Shannon Lee

Emerging from the Shadows of Bruce Lee, the Butterfly Spreads Her Wings

by Dr. Craig D. Reed

With labels like "legend" and "legacy" flying around in the psyche of the martial arts community, expectation and anticipation are often major factors in any encounter with Shannon Lee. This is the battle that the daughter of Bruce Lee has now decided to wage as she leaves the overcast skies of doubt and enigma to step into the sunshine of credibility and truth. Shannon is stepping out, and as one might guess, a large part of that strut has its foundation in the martial arts.

When I ask the music major from New Orleans' Tulane University where she was born, she nonchalantly answers: "Born in LA, the daughter of an actor and martial artist. I always had in me the desire to perform. Even as a small child I'd make up stories and perform all the time, running around the house singing. I will always have a passion for music, and I love to sing. Now I'm a classically trained singer."

Moments later, I'm not getting a demonstration of her piano prowess; rather, I get treated to a concert of blood, sweat and tears as she first twists her body into pretzeled positions worthy of a yoga master, then goes three rounds with her kickboxing instructor, Benny "The Jet" Urquidez.

One quickly realizes that Shannon is not her father or even her brother; she is her own self, developing her own identity. While many actresses, under the guidance of star-struck martial arts instructors, partake in kickboxing aerobics to fool themselves into thinking they are martial artists, Shannon's technique has transcended that distinct thinking-you-are-powerful-when-you're-really-not phase. With good rhythm and steady footwork, her punches and kicks appear as true as anyone else's as trainer Urquidez offers her targets that she quickly attacks then counters.
Shannon Lee's excellent martial arts skills came as a surprise to many, including Sammo Hung, star of the hit CBS television series Martial Law.

Crash Course
It's a different time and place, and Shannon and I are now able to talk in peace, but that moment will soon fade as she prepares for her wushu lessons. "I'm only now beginning to understand what my father went through to reach the level he attained," she admits. "Yet through all this training in martial arts and doing the action film Enter the Eagles in Hong Kong, I've discovered a new appreciation for my father's passions, and that has helped me in getting to know my father better."

So what exactly has Shannon Lee been up to? She explains: "I guess I started when I was young. Mom said that my father used to fool around with us, having us throw punches and kicks. I was much younger, so I didn't do it to the extent of [my brother] Brandon. I started doing jeet kune do with Richard Bustillo, one of my dad's students, but then I just stopped."

I ask if she stopped because everyone kept telling her that she had to train because her father did, because people expected her and Brandon to follow suit. She raises an eyebrow and responds: "Nobody really said that to me, which was good. It wasn't that I resented it, but at the same time I stayed away from it probably because people did want me to practice martial arts. But nobody ever forced me to train. Besides, when you disassociate from that world, you are not around martial artists and people telling you to practice. My mother never forced us to do anything like that. I actually liked soccer."
Shannon Lee demonstrates one of jeet kune do's trademarks: the backfist to the face.

After a reflective pause, she continues: "I started doing jeet kune do again but with Ted Wong this time-and I still do that. When I got involved in action films, I upped the pace of my training and started preparing for my first Hong Kong film, Enter the Eagles, by studying taekwondo with Dung Doa Liang [who starred in John Woo's Hands of Death, w 1c eatured Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung]. At the same time I've been studying wushu with Eric Chen.

"Once I started Eagles, I began training with Yuen Tak (Yuen De), one of Jackie Chan's opera brothers, and other stunt guys over there," she continues. "That was a good experience because real and film martial arts are different. It forced me to have the mental and physical flexibility to change and do exaggerated movements. Yuen Kwei [Chan's other "brother" and Lethal Weapon IV's fight director] also helped with the training. We did a lot of trapping, stylized and jumping kicks, sweeps and other things. I was comfortable with it because of the wushu training, but I'm still not comfortable with specific styles like praying mantis and animal forms. Those things do intrigue me; I just haven't learned them yet.

"But when they brought in Benny Urquidez to be the bad guy, which they didn't decide until halfway into the film, he started teaching me kickboxing, and I have kept at it ever since."

Hollywood, Here I Come

Although she once visited the set of Enter the Dragon, Shannon's first real taste for film came while she served as her brother's assistant on the set of Rapid Fire. With Brandon's support, she decided to pursue film as a career-which led to a cameo on Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.
Because of her family name, Shannon Lee says, people expect her to be at either end of the martial arts spectrum: an expert or a novice. Truth is, she rates herself somewhere in between.

"Ah, yes," she fondly recalls, I actually did my first passion in that: I sang California Dreaming in the scene where Lauren [Holly] and Jason [Scott Lee] are dancing at the Green Hornet party when they announce the show had been canceled and she tells him that she's pregnant with me."
Shannon next appeared as the bad guy's kept woman in Lou Ferrigno's Cage 2: The Arena of Death. Her first major action role was as an undercover cop investigating a Vietnamese-Mafia-owned bank in High Risk, a film that afforded her the opportunity to do two small fights: one at a biker bar and one against the lead Mafia bad guy. But it is in her latest Hong Kong action film, Enterthe Eagles, that Lee really shines.

Filmed mostly in Prague but with fights later shot in Hong Kong, the movie features Lee as an assassin who is partnered with a guy hired to steal a diamond for a crime boss played by Urquidez. Yuen De's fight choreography is staggering, especially when you realize that it's Shannon rappelling and flying back and forth on top of a long rickety ladder standing between building tops and flipping and spinning her way around the place while throwing kicks and punches you never even saw her father do. But again, it is not a Bruce Lee film; it is a Shannon Lee film.

After the diamond theft goes awry, Shannon must fight for her life against Urquidez's character, something that was not initially planned. The retired kickboxing champ fills us in on the cletailswhich tell us more about what makes Shannon Lee tick.

"When I trained Shannon, I pushed her hard, training twice a day for the film," Urquidez says. "When she asked why I was training her like that, I explained that in Hong Kong they don't care if you are a woman or not. The difference between here and there is that here you want things to look real, and there they must feel real.

"My fight with Shannon was just supposed to be for a few days, but after they saw her kickbox we fought straight for four weeks," Urquidez says. "On a close shot they wanted me to make contact with her, so I asked her if she wanted a double, but she refused. The director yelled, 'Action.' Bam. I knocked her flying back to the ground, and I saw she couldn't breath. She had a tear in her eye. I couldn't rush over until the director said cut. I asked her to breathe, and she said, 'I would if I could.' I felt bad.

"The director said to do it again, and I told him we should use a double for Shannon," Urquidez says. "He said OK So again I asked Shannon, but she refused. Then, bam, I hit her again, and this time it was worse. Now I felt worse, like a real heel, but she just said, 'It's OK, don't worry. I'm just sensitive.'
Shannon Lee says she likes to switch into sparring mode and throw punches and kicks with her training partners. She has no aspirations to compete, however.

"Then it was her turn to kick me in the face," Urquidez says. "I told her I'd rather be hit hard just one time-as hard as she can. She said, 'I know, I'll hit you hard.'

"The director said, 'Action.' Bam. I went flying back with a waffle print on my face. After the third time, I was looking for some sympathy from her. None. I smiled to myself and thought, 'OK, it's payback.' She earned my respect after that. Of course, we all hugged later."

More Testimony

Although Shannon is still nervous and worries about the expectations people have of her, she admits that making that film taught her that she can't torture herself by constantly comparing herself to her father. "I'm not my dad, and I can do only the best that I can," she says. "It's all about me developing my own personal style. I don't have the depth of knowledge my father had, and I haven't studied everything he's written. I'm in the process. I think people assume that I'm at either end of the spectrum: I know nothing or everything. I'm actually somewhere in between."
Elbow strikes are among the kickboxing techniques Benny Urquidez is teaching Shannon Lee. "He provides things that ... I might need to do in certain situations," she says.

Sammo Hung, one of the other fight choreographers for Enter the Eagles and star of CBS' Martial Law, offers his thoughts and observations on the subject: "It's unfair to compare her to her father because her father was the biggest star and most representative of Chinese philosophy and kung fu. You can't even compare Jackie [Chan] with Bruce because they have different styles. Plus, it doesn't matter whose daughter she is. Everyone has his or her own abilities and foundation.

"I will say that when I heard I was going to work with her, I didn't know about her abilities," Hung continues. "When we did drills, she surprised me. She was pretty good. She works hard and has natural abilities. Whatever I asked her to do, she did."

The Legacy

Does Shannon ever tire of people telling her about how much her father meant to them? "That happens a lot, but I'm not really recognized on the street where people approach me and tell me that," she says. "But when I'm at martial arts functions, people tell me all the time. It always amazes me how many lives he has touched. I never realized this in college because I was doing my own thing, but it's now dawning on me-especially in the entertainment industry and now that I'm now in contact with more people not my age.

"After I recently saw Enter the Dragon for the first time, [I noticed that] everyone in the parking lot was just so psyched," Shannon continues. "[My father] wowed people with practical power. His kung fu skill level was different from the showy ballet-like skill we see a lot now. He had the ability to blow you away with one punch. So in that way, people think that, 'if I work that hard, I can do it, too.' He just inspired people that way.

"The martial arts are physical and spiritual; you can't really separate the two," Shannon says. "In order to better yourself, you have to have a philosophical understanding-not just physicalbecause the only way to finesse and to understanding your movement to the maximum potential is to ingrain them in your thoughts.

"The past few years has been an awakening process for me. It's funny that when you have a tragedy in your life, you can separate your life into [the time] before the tragedy and [the time] after the tragedy. I've had two tragedies. I was young when my father died, and it's only now as an adult that I'm starting to see how that is affecting me. But when Brandon died, it was at a moment of my life when I was going to step out and be my own person. It has been difficult to grow out of that experience. It's hard to grow out of any tragedy, but at the same time it's an excellent way to grow. You have no choice: You either do or you don't."

It can be said that with each end comes a new beginning, but there is never a guarantee that the new beginning will be better. It's not a question of whether Shannon Lee is ready or not; it's a question of whether the public is prepared to see her as Shannon Lee and not as the daughter of Bruce Lee.

Shannon's career isn't simply a calculated path to fame and fortune; it's a road to the understanding of her past and what that means to her. And let's face it: To martial artists, a lot of her past is part of their past.

Today, I'm left with the image of Shannon's contorted expressions and gestures as she wrestled to better herself as a person through the difficult road to mastery of the martial arts. So just how good is she? To quote one of her teachers, Benny "the Jet" Urquidez, "That woman can kick some rump."

About the author: Dr. Craig D. Reid is a Los Angeles-based fight choreographer with more than 15 years of experience in the film business.

This article is originally published by Blackbelt Magazine

Here you could see more of Shannon Lee's photos