Reflecting on Charles Russo’s Striking Distance

Russo, Charles. Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America. London: University of Nebraska Press, 2016.

This is not your typical Bruce Lee biography. It does not address his child acting career nor does it discuss his time in Hollywood and Hong Kong as a film star. It does, however, look at Lee as a martial artist, but not as the martial artist he portrayed in his films. Before all that, Lee was a martial artist trying to cause, what he felt, much needed change in the Chinese martial arts. Journalist Charles Russo, in slight difference from other Bruce Lee books, dives into the martial arts, the communities, and the prevailing training methods of mainly San Francisco and Oakland, California in an effort to better understand who and what influenced Bruce Lee to create his system, Jeet Kune Do.

Russo begins with a scene in 1964, at a luau/barbeque hosted by Small Circle Jujitsu founder Wally Jay. Crowded in Jay’s backyard are most of, if not all, the big names in martial arts in and around Oakland at the time: James Lee (no relation to Bruce), Leo Fung, Ralph Castro, Edmund Parker, and Al Novak. Normally, Jay’s luaus and barbeques are to raise money for his students to participate in judo tournaments, where they consistently brought back medals of their victories, but this gathering was different. Jay had advertised that some up-and-coming, fiery young kid was going to give a demonstration that was going to blow the socks off of everybody. In the murmur of anticipation, Bruce Lee walked onto to the stage and repeated a speech and demonstration he perfected in the last five years of performing. In it, Lee began advocating for a more modern and effective approach to martial arts; that kata has created a false sense of occurrence, as fights do not happen in set patterns. To fight, one must utilize an economy of motion to overcome one’s adversary. These words stung many who were in the audience that night, but to James Lee and others like him, these were refreshing words to hear. So sets the tone of Russo’s book – a dichotomy of harsh disagreements and absolute agreements.

These criticisms and complaints about the martial arts, mainly kung fu, that Bruce Lee voiced were not unwarranted. To him, the way that the Chinese masters of both Hong Kong (in his youth) and those in San Francisco’s Chinatown trained new students was to immediately put those students into a horse stance for many training hours. In addition, the horse stance itself immobilized a fighter – it did not allow for the freedom of movement that Lee was looking for. Once the student could move on from the horse stance, masters would place the student into kata, moving through many different patterns that did not reflect the fights Lee got himself into both in Hong Kong and the West Coast, to the dismay of his parents. While Lee was quick to criticize, the masters in San Francisco provided their reasons for training this way. The horse stance, they said, was to provide a solid foundation for punches and builds the legs. The kata was a way to prevent school rivalries and students fighting one another in the streets of Chinatown, like schools of old in China. In doing so, it would go against the masters’ purpose for training, which was not to actively fight.

From this point, Russo gives a detailed history of the Chinese martial arts and notable practitioners in the San Francisco and Oakland area. With the influx of Chinese immigrants to California for the 1849 Gold Rush, the Americans already settled in San Francisco forced their Chinese counterparts into a small square of the city, resulting in the foundations of what would become Chinatown. As the years went on and by the beginning of Second World War, many Chinese further immigrated from their homeland to San Francisco and other West Coast destinations. Two important masters arrived during this time period: Lau Bun and Wong “TY” Tim Yuen. Bun made his bones through his position as a mediator and enforcer of the Chinese criminal gang and organization Hop Sing Tong in San Francisco while TY Wong gained his skills on the countless platform matches throughout China (literally empty-hand combat on a raised wooden platform) and a public peacekeeper. Though arriving a little later to the scene, Choy Kum Man of tai chi (or taijiquan), spent his youth in street fights in Hong Kong. With these three masters essentially in charge of Chinatown, they made sure, given their brutal and bloody pasts, their students did not actively seek out violence against their Chinese brethren. (Ironically, in an anecdote, Russo tells that Bun would send his students down to the Mexican section of San Francisco, knowing that police surveillance was lacking and provided a training ground for actual fight applications.)

In the last few chapters, Russo tells of Lee’s most secretive and rumor-filled fight with Wong Jack Man. After one of Lee’s demonstrations (the same one he gave at Jay’s luau and barbeque) at the Sun Sing Theater in San Francisco, Man issued a challenge to Lee in the form of a letter, citing that Lee’s actions were giving kung fu a bad name and he should cease his criticisms. Lee accepted the challenge, but only on the condition that Man come to Oakland, to Lee’s school. After some stalling, Man accepted the condition. Rumors began to spread all over Chinatown that this was going to be a clash of the times and residents began forming strong opinions of the fighters. In the one corner, Man represented the traditional values and styles of kung fu that were emphasized in kung fu schools all over Chinatown; and in the other corner, Lee represented the modern perspective of kung fu, attempting to find what was efficient kung fu and what was a farse.

November 1964, Man emerged from the car with six of his friends and acquaintances (David Chin, Chan Keung, Gee Yau Seah, Ronald Wu, Martin Wong, and Raymond Chin) and stepped into Lee’s school. Opposite the Chinatown group stood Bruce Lee, his wife, Linda, and his training partner, James Lee. After some dialogue between the two combatants, the men approached each other. Lee, practicing what he preached in his demonstrations, began closing the distance between him and Man, getting up close and personal. In a barrage of punches, Man went onto the defensive and countered, soon switching to the offensive. Lee, however, refuted Man’s movements and resumed his rhythmic succession of chain punches. This forced Man backwards, tripping over a small riser of steps off of the training area. Lee, wasting no time, pounced on him shouting for his surrender as he pounded the fallen man. Man, shielding himself from this ground and pound, yielded. In a matter of seven minutes, Lee defeated Chinatown’s champion, though he did not revel in his victory, deeming the fight lasted far too long by his own standards. As Man and his followers exited, Lee could not help but feel winded after this confrontation. He resolved to include cardio and other exercises to his training regimen to better himself and the art he wanted to perfect.

All in all, after enjoying the entirety of the book, Russo hyper-focused on Bruce Lee as a practitioner who had this vision on changing the martial arts but did not know exactly how to go about doing so. Conveying that was almost essential to Russo’s overall theme – Lee trying to find himself as a martial artist in a conservative kung fu community. It was not until the fight with Wong Jack Man that Lee began to understand what he needed to do to achieve this modernization of kung fu. With his work, Russo also provided the historical background and climate that allowed Lee and his contemporaries to question their chosen martial arts and experiment within their styles to achieve something that answered their questions on creating a better and more efficient martial art style/system. It is from Lee’s zealous questioning and criticisms that helped him and many other martial artists attain growth in their chosen artform.

To see what Charles Russo is up to today, check out his author site here.


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