Gone But Not Forgotten -- Along His Highway To Fame, Bruce Lee Changed A Humble Seattle Grocer's Life

His martial art was grounded in a resilient philosophy. That's why he hasn't been replaced.

A COOL SPRING WIND lunges across Capitol Hill's Lake View Cemetery, sending Taky Kimura's grimy dust cloth flapping in his hand.

The Seattle grocer has swept the regal side-by-side grave markers of Bruce and Brandon Lee, and rearranged the earrings, flowers, coins, seashells, rocks, paper hearts left on them the past few weeks. He steps back and views his handiwork, leaning his left leg against a stone bench that holds an engraved message: "The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering."

Bruce Lee, only 32 when he died 25 years ago next week, is as remembered, as immortal, as ever. Visitors, some born after his death, still stream to the martial artist's grave. It is important to Kimura not just that they come, but why they come. Is this a stop on some pop-culture tour or have they been inspired?

Friendship, true and lasting, is why Kimura comes here and has spent much of his life since Lee's death looking after not only his grave, but his legacy. Lee inspired Kimura to try to live a life worth remembering and Kimura, in return, is doing what friends do.

He was Lee's closest friend, the best man at his wedding, his first assistant gung fu instructor, his confidant toward the end when Lee finally got the fame he craved but desperately wondered whom he could trust. Kimura was one of the pall bearers who carried Lee to this grave.

Kimura carries Lee along even now, teaching his martial art and the philosophy behind it so Lee stays more than a cartoonish action figure from old movies. Kimura refused to take money when he ran Lee's Seattle gung fu club in the mid-1960s and he refuses to cash in to this day.

A tall, strong man strides to the grave, immediately recognizing Kimura from a documentary done on Lee several years ago. Kimura wastes no time; he asks the man why he came.

The question rattles the visitor. His face contorts with sadness. He stammers and fidgets. There is clearly a whole story to it, but he finally just motions to Lee's headstone and says, "paying my respects."

Kimura asks how much he knows about Lee's martial art, Jeet Kune Do.

The reply tumbles out. The guy is a 33-year-old kick boxer who has idolized Lee since third grade. He starts with tired Bruce Lee trivia, about how the old TV show, "Kung Fu" was written with Lee in mind, but suddenly he admits he's searching for help. He says he has made a lot of bad choices and woke up only after getting a .45-caliber handgun shoved in his face. He is seeking maturity and peace of mind now, he says, through martial arts and specifically through Lee's message of being responsible to and for yourself.

Kimura, 74 and graying, and small like Lee was, looks right at the former college football player. He does what Lee did to him: He challenges the guy by replying in a man-to-man tone, "You're saying all the right things to me, but now you gotta go live it or it's no use, right?" The man eagerly nods yes and eventually asks if he can sit and talk with Kimura someday or maybe work out at his club.

They talk more and swap names and phone numbers. The man bows and rushes off toward his car, energized by the meeting, but relieved to be leaving. He reappears in less than five minutes, asking Kimura for more advice. They spend the next 15 minutes standing a few paces from Lee's grave, Kimura talking and the visitor fighting back tears.

"That happens quite often," Kimura says later. "I just give it to them straight like Bruce did. I don't help them. Bruce does."

Kimura eventually admits him into the gung fu club, but only after making sure he understands it is more about the soul than the fist.

EVERY MONDAY SINCE Lee died, Kimura has opened the basement of his First Hill grocery store and taught the principles of Lee's early martial-arts philosophy to select students. Grocery carts line one wall. A Bruce Lee shrine of posters and photographs line another. Men and women of various shapes and skill spread out across the concrete floor and amid wooden pillars, doing calisthenics and fighting drills. It's called the Jun Fan Gung Fu Club, after Lee's Chinese name.

Its beauty is its simplicity. There are no fancy outfits or macho posing. It is informal but down-to-business. Although Kimura never asked them to, club members head outside after each session and clean up his parking lot.

Kimura charges $30 a year, about 60 cents a week, just enough to pay for club picnics and supplies such as punching bags. He does not make a dime. He does not advertise. He does not want fame. He does not want champions or wannabes.

"I interview everyone who wants to be part of this," he says. "If they want to be a champion I tell them I can't help them, but if they want camaraderie and perhaps become a better person then we might have something for them."

Kimura teaches what Lee taught during his Seattle years, between 1959 and 1964. Lee's style was ever-evolving but its foundation took shape here. Kimura emphasizes Lee's philosophical side, hidden from popular view by his startling speed, power and grace.

Kimura says he has two left feet and doesn't know all that much, but anyone who has felt the force of his controlled punch or seen him do close-quarters combat called "sticking hands" knows that's not true. Chris Sato, one of his assistant instructors, knew Lee and says it is the purity of Kimura's purpose that makes the club unique.

"Taky feels a closeness to Bruce and a responsibility to him," Sato says. "He teaches without the pollution of money or belts. It's funny, but when you walk down those stairs and into that modest basement you feel honored to be hearing Bruce's words."

Lee was both a maverick and a pragmatist. He borrowed from all kinds of fighting disciplines, including fencing and boxing. He incorporated what worked and tossed what didn't. He criticized established fighting systems as being too rigid, stifling and impractical for the street. He, in return, was criticized by some martial artists as lacking respect.

He eventually created his own style, Jeet Kune Do, but refused to call it a style because he feared once he did, it would become limiting. He expected students to use the principles he provided and then experiment, using only the parts that worked for them.

Kimura, though, became concerned that instructors who never had contact with Lee were claiming to be experts in Jeet Kune Do. Three years ago, he helped start the Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do Nucleus, a group of Lee's family, key students and friends, dedicated to ensuring the principles of his art don't become too fragmented.

"I was worried that one day people would say, `What the heck was this Bruce Lee guy teaching anyway?' Bruce revolutionized the martial arts. We owe it to him to perpetuate the system as he meant it."

THE TWO MEN were extreme opposites when they met here in late 1959.

Lee was 19. He had grown up in Hong Kong and had been in Seattle less than a year. He struggled with the American culture and language, but was sure about his martial-arts ability, exquisite even then. He was brash and confident, ambitious and focused.

Kimura was 36, born and raised in Clallam Bay on the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula. He was working with his parents, brothers and sisters at the First Hill market he now owns. He still hadn't recovered from spending years in an internment camp during World War II. The U.S. government uprooted Kimura and his family the day before he was to graduate from high school.

"My parents used to tell us kids we shouldn't expect to be more than second-class citizens here and I used to argue with them about it," Kimura says. "Then, in the snap of the fingers, it happened. All those years later, I still didn't feel equal. If I felt someone walking behind me on the street I would have to stop, move over and let them pass."

Lee was born in San Francisco while his parents were touring with a Chinese opera company, so he had U.S. citizenship. Some accounts say his parents sent him to America because he was getting into too many street fights in Hong Kong.

He was a born performer. He acted in 20 Chinese films as a youngster and won the Hong Kong cha-cha championships as a teenager. He was a kinetic genius, able to copy, master and explain virtually any movement, even ballet, almost immediately. He was hyper and showy and quickly got attention here by holding a series of martial-arts demonstrations at festivals and schools.

Kimura, who was studying judo, heard about Lee and decided to see what the fuss was about. By the time they met, Lee already had five or six informal students, most of them street toughs he met at Edison Technical School on Capitol Hill. They would practice in parks, parking garages, open gyms, anywhere they could find space. Lee didn't charge; they were his friends and he was learning from them how to adapt his style against Western-style fighters. Lee was only 5-foot-7 and 130 pounds, but hit like a heavyweight.

The first time the two squared off, Lee threw a series of rapid-fire punches, stopping each inches from Kimura's face. Kimura was both intimidated and fascinated. He joined the group, but made it a point never to hang around after the workouts. Lee was too frenetic, too much the teenager for him.

Slowly, Kimura began listening to Lee, impressed not only with the taoism he would spout, but how direct and dead-on his observations were. Lee was blunt, sometimes cruelly so, and most often right. He could dissect not only a movement, but an attitude as well.

Lee built up Kimura, repeatedly telling him he was no worse or better than anyone else. Once you set a limit, Lee would say, you are doomed to adhere to it. But to Kimura, it was Lee's unshakeable confidence that made him so mesmerizing.

Lee was adamant about changing the American stereotype of Asians being somehow docile, but he also upset some members of the Chinese martial-arts community at the time by insisting on teaching the skill to whites.

For the first few years here, Lee lived in a tiny room above a Broadway restaurant owned by Ruby Chow, a family friend and later a King County councilwoman. He worked in her restaurant and stuffed newspapers in The Seattle Times mailroom. He attended the University of Washington, where he studied philosophy.

When Lee finally opened his first formal gung fu school in Seattle, the friends he had been teaching for free opted out. They didn't want to start paying for it or calling their friend, Bruce, "sifu (master)."

Kimura stayed on and Lee made him his assistant instructor. Kimura played the punching bag at his demonstrations. Lee would blast Kimura with his famous "one-inch punch" and clip his ears with nunchaku (chained-linked batons). Lee was so good he hurt Kimura only once.

When Lee married Linda Cadwell, a Garfield High School graduate, Kimura was the best man. When Lee moved down to Oakland in 1964, Kimura ran his University District club, sending all the money to Lee.

Kimura closed the club in 1967 or 1968, when Lee got the role of Kato in "The Green Hornet," and began tutoring Hollywood stars such as Steve McQueen and James Coburn in the martial arts for $275 an hour.

The TV show lasted only one year. Although Lee made a lasting impression as Kato, Hollywood didn't come through with starring roles, so he returned to Hong Kong, where he made a series of cheap but classic martial-arts films that made him a star there.

While Lee was becoming famous, Kimura became the first U.S. importer of Japanese mandarin oranges since World War II. His two brothers had spent more than 15 years and $100,000 setting the groundwork, but both men died before the deal was done. Kimura stepped in and made sure it happened. A few years later, he also became the first importer of Japanese crystal pears.

He says he could not have navigated the project, which involved two governments, trade restrictions, politics and double-talk, if Lee hadn't given him self-confidence.

Lee continued to pass along some of his latest techniques to Kimura and ask for business advice. He offered Kimura a role as a foe in "The Game of Death," but the grocer turned him down, saying he was too old and not nearly good enough.

Less than a year later, Lee died suddenly and mysteriously of cerebral edema (swelling of the brain) on July 20, 1973, just weeks before his first American-made movie, "Enter the Dragon," was released. The film was a hit and made him a worldwide icon.

Kimura was working in his store when he heard the news. Lee was the fittest, most indestructible person he had ever known and the early death fueled Lee's legend and fame. Kimura immediately set about on his own grass-roots tack, kicking his private basement club into high gear, teaching what he felt Lee was really about.

The real Lee, Kimura says, was greater than the myth. He could stand five feet from you, warn you it was coming and then touch your face before you could do more than flinch. He didn't need camera tricks. His martial art was grounded in a resilient philosophy. That's why he hasn't been replaced.

Some of Lee's other Seattle pupils are still involved in the martial arts. Jesse Glover, his first student, teaches gung fu in his own private Pioneer Square-area club. Jim DeMile runs a dojo on Aurora Avenue North and travels the world teaching self-defense. Both are fiercely loyal to Lee in their own way, but neither was as affected by his brush with him as Kimura was.

Kimura has not only spent these years fostering Lee's legacy, but he has slowly gotten his 26-year-old son, Andy, involved in the nucleus and Monday-night club.

"You can do many things to create an image, but when you lay down at night you are who you are," says Andy Kimura, who plans to keep the club going. "My father knows who he is and his mission in life."

People from around the world still manage to find Kimura and quiz him about Bruce Lee. He always tries to make time and occasionally takes them on the tour: the first gung fu club, the University District church where Lee wed, the restaurant the early students gathered in for dim sum and, of course, the grave.

"I am so amazed how people will come here and be so nervous meeting me because I was Bruce's friend," Kimura says. "I tell them, `I'm just an old man.' "

Perhaps they see an old man with a little Bruce Lee in him or an old man who, by staying true to a friendship, has managed to live a life worth remembering.

Richard Seven is a writer for Pacific Northwest magazine. Harley Soltes is the magazine's photographer.