How Did Bruce Lee Actually Die?

The mystery of Bruce Lee’s death continues
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Bruce Lee. Photo Source:

Bruce Lee  the most famous martial arts movie actor of all time, passed away at the tender age of 32 from a cause so strange that it keeps arising speculation 47 years after it happened.

It is surely the most contested autopsy in popular culture. Cerebral edema. That is the official and earthly cause of Bruce Lee’s death on July 20, 1973. However, 47 years later, the mystery continues. The first and most explosive martial arts star lived as a myth and transcended as a legend, so the world seems unable to accept that he died from an allergic reaction to aspirin. Lee is not the first celebrity whose death awakened conspiracy theories, but his mysterious passing generated more rumors.

Conspiracy theorists blamed Lee’s death on the Chinese Mafia, the Italian Mafia, drug use, jealous kung fu masters, and even a family curse that has continued to haunt his descendants. In fact, his son, the actor Brandon Lee, died at 28 in a strange episode when he was filming The Crow. Bruce Lee’s life was so short (he died at the age of 32) that the mystery surrounding his death behaves like stubborn mythology that resists offering a final resolution.

The Public’s Fascination With Bruce Lee

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Bruce Lee statue in Hong Kong (USAtoday)

Marcos Ocaña, who published three books on Bruce Lee (the last, The Bamboo Warrior, is the better known because Jorge Lorenzo assured that it is his favorite book and helped him win the MotoGP World Cup), considers that the collective fascination with Lee stems from his philosophical character.

Ocaña explains:

“His Zen way of life aspired for perfection and honesty. The famous book ‘Be water, my friend’ referred to that a martial artist must be able to adapt to any circumstance, to face someone greater, smaller, faster, or two people. He lived the racism in Hollywood and he was always able to reinvent himself and overcome these adversities thanks to this philosophy.”

Bruce Lee’s “Hash” Problem

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Hashish (shown next to a penny for scale).

Enter the Dragon was his first job in Hollywood, produced by a large studio (Warner), and Lee knew he was risking his career.

“Bruce was in a very critical condition. We extracted a lot of hash from his stomach. In Nepal, there have been cases of neurological problems derived from the consumption of hashish, especially cerebral edema. Bruce said he used to chew it because he was under a lot of pressure .”

This is Peter Wu, the doctor who treated him two months before his death after a seizure attack in which his brain swelled.

Bruce Lee Death: The Official Version

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Bruce Lee statue (Wikipedia)

Two months after the premiere of Enter the Dragon came the fateful July 20, 1973. That day, Bruce Lee was working on his next movie, Game of Death, to
which he visited his co-star, Betty Ting Pei, at her home in Hong Kong. Here starts the official version of events: at 7:30 PM, Lee complained of a severe headache, Ting Pei gave him a prescription pain reliever called Equagesic.

This medicine contained a muscle relaxant that made the actor suffer an immediate allergic reaction. His brain swelled by 13%, from 1,400 grams to 1,575. Bruce Lee was pronounced dead at 10:15 pm, and 45 minutes later, Bruce’s business partner Raymond Chow posted a release. In it, Chow lied about the place of death: he assured that the star had passed away at home accompanied by his wife. Bruce Lee’s wife, the future high school teacher Linda C. Emery corroborated this version and asked that no one speculated about the event to safeguard respect for the figure of her late husband.

Bruce Lee Skeptical Physician

“Nobody dies for an Equagesic pill. No painkiller killed Bruce,” said Bruce Lee’s personal physician, Donald Langford. Why was this information published then? “We must understand something of Chinese culture,” Langford explains. “When Bruce’s body was introduced in the emergency room, all the Chinese present there they marched. They didn’t want to be connected, or even blamed, with the death of Hong Kong’s most popular hero. “

Langford recalls that seconds after Lee’s death, the doctors there met and someone asked that cannabis use be ignored in the official version, thus giving rise to a now-famous phrase from Dr. Donald Teare, a drug expert who testified in the trial: “the cannabis we found in Bruce Lee’s stomach affected his death as much as a cup of tea .”

“They just wanted to present an explanation socially acceptable. Hong Kong authorities wanted to avoid embarrassment: as amazing as it sounds, no Hong Kong journalist has never tried to interview me to talk about Bruce or his death.” — Langford

Bruce Lee Early Life, Rise to Fame, and Mysterious Death

Bruce Lee (Wikipedia)

Bruce was born in California, but from a very young age, he left with his parents to his place of origin, Hong Kong, where he lived until he was 18 years old. This was when he moved to Seattle (United States), where he began studying Philosophy and where he lived with his wife and his two sons. However, the actor was constantly coming to Hong Kong: most of his films were shot there.

Bruce Lee’s idol status in Hong Kong, after beating three times the record for the highest-grossing film in history with Karate to Death in Bangkok (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), and Way of the Dragon (1972), led his doctors to protect his public image postmortem.

Ocaña explains:

“Me I don’t think the medicine was the reason for death. I think it had more to do with cannabis. Logically I can not prove it, but I have read the trial report and when you start to compare it with the analyzes, the cause points to the direction of cannabis. The first attack he had, in May, was for cannabis, but there they did catch him on time and rushed him to the hospital. But on the second occasion they did not come.”

For Ocaña, the cause of death is not a mystery: it was cerebral edema.

“The real mystery is what caused that cerebral edema. Because all the circumstances surrounding Bruce’s death were bizarre: his producer lied to the press by saying that he had passed away in his house, then it was discovered that he was with an actress, Betty Ting Pei, who had tried to revive him for no less than 10 minutes,” explains Ocaña.

Instead of calling an ambulance immediately, first, they called his partner, who then phoned the actor’s personal doctor. And when they finally contacted an ambulance, Bruce wasn’t taken to the nearest hospital (which was a minute away from Betty’s house) but to one that was half an hour away. In the subsequent trial, the doctor was asked about why they didn’t take him to the closest one and he said he didn’t think that was important. “The interrogation was like a dialogue of the Marx brothers,” reports Ocaña.

Bruce Lee popularity in the West, and the Conspiracy theories

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Bruce Lee statue in Los Angeles, USA (Wikipedia)

Two months after his death, Enter the Dragon blew up in popularity (before the West invented the genre of martial arts in the movies). Overnight, Lee became a myth and everyone wanted to know about him.

“In every town in the United States, there was a school of Martial Arts. The media needed to keep feeding the myth and when they no longer knew what else to do, they began to get theories out,” says Ocaña.

That July 20, 1973, the man died and the icon was born, the legacy and the insatiable rumor mill. Even Chuck Norris who had risen to fame facing Lee in Way of the Dragon offered his theory: that Bruce had died because of the muscle relaxants he had been taking for several years in order to continue working at a superhuman performance.

There were many theories about Bruce Lee’s death. Some witnesses assured that Lee was in top form before his death, others said they had seen him walking ungainly, consumptive, confused, forgetful, paranoid, with outbursts of anger and depressed attitude. Others pointed to the Triad, a Chinese mafia organization, as the real culprits: Lee had refused to pay them money in exchange for protection as was customary among Chinese millionaires.

Bruce Lee was also rumored to have been a victim of the touch of death (the Dim Mak coup), perpetrated days before and with delayed effect by a master of the kung fu martial art, the master did not want to continue to tolerate Lee popularizing his ancestral art in West to earn money and fame at his expense.

And then there are the esoteric theories.

According to his wife, Linda (with whom he had two children, Brandon and Shannon), Bruce Lee used to confess to her a premonition that he was tormented: that he was not going to live even half the years that his father, who died at 64, exactly twice the age of Lee on July 20, 1973. Lee’s family was convinced that they had been victims of a curse because Bruce was born after the death of his older brother (for reasons never clarified) and a Chinese superstition warns that when a male is born after the death of a male sibling must be given a female name. That’s why Bruce (born Lee Jun-fan) was called at home with the feminine Sai-Fon (“little phoenix”), despite being born in the year (1940) and at the time (between 7 and 9 o’clock) of the dragon. As an actor, Lee defied the curse by adopting the stage name Xiaoling (“little dragon”).

This supernatural doom looked chillingly because, according to superstition, the curse persecutes male descendants. In 1993, the biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story represented the actor’s fight against his ghosts in the form of a spirit that stalked him relentlessly. When in the final scene Bruce Lee (played by Jason Scott Lee, whose last name is an unrelated coincidence) stands up to the ghost, the creature surrenders without a fight because it prefers to go stalk his son Brandon. Two weeks before the premiere of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Brandon Lee died while filming The Crow (1994).

Brandon Lee‘s Death

Brandon Lee (Wikipedia)

Brandon Lee died shooting the scene in which his character, Eric Draven, is murdered by a criminal gang: a bullet that must have been blank turned out to be authentic and pierced his abdomen. The doctor who signed the autopsy acknowledged years later that he endorsed the report without making any autopsy and the investigation concluded that, to save time, the producer of The Crow had chosen to use real bullets instead of buying fake ones. Brandon Lee’s murder was not well handled.

The macabre thing about the event is that in his last film, The Game of Death, Bruce Lee played a movie star threatened by the Chinese mafia, and in one scene a murderer was trying to kill him … exchanging a blank bullet for a real bullet in a full shooting. This disturbing chance has fueled all sorts of theories, but the latest coincidence is the only undeniable one: both Brandon Lee and his father died without being able to enjoy their greatest successes as professionals, The Crow and Enter the Dragon.

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