09/16/2013 11:40 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

Bruce Lee Breaks Through Time

Recently, on writing retreat in Hilo, Hawaii, I had an opportunity to experience the wondrous workings of the Tao in its stretch across both time and space and in the way it manifests through both intellectual and energetic coincidence. I'm still marveling at how apparently unlikely -- at least on this surface -- this particular sequence of events was, and also how entirely much sense the whole story makes.

It began on a morning in late August when, having risen before dawn to work on a new novel, I decided to give my neck and back a break and head out to the local park for a tai chi workout. A light drizzle rinsed the dawn, and the air was fresh and clean. I performed walking exercises with my sword for an hour or so, then went to get some water from my rental car in preparation for form practice. I had a drink and promptly proceeded to accidentally lock my keys in the car.

Sword in hand -- I didn't wish to put it down on the wet ground -- I approached a few people asking if they might have a cell phone I could use to call the rental company. At best, they declined. At worst, they stared at me warily and backed away. After more than a few tries, I saw an older Chinese man sitting on a bench under a covered pavilion. He was thin and modestly dressed, and I didn't expect him to have a phone, but he did. I used it to call for help and while we waited, he introduced himself as Roger Kay. He told me that he was waiting for a martial arts class to start, but it didn't appear the teacher was going to show up.

I asked what kind of martial arts and he said he was waiting to learn tai chi and perhaps some other internal art.

"I do some tai chi myself," I said.

"I'm not as healthy as I used to be," he answered. "I used to train hard but I was exposed to some chemicals at work and I've been putting in too many hours. I don't feel well these days. Used to train with Bruce Lee, though."

"Excuse me?"

"When Bruce first came to the states he was in Seattle. I was just a kid, but I joined his class and learned from him."

"How did you meet him?" I asked, not sure what to make of the claim.

"It was 1959, I think. My father had taken me to a judo dojo to see about training and Bruce was standing there watching right along with us. They struck up a conversation and my father was very enthused with what Bruce had to offer. Bruce was only 19, but his forearms were already like steel -- very impressive to my father and to me too. My father immediately decided I should train with him and his class, which turned out to be all adults. I did that for about a year before my father decided to organize the Chinese Boy Scouts into a class of their own.

"Bruce definitely was thankful for the extra income and always made sure to visit my father whenever he came to town, especially after he had already became famous. Even when I went to LA years later he would come and pick me up and take me to his house, or have me meet him at the Chinatown studio to train. Driving with him was an adventure. Hong Kong drivers historically keep their foot on the gas not the brake. One time I was with him when he rear-ended another car. I held onto the seat somewhat intensely when I was in the car with him, especially on the LA freeway."

I invited Roger to come to a Taoist talk I was giving that same evening. I was a bit surprised when he showed up, and even more surprised when he produced a manila envelope full of black-and-white photos of Lee. Among these was a photo, signed to him, of the Little Dragon wearing the uniform of the Green Hornet's driver, Kato. Others included photos of an adult class, a Boy Scouts class, and a reunion class. In the brief time I'd know Roger he had been a man of few words, but when he showed me these pictures he grew animated, describing settings and naming students.

"You really remember all these folks well," I said.

Roger nodded. "It was a family thing. Bruce and my father shared some politics. They were both really against bigotry on a national scale, whether it was the Japanese or the British in the way they treated the Chinese or anyone else. My father liked the idea of Bruce practicing on any British military chauvinist who would overstep his bounds, something depicted in the Jason Scott Lee Movie Dragon -- The Bruce Lee Story. Both Bruce and my father adamantly opposed unfairness and injustice. Maybe that's why I myself participate in the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement today.

"Also, of course, my sister was Bruce's wife's best friend. They were cheerleaders in high school together. She's the one who introduced Linda to Bruce. They all used to hang out at the University of Washington together, playing matchbook football. By the time I got to high school myself, though, they had just started training in Wing Chun with him, and I had stopped."

At the end of my talk, a few folks asked whether I might teach a tai chi class the following morning. I arranged to do so, and was pleased when Roger showed up at that as well. He moved gracefully and with fine coordination. We chatted again after the class was over.

"I've been exploring different ways to get what I need right now," he said. "There's some great inspirational material on Youtube. I had to stop working and I'm on a small, fixed income, so life is a bit challenging. Lately, I've been trying to manifest a good, traditional martial arts teacher -- figuring it would do me good to work on such things again -- and here you are."

"From my point of view, it's marvelous to have unintentionally manifested a student like you," I countered. "The Little Dragon was way out of my league, but it's still fun to think of being connected to him this way after so many decades have passed."

"It's true," Roger answered pensively. "I don't suppose there are too many of us around anymore."

"I'll be here for a couple of weeks, so I'll be happy to show you what I can."

Roger nodded. "Your slow, mindful movements remind me of the way he was before he started with the weights and all, and the way you talk about Taoist theory and how yin and yang apply to tai chi reminds me of the way Bruce used to talk about the Wing Chun kung fu style he studied with Ip Man."

"In the case of tai chi, the art wouldn't exist without Taoist principles of hard and soft, fast and slow, internal and external, that whole harmonious interplay between opposing forces," I said. "Personally, I see that interplay in everything, but perhaps it's more obvious in tai chi than in Wing Chun."

"You both use your own very particular way of explaining body mechanics," said Roger, "but Bruce could be rough. I remember one time, at one of his dinner visits to our home, Bruce was training me and continuously kicking my instep until tears came to my eyes. My father had to intervene and stop the torture. Bruce said that the lesson was to teach me how to handle a sweep and that I should have moved my foot out of the way. When I watched Enter The Dragon and saw him bop that boy on the head in that now-famous scene about the finger and the moon, I could definitely empathize."

"Tai chi practice may be softer," I said, "but most people don't know that there's a hardcore, very rough fighting dimension to the art. It's body mechanics and energetics both."

"You two talk differently about energy. In 1969, Bruce told me he didn't believe in qi, but do you remember his line about the art of fighting without fighting? He was definitely interested in other avenues to spirituality and energy and was much devoted to studying the works of the great philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. I've been on a similar quest, looking to improve my poor health with traditional martial arts."

"There are lots of paths to understanding energy and spirit," I said. "Besides, he was young and rebellious and using Western training tools, like weights, was cutting edge stuff back then. That kind of training involved addressing speed, strength, and performance in a completely different language. Of course, I can't be sure, but I wonder if, had he lived longer, he might not have come to another point of view about energy, maybe even synthesized some new way to express what qi is and how we use it or how it uses us."

"What's really amazing is that you and I met," Roger said suddenly. "Think of all the twists and turns of life, all the little things that had to happen, for me to sitting on the bench at this exact spot at this exact moment, waiting for a teacher, and you come and lock yourself out of your rental car."

"I was thinking the same thing," I said. "Last night I gave that talk about philosophy, the Tao, the interconnectedness of all things -- the way life works. Now here we are."

"What are the odds?" Roger smiled.

"About 100 percent," I replied.

Here is a link showing Roger with Bruce Lee and his group.

Here's another, showing Roger breakdancing in Hilo, Hawaii:

And one more showing Roger getting his groove on indoors.