Though her father died when she was just four, Shannon Lee has made it her mission to preserve his philosophies — and even produced a long-lost script of his.
Shannon Lee was four years old when her father Bruce Lee died unexpectedly. At 32, he was on the cusp of his stardom, but he never got to see the success of his superstar debut in Enter The Dragon — nor did he get to see the life of his daughter.
In adulthood, Shannon Lee has become a caretaker for the legacy of the father she never knew. In 2020, she released her book Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee, which captured some of Bruce Lee’s writings and philosophies. She also resurrected a long-lost television script that the late actor had once tried to realize when he was alive. The show, titled Warrior, made its debut in 2019.
Take a look at the life of Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, who made it her career to honor her father.
The Birth Of Bruce Lee’s Daughter And His Fame
Shannon Lee was born in Los Angeles on April 19, 1969. At the time, her father Bruce Lee was struggling professionally to pivot into acting from teaching martial arts.
He had just finished a two-year run playing the superhero sidekick Kato on The Green Hornet series, where he showed off his martial arts skills and captivated fans and producers alike.
Off the set, the late martial artist-turned-actor brought his craft home, where he encouraged young Shannon Lee and her older brother, Brandon Lee, to learn basic skills.
“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 Brandon,” said Bruce Lee’s daughter of her childhood.
Like her father, Shannon Lee enjoyed putting on performances.
“I always had in me the desire to perform,” Lee said. “Even as a small child, I’d make up stories and perform all the time, running around the house singing.”
A few years after Shannon Lee was born, her father began to work on his film Enter the Dragon, which debuted to worldwide success in 1973. “He was ready to make the absolute most of this opportunity to accomplish his goal of showing the Western world the glory of Chinese gung fu and to express himself fully in a true, on-screen representation of a Chinese man,” Shannon Lee recalled.
Tragically, the film opened following Bruce Lee’s unexpected death. He died suddenly in a Hong Kong hotel after taking medication for a series of headaches. Officially, doctors chalked up his death to a “misadventure.” Since then, various theories have sprouted about the cause of his early demise.
Shannon Lee Follows In Her Dad’s Footsteps
Shannon Lee remembered little about her father. She recalled “a sadness that I didn’t have any tangible memories… I would rack my brain, thinking, ‘There’s got to be a memory somewhere.'”
Instead, Shannon Lee always felt that her memories of her father were based more on feeling and that she had a sense for his energy. “In place of those tangible memories, I have the memory of his energy, presence, and love,” she said.
Growing up, Shannon Lee continued to pursue her interests outside of martial arts. She enjoyed sports, particularly soccer, and loved singing. She enrolled at Tulane University in New Orleans to study singing and became classically trained.
Her brother, Brandon, also loved to perform. In 1992, Brandon secured the lead role in the film Rapid Fire, where he hired his sister to be an assistant. Sadly, tragedy would strike the Lee family again when in 1993, Brandon Lee died following an accident on the film set of The Crow.
Shannon Lee made her cameo debut in the Bruce Lee biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story a few months later. That film is dedicated to her brother.
After her brother’s sudden death in 1993, Lee began studying her father’s works and writings as a way to cope with her grief.
“I was struggling a lot inwardly and in a lot of pain,” she told Variety. “His words are timeless, really, and I just feel like when I read his words, I feel soothed. I feel hopeful. I feel energized. Those are all things that we will always need and, in some ways, now more than ever.”
Shannon Lee intended to pursue a career as a singer or performer, but her passion for performing became intertwined with her interests in martial arts. She was, after all, Bruce Lee’s daughter, and she shared her father’s innate talent as both an athlete and performer.
How She Is Preserving Her Father’s Legacy
As she pursued her acting career, Shannon Lee picked up her training in Jeet Kune Do, the modern martial arts technique formed by her late father, and began securing more action roles.
In 1994, she appeared in the little-known action film Cage II, with famous body-builder-turned-actor Lou Ferrigno. That same year she appeared in High Risk, where she acted out her first fight scenes.
In 1998, Lee appeared in the Hong Kong action flick Enter the Eagles. To prepare for the physically demanding role, Bruce Lee’s daughter kicked-up her training by learning Tae Kwon Do and Wushu under martial artists Dung Doa Liang and Eric Chen, respectively.
“That was a good experience because real and film martial arts are different,” she said. Many, of course, have compared Bruce Lee’s daughter to the legendary martial artist himself.
“It’s unfair to compare her to her father because her father was the biggest star and the most representative of Chinese philosophy and Kung Fu,” said Sammo Hung, the martial artist who choreographed for the film Enter the Eagles. “I will say that… she surprised me. She works hard and has natural abilities. Whatever I asked her to do, she did.”
In 2002, Lee and her mother, Linda Lee Cadwell, founded the Bruce Lee Foundation to share the art and philosophy of Bruce Lee. Since then, Bruce Lee’s daughter has become the guardian of her father’s legacy, maintaining and sharing in his martial arts ideals through her projects.
In her 2020 book Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee, Lee intertwined her father’s philosophical writings with candid stories about him including his struggles as a Chinese actor in 1970s Hollywood.
Once, a studio had rejected a script he pitched because “a Chinese actor’s accent will be hard for people to understand.” A few months later, the studio debuted the show Kung Fu, which was very similar to what Bruce Lee had written, and cast white actor David Carradine as the lead.
“My father was up against a difficult system that was not willing to put money behind an Asian as a lead in any way, and not willing to create authentic Asian characters,” Bruce Lee’s daughter said. “I don’t think anyone looked at Asians as full humans that come in every variety under the sun, just like everybody else, because there was no representation of that.”
Now, Shannon Lee is bringing her father’s vision to life. She worked with director Justin Lin and screenwriter Jonathan Tropper to realize the script in the way her father had intended. The series Warrior debuted on HBO Max in 2019.
Bruce Lee has a powerful legacy — and his daughter Shannon Lee is making sure that the world knows it.