Shannon Lee on Her New Book “Be Water, My Friend” and the Legacy of Her Father Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee and daughter Shannon Lee
Bruce smiling in black blazer, holding Shannon, at Way of the Dragon premier. Promo. Unknown in background, Bob Wall back left, partially obscured. Damage and dust to photo.

Shannon Lee is the CEO and founder of the Bruce Lee Family Companies. She is also the youngest child and only daughter of the martial artist and philosopher himself. Shannon works hard in sharing the philosophy and legacy of her late father through several outlets; from hosting The Bruce Lee Podcast, to doing talks and discussions about his work. She recently released her book Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee; which explores the philosophies that influenced Bruce’s work and worldview and how everyone is capable of incorporating his teachings into their own lives.

She spoke to CAAM about Be Water, My Friend, as well as her work in continuing to share her father’s legacy. Read on to learn more and find out about the November 27 drive-in event celebrating the life of this icon.

–Lauren Lola


So, I want to first talk to you about your new book, Be Water, My Friend. How did the book come about and why was it important for you to write it?

My father’s philosophy has always been the sincere point of interest for me. I have always loved his words, and I’ve always felt like this is a side of my father I want people to know more about. It’s definitely the side that has helped and inspired me the most. And I just feel like I run into people, there are people who are fans of my father to varying degrees, right? There are people who just know the name and know the movies. And then there are people who know more. And I had just noticed over time that people who had encountered his wisdom had been very healed and very inspired themselves. And so, I just wanted to get that material into more people’s hands and have people know that side of my father more and to be able to give a gift to the world of hopefully something that would be useful.

It feels like there’s a bunch of books out there that dissect your father’s philosophy. I think he himself wrote a book dissecting his philosophy. What makes this one different from the previous ones?

Be Water, My FriendSo, there are a number of books that have been published of my father’s writing. So they were all published posthumously. My father only published one book in his lifetime and it was called Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense. It’s a technique book and it’s very small and it was published in 1963 or 1964 or something like that.

My father always wanted to write more books about his martial arts and his philosophy and all that, but he always was a little hesitant to publish because he didn’t want people to take whatever he published as “the gospel truth” and not go into a state of independent inquiry of their own. He had this push and pull on him. He wanted to share his thoughts, and at the same time, he wanted to encourage people not to guru-ize him. Concretize his thoughts like, “Oh, this is what Bruce Lee believed in and that’s it.”

All of the books that have been published since then, it felt like they have been done out of the desire and love to want to share his words with the world, and most of the books that have been published are just that. They’re just edited versions of his writings without a lot of explanation and without really guiding the reader as to how to potentially apply these things.

For me, because I had spent time recording and hosting the Bruce Lee Podcast, where we do break down the philosophy, there’s been a lot of great response to that. Then again, me knowing what’s been helpful for me in my own understanding of these things, [I] wanted to give my perspective and offer some clarity around what I believe, how to apply these teachings, how I’ve used them, how he used them, how every person can use them. So, this book is different in that regard.

You mentioned in the introduction to the book that it breaks down the philosophy, as simple as possible for those who aren’t familiar, but for readers who maybe are familiar with his philosophy, what do you hope for them to gain from reading your book?

Well, I think that this book really is for everyone. It’s not for martial artists. It’s not for Bruce Lee fans. It is for them, but it’s for everyone. I have studied martial arts and obviously I have an affinity for Bruce Lee, for a number of reasons, but I’m a human being. For me, I’ve really applied this philosophy to the condition of trying to figure out how to deal with the condition of being human, actually, which is something we all share.

I think it’s a few folds. I think on the one hand, I’d love for people to see a different side of my father, to see a fuller picture of him. On the other hand, I’d like for people to discover something helpful and useful for themselves in it.

I know that maybe not every single part of this book is for everyone, but I do believe there’s something in there for everyone that can be useful if you take the time to read it. The point in writing the book was to write it in a very simple, accessible way, so that it could be picked up by anyone and understood. You don’t have to know anything about martial arts, even though I talk a little bit about martial arts. Even if you just want to hear some of the stories that I tell about my father’s life or my own life or any of that stuff, I do think the book is a little bit of a hybrid. It’s part self-help book, part memoir, part biography, so I do think there’s a little something for everyone and the point was to try to write it in as accessible a way as possible.

Bruce Lee with daughter Shannon Lee
Family photo, Courtesy of Shannon Lee

You mentioned the Bruce Lee Podcast earlier, and I noticed that you relaunched it recently. What compelled you to return to it and in the format that it’s in?

Yeah. I have always loved the Bruce Lee Podcast. It was always our intention to return to the Bruce Lee Podcast. We did take quite a bit of a break there for a while and things changed. My lovely co-host, Sharon Lee, went on to other things. Part of what I find super useful is a lot of times, you can be saying the same thing over and over again, but for some reason, when someone else says it, it suddenly resonates with you.

My goal with this new format of the Bruce Lee Podcast, where I’m talking to a guest each week, was really to try to simulate the purpose of the book; which was to ask the guests questions about their own lives, their own process, how they deal with different things, and to ask them to share their wisdom as well. And then as well as related to Bruce Lee and his own teachings. So, I’m happy to pass on what I can pass on, and I’m hopeful that somebody will tune in and listen, because maybe they are interested in what my guest might have to say and maybe something they say, will resonate deeply with them. So that’s the reason.

It’s been a lot of fun and it’s also to have nourishing conversations, which I feel like we need right now.

Also this year, there was the release of the documentary Be Water from Bao Nguyen. I was wondering if you can give your thoughts about it.

Sure. I think Bao did a wonderful job. I should say it’s funny, because a lot of people have said, “Oh, you did such a great job in the documentary.” And I was like, “Thanks, but I didn’t do anything.” He asked me to read some of the quotes and I was interviewed, but all this was Bao’s vision. I didn’t even know when we sat for the interviews because they were filmed, full lighting, full background, everything. I didn’t know that we weren’t going to be seen as talking heads in the documentary.

So that came as a surprise and a beautiful surprise. I really think the way that the perspective that he took, which was on sharing my father’s experience as an Asian man in Hollywood, and then also in the Hong Kong film industry as well, and some of the struggles that he was coming up against in his life and telling the story through that lens, it’s not a story that’s been widely told. It really focused on some of his philosophies as well and just who he was as a human being. I feel like it really humanized him and I just think he did a beautiful job.

You have an event later this month. Can you talk a little bit about what that’s all about?

Yeah. Well, November 27 of this year will mark the 80th birthday of my father. So 80 years of Bruce Lee, which I think is phenomenal. Even though he passed away at a young age, I really do feel like his influence is still very much felt in the world. I really do feel like it’s been 80 years of him, even though he’s not been with us for so much of that.

It’s part of a celebration of Bao’s film and of my father, the screening will be on November 27. There’ll be a discussion panel that will follow the screening that I’ll be involved in as well, as well as some other special guests. It’s just part of this celebration of my father’s birthday that we’re going to be embarking on pretty soon now, in the next couple of weeks. We’re going to start really celebrating him and his legacy and his impact in the world, and the drive-in is part of that.

What does it mean for you to be sharing your father’s life and legacy through these different outlets?

Shannon Lee
Shannon Lee, Image Credit: York Shackleton

For me, it’s always an ongoing journey. I am very grateful that I get to share my father’s legacy with people, that I get to illuminate these different facets of his life, that I get to be additive to the narrative. At the same time, my father’s legacy is his own. I’m just standing there, shining a spotlight on it a little bit, but it really doesn’t need a whole lot for me. But as I said, the stance that I’ve taken, and the reason that I’ve undertaken this is not about great t-shirts and stuff like that. For me, it is about getting the message out, about him as a teacher and a philosopher, and that I get to help spread that message, because it’s a message that’s dear to my heart and dear to what’s meaningful for me, which is to be of service and to be helpful is very fulfilling for me.

There’s a whole bunch of stuff too that is less appealing to me, but also easy for me to participate in because there’s so much of it that is meaningful to me. And because it’s my dad and because I love my dad. I do feel like his impact has been so positive in so many ways. I’ve struggled myself in just, where do I fit into all of this? What’s mine versus what’s his? How do I separate those two? How do I join those two together without losing my own identity?

That’s an ongoing journey for me, but I feel that as time goes by, and I do things like write this book, which was a very personal journey. What do you call it? Practice for myself, that’s me getting to express myself. And so, I’m doing more and more of that.

How do you see your work progressing in the coming years?

I really enjoyed the process of writing this book. I think I would like to write more. It really does my heart good when someone says, “Oh my gosh, I listened to this podcast episode,” or “I read your book and it helped me so much. Thank you.” I just feel like, especially at this moment in time in the world, we need healing and we need connection and we need so much, and if I can be of help in any way, that is meaningful to me. I would just love to continue to figure out how to do that. I also love the entertainment side of things that we do. It’s fun for me to produce projects and be creative. For me, it’s like two-parts education, one-part entertainment. I do feel like I’m going to be sharing my own voice more and more, as time goes on and I’m thrilled to be able to do that.

“Be Water” Virtual Screening

Friday, November 27, 2020
8 p.m. EST / 5 p.m. PST

After the screening, join Shannon for a special discussion featuring the film’s director, Bao Nguyen; Ford Foundation’s Chi-hui Yang; Culture writer Phil Yu (Angry Asian Man); and Celebrity chef and ‘Ugly Delicious’ host, Dave Chang.

Click here to register for this free event.

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