Sifu Abe Santos and the fight to preserve Bruce Lee’s legacy

Ask any Asian North American to name an iconic idol and Bruce Lee’s name is sure to come up more often than not.

Hailed as a martial arts legend, influential philosopher and an intergenerational icon, Lee was one of the first Asians to impact Hollywood and transform the perception of Asians in Western society.

That’s why Abe Santos is dedicated to preserving Lee’s art and legacy.

As a senior instructor at Jun Fan Gung Fu Academy, Santos was trained and certified by Taky Kimura – Lee’s highest ranking student, closest friend, best man at his wedding, and one of the pallbearers at his funeral.

Sifu Abe Santos of Seattle
Photo credit: Abe Santos

Speaking with Cold Tea Collective, the Seattle, Washington, native shares how he went from being a devoted fan of Lee to dedicating his career to continuing his legacy.

MEETING SIFU TAKY

The fandom began at age 10 after Santos watched Lee’s films, ‘Enter the Dragon’ and ‘The Big Boss’, and purchased the book, ‘The Tao of Jeet Kune Do’.

After seeing Taky Kimura — one of the three instructors certified by Lee — at an annual Kung Fu Tournament in Seattle, he began writing letters to Kimura with questions about the legendary martial artist and eventually expressing his desire to learn Jun Fan Gung Fu.

“Sifu Taky always responded back to people about Bruce Lee,” Santos said. “He’s considered the great keeper of Bruce Lee’s legacy.”

With that, Kimura invited Santos — aged 14 at the time — to meet at his grocery store in downtown Seattle. In the basement below was where he trained a small group of students.

Kimura’s story dates back to World War II, where he was taken to an internment camp on the day before his high school graduation. When his family was released, they struggled to find their place in society — at one point unable to even find a place to rent.

Kimura would then meet the rising superstar in his mid-30’s, at the kung-fu club Lee hosted in his early days. Just like that, they became best friends and co-founded the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute.

“Sifu Taky had no self-esteem [when he got out of internment camp],” Santos said. “Through Jun Fan Gung Fu, and because of Bruce Lee, he gained confidence and believed he was just as good as others with lighter skin.”

Now at 95 years old, Kimura continues to dedicate his life’s work to preserve Bruce Lee’s legacy.

MORE THAN JUST A MARTIAL ART

Based in Seattle, Jun Fan Gung Fu Academy passes on the pure teachings of Jun Fan Gung Fu and Jun Keet Do – The Art of Intercepting Fist – in order to “perpetuate Bruce Lee’s legacy with the highest integrity.” The academy currently operates as a non-commercial, private school, modeling after the way Lee used to run his martial art clubs.

Abe Santos Academy
Photo credit: Abe Santos

While it’s open to anyone, students must undergo an interview process and are hand-selected by the instructors. Despite the widely popular martial art and the household name, the school is conserved through a small core group of students.

‘It’s more than martial arts; it’s about the mental toughness, hardwork and commitment,” Santos said. “It’s not about being a fighter. It’s about being a better human, the best human being that you can be.”

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

Since his tragic passing over 46 years ago, Lee’s presence is still very much alive in pop culture.

Quentin Tarantino’s recent film “Once a Time in Hollywood” features the character of Bruce Lee, played by Mike Moh. In the movie, Brad Pitt’s character, stuntman Cliff Booth, is challenged to a fight on a movie set by Lee, which ended in Booth throwing Lee into a car, much to the dismay of Lee fans.

Shannon Lee says it was “disheartening” to see Tarantino depict her father as “an arrogant a-hole who was full of hot air.”

“Shannon is right,” Santos said. “[Tarantino] wants to call it fiction and portray it that way, but he’s wrong about who Bruce Lee was. 

“I’ve had many conversations with Taky for 30 years — Bruce Lee is a very confident person in his ability and because of that, people take it the wrong way that he’s arrogant.” 

According to Santos, Lee was so confident he didn’t pick fights with anyone. Instead, he walked away from fights because many challenged him

“You have to remember [that] he was a young man,” he said. “He was not perfect. He was a young man who wanted to break the stereotype and he had to work extra hard to do that.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/B3NEoK-j_oH/

Lee was passed over in leading roles due to the belief that an Asian actor would not appeal to the Western audience. In the TV show “Kung Fu”, which was originally pitched by Lee, the directors ended up casting a Caucasian actor, who played a monk, in his place.

However, it wasn’t long before his quick-hitting combat style and undeniable charisma captured the wider audience around the world.

“He portrayed the image of strong Asians, not just bowl cuts and long ponytails,” Santos said. “He has influenced people beyond the colour of their skin and made people feel up to par.”

Lee introduced a different type of Asian male role to the screen, who was powerful, masculine and someone other people aspired to become, Asians and non-Asians alike. 

“He is a hero in people’s eyes,” Santos said, “[Tarantino] should’ve talked to people who actually work with him, like people on set, because that’s not who he was.”

MARTIAL ART IS A WAY OF LIFE

To this day, Lee’s art philosophy is still as relevant as ever, inspiring others to live life to the fullest and gain confidence in themselves. Santos describes Lee as the Leonardo da Vinci of martial arts, who was “innovative and well beyond his years.”

“Many people try to emulate him or try to develop their own martial arts, but he was doing this 50 years ago. There will always be one Bruce Lee.”

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