald Wong, who worked alongside Bruce Lee in Ruby Chow’s Restaurant. Wong remembers Bruce Lee practicing his martial arts on a wooden dummy in the back of the restaurant. He also remembers Bruce Lee running his first martial arts school out of the basement of a building that still stands across the street from the museum.

As part of the exhibit, Wong and others will also be offering neighborhood tours to places connected to Bruce Lee, such as Tai Tung restaurant where he’d sit at a table in a backroom and order oyster sauce beef and rice. Diehard Bruce Lee fans still come to the table to sit and be photographed. The fans also journey to the gravesite, leaving behind hand-written notes or newly won martial arts medals. Interviews with these fans as well as some of the items that have been left behind are on display in the museum.

'He Was So Dapper'

Credit TM & © Bruce Lee Enterprises, LLC. All Rights Reserved
TM & © Bruce Lee Enterprises, LLC. All Rights Reserved
This undated photo shows Bruce Lee and Linda Emery in Seattle. The couple would later marry and have two children.

For Linda Lee Cadwell, the exhibit is “fabulous” and it shows “a big part of my life.” Cadwell was a Garfield High School student in 1963 when Bruce Lee used to come to the school to speak in philosophy classes.

“He was so dapper, I mean, I just remember looking at him down at the end of the hallway,” she recalls. “He was wearing a black Italian silk suit with a purple shirt, and a skinny tie and a hat with a skinny brim.”

Cadwell started taking his martial arts classes in Chinatown. Then they started dating (their first date was to the Space Needle), then together attended UW before eventually getting married. They became an interracial couple that attracted media attention and loads of magazine covers as Bruce Lee’s Hollywood fame soared. (These magazine covers are on display in the show).

Credit TM & © Bruce Lee Enterprises, LLC. All Rights Reserved
TM & © Bruce Lee Enterprises, LLC. All Rights Reserved
Bruce and Linda Lee pose with their children Brandon, left, and Shannon.

Cadwell says it was the media that made a big deal about their coupling; they never experienced discrimination, although her parents were initially worried that she was marrying a martial arts teacher.

Even after they moved to Oakland and Los Angeles, the couple talked about Seattle and even considered the possibility of having a second home here. So when Bruce Lee died in 1973, Linda Lee Cadwell decided to move back to Seattle and bury her husband here.

Cadwell now lives in Boise, but she returned to Seattle’s Chinatown in early October for opening festivities tied to the museum exhibit. She was pinned with a red rose corsage and on her right hand, and she wore a ring her husband had given her more than 40 years ago, bought during the filming of one of his legendary action movies.

“Everybody knows something about Bruce Lee, something that attracted them to Bruce. But here you get a bigger picture of his roots, his process of becoming an adult and planning his life,” Cadwell says about the museum show. “It all started here.” In Seattle.