It has been 48 years since Bruce Lee passed away at the age of 33. To this day, Lee remains the yardstick against which all other martial arts stars – from Jackie Chan to Jet Li – are measured against. His films like Enter the Dragon and Way of the Dragon remain legendary and continue to inspire modern martial artists like Hong Kong action hero JuJu Chan.
Even now, decades on, tremendous controversy surrounds the death of Lee. In much the same way as Princess Diana’s shocking death led to many baseless conspiracy theories – it was the queen who ordered her killed, or MI6, or the CIA – so too did Lee’s untimely passing.
Bruce Lee’s last months
What’s known for sure is that, two months before his death, Bruce Lee was suddenly hospitalised. This occurred in May 1973 when Lee collapsed while carrying out post-production work on Enter the Dragon. Debilitated by seizures and headaches, he was rushed to Hong Kong Baptist Hospital in Kowloon Tong.
Diagnosed with cerebral edema – caused when fluid builds up around the brain, resulting in increased pressure – doctors stabilised Lee’s condition quickly with mannitol. After a brief hospital stay, he left and all was deemed well. Although Lee complained of the occasional headache after being discharged, he maintained his usual strict diet and intense fitness regime.
However, the conditions that afflicted Lee in May struck him again on the day of his death, July 20, 1973.
The death of Bruce Lee
On this final, fatal occasion, Lee spent most of his last day hard at work discussing the making of Game of Death – Lee’s unfinished final film which features his iconic yellow and black jumpsuit. For most of the day he worked alongside producer and business partner Raymond Chow before the pair visited Taiwanese actress Betty Ting Pei’s home. The trio looked over the script before Chow left for dinner elsewhere.
Later that evening, Lee developed a headache, so Ting gave him an Equagesic, a painkiller containing aspirin and a tranquilliser known as meprobamate. Still weary, Lee went for a nap. When Lee didn’t come down for dinner later on, Ting attempted to wake him without success. She called Chow back to her house, who likewise failed to rouse the star. The pair then dialled for a doctor who tried to revive Lee and, failing, rushed him by ambulance to Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Lee was declared dead on arrival.
The official verdict
Dead at 33 despite being a picture of health – many fans found it hard to believe the official verdicts on Bruce Lee’s death. The autopsy ruled that Lee’s death was due to excess fluid that caused his brain to swell by 13 per cent with a correspondingly lethal increase in pressure.
Poisoned by a jealous lover?
Almost at once, conspiracy theories abounded. Chow, thinking of Lee’s reputation, didn’t help matters when he claimed the martial arts star had been struck down at home with his wife, Linda. Within days the Hong Kong press had learned this wasn’t the case, and Chow’s lie fuelled rumours that Lee must have been having an affair with Ting or, so the more salacious whispers went, it was all due to a depraved drug-fuelled orgy.
Once the rumours of Ting’s liaison with Lee took hold, angry fans soon came to blame the Taiwanese starlet for his death. It was she who administered the fatal dose of Equagesic, so it must have been she who poisoned him. Some said the pair were lovers, but Lee was looking to end their affair and, in a jealous rage, Ting took revenge
“I received threats that my life was in danger as revenge for Bruce,” Ting said years later in an interview. “I was only 26 and was so afraid of death at that time. Nobody came to help me.”
A fatal drug overdose?
Lee’s use of drugs is a topic that has continually generated interest and some have suggested that was to blame for the star’s death. His use of marijuana was somewhat known and the substance was found in his stomach during his autopsy. However, Donald Teare, the forensic scientist who carried out Lee’s autopsy, was at pains to dismiss this as a cause of death, saying that to do so would be both “irresponsible and irrational”.
In more recent years Lee’s apparent use of hard drugs, such as cocaine and LSD, has come to light in letters said to have been written by the star – increasing speculation, although debunked, that drug use was to blame for Lee’s demise.
Bruce Lee vs the triads
If Ting didn’t do it for herself, others claimed – despite any evidence – she was a willing assassin for various triad gangs. Lee had history with triads, having supposedly beaten up the son of a local gang leader in one of his many street fights as a youth – the kind of trouble that led him to move away to the US as a teenager.
One conspiracy theory claimed that since Lee refused to pay Hong Kong triads for protection money on his film sets, they ordered him killed. Others said it was, in fact, mainland Chinese gangs that wanted Lee out of the way. The Cantonese star’s films were threatening the dominance of Mandarin-language films, so the theory went, and afraid for their investments they sought to have Lee killed to protect their bottom line
The greedy business partner
Someone else looking to protect their money was Raymond Chow, who also came under scrutiny. Chow and Lee were business partners who co-founded Concord Production Inc, the film company that had helped make Lee’s movies Way of the Dragon, Enter the Dragon and Game of Death.
Despite this working relationship, the pair’s personal relationship was said to be more fractious. Those suspicious of the official verdict wondered whether Chow didn’t have Lee offed to prevent his star man from leaving him for the vast spoils of the US.
Not only that, but with Lee gone Chow gained full control of Concord, owning the rights to arguably Lee’s most famous films. With the icon’s death, crazed theorists claimed Chow could take advantage of Lee’s posthumous fame to sell his films to an international market eager for more martial arts action.
What is known for sure is that, cynically, Chow would also release Game of Death years after its star’s death. Only 11 minutes of action Lee filmed for the project was used, but Chow used lookalikes and stand-ins to do the rest and even included footage of Lee’s real-life funeral in the most unabashed way.
The touch of death secret technique
Outlandish though these claims are, they are not even the most far-fetched of Bruce Lee conspiracy theories. One of the most fanciful is the belief that Lee was murdered by a cabal of Chinese kung fu masters enraged at the fact that Lee was teaching foreigners ancient Chinese techniques. It was this issue that led to Lee’s infamous private battle with Wong Jack-man, who said that if he won, Lee would have to stop teaching American students.
Mystery surrounds the fight but, whatever the circumstance and result, Lee continued to teach non-Chinese students. Some say this angered other sifu. According to an article in martial arts magazine Black Belt, Lee died because he was struck by the killer technique dim mak, aka the “touch of death”, a secret technique that attacks pressure points leading to the delayed death of an opponent.
Bruce Lee was cursed …?
Perhaps the most far-out controversy is the belief that a family curse is responsible for Bruce Lee’s death. Believers of this theory point to the fact that Lee’s parents had lost a son before Bruce’s birth. Believing the curse to be afflicting males in the family, this, it is claimed, is why his parents called Bruce “Little Phoenix” at home, a nickname traditionally for girls.
The effect of this curse is also used to explain the unfortunate death of Bruce’s son Brandon Lee, at the age of 28, when filming The Crow. True believers say it is not just an eerie coincidence that Brandon was accidentally shot on set in the same way that Bruce’s character is shot while filming in Game of Death. Of course, this theory ignores the fact that Bruce’s elder brother Peter lived to 69 while his younger brother Robert is still alive to this day.
The legend never dies
Ultimately, despite these many unfounded conspiracies, Lee remains an icon. These theories have not dimmed his personal appeal, his physical prowess or the magic of his movies (or, even, his somewhat unlikely reputation as a style icon).
His wife, Linda, has said it best: “All these years later, people still wonder about how Bruce died. I prefer to remember how he lived.”