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Shannon Lee Reflects on the Absence of Bruce and Brandon in Her Life

Shannon Lee is gleefully recalling her experience at a darkness retreat in Oregon. Spending four days in an underground cabin nestled in the woods, engulfed in such darkness that even her own hands were invisible, might sound daunting to most. However, for Lee, it was a moment of liberation. She explains, “All you have are your thoughts and feelings, and they start to bubble up. So you get to look at a lot of things and it can be uncomfortable. I came out very energised.”

The 54-year-old daughter of the Hong Kong American martial arts legend has always possessed a contemplative spirit. The untimely demise of her father when she was just four years old, followed by the loss of her older brother, Brandon, at the age of 28, two decades later, have profoundly shaped her introspective nature. Speaking via video call from her office in Los Angeles, she identifies herself as a “seeker” who has perpetually been intrigued by various avenues of “healing”. Her father, a philosopher at heart and a dedicated journaler, meticulously chronicled his reflections on life and work in a plethora of notebooks, inspiring Lee with his intellectual depth.

Her latest publication, “In My Own Process”, compiles letters, photos, drawings, and poems from Bruce Lee, showcasing “the depth of the challenges he faced, the depth of his accomplishments”. The book features essays and interviews with notable figures such as Jackie Chan, Ang Lee, and former co-star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, shedding light on Bruce’s multifaceted persona beyond his martial arts prowess. According to Lee, her father transcended the image of a mere “kung fu guy” to emerge as a profound thinker with a visionary outlook.

Bruce Lee’s legacy endures as one of the most significant and influential figures in martial arts history. He defied prevalent racism in the entertainment industry to become Hollywood’s first Asian superstar, staunchly opposing on-screen stereotypes by rejecting roles he deemed discriminatory. Disheartened by the dearth of substantial roles in the US, he ventured to Hong Kong, where he achieved monumental success with blockbusters like “The Big Boss,” “Fist of Fury,” and “The Way of the Dragon.” Tragically, his life was cut short in 1973, just six days before the premiere of “Enter the Dragon,” a film that would catapult him to global stardom, succumbing to a cerebral oedema triggered by an allergic reaction to headache medication.

Lee’s memories of her father are somewhat blurred, yet she vividly recalls his vibrant energy. She reminisces, “He could play really dynamically. He was a bit strict. I remember the feeling of being with him, the brightness of that, the warmth. The love is so strong.” Despite the hazy recollections, she distinctly remembers the grandeur of Bruce’s funeral in Hong Kong, where throngs of people lined the streets, leaving an indelible mark on her.

Assuming the role of her father’s legacy custodian since her thirties, Lee co-founded the Bruce Lee Foundation with her mother, Linda, who had met the actor during her martial arts class at the University of Washington. Following Bruce’s demise, a slew of wild conspiracy theories surfaced, attributing his death to scenarios ranging from poisoning by a jealous lover to assassination by triad members or drug overdose.

These theories, as Lee reflects, attest to the extraordinary life her father led. She muses, “When I was a kid, sometimes I would find it annoying when people would say he was killed by ninjas or the ‘death touch’ [a martial arts technique] or rival gangs. But now I look at it and go: he was a warrior and nobody thinks that someone like that should just pass.”

Lee exudes warmth, thoughtfulness, and an engaging demeanor, complemented by a contagious laugh. Growing up in southern California alongside her elder brother Brandon, she found solace in her vivid imagination, engaging in storytelling and avid reading. While her father and brother emanated larger-than-life personas, Lee gravitated towards a more introspective disposition.

Her bond with her brother was profound; she fondly describes him as “a big, boisterous ball of energy” who alternated between playful antics and protective gestures. Despite his untimely demise during the filming of “The Crow,” Lee cherishes the memories of their collaboration on the set of “Rapid Fire” in 1992, where Brandon, with his striking resemblance to their father and innate martial arts talent, was on the brink of stardom.

A classically trained singer with a degree in vocal performance, Lee contemplated a career in music before following the artistic paths of her father and brother into the realm of acting. Her acting journey commenced with a role in the biopic “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” where she portrayed a singer performing “California Dreamin’” at a pivotal party scene, symbolising her impending arrival in her parents’ lives.

Embracing martial arts in her twenties as a means to forge a deeper connection with her father, Lee felt the weight of expectations as she ventured into acting, facing the challenge of living up to Bruce Lee’s unparalleled legacy. Despite being predominantly cast in action films like “Cage II” and “High Voltage,” she encountered the pressure to excel in martial arts roles, akin to her father’s prowess. Transitioning to Hong Kong cinema, she secured her first leading role in the martial arts thriller “Enter the Eagles.”

Reflecting on her tumultuous journey, Lee grappled with profound grief following Brandon’s tragic demise on the set of “The Crow,” which abruptly halted her acting aspirations. Overwhelmed by sorrow and self-criticism, she eventually chose to step away from the limelight, acknowledging the emotional turmoil that impeded her artistic pursuits.

Navigating the demanding landscape of the entertainment industry, Lee found the scrutiny of her appearance and the relentless rejections unbearable during her vulnerable phase. The prospect of starting a family with her husband, Ian Keasler, whom she married in 1994, further influenced her decision to pivot away from acting. The couple shares a daughter, Wren, who is now 21 years old.

In a poignant return to acting after a hiatus of 21 years, Lee featured in “Warrior,” an Asian-led martial arts crime drama inspired by an eight-page treatment penned by Bruce Lee himself. Serving as an executive producer on the show, Lee made a cameo appearance as a grief-stricken mother, marking her reentry into the realm of acting as a cherished opportunity.

As Bruce Lee’s enduring legacy continues to resonate in popular culture, Lee remains vigilant in safeguarding her father and brother’s revered reputations. Reflecting on Quentin Tarantino’s contentious portrayal of Bruce in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” she expressed her disapproval of the depiction, citing the need to preserve her father’s authentic persona amidst cinematic interpretations.

Although tethered closely to her father and brother’s legacies, Lee acknowledges the challenges that accompany such profound connections. Despite the struggles, she embraces the opportunity to honor her family’s legacy with unwavering love and gratitude. Through the lens of loss and resilience, Lee underscores the invaluable lessons gleaned from death, emphasizing the imperative of embracing life in the wake of profound loss.

Lee’s poignant narrative, intertwined with personal grief and professional resilience, encapsulates a journey marked by profound loss, self-discovery, and the enduring legacy of the Lee family. As she embarks on a new chapter, her resilience and reverence for her family’s legacy serve as a testament to the transformative power of love, loss, and the enduring pursuit of living authentically.

In My Own Process, a poignant testament to Bruce Lee’s multifaceted persona, is set to be released by Genesis Publications on 23 April, offering readers a profound glimpse into the life and legacy of the martial arts icon.