A popular story surrounding Bruce Lee’s early life alleges that he came to the United States on account of trouble with the Triads. After years of being a child star in Hong Kong, his father abruptly sent an 18-year-old Lee to Seattle, Washington to finish his high school education. His father’s decision to send him away has long been attributed to Lee’s involvement in street fights, but some have blamed it directly on a conflict with the Chinese mafia.
By Lee’s own admission, his martial arts skills weren’t always utilized in the best way, or for the best reasons. When he was 15 years old, Lee became a student of Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man because he thought kung fu would be beneficial to him during street fights. During his youth, Lee led a gang called the Junction Street Eight Tigers who backed him up whenever he went up against rival gang members. He became involved in a number of violent incidents, but finally put this phase of his life behind him for good when he relocated to the United States in 1959.
It’s often been claimed that Lee’s real reason for leaving Hong Kong is related to a fight he had with a Triad gangster’s son. As the story goes, Lee badly beat the person in question, prompting the parents to get the police involved. The police threatened to arrest Lee if his street violence and gang activities continued any further. Lee’s father, who was supposedly worried about retaliation from the Triads, made the decision to send Lee to the States where’d he be safe. However, Bruce Lee biographer Matthew Polly wrote in his book, Bruce Lee: A Life, that the actor’s siblings have debunked the story’s Triad connection.
According to Polly, the myth is only partially true. It appears that it’s actually a highly dramatized version of a real event that took place in 1959. It’s stated in the book that Lee did beat up the teenage boy of “powerful parents”, but they weren’t associated with the Triads. As Polly pointed out, going to the police just doesn’t sound like the sort of solution that a Triad gangster would have used in that situation. When he sent Lee away from Hong Kong, Lee’s father was actually concerned less about what the boy’s parents would do and more about the legal troubles Lee’s constant street-fighting would cause. It also didn’t help that his academic prospects were far from good and that his movie career in Hong Kong wasn’t prospering anymore.
Looking at what came next, it’s hard to argue with the notion that coming to the United States was a good move. After opening kung fu schools, Bruce Lee developed a reputation as a well-respected martial arts instructor in Hollywood. Gaining the recognition he wanted in movies and TV took a great deal of time, but his experiences in the States and his role in The Green Hornet provided stepping stones for the success he later found upon his return to the Hong Kong movie industry in the early 1970s.