PART 1 of 5: Last Interview of the late Dan Lee (1930-2015)

August 27 2016 at 9:09 AM
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Response to Last Interview of the late Dan Lee (1930-2015)

Sifu Dan Lee, being one of the first generation JKD students listed in The JKD Family Tree (source: Inosanto’s book – “JKD – The Philosophical Art of BL), was personally trained and handpicked by BL as one of his backyard training partners. He is a legendary figure from the Hall of Fame who has a vast knowledge of both the Oriental and Western martial arts. Not only is he well versed in both literature and sports but also in Chinese medicine. In short, he is a well-respected martial artist with a pragmatic style of doing things.

Sifu Dan Lee grew up in old Shanghai in the 1930s. He started practicing Shaolin Kung Fu and Chi Kung at the age of 10. At age 13, he started training diligently in Western Boxing and 5 years later, he won the National Middle-Weight Boxing Champion in the “7th National Games of the People's Republic of China” in 1948. Subsequently, he resided in Taiwan and then won the Taiwan Provincial Middle-Weight Boxing Champion in 1950. In 1952, he migrated to the U.S. Later, he was awarded a Brown Belt in Judo and a Black Belt in Kenpo Karate. He then learnt Yang Style’s Tai Chi Chuan from a prominent HK master. In 1967 , he started training JKD under Bruce Lee and then became his backyard training partner. In 1988, he received the “Hall of Fame” award from the “Black Belt” magazine. In 1996, he became one of the 13 main founders of the Jun Fan JKD Nucleus and his mission is to preserve and flourish BL’s JKD’s legacy. In 2009, he specially attended the International JKD seminar in mainland China as well as taught JKD to a selective small group of students. Both Zhu JianHua and Hao Gang became his first 2 JKD students in mainland China. (Note: In 1996, both Zhu and Hao had flown to the U.S. to study Jun Fan Kung Fu from Taky Kimura and JKD from Dan Inosanto). Sifu Dan Lee is then appointed as the Honorary Chairman of the China JKD International Federation (CJIF) with a mission of supporting the development of BL’s JKD in China.

Dan Lee’s photos:

Part 1:

Q1: Thank you for accepting our interview. At age 84, you still look very energetic and healthy, what are your secrets to your health?
DL: Not really secrets. Basically, ensure regular working and resting hours; ensure nutrition and balance diet in your food consumption; keep a peaceful and positive mindset; practice martial arts regularly and persistently. This is my daily routine and the “secret” to maintaining good health.

Q2: Were you born in Shanghai? What impressions do you still have towards Shanghai?
DL: I wasn’t born in Shanghai, my birthplace was Suzhou. I followed my father when he moved to Shanghai later on. Shanghai was an international cosmopolitan in the past. Now it has become even better and its status as the international city is increasingly rising. I completed my primary and high school educations before leaving Shanghai at age 19. When I was a little kid in Shanghai, my father encouraged me to learn English and he always told me English tales. Since young, my family education was quite westernized yet very strict.

Q3: What led to your boxing learning in Shanghai? Is there any story you can share?
DL: It’s a long story. When I was 12 or 13, we were living at the la concession française de Shanghaï or Shanghai French Concession. Coincidentally, the 2 streets next to it lived the White Russians from the Soviet Union. One day I cycled home from school. When I was about to step into my house, suddenly, there were 3 to 4 tall, brawny Russians kids who came from the street and tried to rob my bicycle. They beat me up. I held tight to my bicycle as I didn’t want them to take it away from me. Luckily, at this moment, a man passed by and got me out from the trouble. I ran home crying and did a handstand in my bedroom. I thought to myself, why a Chinese like me had to be bullied by foreigners? I wanted to take revenge. I thought the Shaolin stuff which I learnt previously was not working. Then, I found out that there was this Shanghai Y.M.C.A who taught Western Boxing. So, I enrolled into the club and was the youngest kid there. Usually, the boxing students were about 17 or 18. Since I was the youngest student, I had to work extra hard and my goal was to seek revenge just as the Chinese saying goes, “It’s always never too late for a gentleman to take revenge in 10 years time.”

Q4: What happened later?
DL: I remembered I was beaten up by the Russian kids around May or June. From then onwards, I kept on training. Initially I was in the elementary class and later, I became impatient and enrolled myself into the intermediate class. The intermediate class required the student to wear boxing glove and engaged in real sparring. Those young men in the intermediate class took me as their live dummies and beat me up with blood covering my whole face. I lied on the chair with a white cloth covering my bleeding forehead. The blood kept oozing out from my wound, yet I stood up and carried on fighting. They all said I was mad and asked what went wrong with me. My instructor was a Jewish German and had been teaching there for many years. He asked, “What happened to you? You have not really done much in elementary class and now you are in the intermediate class?” I told him I ought to learn fast. He said, “No, no. You can’t do it this way, go and learn the basics first. Only after sufficient training, your foundation will then become solid.”

Hence, I started from the basics. Non-stop learning, sparring and practicing until almost December that year, my father asked me, “Lee Kai (Note: Dan’s Lee Chinese name), what do you want?” I told him I wanted a pair of boxing gloves. My father agreed. One day in the first week of that month, I bought along my new boxing glove and went to look for the Russian bullies. They saw me and recognized that I was the kid who was beaten up by them earlier. They were curious to see me carrying a boxing glove. I said to the tallest guy who had beaten me, “Let’s do it!” He said, “Ok!” Thus, the other Russians kids surrounded us and formed a circle. I wore my boxing glove and used the boxing techniques which I had learnt for the past 6-7 months to fight. I kept attacking and punching that tall bully. Actually, I was very childish that time but annoyance and resentment had occupied my mind. I was only thinking of getting the revenge. Then, unexpectedly, I punched the guy’s nose and he bled profusely. He said, “You’re crazy! Stop! No more fighting! No more fighting!” I won. From then onwards, I kept practicing boxing.

Q5: You learnt boxing from the Jewish German instructor. So, can you tell us which country’s boxing style did the Shanghai Y.M.C.A. mainly belonged to?
DL: Europe. At that time, all our styles of boxing were very European because there were Europeans all around us. Shanghai was an international cosmopolitan. There were Americans, English, Germans, French, Russians, all kind of people. Y.M.C.A used to hold many competitions and demonstrations very often. I was very interested in these events, thus, I went to register and participate in the boxing competition. I remembered during the competition I took part in, my opponent in the first match was a French. His age was about the same as mine. I won unexpectedly. I was a skinny kid and my weight was only 98 pounds then. But there was no 98 pounds category at that time. It was at least 100 pounds and above. Hence, I participated in the Flyweight category matches. After the victory, the organizer specially designed an award for me and claimed that I belonged to the “fly” category (Haha…). They made fun of me by saying that I was a victor in the category of “defeating the fly.” Upon receiving the award, I treated it as a treasure and drew a picture on it. However, when I left Shanghai with my father hastily later on, I did not bring along any of the awards with me.

Q6: Subsequently, how did you represent Shanghai in the “7th National Games of the People's Republic of China?”
DL: My father noticed that I was very interested in boxing and found that I was quite gifted in it. So, he encouraged me to box and bought me several b & w boxing footage of the U.S. boxing champion - Joe Louis. He told me to analyze Joe Louis’ fighting methods and kept encouraging me to keep boxing. Later, in May 1948, at the “7th National Games of the People's Republic of China,” people around me encouraged me to participate. I agreed at once. Upon the trial selection in Shanghai, I was chosen to represent in the middle-weight (60.5 kg) C category for Shanghai team. That was the first time I took part in the National Game. The competition was very intense as all the participants were well-known boxers from all over China. I remembered a year before this National Game, I had met a buddy of my father. He told me he had a good friend, a Chinese, who specialize in boxing, and asked me whether I was willing to learn from him. I said yes. His name was Chow Chong-Yu and was said to be working for the overseas Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

However, Chow used the Chinese methods to teach me. The footwork he taught was different. He taught me to stand stance and put the hands apart. I was astonished. These seemed like nothing to do with boxing. He told me to just practice as what he instructed. Actually, I didn’t know what to practice, so, I just heed his advice and practice accordingly. After then, I left Y.M.C.A. and followed this Chinese instructor to learn boxing. When I participated in the National Game, he was still my instructor. He browsed at the 7-8 participants in my group who came from different China’s provinces, such as the 3 provinces of North-East, Hong Kong and also an overseas Chinese from Philippines. I can’t remember the rest. In my group, the 8 boxers would fight and 4 would be eliminated. Then the remaining 4 would compete in the semi-final. Eventually, only the 2 winners would enter the final.

I remembered my first match was against the opponent from the 3 Provinces of North-East. He was very much taller and sturdy than me. That time, my instructor mainly trained my left hand, let me practiced fast punch, left punch, hook punch but my right hand had not been properly trained yet. Moreover, in the first match, I punched much faster than the opponent. His punches were too slow. So, in the first around, he was already tottering and was having trouble sustaining his energy. His instructor told him to give up if his physical strength could not stand up. So, in the second round, he surrendered.

After the first match, my instructor looked at the rest of the boxers, and observed who would be my potential opponent if I qualified for the next round. Then, it seemed to him that the Chinese Filipino was indeed more powerful among the rest. In his first round, his first right punch already knocked-off the opponent. We had a week rest during the interval. The semi-final then left with only 4 boxers, including me. Out of these four, the Hong Kong’s opponent by the name of Lai Tung-Fung was a Boxing Champion in the HK colony. Moreover, he gave up during the second round as the Filipino opponent outclassed him in his punches and footwork. After the semi-final, there were only 2 boxers remained to compete in the final. I was one of them.

My instructor realized that my final opponent would be powerful as he had already K.O. the opponents in his first 2 matches. Nevertheless, we still had a week to train. My coach would then imitate the Filipino Boxing Champ and used his way of boxing to attack me. He taught me how to avoid the attacks and how to counter-attack. At that time, we went for the competition with a “Must Win” mentality since we had the advantages of “right timing, right location and right people.” Right timing referred to my age, I was 18, very raw and energetic; right location meant I was a Shanghainese, no need to stay in the hostel as my house was there; right people simply meant there were helps from my instructor and huge supports from my schoolmates as well as the Chinese spectators who would cheer for me. My father wished me success. He was thoughtful enough to place a magnetic wire recorder below the ring and recorded the voice of the entire match and at the same time, he got a B & W home movie camera to film the whole match. He cheered me, “Chia You! Chia You!” (Literally means “adding fuel” – Keep it up! Keep it up!)

In the final match that day, the Filipino boxing champ was indeed very robust. He moved fast but so did I. There was no clear winner in the first round. In the second round, his right punch, “Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! hit me several times and I had to keep to my left and right to avoid his attacks. Although I had received a few blows from him but I could still stand the hits and punched him back strongly. In the third round, he was exhausted and started to hold on to me and I was not able to launch my punches. The spectators blew whistle seeing him hugging me. The result was out eventually. I was lucky to win him on the total points score. After the match, that Filipino told me, “Lee, I’m already 38. I came to China to help you guys practice. You’re young and have a bright future ahead. Keep on striving, I wish you success!” I appreciated his wishes. We took a photograph later on. He was wearing a dark sunglass, had curly hair and a small moustache. He could speak Mandarin, a typical Chinese Filipino.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I felt a bit frightened when I recalled the match in the day. That guy’s punch was devastating. How did I win him? Then, my father came over to my bed and said to me, “Lee Kai, you’re still young. Remember 2 things. First, never be conceited. Second, there’ll always be someone who is stronger than you, so, stay humble and learn modestly. Also, never have a snobbish attitude when dealing with people, stay upright always.” These words have become the mottos in my life. At that time, I was studying in the high school. Every morning, I would run 3000 meters before going to school. After school, about 3pm, I would go to the boxing club to do my homework. I was very young and energetic then. It could be considered a success story during my teenage days.

Q7: When did you left for the U.S.? Why didn’t you continue your training in boxing?
DL: I was greatly influenced by my father and inspired to do something related to electrical engineering. My father had accomplished some great achievements in this area. My father and I went left Shanghai in 1949 because of political instability (Note: Shanghai was taken over by the communists). We were lucky to board a ship which carried us to Taiwan. It was a great experience for me. In June 1949, I reached Taiwan and later I enrolled into the University of Taiwan. One day, someone told me there was a boxing competition in Taiwan and asked me whether I was interested to participate. I thought why not. Thus, I participated in the Taiwan Provincial Boxing Competition.

Before the competition started, the newspaper had already reported that a Chinese National Middle-Weight Boxing Champion (Cat. C) would be fighting in the competition. A few of the boxing participants became worried and terrified after reading the news. In that competition, I fought about 6-7 matches. I remembered out of these matches I fought, about 3-4 opponents gave up in the second rounds. Someone later said, “Lee Kai, you’d already won the China’s National Championship, why do you still bother to win a provincial boxing champion?” But I just won it out of interest. However, I knew in boxing, the head would get hit and injured very frequently. That was why sometimes at night, I heard noisy sound “whong~whong~whong” inside my head. I then pondered if boxing was going to leave a bad impact on my head, then it would go against the will of my dream in pursuing engineering studies. No, I shouldn’t let it killed my dream. Therefore, when I went over to the U.S. in 1952 to pursue my study, I decided to discontinue practicing boxing and went for swimming and other sports only. In 1956, I graduated from the University and then, I went over to LA.

Q8: What kind of martial arts did you practice and what achievements have you accomplish?
DL: Long story short. I went to LA mainly to look for a job. I was employed by a company and worked diligently over there. Life was stable and I started thinking why not resumed my martial arts training again. Since boxing professionally was too dangerous for me, so, boxing had not crossed my mind. Not long after I reached LA in 1956, I saw an old Chinese Sifu teaching Chinese Kung Fu in the Chinese Community. He was teaching Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut etc. mainly in Kung Fu forms. They did not arouse my interest. Then, I remembered I had learnt a bit of wrestling in China before, so I could try wrestling instead. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anyone teaching wrestling then. However, I found there was a Japanese Culture Center nearby which taught Judo lessons. Hence, I went there and took up Judo. The lesson was conducted once a week and at the same time, I learnt some Japanese Judo terms. Most of the trainees were Japanese and I was the only Chinese there.

The Japanese Culture Center used to hold competitions very often and it’s also the way to get belt promotion. After training for 2 years, I was promoted from White Belt to Brown Belt. It was about 2-3 months away from the competition that I could test my skill and got my Black Belt. Then, someone told me why not joined the Japan Judo Competition in South LA. If I won, I would also get recognition and receive my Black Belt. I was very excited and decided to participate. Nevertheless, my skill was not good enough. During the competition, I tried all ways and means to win but a Black Belt Japanese Karate kid who was shorter than me beat me. At that time, I already swept his foot off the floor but he too, did the same to me. In the end, I threw him off from my left shoulder heavily. After the match, I immediately went to see the doctor as my shoulder was in acute pain. The doctor told me I’ve broken my left shoulder and needed to go for an operation to patch it up immediately. After the operation, I recuperated for quite some time. My Judo training came to an end and that’s how I only got a Brown Belt in Judo.

It was until 1962 that I thought of learning other types of martial arts but still not the traditional Kung Fu forms. It happened that I saw a Karate performance which was very impressive. It was not Japanese Karate but Hawaiian Karate. Therefore, I decided to enroll into Ed Parker’s Kenpo Karate School and learnt his skill. Ed was a Hawaiian. He learnt the skill from a Chinese teacher. After that, Ed filmed his teacher’s martial arts movement with his video camera and then re-created his own 3 sets of skills while watching these movements. Ed’s Karate skills actually didn’t look too stiff like the classical Japanese Karate. I thought it wasn’t bad and furthermore, there’re some Chinese essences in it, so, I decided to learn it from Ed Parker.

Dan Lee’s photos:

(Part 2 To be continued next week...)

 Respond to this message   

  • Fantastic stuff!! Question for LJF - Leon on Aug 27, 2016, 10:54 AM
  • Re: PART 1 of 5: Last Interview of the late Dan Lee (1930-2015) - Chris on Aug 27, 2016, 7:57 PM
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