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In 'Be Water, My Friend,' Bruce Lee's Daughter Tells Her Father's Story

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

More than 40 years after his death, there's a whole lot of Bruce Lee going on now. "Warrior," the Cinemax series based on his original concept and treatment, has just begun its second season. And now Shannon Lee, who's one of the producers of the series, has written "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings Of Bruce Lee." Shannon Lee joins us now. Thanks very much for being with us.

SHANNON LEE: Thank you.

SIMON: You were very young when you lost your father. But tell me what presence he still is in your life, and what he means to you and what even you might remember of him.

LEE: I really feel like he has continued to raise me, even though all these years I have been without him. I lost him when I was 4 years old, but through his wonderful practice of writing down his many thoughts and also the way he lived his life, I mean, it continues to inspire, motivate, heal me, really.

SIMON: I did not realize until I read this book that your father worked at everything. I mean, martial arts, obviously, but he was handwriting how to tell jokes.

LEE: Yes. I mean, he said all the time that quality was like a hallmark for him, that he really believed, like, if he was going to attempt something, he was going to do it to the very best of his ability. And that even extended to joke-telling, although I think many of his friends and students will say that he had a very corny sense of humor (laughter).

SIMON: Well, I mean, forgive me. It's irresistible for me to ask if you can tell us a favorite Bruce Lee joke.

LEE: Oh, dear. You know, he would do a lot of these sometimes, like play on words mispronunciations, like, why are so many Chinese people the last name Lee? And he'd say, because they can't all be Wong or, you know...

SIMON: What you were saying is that Bruce Lee told dad jokes.

LEE: Oh, yes, exactly (laughter).

SIMON: And I also didn't know until reading the book that when he was a young man at Yip Man's wing chun gung fu school, he was kicked out.

LEE: Yeah. You know, my father's mother was not 100% Chinese. She was half European. And when it was discovered at his wing chun school that he was not 100% Chinese, many of the students complained because the tradition of the day was that you did not teach Chinese gung fu to non-Chinese. And even though Yip Man did not hold this belief, it was his livelihood. And so he had to listen to his other students, and he did expel him from class, although he continued to teach him on the side.

SIMON: I got to tell you, I've been telling our staff members this week because in the news business, we have to be fluid when it comes to what our expectations, what the news will be. So I've been sending many memos by saying, be water, my friend (laughter).

LEE: Oh, wonderful. Wonderful.

SIMON: Well, help us understand, better than I certainly could explain, what your father and you, for that matter, now mean by the water way.

LEE: I mean, there's so many layers of meaning. I think, you know, what you say about being fluid, being pliable, being flexible. You know, if you've ever had a leak in your house, sometimes you're like, where is this coming from? How is it getting in here? Water finds a path. It finds any available path. It doesn't get stuck with, like, oh, I have to go this way and only this way. So it has an unstoppable quality about it. It has an essential life-giving aliveness about it that we should attempt to embody in ourselves. And, you know, in fact, my father's tenant was using no way as way, having no limitation as limitation. And I talk about how that is the essence of water, really.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WARRIOR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) If you're looking for weakness, the flaw in your technique that allowed Li Yong to beat you, like I said, you're not going to find it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Well, sometimes it's more about the searching and less about what you find.

SIMON: Let me ask you about "Warrior," now in Season 2.

LEE: Yes.

SIMON: It's set in San Francisco before the Golden Gate. And it's a San Francisco of brothels and brawls and scheming, cheating and tong wars. I say this meaning it only as a compliment - it reminds me a bit of "The Godfather."

LEE: Well, it is. You know, I mean, it's a similar type of setup because, you know, the tongs - some of the families in Chinatown were these benevolent communities who were there to really just help the people, and some of them had slightly more nefarious businesses that they were involved in. And there was a little bit more of that type of mob mentality, if you will. And so thank you.

SIMON: "Warrior" just didn't happen overnight, did it? I mean, this was an idea your father, who hasn't been with us for almost 50 years, had.

LEE: Yeah. I mean, I like to joke that "Warrior" has been in development for 50 years. And not only was his idea not made, but he was told that he couldn't star in an American TV series as a Chinese man. He would not be accepted by American audiences.

SIMON: He was thrown out of his - he was thrown out of a martial arts class for being...

LEE: Yes.

SIMON: ...A Westerner. And he was told in Hollywood he was too Chinese.

LEE: Yes. And this was the way of it for him throughout his life. You know, even when he went back to Hong Kong to make movies, he was - oh, you're so Westernized. You've become so Westernized. Over here, he was too Eastern. So this idea of his treatment that he created, it sat around waiting for just the right ingredients to bring it to reality.

SIMON: What would you like people to take from your father's legacy in these times right now?

LEE: One of the reasons I wrote this book is because I want people to know my father as the deep thinker and philosopher that he was, and not just someone who espoused philosophy - because he had a quote that said philosophy can actually be the disease for which it pretends to be the cure. And so that is what I would want people to take, is that the reason we're attracted to Bruce Lee when we see him on screen or we hear his words is because he embodied these things. Whether it's through representation in Hollywood, whether it's through his humanitarian point of view about us being all one family, whether it's a philosophy of self-work and personal growth, all these things are beneficial. And I think that's why he continues to be relevant today.

SIMON: Shannon Lee is co-executive producer of "Warrior," beginning its second season on Cinemax, and author of the book "Be Water, My Friend." Thank you so much for being with us.

LEE: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF H. SCOTT SALINAS AND REZA SAFINIA'S "MEETING BRUCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.