10th October, 2017
One of the world's biggest collectors on Bruce Lee, Jeff Chinn continues to keep the spirit of Bruce Lee alive with his own museum, the Bruce Lee room, that has hosted a number of guests over the years including Bruce Lee's own close family, friends and students. In this exclusive interview, Jeff chats about how he first became a collector and discusses his love/hate relationship with the Bruceploitation movies
Can you tell the readers a little bit about yourself and your background?
I was born in San Francisco’s Chinese Hospital in 1961 (which is also where Bruce was born). Because of our “connection” I created a plaque in ’98 that hangs in the hospital honoring him. I’ve been collecting since ’72 and have one of the world’s foremost collections.
I have a museum in my home called The Bruce Lee Room which has been visited by people from all over the world since ’91. Some of my special guests include Linda Lee Cadwell, Phoebe Lee (Bruce’s sister), and JKD students Taky Kimura, Ted Wong, George Lee and Allen Joe.
My prized possession is the original blue silk Chinese suit Bruce wore in ENTER THE DRAGON. I’ve loaned the suit to the Warner Bros. Studios Museum from ’97-2012. The suit was also loaned for display for half a year at The Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC. Since owning the suit, it has opened up a lot of opportunities for me.
The most bizarre was that the suit and I ended up on a wacky Japanese game show on FUJI TV! Speaking of Japanese, 40 pages of my collection was featured in the collector’s bible SUPER BRUCE LEE COLLECTION in 1998. Sixty eight of my Bruceploitation one-sheets were highlighted in an 8 page section.
I was contributing editor for INSIDE KUNG FU Magazine from ’95-2002 and also wrote the bimonthly Bruce Lee column “Piece of the Dragon”. I was given the INSIDE KUNG FU Hall of Fame Writer of the Year award in 2002. I even did several articles on Bruceploitation.
For Bruce’s 70th birthday, the BLF asked me to give private Bruce related tours in SF Chinatown. I was interviewed for the RTHK TV documentary series “Overseas Chinese” in 2012. In 2015 a 2 part news report was done on my collection by KTSF TV for Asian Heritage Month. Just recently SinoVision TV interviewed me and I was able to share my deep personal story of why I still have my collection. 300 pieces from my collection are currently on display at The Hong Kong Heritage Museum Bruce Lee Collectors’ Corner Series for July 2015-2018.
At the HK press conference, I was interviewed by a group of 35 members of the international press about my exhibit. I told the reporters that if I had a fire in my house and could only grab one thing, it would be my original newspaper clippings I cut out from ’73-’74. These represent the precious times spent with my Dad watching Bruce Lee and kung fu movies together and can never be replaced. I don’t really collect that much anymore but instead use my collection to honor Bruce’s memory. The reason that I’m still trying to keep Bruce’s memory alive is because he “helped” me during the darkest period of my young life and this is my way of paying him back.
Let’s start at the source for Bruceploitation, with the real Bruce Lee; How did you first become a fan and collector?
I initially saw Bruce Lee as Kato in THE GREEN HORNET TV series in 1966. But at that time I was more a fan of Kato than of Bruce. As a child, I visited San Francisco Chinatown every Sunday during the ‘60s and ‘70s. I vividly remember walking by and riding in the back seat of my Dad’s car as we went by many of the Chinese movies theaters. Most of these theaters would have speakers in front that would be blasting the audio of the movies playing inside. What attracted my young ears the most would be the cool sound effects of fists and kicks doing battle, war cries and weapons clanging. I had hoped to one day watch one of these movies. The seed was firmly planted!
On February 22, 1972 which happened to be my 11th birthday, my parents threw me a nice party with presents. But the biggest present of all would be that night. On ABC’s Tuesday Movie Of The Week was the world premiere of the TV pilot of KUNG FU starring David Carradine. Watching this 90 minute movie changed my life forever! I was hooked!
Towards the end of 1972, two neighborhood friends Larry and Leo Gong brought a Chinese kung fu magazine to my house. It was NEW MARTIAL HERO #72 featuring Bruce Lee on the cover. Larry & Leo both told me that Bruce Lee was THE best and that I need to check out one of his movies. I actually did not recognize Bruce even though I saw him as Kato. They were willing to trade the magazine with me for two of my comic books. So that magazine became my VERY first Bruce collectible.
When my Dad came home from work, I brought the magazine to show him and ask if he could take me to a Bruce Lee movie. He asked, “Where?” and I answered, “In Chinatown.” My Dad firmly said, “No!” and I sadly asked, “WHY?” He said that Chinatown theaters were too “filthy”. I told him that I didn’t mind, but he stubbornly denied my request. Larry & Leo would frequently ask, “Did your Dad take you yet?” and my answer would always be, “No.”
In March 1973, FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH was released by Warner Bros. and I asked my Dad if he could take me to see it. He asked, “Where?” and I responded, “At The Warfield Theater in CLEAN downtown San Francisco”. Surprisingly he answered, “Yes” and I could not believe my ears! FINALLY! I will always remember this movie as my very first Chinese kung fu chopsocky movie. From then on my Dad would basically take me to see these almost every 3 weeks.
The following month of April 1973, FISTS OF FURY was released to the same Warfield Theater and that is when I truly became a fan and collector! I will never forget that special afternoon in the darkened theater for as long as I live.
The kung fu craze of 1973 gave us Asian males instant respect thanks to Bruce Lee. As if by magic, Chinese were suddenly cool. Many of my non-Asian classmates would dress up in Chinese clothing. I can honestly say that it seemed almost every male had a pair of nunchucks in their locker at school. My goal at that time was to have the largest Bruce Lee collection in my homeroom at Presidio Jr. High in San Francisco. Eventually I became one of the top three collectors in the world.
Bruce Lee died 44 years ago but he is still remembered around the world, what do you think it is about him that still keeps his legend alive?
Bruce Lee was such a dynamic personality on and off screen. Even though there were tons of kung fu films and stars, there is only ONE Bruce Lee. He will never be replaced. All the others looked so weak, slow and clumsy compared to Bruce. Sadly, the fact that he died young helped to establish his legacy.
What was your first experience of Bruceploitation?
THE DRAGON DIES HARD in 1976. The U.S. version I saw was so bad that it was padded with fight scenes from other superior movies such as THE HONG KONG CAT and HONG KONG SUPERMAN. These cool fight scenes made Bruce Li look even worse!
Were you ever fooled into thinking you were watching the real Bruce Lee?
When GOODBYE BRUCE LEE: HIS LAST GAME OF DEATH came out in 1976 many of us were fooled because GAME OF DEATH had not been released yet. What fooled us even more was that the ad stated, “Special Guest Appearance Of KAREEM ABDUL JABBAR”. The line I stood in was the LONGEST of any Bruceploitation movie I ever saw. I could tell many in the line were hoping beyond hope that we would be seeing the REAL Bruce Lee. But sadly it was too good to be true!
Love or hate them, what are some of your favourite and/or most hated Bruceploitation movies?
My all time worst was the original Chinese version of THE DRAGON DIES HARD which was NOT padded with the cool fight scenes from other movies. It was also sooooooo boring!
My two all time favorites are THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE and THE DRAGON LIVES AGAIN. Both are so over the top that they have to be seen to be believed! But fun and entertaining!
Who do you think comes the nearest to capturing “Bruce Lee” on screen?
Evan Kim of KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (“A Fistful Of Yen”) for his extreme mannerisms and exaggerated Bruce Lee moves. Jason Scott Lee for his intensity and “look” in his eyes. Philip Ng for his spot on voice. My honorable mentions are Sammo Hung in ENTER THE FAT DRAGON and Darrell Suto in MIND YOUR MANNERS WITH BILLY QUAN from the TV comedy series ALMOST LIVE!
Have you ever met anyone involved in ‘Bruceploitation?
I visited Grandmaster Ji Han Jae at his school in 1992. He starred in BRUCE LEE AND I (aka FIST OF UNICORN). In fact, he was the very first person I ever met that knew Bruce Lee.
I met Jason Scott Lee (DRAGON THE BRUCE LEE STORY) at a JFJKD dinner. I met Bolo at the LA Comic Book and Sci-Fi Convention which reunited ENTER THE DRAGON cast members for the very first time. As you know, Bolo has costarred in countless Bruceploitation movies. It was memorable that Bolo was the only cast member that refused to stand up for a photo with me. He would only do it sitting down. Remember, he IS Bolo!
BIRTH OF THE DRAGON star Philip Ng and director George Nolfi came to my Bruce Lee Room after a special advanced showing in San Francisco. It was surreal as I had just seen their movie and shortly after had them in my home! It was a special visit as they used me and my museum to help promote the movie.
Has your opinion of Bruceploitation changed from when these movies were initially released to now?
Yes, I initially hated the Bruceploitation films but slowly began to truly appreciate the one-sheet theater posters used for advertisement. The blatant exploitation of Bruce on these posters were extremely cleaver. I eventually enjoyed collecting them. I find them really fun and funny!
Bruceploitation is still prominent today in movies, with biopics such as Birth of the Dragon and the upcoming, Little Dragon. What do you think sets these apart from the movies made in the 70’s and 80’s?
DRAGON THE BRUCE LEE STORY began starting a trend of more biopics with care and respect. Bigger budgets and less exploitation. Not out to make a quick buck.
Do you think Bruce Lee’s story will ever be fully told on screen? And when do you think enough is enough with bio-pics?
I only can hope that Bruce Lee’s story can be fully told on screen. But that’s okay because biopics or Bruceploitation actually give new life to interest in Bruce Lee. I’ll support anything that renews interest in Bruce Lee, especially for the next generation. I personally prefer documentaries as they are much better than biopics for keeping Bruce’s legacy alive. To tell you the truth, Bruce lookalikes are usually so bad that they make the real Bruce Lee look even BETTER, if that’s possible!
A Huge thank you to Jeff Chinn for doing this interview and for the use of his photographs
TEXT: © Lee Holmes/The Clones of Bruce Lee 2017.
PHOTOGRAPHS: © Jeff Chinn.