BY GARY IWAMOTO
Special to the Examiner
“Like flowing water, Bruce Lee could never be still.”
And so begins, “Be Water, My Friend: The Early Years of Bruce Lee,” the latest picture book written by Ken Mochizuki and illustrated by Dom Lee. It is the story of the childhood years of cultural Asian American icon Bruce Lee, the actor and martial artist who has attained and maintained cult-like status more than 30 years after his death in 1973.
The impetus for the book, recalls Ken, came from a phone call he received in 2003 from Philip Lee, then publisher of Lee & Low Books. “Philip called and said, ‘I just saw a Bruce Lee exhibit and I think it would be a great subject for a picture book.’” Lee was referring to the “Bruce Lee Collectors Exhibit 2003: The Beginning of a Legend, the Story of a Man,” a multimedia display of Bruce Lee memorabilia, produced by Inter*Im (the International District Improvement Association) as a fundraiser.
Ken was skeptical. He saw Bruce Lee as a one-dimensional stereotype, the superhuman fighting machine exploited by Hollywood. But he told Philip Lee that he would check out the exhibit and make up his own mind. The exhibit showcased many phases of Bruce Lee’s life — his childhood in Hong Kong, his life as a college student in Seattle, his years as an actor in Hollywood, and his innovative martial artistry — as shown through video, collectibles and recorded interviews.
After he saw the exhibit, Ken discovered that there was more to Bruce Lee than he had imagined. He learned facts about Bruce Lee that he had not known before — that Bruce Lee was born in the United States, that his mother was half German, that he had been a child star of Hong Kong-produced movies, that he had been a national cha-cha champion, and most importantly, that he had a personal philosophy developed to live his life by.
Mochizuki decided to write a book about the early years of Bruce Lee because “people need to know the intellectual, philosophical and spiritual side” of this cultural icon. Ken stated, “Many only know Bruce Lee as a movie star and martial artist, but know little about his personal philosophy. He was a voracious reader from early childhood when he wore thick glasses. Lee spent many hours haunting used book stores in search of interesting titles.”
The intended audience for Ken’s book are youth ages eight years and older. He focused on the childhood years of Bruce Lee before he gained fame as a martial artist, movie star and cultural idol. The story of young Bruce Lee is told through sharply defined illustrations and succinct wording about his struggles with school, conflicts with other youth, and his introduction to discipline through the martial arts teaching of his mentor Yip Man, the master of the Wing Chun style of kung fu.
The title, “Be Water, My Friend,” is a reflection of Bruce Lee’s philosophy about his fighting style. When asked during the interview in the documentary, “Bruce Lee: In His Own Words,” to describe his unique style of martial artistry, Lee replied, “Be formless … shapeless like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, and it can crash. Be water, my friend …”
Bruce Lee died in 1973. Yet, he still remains one of the most popular cultural heroes of today. Ken said, “Everyone remembers when Bruce stood up and kicked out a light bulb hanging from a ceiling. He had lightning quick reflexes and did things that other people couldn’t do. He was a pioneer, an innovator — he made martial arts accessible to America.” And like other cultural icons such as Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Elvis Presley, Bruce Lee was relatively young (he was 32 years old) when he died.
Ken Mochizuki reads from his new book at the Wing Luke Asian Museum (407 – 7th Ave. S.) on Saturday, Nov. 18 at 2 p.m.
(Editor’s Note: Ken’s previous books have received critical acclaim and have been on lists of recommended books for youth. His first book, “Baseball Saved Us,” written in 1993, was a fact-based fictional account of a young Japanese American boy, sent to an internment camp during World War II, who channels his frustration and anger over his treatment into baseball. His second book, “Heroes,” written in 1995, is a fictional story about a young Japanese American boy who, forced by his friends to play the enemy when they played “war,” learns the meaning of heroism. Ken’s third book, “Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story,” written in 1997, is a true story recounting the bravery of Chiune Sugihara, the “Japanese Oskar Shindler,” who issued thousands of visas to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime in Lithuania during World War II. His fourth book, “Beacon Hill Boys,” is a semi-autobiographical look at growing up on Seattle’s Beacon Hill in 1972. Ken is also the assistant editor of the International Examiner.)