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Phoebe Lee’s Radio Interview on Bruce Lee

January 7 2017 at 8:37 AM
LJF  (Login LJF)

Response to Eldest Sister, Phoebe Lee’s impression of Bruce Lee – “Family & Filial Piety Come First"

The following are excerpts of Phoebe Lee's radio interview on 20th July 2010. The interviewers were Tsao Chip and CF Fung. (Note: This is a Cantonese interview and some sentences are being rephrased to make it more comprehensible (without changing the meanings) to the English readers)

Q1: Did your family always live in Nathan Road?
Phoebe: In early 1941, when my parents, Lee Hoi Chuen and Grace Lee returned to HK from S.F. with infant Bruce who was just three months old, we all lived on the 2nd floor of a building located at No. 5, Mau Lam Street. Subsequently, we moved to a bigger house in Katherine Building situated at 2/F, 218 Nathan Road in late 1941. Our house was directly opposite of the famous Shum Lok restaurant. Katherine Building was kinda of a 4-storeys Western type building. Our family lived on the second floor.

Q2: Was Bruce the 4th child in the family?
Phoebe: Actually, our parents had an elder son (Lee Han-Kwang) which was born before me. However, this eldest brother of ours died prematurely as an infant. I then became the first child so to speak. Our family usually addressed the child’s nickname at home. My name is Chau Yuen, and I was nicknamed dai ngan aka big eyes. After me is Agnes (Chau Fung, nicknamed Fung B aka Phoenix B) followed by Peter (Chung Sam, nicknamed lun mou aka curly hair. He was born with nice curly hair but was straightened after he cut his hair when he grew up). The 4th child was Bruce (Jun Fan, nicknamed Sai Fung aka little phoenix) and the youngest was Robert (Jan Fai nicknamed kau jai aka little puppy, not because he was cute but because like Bruce, he fell sick often and was fragile. According to the Chinese, it was best to give a nickname to the child to protect him from sickness and misfortune). (Note: In between Bruce and Robert, Grace Lee gave birth to another baby girl (Chau Peng) but like the first child, she died prematurely.)

Q3: We knew that you have a big family in Nathan Road’s house. How many people were living in your house back then?
Phoebe: There were a total of about 17 people in the family, i.e. My parents -- Lee Hoi Chuen’s couple and their 5 children, 5th Aunt (Kwan Ngan – wife of Lee Moon Tim, the late elder brother of Lee Hoi Chuen) and her 5 children (Lee Chau-Kan, Lee Faat, Lee Chau-Yun, Frank Lee Fa-Tsi, Lee Chau Foon), Servant Wu’s couple and son Ngan Jai, driver – Ah Leung. I remembered 5th Aunt took care of little Robert while Chau-Yun (Yu Ming’s future wife) took care of little Agnes. Our eldest cousin, Chau-Kan, who was a lot older than me, took care of Bruce’s movies affairs. It was such a big family and the house would always crowd with many people especially from the entertainment circle since father was in this industry. In addition, we kept some pets with us which made the house even more crowdie.

Q4: Was Bruce a very naughty boy as claimed by many books and magazines?
Phoebe: He was actually quite a good boy but sometimes very playful and couldn’t sit still for a moment. I remembered our father would usually take the whole family to the Shum Lok restaurant every Sunday morning to Yum Cha (drink tea) and eat dim sum. Bruce was very active and would be moving around the whole place. Father adored the children and normally would order a big meat bun for Bruce to eat as he knew it was his favorite. Robert had yet been born, so, Bruce being the youngest, was adored by our parents.

Q5: We heard that Bruce dislike swimming? How true was that?
Phoebe: Before Robert was born, mother used to bring us, the children to Lai Yuen (aka Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park) for swimming. Mother would teach us how to swim. When it was turn for Sai Fung to swim, mother would grab his arms and Bruce would try to kick the water. But when mother released Sai Fung’s arms and tried to let him swim by himself, Sai Fung struggled in the water. After a few attempts, he still couldn’t learn how to swim and finally gave up. (Note: Another time, Phoebe pressed Bruce’s head into the water to punish him for his mischievous behavior. From then onwards, Bruce dislike swimming and kept himself away from the water.)

Q6: So, what other things was Bruce not afraid of?
Phoebe: Though young Bruce had a phobia towards water but he was very fond of pet dog and had one at home called Bobby. Bobby was a cute and lovely dog. Bruce had a close relationship with Bobby and whoever it sensed was not friendly to Bruce, Bobby would bark, chased and bite that person (laugh). Actually, our father, Lee Hoi Chuen liked to keep dogs too, especially great dane. This might have some influence on young Bruce.

Q7: Speaking about your father, Lee Hoi Chuen, we all knew that he was one of the famous 4 Cantonese Opera Comedians. Could you tell us whether you’ve seen him perform on stage before?
Phoebe: Of course, so did my whole family. I remembered as a kid, when father was performing opera on stage, mother would bring the children to watch his performance. We usually went to the backstage to look for father after the show. Father would then bring the whole family to the nearby restaurant to have supper and he would order many cha siu buns for the kids and we would finish them all.

Q8: Could you still remember where exactly did Mr. Lee Hoi Chuen perform?
Phoebe: Oh yes, in the mid 40s, before Robert was born, father used to perform Cantonese opera at Ko Shing Theatre which was located in Sheung Wan, HK Island. It was quite a distance from our house. Father had to take a walla-walla (a kind of motor boat) near Star Ferry Pier and sailed over to HK Island. After his performance, he would again take walla-walla back to Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. From there, he would then take a rickshaw home. Usually, the rickshaw would pass by Cherikoff (bakery), Chantecler (restaurant) and Lascar Row/Whitfield Barracks, which were the landmarks along the way to our house at Nathan Road.

Q9: Bruce used to rub his nose in his movies, was it a habit in his real life?
Phoebe: Actually, very few people outside our family knew that Bruce had allergic rhinitis since he was a child and it was also a common nose sensitive problem among our siblings. That’s why you see Bruce rubbed his nose with his thumb or forefinger sometimes not because he wanted to do it intentionally but because he had sensitive nose. (Note: People who were unaware of it thought that he was imitating the Western screen gangster’s gesture. However, it became one of his trademarks in his movies later on.)

Q10: Could you share with us the behind stories about those 2 big family photos (poster-size) exhibited in the opening ceremony of the movie, “Bruce Lee, My Brother”?
Phoebe: The first photo being Bruce and me eating ice-creams. Bruce dropped one of his 2 ice-cream scoops on the floor. He wanted to eat mine and I stopped him. So, he made a funny face at me and quickly used his tongue to lick the remaining scoop of his ice-cream. The expression as if was saying what a shame! The second photo is our family portrait which was taken on the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. Bruce was 15 (circa 1956) then and looked very young and raw and you could see his new-grown moustache which he purposely kept to show that he was transforming from a boy to an adult.

Q11: Bruce and your father, Lee Hoi Chuen acted in quite a number of Cantonese movies. Were you and other siblings involved in the filming as well?
Phoebe: Well, to make a living, my father played in both Cantonese opera and movies as well. He would bring us to the studio to watch him worked sometimes. One day, Bruce was spotted by a director who persuaded my father to let him cast in a lead role in the movie, “Kid Cheung” (Sai Lou Cheung in Cantonese). Before that, Bruce already had cameo appearances in several films. So did his other siblings but among us, Bruce was more interested and gifted in acting.

Q12: Do you still remember the day when Bruce left for the U.S. in 1959? Where did he stay in the U.S.?
Phoebe: Definitely. In 1959, the whole family saw Bruce boarded the President Wilson passenger liner at the Ocean Terminal situated at Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. Everyone in the family felt sad to see Bruce’s departure to the U.S. When Bruce arrived at S.F., he stayed at an uncle’s house. My father told me this uncle was his old friend by the name of Quan Gin Ho (aka Kwan Gin Hong), a former teacher whom he knew when he was touring in the U.S. with his Cantonese opera group. Quan once returned to HK and met up with father for a reunion. My father told him in future, maybe his son might go to America but was afraid he had no place to stay. Uncle Quan promised father if his son ever gone to America, he could stay at his house. This was why father contacted Uncle Quan earlier and arranged Bruce to stay with him upon his arrival in S.F. Uncle Quan was quite old then and Bruce stayed with him for 1 year (Note: Phoebe mistakenly said 1 year, which in fact was only several months) before moving to Seattle and stayed with a couple, Ping Chow and Ruby Chow, another two of father’s old friends (Note: Ping Chow was also a well-known Cantonese opera performer previously. He would later performed opera in Vancouver’s Chinatown for charity and invited Bruce and Eunice Lam to perform Cha Cha on stage. Bruce gave Gung Fu demos with his students as well, circa 1961) Bruce lived at the attic of the Ruby Chow’s Restaurant. While studying at Edison Technical School, he told me he also worked as a part-time busboy (waiter) in Ruby Chow’s Restaurant besides teaching Cha Cha and later Gung Fu so as to make some pocket money for himself. He didn’t want to rely on my parents’ financial support anymore after he left HK.

Q13: Did you guys miss Bruce when he was in the U.S.? How did your family maintain contact with him besides letter?
Phoebe: We sure missed him badly. I remembered we used to have distance call with him once in a blue moon at a kinda of phone booth that collected HK$48 for every 3 minutes of calling. Distance call was considered very expensive back then. Everyone in the family would prepare what to say beforehand and tried to talk to him as much as possible before time was up and the next family member in the queue took over. Father gave Bruce US$100 on the day he departed for the U.S. But when he returned to HK in 1963, he gave much more money back to father plus some gifts he bought in the U.S. Father who was a serious person most of the time and seldom smiled, did express his delightfulness by constantly flashing his grin in front of all of us. From here, we could tell that he was really happy to see Bruce being transformed into a better and matured person after staying few years abroad.

Q14: We understand that your mother Grace Lee (Ho Ooi-Yi) was half Chinese and half Caucasian. Her look was Eurasian. Was she very westernized in her behavior and thinking?
Phoebe: Not really. She was raised in an almost Chinese family though. She was Catholic and my father, a devoted Buddhist. But both loved each other and lived well together. They were married in HK not in the U.S. or Shanghai and I think the place where they got married was called City Hall. My father was more serious and traditional but my mother more easy-going and open-minded. I remembered father though was quite traditional yet he would occasionally bring the whole family to the Paramount Restaurant for meals. That was a high class Western restaurant. My mother actually was the daughter of Ho Kom-Tong (1866-1950) and the niece of Sir Robert Ho-Tung Bosman (1862-1956), both notable Hong Kong businessmen and philanthropists.

Q15: Sir Robert Ho-Tung Bosman was the richest and most influential HK businessmen back then. Have you ever seen or met him before? If yes, when and where did you see him?
Phoebe: I remembered one day after school, my mother brought me and Agnes together with her to Ho-Tung’s funeral (26 April 1956). While Ho-Tung was still alive, mother sometimes would bring me and other siblings including Bruce to Ho-Tung’s mansion, The Red House on Seymour Road. I was surprised to see Ho Tung who looked European dressed in a traditional Chinese clothing made of good fabric instead of the Western suit. He was very kind and affable to us. I had fond memories of his graciousness. Bruce was also there but he was very young then. I also remembered Ho Tung’s daughter Florence Ho (1915 – unknown), my mother’s cousin. She was a fair lady and also treated us very nice.

Q16: How about your distant relative, HK millionaire, M.W. Lo whose Palm villa was used as ETD’s location shooting? Did you contact with him and his family?
Phoebe: Our family did maintain contact with the Low’s family previously but not very often. That’s why Bruce knew them too and thus, able to convince M.W. Lo to lend his villa for movie shooting. You know, Bruce also once engaged Lo & Lo Lawyer as his legal representative in HK then since they were opened by our relatives and were more trustworthy in a sense.

Q17: Was your father’s best friend, Leung Sing-Bo? ((Note: Famous HK comedian. His daughter is Man Lan, Bruce’s good female friend. Both Leung and Man Lan played in Darling Girl (1957) and Bruce had a brief appearance dancing Cha Cha with her.))
Phoebe: Not really. Uncle Bo (Leung Sing-Bo) did not visit our house as often as the following two uncles. These two uncles in fact, had very good relationships with my father. The first being Yee Chau-Sui ((1904-1955; real name Yu King-Wing, lived at No.59, basement, Pok Fu Lam Road, HK Island). Note: Yee played opposite Lee Hoi-Chuen and Bruce in Kid Cheung (1950)) Another good friend of my father was Poon Yat-On (1904-1964, real name Lee Hong-On, lived at No.108, 4th floor, Austin Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon). Poon, like my father, was also one of the 4 famous Cantonese Opera comedians. Both Yee and Poon were buddies of my father and they used to smoke opium together. When both of them passed away, father paid respect to them in their funerals personally. He was very upset of their untimely passing.

Q18: Your father, Lee Hoi Chuen passed away in 1965. Did he have any discomfort before his passing?
Phoebe: Actually, father tried to quit opium smoking twice, one before 1958 and one in 1958, where he was treated by Dr. Yeung Gin Wong, the husband of Fong Yim-Fen who was the leading female opera and movie actress in HK. After quitted smoking, father’s throat felt uncomfortable initially but generally, his health improved. A month before he passed away, his stomach as usual had some disorder but it wasn’t any big issue. Other than that, he looked fine. Father passed away peacefully during his sleep. His funeral took place at the Kowloon Parlor and his coffin was placed there for almost a week before burial and waiting for his children to come back to pay their last respect. Peter and Agnes were the first two of his children to return from overseas. Bruce was the last to arrive at the funeral…. (Note: Phoebe repeated this same story over her interviews. For details refer to the earlier article, “Sister, Phoebe Lee’s impression of Bruce Lee – “Both Family & Filial Piety Come First”)

Q19: Did your brother, Peter stay in HK after your father’s passing?
Phoebe: No, after father’s funeral, Peter returned to the U.S. because his girlfriend (Eunice Lam) was still studying in the U.S. Peter tried to keep her company. So, he worked at the astronomic observatory before returning to HK a year later. He then worked as a teacher in La Salle College and later joined the HK observatory. He worked his way up to hold a prominent position there for many years before his retirement.

Q20: Bruce passed away in 1973. Did you ever seen or talked to him just before his passing?
Phoebe: I remembered Bruce came back to the U.S. in June. He was in LA and I was in another city. He met up with mother and told her he would be bringing her to HK to enjoy a good life there. Before leaving for HK, Bruce called me up to see how’s thing was going on my side. At that time, I was working in the United Airline as an accountant for few years since I went to the U.S. in 1970. Bruce told me to resign my job and come back to HK. But I told him what else can I do besides my familiar accounting. He said then worked for him and helped him out with his accounts. He said don’t worry as he would take care of me. However, I told him I was coping well with my job and we should talk about it another time. Bruce did not force me to make any decision. He then flew back to HK…... A month later, I received a call to tell me my brother was dead..…. .(emotionally choked)

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  • Nice interview! Thanks! - S.Wira on Jan 7, 2017, 2:13 PM
  • Great article as usual! nt - Fred on Jan 7, 2017, 2:58 PM
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