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Growing up with Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee works out with students in Seattle around 1963 Photo courtesy of Palmer family archive.
Japan Fair 2018 TOP Page

Author Showcase – July 8th 11:00 am at main stage –

by Bruce Rutledge, The North American Post

The first time Doug Palmer met Bruce Lee was at a Seattle Bon Odori celebration in the summer of 1961. Their relationship would blossom into a warm friendship, but that first encounter was tense, Palmer remembers.

At the time, Palmer was a 16-year-old Garfield High School student who boxed at a local gym. Lee’s martial arts demonstration in Chinatown had caught Palmer’s attention. The Garfield High student wanted to study under Lee and asked friends to introduce him.
Of course, Lee had only heard that this big white guy named Doug was “looking for him.” For a kid who had been in his share of street fights in Hong Kong, that sounded like trouble.

from left: Doug Palmer, Bruce Lee and an unidentified person in Hong Kong in the early 1960s.
Photo courtesy of Palmer family archive.

Lee tapped Palmer on the shoulder and said, “I heard you were looking for me.” Palmer remembers Lee standing a pace or two away. “He leaned slightly back from the waist, his eyes hooded, a neutral expression on his face.” It was as if Lee were ready for a fight.

“Facing Bruce, I was initially nonplussed,” Palmer writes. “On an unconscious level, I understood that his stance, although un-menacing and not overtly martial in appearance, was one from which he was prepared to react to whatever I did. Later, I realized it was a variation of the way he taught us to stand if faced by a potentially threatening situation. The idea was to be in a position where one could defend or counter-attack instantly, yet not appear to be hostile. It gave the appearance of alertness without concern, confidence and readiness without aggressive intent.”

Palmer, a lawyer with HCMP Law Offices in Seattle and husband to Noriko Goto Palmer, is working on a memoir of his time with Bruce Lee. After that Bon Odori meeting, Palmer became the second youngest member of Lee’s “dojo,” held in the backyard of one of the students. He and Lee became fast friends over time, and Palmer even spent a summer with Lee and his family in Hong Kong. Over a decade of friendship, Palmer writes, “I learned from him not only martial arts, but also many valuable life lessons that stuck with me and served me many times in good stead.”

The memoir, still being completed by Palmer, offers a rare glimpse into the man who became an international martial arts sensation. It also paints a fascinating picture of Lee during his Seattle years. Palmer writes extensively of those early lessons. The students were of various ethnicities and races, which didn’t seem unusual to a Garfield High kid but was virtually unheard of in the world of gung fu at the time.

“There were black, Chinese, Japanese, and white students with judo backgrounds,” Palmer writes, “and others with boxing backgrounds. Others were simply tough dudes who knew a lot about street fighting and recognized an approach that was more efficient and effective.”

Palmer remembers the 135-pound Lee arm-wrestling and beating a tough 225-pound kid, and later doing one-handed push-ups with the same kid on his back. But he also adds to our understanding of Lee by recounting his love of corny jokes and talking about his years working in Ruby Chow’s restaurant. When the manuscript is published, it will provide further insight into the man who was Bruce Lee.

Palmer will be talking about his memories of Bruce Lee as part of the Author Showcase at Japan Fair, held on the Main Stage from 11 to 11:45 on Sunday, July 8.

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Bruce Rutledge worked as a journalist in Japan for 15 years before moving to Seattle to found Chin Music Press, an independent book publisher located in Seattle's historic Pike Place Market.