The Bay Area’s most famous native son provides a case study for what can be unearthed from your family’s official records.
By Charles Russo
Don’t let the chubby cheeks and dopey expression fool you, that kid is in fact the most badass martial artist to ever walk this earth. Well….he would be, in time. For this photo and this document — in March of 1941 — he’s still just a drooling four month-old in his pajamas, alongside his very pretty, very proud mother.
Even before he became famous for his legendary kung fu films, Bruce Lee’s biography is filled with fascinating details: he was a child actor while growing up in Hong Kong (with roles in some 20 films), a national dance champion during his teens (it’s true — the Cha Cha), and a visionary martial artist who brazenly challenged the existing norms within his field (which is why one rival had dubbed him— “a dissident with bad manners”).
Yet one of the most significant details that often goes overlooked along these early biographical narratives is the impact of his Eurasian heritage. Bruce was three-quarters Chinese, and his mixed-race ancestry would factor heavily into some of his most formative experiences. It attracted bullies to him during his early childhood, and even got him banned from his martial arts school as a teen. Later, in his twenties, Bruce’s heritage was woven into the tensions that surfaced when he was criticized for teaching kung fu to non-Chinese students.
Oddly enough, some of the most important clues to clarifying the specifics of Lee’s family history are located here on the Peninsula.
The National Archives at San Francisco are — in spite of the name — actually located in San Bruno, tucked away just off of 280 near the National Cemetery along Sneath Lane. It is one of two National Archives located in California (the other in Riverside), and contains a fascinating cross-section of original documents surrounding the history of the western United States. In addition to its standard holdings (such as federal court case files) the San Bruno archives contain unique collections concerning Native American relations with the U.S. government, military records dating back to the Revolutionary War, and documents chronicling the development of federally protected parks and forests.
From an even more local point of view, the archive features an extensive collection of U.S. immigration documents, with particular relevance to both Chinese Americans and the San Francisco Bay Area. After all, Angel Island was a major federal immigration station (often referred to as “the Ellis Island of the West”) which processed over a million immigrants from Asia. The official files pertaining to this history now reside at the archive in San Bruno, and contain a wealth of information for families who emigrated in this manner. Along these lines, Bruce Lee’s family file can be seen as a case study in just how much there is to glean from the official paper trail.
Lee’s parents arrived to San Francisco in late 1939 at a time when there was scarcely any Chinese immigration into America. Bruce’s father Lee Hoi Chuen was a prominent Hong Kong actor, who had been granted temporary admission into the U.S. for a run of performances at the Mandarin Theater on Grant Aveue in Chinatown. He was accompanied by his wife Grace, who is listed on her entry forms as a wardrobe manager. They cited their temporary residence as a boarding house up the hill, on the Trenton Street alleyway, just behind the Chinese Hospital on Jackson Street.
While still in town twelve months later, Grace gave birth to her son — Lee Jun Fan — at that same hospital (during the Hour of the Dragon, in the Year of the Dragon). When someone in the room suggested that her son should have an English language name, one of the medical staff suggested “Bruce.”
As the Lee family prepared to return home to Hong Kong, they took great care to see that their newborn son’s citizenship was in order. Bruce’s file in San Bruno contains an abundance of documents pertaining to this, most notably — a pair of interviews that his parents had with immigration officials prior to departing the U.S. These formal Q&A’s offer a wide range of information about their family, including the particular details of their marriage, and the adoption of one of Bruce’s older siblings. Some smaller details are interesting as well, such as when Hoi Chuen explains that he can’t pronounce the American name that the hospital staff had given his son. Most notably though, the interviews contain passages in which Grace details the specifics of her European heritage.
Within the many shoddy biographies that exist on Bruce Lee, it has long been maintained that he was one-quarter German on his mother’s side, despite relatives and genealogists stating that there is zero evidence for this. The documents in San Bruno containing those exit interviews with U.S. immigration officials offer a different explanation, as Grace clearly explains how her mother was “English,” and that she possessed no Chinese blood. It’s a facet of Bruce’s personal history that has yet to appear in a proper biography.
Another fascinating feature of the Lee family files are documents containing legal witness signatures from Esther Eng, a pioneering Chinese-American filmmaker who, for much of the 1940's, was the only female film director in the U.S. Eng was a close friend and colleague of Hoi Chuen, and prior to the Lee family’s departure back to Hong Kong in the spring of 1941, she cast young Bruce in his first movie role, as a baby girl in her film Golden Gate Girl.
Collectively, there is a unique bounty of information within these documents archived in San Bruno, which contain some revealing evidence, even for a global icon with countless biographical books written on him. In that sense, imagine what these types of family files might be able to tell you about your history.