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The Iron Hand of James Yimm Lee

James Yimm Lee

By Greglon Lee, Jeet Kune Do

From modest beginnings, James Yimm Lee was born on January 31, 1920 in Oakland, California. During high school, he practiced much weight training, bodybuilding, hand balancing, and acrobatics. In 1938 through 1939, James was on the Oakland YMCA weightlifting team and won the Northern California Championship in the 132 pound division.

Although he had an avid talent for drawing and art, James began a career in welding and worked in the Pearl Harbor shipyards in Hawaii as a civilian. While in Hawaii, James began studying Judo at the Okazaki Gym with Bill Montero and Sydney Yim and also competed in a few amateur boxing matches.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, James returned to Oakland and continued welding until he entered the Army and was stationed in the Philippines, during which time he became infected with malaria and dysentery. His condition became so serious that he was actually shipped to the death ward, but he continued to fight the disease and overcame it. James was a fighter at heart, his most profound quality. In April, 1946 he was discharged and after returning home, James began weight training again for the illness caused him to go from 158 pounds to 116.(He had a thirty percent disability but never tried to exploit it)

He continued to regain his strength and picked up his martial arts training when he studied Sil Lum Gung Fu under T.Y. Wong in San Francisco for four years. James became known for his iron hand/palm training and would routinely perform his specialty at public demonstrations often breaking ten bricks with his bare hands which were not scarred or calloused, but soft and smooth. In 1957 to 1958, he authored, published, and distributed by mail order through his own company, Oriental Book Sales, a book series called "Modern Kung-Fu Karate: Iron, Poison Hand Training."

James Yimm Lee

James first heard about Bruce Lee when Robert, James' older brother, told him about how Bruce was teaching a cha-cha class (while visiting from Seattle) and that he was good in Chinese Gung-Fu. Wally Jay and Allen Joe also informed James about Bruce's prowess as a fighter. In 1962, they met after one of Bruce's dance lessons and they hit it off immediately, meeting as often as they could to train and talk. In late 1962, James visited Bruce in Seattle for further training and seriously considered relocating permanently to study with Bruce. But, due to other family obligations, James had to put that idea on hold.

When James' wife, Katherine, died in 1964, Bruce and Linda Lee moved to Oakland to stay with James and his children. James helped Bruce Lee publish his first book, "Chinese Gung-Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense." They opened a school in Oakland but later moved it to James' garage since the school was not a commercial success. After Bruce moved to Los Angeles in 1966, James continued to teach in his garage.  In 1972, James published his last book,"Wing Chun Kung Fu", with Bruce as the book's Technical Editor.

James Yimm Lee

James conducted four classes, during the evenings after work. There was a weekend class in which students came as far as eighty miles away. James was simple and direct with his students: no beating around the bush or attempts to woo them or seek visual/verbal gratitude from them. All he wanted was to train hard and often, try the best one could do without any explanation, and treat each other with due respect, behaving as gentlemen.

He constantly told his students to pay attention since James disliked repeating himself when giving instructions. Students were on probation which meant that they could be released if they were a detriment to James or the class. He was a very patient teacher as long as the student put out their best effort. He neither watered down not diluted his teaching methods. Class ran smoothly and efficiently, deliberate and constant in both physical and mental energy. Students would occasionally be allowed to rest, but at the end, they knew they had been through a complete workout.

The Oakland Years with James Yimm Lee

James Yimm Lee

By Professor Gary Dill, Jeet Kune Do

You may often hear a lot about Bruce Lee’s students, but there is one in particular that is very special to me, my sifu, James Yimm Lee. He was an authentic 1st generation student of Jeet Kune Do or JKD. I will always keep his memory alive for he was one of the major players and developers of early JKD.

I notice that in many documentaries about JKD or of Bruce Lee, often very little if anything is mentioned about James Yimm Lee. He died forty years ago, just a few months before Bruce passed away.

It seems to me, for unknown reasons, some people into JKD act like he never existed. Be aware that there are still some strange politics involved in JKD. However, he certainly did exist, and he was a major part in the early development of JKD, and this is his story. This should be especially enlightening to those of you in direct lineage to Sifu James Yimm Lee.

James was part of the Oakland, California (USA) based Chinese-American group who called themselves the “Three Musketeers.” This threesome also included Allen Joe and George Lee (both still living). They all lived in the Oakland area in the 1960’s and were Gung Fu practitioners when they first discovered Bruce Lee in Seattle. Eventually, they formed a life-long relationship with Bruce when they started training directly under him. In those days it was known as “Jun Fan Gung Fu”, which was the predecessor to what later became renamed as “Jeet Kune Do” by Bruce. Bruce and the “Three Musketeers” would take turns going back and forth between Seattle and Oakland for their Gung Fu training.

James Yimm Lee

In 1964, Bruce and Linda got married, and on their wedding day they flew from Seattle and moved to Oakland. James picked them up at the airport, and Bruce and Linda moved into his home.

James' wife had died earlier, and he still had kids in the home. James' house was built on a hill and had three levels. The ground level was the large garage, which was James' training room, the second level was a small apartment (where Bruce and Linda lived), and the top tier was the living area. James was a welder in the shipyards, Linda kept the house chores, and Bruce's job was to operate the Gung Fu School they formed and to develop new combat techniques. Thus was the beginning of the Oakland “fighting school.”

It was during this time period that Bruce had the infamous fight with Wong Jack Man in Oakland.

At this time Bruce and James had a small store front Kwoon in Oakland. The traditional Kung Fu instructors in the Bay area took offense that Bruce was teaching non-Chinese students, and sent an ultimatum to Bruce Lee (via Wong Jack Man and his entourage) to cease immediately. Wong Jack Man told Bruce Lee that if he didn't immediately stop teaching non-Chinese, that he would come back and make him stop. To Wong's dismay Bruce accepted the challenge on the spot and then said, “Why wait, lets fight now.”

James Yimm Lee

James then slipped to the Kwoon door and locked it, so no one from Wong's group could leave. Keep in mind, James Yimm Lee had the reputation of being a major badass in his own right. He was 20 years older than Bruce, and had been a Sil Lum and Iron Palm instructor for years before he even met Bruce. But, this was Bruce's fight, and a very pregnant Linda was there also. Bruce quickly whipped Wong Jack Man, and the traditional Kung Fu people in the area then left him alone.

Bruce was upset with himself after the fight. He realized that by using his traditional Gung Fu it took him longer than he intended to defeat Wong. At that point, he had to get out of his “classical mess” and reevaluate his approach. This was the beginning of what we now know as his personal evolution: the blending of Wing Chun, Boxing, and Fencing. Bruce Lee had developed his own version of mixed martial arts, popularly known as “Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do” to the world.

Professor Wally Jay, the founder of “Small Circle Jujitsu”, was a close friend of James Yimm Lee. I had the good fortune to meet Wally Jay at a martial arts event several years ago before he passed away. He knew me as one of James' JKD students and we took the time to talk in depth about our mutual friend, James Yimm Lee.

Wally was a wealth of JKD history because he hung out a lot with Bruce and James. Wally told me that almost every evening, when James would get home from working all day in the shipyards; Bruce would be waiting for him. Wally said that after they ate supper, Bruce and James would go downstairs to the garage and spend hours developing JKD. Bruce and James would work hard, fight hard, slamming each other against the walls. During the day Bruce would develop new techniques and formats, and try them out on James that night. James was one tough guy. Do you think that you could hold out working out with Bruce Lee every evening for hours?

James Yimm Lee

Professor Wally Jay then told me something that was surprising. He said, “You’re lucky you trained with James instead of Bruce.” He went on to say that Bruce was the innovator but James was the teacher, the organizer. He said that, “Bruce bounced off the walls, like any genius, and that Bruce really didn't have the patience for teaching.” He added that “everyone back then knew that if you really wanted to learn JKD, you went to James Yimm Lee.” As well as knowing all the JKD that Bruce Lee knew, he was the “teacher.”

I was a college student in the 1960's while working my way through school teaching Goju Karate under Hanshi Lou Angel. I would watch Kato on the TV show “Green Hornet” and was very impressed with this Bruce Lee guy. I wanted to learn his martial art, this Gung Fu he was doing on TV, but he was a big time Hollywood star and I was just a young college student in Oklahoma. What chances would that every happen? Fate, being as it is, made it happen through James Yimm Lee.

When I was in Vietnam, I read a “Karate Illustrated” magazine (sister magazine to Black Belt) and in it was an article titled “Special Gung Fu Training Devices.” It was about the various JKD equipment that James Yimm Lee had in his garage, and of course about JKD.” I never heard of James Yimm Lee at that time, but it was very obvious he was one of the main people in Bruce Lee's JKD.....and he was in Oakland.

The significance here is that after my tour in Vietnam my next duty station was going to be in the Bay area. Okay, here it is, JKD, soon in my backyard, yes! I had his address obtained for me from the Oakland phone book and I send him a letter begging for the opportunity to train with him in JKD. After about a month or so (mail moved slow back then, especially to and from Vietnam) I received a large envelope from him. He sent me several JKD items (which I still have), but most important was a hand written letter from him, advising me that he hand selects his students and that his JKD classes were exclusive. He also stated, however, that I seemed to be “serious and open minded.” He gave me his phone number and told me to call him when I returned back to the states. Yea! Double Back Flips!

James Yimm Lee

The day after I got back from Vietnam I called James. The following day I was sitting in his living room. He asked me many questions trying to determine if he wanted me for a student. I was a Karate instructor and James and Bruce evidently had past issues trying to teach Karate people. I understood where he was coming from. I was there for a total of around three hours. After the inquisition he took me downstairs to the garage.

WOW! There it was. This was the same garage where Bruce Lee worked out every day, the place where JKD was developed, the same equipment Bruce trained on and I was standing there with his workout partner. James then showed me how each piece of equipment worked. My expectations of being accepted were getting high. Did I make the cut? The anticipation was killing me.

We went back up stairs. Now it’s time for the decision. Whoa, not yet! Now he explained to me why all the clutter was in his house. There were dozens and dozens of spiral notebook pages laying all around on everything in his house. On many of them were black and white photos taped to the pages. He said that he was finishing up a book that Bruce started before he left for Hong Kong. Bruce gave it to James to complete. There was more history in front of me. This was the original manuscript for the book, “Wing Chun Kung Fu.”

Finally he firmly said “Okay, I'll take you as a student. You're on permanent probation and if you screw up one time, you're OUT” as he was wagging his finger in my face showing that he meant it. Yes, yes, yes! I was trying to be very composed and dignified, but in my mind I was jumping up and down, fireworks were going off. I made it.

James Yimm Lee

Now my JKD journey began. When I went to class the next week the garage door was three-quarters of the way down. Well, what do I do? He said after the interview last week not to come to the front door, to go directly to the garage. But the garage door was so far down. Is anyone there? Did he forget that I was coming? But then I heard other people behind the garage door, so I leaned down and looked under the door. Yep, there were my future class mates. They told me to crawl under the door and come on in. I was just glad to be there, but had to almost get on my hands and knees to get in. It was like that every night. On good nights the door may have been higher, but not much. We had classes there twice a week. James would come bouncing down the stairs into the garage; we would line up to do the JKD salutation before class and train nonstop with no breaks. Every class had new techniques, if you missed a class then you missed a lot of cool JKD.

James was a good guy, but he was task master when teaching JKD. If you didn't pick up the material, he would leave you behind. He took no crap from any students. I personally witnessed several students get kicked out while I was training there. Not only was he a great fighter, he was an outstanding teacher. He knew his JKD inside out. And he expected everyone to give 100% total effort, anything less, and you won't be back.

I learned so much about fighting from this man, even though I had been a Karate instructor for several years with my specialty being sparring. James would sit on his Lincoln Arc Welder against the garage wall and watch us train on the techniques he just taught. He was like an eagle on its perch, nothing got by him. Bruce was still alive of course, this was one of his schools, and he still called the shots even though he was overseas making movies. James and Bruce would correspond with each other on a regular basis and this was the method that Bruce passed on any changes in the Oakland JKD curriculum. James would then implement the changes during our class, in accordance to Bruce's instructions.

Having had three years of college before I went into the military, I knew the importance of keeping notes. So each night after class, I got back to my apartment and wrote down detailed notes on everything we learned that evening. By the time I left Oakland, I had two spiral notebooks filled with notes. Thanks to the job I had in the military, I had the luxury of training 3-4 hours a day while on duty.

Oakland has the reputation as being the “fighting school” of JKD. And if you ever experienced training under James Yimm Lee, you would know why. He was one tough man. Unfortunately, he died in December, 1972, just a few weeks after I was discharged from the military and returned back to Oklahoma. Bruce Lee died a few months later. Losing both of these great martial artists is a big loss to the entire JKD world, but they gave us so much while they were alive.

I believe it is our responsibility as JKD exponents to keep the memory of James Yimm Lee alive in front of the martial arts community. He was a vital part of the development and history of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do and a beloved instructor to those lucky enough to have been trained by him.

Professor Gary W. Dill
Founder, JKD Association
Grandmaster, SDS International & Bushido Kempo

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