(Taken from “Knowing Is Not Enough”, Spring/Summer 2001)
GEORGE LEE AND BRUCE LEE: A FRIENDSHIP FORGED IN METTLE
George Lee has been a member of the Bruce Lee Educational Foundation since inception and is its most senior member until this year. George decided it was time to take an emeritus position with the organization this spring and enjoy his retirement. I recently had a chance to chat with George over the phone about his life, his relationship with Bruce Lee, and metal.
George was born in Monterey, California in 1917. At the tender age of seven, his father sent him off to China to attend military school. It was at this school that George had his first encounter and experience with the martial arts, but it was short lived. With the onset of war and the Japanese invasion, George returned home to California to continue his studies. He attended Berkeley High School and later became a machinist’s apprentice. He worked with planes and drills, creating metal works and pieces for use with machinery. Little did he know that this particular skill would change the shape of martial arts the world over.
George met Bruce Lee in the early 1960’s in the bay area. There was a young dynamic kid teaching Hong Kong Cha Cha, and George decided to check out his class. That kid was Bruce Lee, and there was a lot more he could do than dance. George remembers that one time after class, Bruce got up and demonstrated some of his martial arts, which at the time he called Wing Chun. George was struck by how different Bruce’s martial arts were from the martial arts he had encountered as a boy in China. Bruce was much more fluid and striking. After the demonstration, George went up to talk to Bruce about his demonstration. At the time, Bruce was getting ready to move to Seattle, but George told him if he ever found himself back in the bay area, he could get together a group of students that Bruce could teach martial arts to.
As fate would have it, Bruce did return to Oakland, and George did put together the students, about six in all at the beginning. Class was held in Oakland on Broadway near 40th Street until Bruce and James Lee got together. With James Lee in the mix, the class moved from that location and more than doubled in size. In those Oakland days George trained with Bruce off and on as their schedules allowed. Bruce taught as often as he could but with the development of the Green Hornet series, Bruce sometimes had to take time off. But, Bruce and George also spent time together outside of class and developed a lasting friendship.
One day George was with Bruce and noticed that Bruce kept all his loose change in an old shoebox. As a gift, George decided to fashion him some metal boxes in which Bruce could keep his change as well as files and other materials. Bruce was amazed by George’s metal working talents. He didn’t know about this side of his student and friend. George and Bruce got to talking about metal, and George explained that he had a shop at his home. Bruce asked George if he could fashion some training equipment and from there, a creative partnership was formed.
Bruce immediately began sketching things for George to make; the completed product often took a bit of trial and error in order to get it just right. The first thing George Lee ever made for Bruce was a pair of nunchuks. Bruce sketched them on a napkin, and George went to work. The creation of nunchuks is a perfect example of how the two worked together to perfect their products. Bruce tried out the first set of nunchuks George made and found they were too long so George shortened them from 14 inches to 12 inches. Also the nunchuks were a bit awkward because they were not tapered but rather straight wooden cylinders. George tapered them, and then for grip and flair three rings were etched around the base of each bar – a design which has been copied over and over and is standard to this day. George also strengthened the chain from its original brass to stainless steel and made some modifications to the pin which attached the chain to the wooden dowel. And so, the relationship progressed like this – Bruce would sketch, George would forge, and the two would perfect together.
In another example, George made a number of small punching bags for Bruce to use to toughen his hands. These bags consisted of a canvas cover which was then filled. The first bags contained b.b. shot, but Bruce found that while the b.b.’s were hard, they didn’t yield enough; so, the bags were filled with other experimental materials until dried beans were found to be the solution to the problem.
George made many pieces for Bruce, including a gripping machine, a wrist roller, a three sectional staff, a leg pulley, numerous punching bags, kicking boards of various sizes, etc. One interesting thing George made was a pair of hi-top boxing shoes for Bruce who asked George to take the soles off and fashion them from aluminum. Only the front portion of the sole was made out of aluminum and then dipped in a protective coating. When asked why Bruce wants the shoes made this way, he told George that he would use the extra strength shoes to keep crazed fans from ripping his shirts. Bruce thought it would be more cost effective to have tough shoes than to keep buying new shirts. George recollects that in all he made approximately fourteen pieces of equipment for Bruce. However, George fashioned many things other than training equipment; such as, desk nameplates, a brass bowl, pins and calling cards. The Bruce Lee Educational Foundation pins are a direct descendent of the pins made by George for Bruce. George Lee also made for Bruce the four plaques with the various stages of the yin yang symbol with the arrows and Bruce’s quote: “Using no way as way; having no limitation as limitation.” But the creation which George is most proud of and which was especially cherished by both he and Bruce is the small tombstone which symbolizes the death of the “classical” martial artist.
As Bruce progresses in his strength and training, the equipment also progressed. For instance, after Bruce moved to Los Angeles, he had Herb Jackson, another friend, student and equipment maker for Bruce, add 4 inches of foam to one of the kicking boards George had made to cushion against Bruce’s awesome kicking power. Modifications were always being made and new ideas explored.
The last piece of equipment made by George was a medieval weapon known as a halbard. Bruce had a keen interest and love for ancient weapons and had asked George if he could make this particular weapon for him. George made the daunting axe, but Bruce went off to Hong Kong before the weapon was finished and was not able to retrieve it before his untimely passing.
George reflected on his relationship with Bruce Lee outside of training and metal working. They used to eat together a lot, with Bruce’s favorite meal being oyster sauce beef with rice and a coke. They would flip for who would pay at the end of the meal, and maybe George wouldn’t have had to pay so often if it weren’t for Bruce’s slight of hand tricks all the time. Bruce was a joke-teller who liked to clown around a lot but he was also a man who picked his friends carefully. Bruce would eye ball people and psych them out before accepting them into his circle. He surrounded himself with the most sincere people.
After Bruce moved to Los Angeles, George would go down and visit him there. The two picked up where they left off going to Chinatown to eat and messing around with the trampoline in the backyard. Bruce taught new moves in Los Angeles that he hadn’t been teaching in Oakland. George never dreamed that martial arts could be so effective as how Bruce taught it.
“Bruce Lee was one in a million. There was never a dull moment. He was always thinking and dedicated to doing.”
In closing George recalls when Bruce was first in Oakland and palling around with himself, Allen Joe and James Lee, Bruce made the decision to have a washboard stomach. He told them he would have washboard abs in six weeks. He used to lift his shirt whenever he saw them during those six weeks and show them his progress. At the end of the allotted time, Bruce had done it. George always remembers his focus and determination.
The one thing Bruce did that really impacted George’s life was to change his attitude. George used to have a short temper, but Bruce taught him to walk away from confrontation. George asked, “What if someone spits in my face?” Bruce would say, “Just wipe it off and walk away.” Today when confronted with a situation, George tries to think like Bruce. What he learned from Bruce Lee helped him to relax and become inwardly stronger. He thinks of Bruce often and misses his friend. It was a friendship of mutual admiration and the best kinds of mettle.
George Lee still lives in Oakland and has been married to his wife, Mary, for eleven great years.