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Chasing The Dragon
  • June 24, 2013 : 07:06
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WAN CHAI GIRLS

Navigating the tricky terrain of Chinese face required the producers to turn some tricks when it came to hiring Han’s harem for the banquet scene. No Chinese actresses were willing to play prostitutes in an American film, so producers were forced to hire the real thing. Responsibility for soliciting the prostitutes fell to Morgan, who knew his way around Hong Kong’s nightspots. The difficulty wasn’t finding them—along with Bangkok, Hong Kong was an R&R pit stop for American soldiers serving in Vietnam—it was convincing them to take part in the movie. “Never mind what they did for a living. That stayed between them and their customers. But if you commit it to film, how do you know your mother’s and father’s friends are not going to see it?” Morgan says. “They wanted to be paid more than I would’ve paid them if I wanted to sleep with them. To them, the indignity was far greater.” When the stuntmen discovered how much the prostitutes were being paid, they nearly went on strike.

In the scene in which the three heroes are offered their choice of harem girls—a scene that has launched a thousand cultural studies Ph.D. theses—the white guy (Saxon) selects the white madam (played by actress Ahna Capri), the black guy (Kelly) selects four prostitutes, while the Asian guy (Lee) picks his fellow undercover agent (Chung) for a chaste discussion of strategy. The Chinese James Bond was a celibate. “He was a Shaolin monk,” says Allin. “He was always meant to be: ‘You have offended my family and you have offended the Shaolin Temple.’”
Right: Producer Fred Weintraub talks with Lee on the set in Hong Kong. Weintraub had tried to cast Lee as Kwai Chang Caine in the television series Kung Fu but was told Lee was too Chinese. The part went to David Carradine instead.

Sexual escapades continued off-screen too. “Jim Kelly screwed everything that moved in Hong Kong,” says Heller. “He ended up in the hospital. We had a harness for him to hang over the acid pit for his death scene, but he couldn’t wear it, because he was so sore. We had to specially make a cargo net for him.”

It was 1973 and everyone on set seems to have enjoyed the era’s freedom, including the Shaolin monk. At the beginning of the shoot, Lee went through a tumultuous breakup with his mistress, Betty Ting Pei, after news of their affair broke in Hong Kong’s tabloid press. “I had a nervous breakdown, ended up in the hospital,” Ting Pei tells me—the first time in 40 years she has discussed the details of their romantic relationship with a Western journalist. “Bruce didn’t call me for three months during Enter the Dragon. I felt so depressed. I thought we were finished.”

Lee apparently agreed. A collector of Playboy magazines, he wanted to enjoy the Playboy lifestyle and the fruits of his movie star success after years in Hollywood’s desert. “Once in a while Bruce would say, because we had a bunch of Chinese girls there, ‘Why don’t we go out with some of them?’” says Saxon.

GAME OF DEATH

Like an Old West gunslinger, Lee was often challenged by young upstarts to see if he really had the fastest hands and feet in the East. He usually ignored the offers, smartly realizing there was no upside. If he lost it would be front-page news. If he won it would be front-page news that he’d bullied a hapless extra. But while filming the climactic final battle scene on Han’s Island, with its tiers of stone walls, Lee grew tired of the extras, who had been recruited from local street gangs, taunting him as a fake, a movie star martial artist. “These guys were sitting up on the wall, bored out of their gourds, waiting for their turn to shoot. They were like, ‘This asshole Lee needs 15 takes to do one roundhouse kick?’?” Morgan recounts. “There was a lot of testosterone flying around, and Bruce was not afraid of people when it came to his martial arts skills. He was the real deal. The kids were shooting off their mouths, not realizing that Bruce had very good hearing. Bruce said, ‘Oh, you think you’re so good? Come on down.’”

As witnesses later recalled, the kid came after Lee hard and fast, really looking to hurt. But Lee, the older master, methodically took him apart. Lee turned the duel into a private lesson, at one point correcting the kid’s stance. Afterward, the kid bowed to Lee and said, “You really are a master of the martial arts.”

But watching the opening scene, which Lee wrote and filmed himself after the American crew had returned home, it is impossible not to see how thin and pallid he had become during the shoot. “He’d lost a lot of weight,” Sammo Hung, a rising kung fu comedy star and the scene’s co-star, later remembered. “I noticed that the pupils of his eyes were enlarged, making his eyes seem very dark.” Lee was suffering from migraines and self-medicating with Alice B. Toklas hash brownies. On May 10, 1973, while dubbing scenes in Golden Harvest’s studio, Lee collapsed and had to be rushed to the hospital—“I drove him in my car,” says Chow. Lee nearly died of an acute cerebral edema, excessive fluid surrounding the brain.


Lee and his longtime business partner Raymond Chow on set. Chow's company Golden Harvest built Lee into China's biggest star, leading to the success of Enter the Dragon .

Dr. Don Langford, testifying in the Hong Kong government’s inquest into Lee’s death, explained, “We gave him a drug (Mannitol) to reduce the swelling of the brain which we had detected.” Deeply shaken by the experience, Lee flew to Los Angeles after his release for a full physical. Doctors detected nothing wrong and told him he had “the body of an 18-year-old.” “He was in very high spirits when he came back to Hong Kong,” said his older brother Peter Lee in Alex Ben Block’s 1974 biography. A test screening at Warner Bros. of Enter the Dragon had been a big success—everyone felt they had a huge hit on their hands. Lee had also rekindled his relationship with Ting Pei. “One day he called to tell me he had finished his film,” she explains. “He came over and we were back together again. I was so happy.”

On July 20, 10 weeks after his first collapse, Lee attended a meeting with Chow, Morgan and George Lazenby, the actor who had just played James Bond, to discuss potential ways to fit Lazenby into Lee’s next movie, Game of Death. “We sat around shooting the shit. That was the famous Bruce having a little munch on his hash,” Morgan says. “He was having a headache, and he asked for some codeine, but I didn’t have any.”

After the morning meeting, Chow and Lee went over to Ting Pei’s apartment, ostensibly to talk about the script. Lee had offered her a major role. When he complained about his head, Ting Pei gave him Equagesic, a prescription pain medication that combines aspirin and the muscle relaxant meprobamate. “It’s what my mother used all the time,” Ting Pei says. “Bruce had also taken it before.” The three of them had plans to go to dinner with Lazenby to celebrate. “When Bruce said he had a headache and wanted to lie down for a while, Raymond probably thought it was an excuse. He maybe thinks Bruce probably wants to.…” Ting Pei trails off, smiling. “So Raymond jumped up and said, ‘Okay, I’ll go first.’”

When Lee failed to show up for dinner, Chow called Ting Pei and she told him he was sleeping. Then she called back in a panic to tell Chow she couldn’t wake him. Ting Pei called her personal physician. Chow raced across town. When Chow arrived, Lee still couldn’t be roused. By the time an ambulance arrived it was too late. Why an ambulance was not called earlier is still a sore subject. When I broach the topic with Ting Pei, she yells at me. Chow’s answer: “Nobody ever thought, I’m sure, Ting Pei or myself, never even dreamed he might be dead. Well, he fell asleep. Okay, he’ll wake up and get back to work. You never really dream of such a terrible thing.”

The cause of death was conclusive: acute cerebral edema, the same thing that had nearly killed him 10 weeks earlier. What caused the cerebral edema is still a topic of controversy. The coroner’s report found two things in Lee’s stomach: Equagesic and traces of cannabis. The grief-stricken Chinese public—unable to accept that their invincible hero, a 32-year-old man at the height of his physical powers, had died suddenly for no obvious reason—erupted in outrage and accusations of foul play. A government inquest held to pacify the furor concluded that the edema was the result of a “hypersensitivity to either meprobamate or aspirin or a combination of the two contained in Equagesic.” R.D. Teare, a forensic medicine expert at the University of London, supported the conclusion but noted that “hypersensitivity in this case is very rare indeed.” The court’s findings satisfied almost no one—rumors, wild conjecture and conspiracy theories continued unabated. Forty years later there is still no consensus on the cause of Lee’s death. It remains a mystery.

What isn’t a mystery is the reason for Enter the Dragon’s success: Bruce Lee. He was the first Asian American actor to embody the classic Hollywood definition of a star—men wanted to be him and women wanted to sleep with him. With his cocky smile, come-fight-me hand gestures and graceful but deadly moves, the chiseled Lee gave Chinese guys balls. “We lived in Alameda, near Oakland, where the Black Panthers came from,” says Leon Jay, a prominent martial arts instructor. “Before Enter the Dragon, it was ‘Hey, Chink,’ and after Bruce’s movies came out it was like, ‘Hey, brother.’” But his appeal transcended race. “Every town in America has a church and a beauty parlor,” says Weintraub. “Now there’s a church, a beauty parlor and a karate studio with a picture of Bruce Lee.”

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read more: entertainment, Celebrities, movies, actor, issue july 2013

7 comments

  • gamoonbat
    gamoonbat
    This story relies a bit too much on Fred Weintraub's memory, I think. Bruce Lee had a bigger stake in the TV show "Kung Fu" than is described, for one thing.
  • Matthew Polly
    Matthew Polly
    Linda Lee said the same thing to me. So you're in good company. I've been looking into Bruce's role in "Kung Fu." I believe that has been overstated in previous Bruce biographies.
  • Matthew Polly
    Matthew Polly
    Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it.
  • Cuthberto Waterford
    Cuthberto Waterford
    Kipper boo boo. Hunter boo boo. Go fo r the boo boo boo bo booo
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