Shannon Lee on HOW BRUCE LEE CHANGED THE WORLD
by Gene Ching
On May 17, 2009, a two-hour special presentation premieres on HISTORY. HOW BRUCE LEE CHANGED THE WORLD is a refreshing look at the impact of Bruce Lee and his remarkable legacy. It features an amazing amount of interviews with a wide range of celebrities like Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Sugar Ray Leonard, Dana White, John Saxon and Bey Logan. It also includes filmmakers John Woo, Brett Ratner, Rob Cohen, Quentin Tarantino and a rare interview with Raymond Chow, musicians RZA, Lalo Schifrin and L.L. Cool J, and martial arts masters such as UFC’s Ben Saunders, JKD’s Lewis Luk, Taky Kimura, Tommy Carruthers, Shaolin’s Shi Yanming and free runners EZ and Kerbie. There are even some surprising speakers like comedian Margaret Cho and Marvel Comic’a Stan Lee. Also interviewed are some of Bruce Lee's intimate family, such as his widow Linda Lee Cadwell and his daughter Shannon Lee.
Shannon was kind enough to share some of her insights on HOW BRUCE LEE CHANGED THE WORLD, and also updated us on the ongoing Bruce Lee projects happening here and in China.
GC: How did you get involved in this documentary?
SL: Jon-Barrie Waddell of Waddell Media came to me and said that they wanted to do a documentary called HOW BRUCE LEE CHANGED THE WORLD. They had done documentaries before, and there had been – I think – one done in a similar vein about William Shatner or something like that. But they thought that Bruce Lee was a much more relevant topic and that they really had a passion to go about doing this. They had been talking to HISTORY Channel and there seemed to be some interest. And so they wanted to know if we would be interested in working with them on it and we got to know one another through our conversations and it just seemed like it would be a good project.
GC: What made this stand out from the rest?
SL: I really like the theme of this project – HOW BRUCE LEE CHANGED THE WORLD. It's different than sort of a straight biographical documentary, a number of which have been done. It really gets to take a look at what the effect of his legacy has been on the world and continues to be today.
GC: This documentary covers so much ground and speaks to so many people that I can't but wonder what hit the clipping room floor.
SL: Well, I tell you, they had so much more footage that they shot than they even could use, which I guess is in some ways a good thing. He had a lot of influence in a lot of different areas, so if it had been in one area, it could have been an entire show about that. But yeah, there was a lot there. And I think that hopefully at some point when the DVD comes out we can really take the time and expand on some of it.
GC: I was struck by the segment on your journey in particular. Your meeting with Raymond Chow for this project looked really special.
SL: It was. It was interesting because we went to this place where portions of ENTER THE DRAGON had been filmed and I had never been there before. I mean, maybe I was there when I was three (laughs), but I don't remember. It was a really beautiful location and obviously a location that had some background for me. It was interesting because we sat down and, at first, they were going to interview Raymond. We were sitting at this table and we just started talking. They said, "Well, let's just shoot you guys talking." It really just turned into a very organic conversation between he and I about his relationship with my dad and what they were trying to do together. So it was really nice in that way.
GC: What do you think of Hong Kong turning your family home into a museum?
SL: I'm still in contact with the government officials there about it. I think that it will be a good thing. I think that of any place in the world there probably should be a Bruce Lee Museum in Hong Kong. And I think that since they're able to get ahold of the family residence that it just makes a whole lot of sense to turn it into a museum and to preserve that. I think it would be great for me also, to be able to revisit, if they are able to restore it back to the way that it was and stop it from being a "love hotel" (laughs).
GC: I read about that on the net.
SL: So I think it's a really good and ambitious project and I hope that we're able to complete it.
GC: And what were your impressions visiting Shunde, your ancestral village in mainland China?
SL: I had actually been to Beijing before, but I haven't been in China much. The couple times I've been to Beijing were very short trips, just for business. It was the first time ever that I had crossed the border from Hong Kong into China. Previously you couldn't do that easily. It was very interesting to me to know that you could very easily go by car quite quickly to the ancestral part of China that my family is from. It was very interesting in that way because it seemed like even though the distance is very short, it's almost like travelling through a portal in time – from one point in time to a more ancient point in time.
GC: How long of a ride is that?
SL: It's a couple hours.
GC: What do you think of the museum project in Shunde?
SL: I'm really hoping to go back. I think they've now installed the statue that is going to be there. They had their grand opening so I'd really love to go back. When I was there visiting at the time, they were still building all of the facility and the statue had not been put in place. I would love to go back and take a look. That park that they have dedicated to the Bruce Lee Memorial is gorgeous.
GC: How big is it?
SL: It's 2600 acres. It's big. And it's a really beautiful sort of nature preserve where there's some mountains, there's lakes, some terrain. They're looking to develop it. They want to keep it as a park, so they're not going to scrap all of the wildlife there and turn it into some big industrial complex. Rather, what they want to do is make it into a really beautiful park that has trails and different areas where there's a community area where there's the museum and the martial arts teaching facility will be. And then there's an area for kids where there might be some rides, but mostly it'll be a lovely, lovely park.
GC: I totally want to ride the Bruce Lee ride.
GC: HOW BRUCE LEE CHANGED THE WORLD is co-produced by LeeWay Productions, where you are the executive producer. What is LeeWay?
SL: LeeWay is my company. We launched it in 2008 and it's our production company. It's a start with doing productions that extend the Lee legacy. So this was a really good project to break our teeth on. We really want to get into and are interested in all different types of things from television, animation and films. We're in development on a number of different initiatives right now.
GC: You were also an executive producer of THE LEGEND OF BRUCE LEE, the 2008 Chinese TV series mentioned in the documentary. What was your involvement in that?
SL: They came to us. It was a groundbreaking event in the sense that it was the first time that CCTV or a government production company in China had licensed outside of China for a project. So they came to us and they licensed rights. But then my involvement from a producer's standpoint was more about giving them some guidance and notes.
GC: Is producing a new career for you?
GC: From daughter of the dragon to singer to movie star to producer.
SL: (laughs) You know, life is short. You got to try to do it all.
GC: It's like China is embracing Bruce Lee when they haven't done so in the past. He's like a prodigal son for them. How do you feel about this?
SL: I think it's very interesting. You know, in his lifetime, my father didn't necessarily have a lot of love for China. So it's interesting now that he's becoming a poster child in a way for them. But I also see it as a really positive thing because I think they're really starting to understand. They're sort of claiming him as a Chinese man, which he was. And as a Chinese man who influenced the world and is very popular in the world, he really is a very expansive face for them. And so for China to recognize that and want to embrace that I think is good. Now, how much they embrace the totality of his legacy – especially some of the more freedom-of-expression type of things – remains to be seen. But still, they see him as a Chinese icon who is popular throughout the world.
GC: Your father is stereotypically characterized as the Chinese pioneer, but he's really an international phenomena.
SL: For sure. I like to think of him as a citizen of the world.
GC: He certainly broke down some racial barriers. Being half Chinese yourself, how does that reflect in you personally?
SL: I think that I'm lucky in the sense to have grown up under his legacy so that I don't view myself as I'm part this and I'm part that. You know, I don't like to dissect myself in that way. I see myself as part of the human race like everybody else.
GC: How does this all tie in with the Bruce Lee Foundation?
SL: The documentary was produced by LeeWay, and there were some things that were licensed through Bruce Lee Enterprises, our licensing company. But the Bruce Lee Foundation is another entity. It's a non-profit, a public charity, a 501c3. The mission of the foundation is to preserve and perpetuate the legacy of Bruce Lee. We do that in a much less commercialized sort of way through the foundation, yet it seems to work very well with all the other aspects that we do for the legacy. The documentary came to some of the Foundation events – the 35th anniversary that we had in Seattle – and documented that. But as an organization, it has a very precise mission and precise goals that it's working towards such as building the Bruce Lee Museum and developing educational programs and scholarship programs and things like that.
GC: And you and your mom sit at the head of all this?
SL: Bruce Lee Enterprises and LeeWay are just me, although my mom is an active consultant. She kind of likes to think of herself as retired.
GC: She deserves to be.
SL: Yeah. But she is very active in the Foundation.
GC: You've been interviewed so many times about your father, so I'm sure you get the same questions over and over again. What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about Bruce Lee?
SL: You know, I don't know if there are necessarily misunderstandings as there aren't complete understandings. I think, for instance, most mainstream people know the name Bruce Lee but they just sort of know it as, "Oh, he's that kick-ass kung fu guy from the 70's." So they are really missing out on the depth of who he was and what he accomplished in his lifetime.
Then I also think that even in the martial arts arena that people who are really, really focused on martial arts and Jeet Kune Do and/or Wing Chun and/or MMA or any of those things, are always looking to pigeonhole what my father was doing, and maybe don't have a complete understanding of that as well. There's a lot of bickering back and forth about what he was doing. Was it really MMA? Was it modified Wing Chun? Is Jeet Kune Do just a philosophy? I think there are a lot of incomplete understandings there as well.
I think it just sort of depends. I think that some people look at him as somebody who was superhuman, so sometimes the human quality of him gets lost. I would say more those types of things rather than, "Oh, he was really misunderstood."
GC: That's what I liked about HOW BRUCE LEE CHANGED THE WORLD took on so many different perspectives.
SL: I thought the documentary did a really good job of bringing to the floor a lot of those things.
GC: Do you ever have trouble with overzealous fans?
SL: I've never had any really serious trouble. Nobody has ever – God forbid – attacked me or something. Certainly there have been people have written odd letters or tried to get ahold of me and been a little bit off perhaps, but I've never had any serious trouble. For the most part, I would say that most of the people I've encountered in my life have been really lovely.
GC: You enjoy a truly unique position in the martial arts world. Are you still practicing?
SL: I've been off and on. It's been really hard since I've had my daughter and everything. But I sometimes get back and do a little kickboxing with Benny Urquidez. I haven't studied JKD in a little while, but I always think about it.
GC: I guess you don't have a choice there.
SL: (laughs) I'm involved in it whether I'm doing it or not. But I do like to do it and would like to do it more.
GC: What should we look forward to from you and your organizations next?
SL: I think that people should just keep their ears and eyes and consciousnesses – if that's a word – tuned because I think there's going to be a lot of exciting things happening for the legacy in the next few years. In terms of projects, we're going to launch BruceLee.com, but also with the foundation and growing those programs and those events and hopefully getting the Museum built; so I really see that there's going to be a lot coming up in the next few years and people should just stay tuned.
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Bruce Lee images courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation via History. © 2009
Shannon Lee photos courtesy of Rich Schmitt