As they do every day at Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery, they come.
They come carrying flowers, letters, fruit and other mementos — their significance known only to them. Carefully, they weave through the tombstones until they all — elderly women and young men, black, white, Asian — are standing at the grave of martial arts icon Bruce Lee.
“I have been there many times over 40-something years, and I have often tried to sneak in very early in the morning and I have never been there when there was nobody there. Never,” said Linda Lee Cadwell as she stood a few miles away in Seattle’s International District.
If there is anyone who can lay moral claim to the gravesite, it is Cadwell. She is the widow of Bruce Lee and the mother of actor Brandon Lee, whose grave is next to his father’s. And it was she who decided to bury her husband and later her son in Seattle.
Cadwell and her daughter Shannon Lee were in Seattle last week for the opening of “Do You Know Bruce?” at the Wing Luke Museum.
Bruce Lee died in 1973 in Hong Kong during the filming of “The Game of Death” just as his career was taking off. Cadwell planned on being buried one day in the empty plot next to her husband. Then tragedy struck the Lee family again when Brandon, 28, was killed in an accidental shooting on the set of “The Crow” in 1993.
Born in San Francisco and raised in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee came to Seattle to attend the University of Washington.
“Bruce loved living in Seattle. And then our life took a different road into the film business and going to Hong Kong and all that. We were very young. He always intended to come back from Hong Kong and do films, primarily in California. But we always dreamed and talked about having a second home in Seattle because he loved Seattle for many reasons,” Cadwell said.
If the steady stream of visitors to Bruce Lee’s grave is an indication, his popularity shows no sign of slowing. But visiting the grave is not a necessity for Cadwell.
“I’m not a person who feels that I have to go to the cemetery to see Bruce. He’s always with me. And Brandon,” Cadwell said.
Shannon Lee has likewise never visited the grave of her father without having at least one other person present, she said.
“Everyone is always so respectful. It’s really amazing – people’s connection with my father. They are there in some small way to pay respect or give back,” Shannon said.
Shannon Lee was only 4 when her father died.
“I’ve been in a constant relationship my whole life with being Bruce Lee’s daughter and his legacy. It changes as I grow and my consciousness increases and my awareness increases,” Shannon said.
Shannon Lee, who lives in Los Angeles, divides her time between The Bruce Lee Foundation (an educational non-profit) and handling marketing and licensing of her father’s image and name.
At the Wing Luke, Shannon Lee said after her father died, their family assumed the world would eventually forget Bruce Lee.
“My mom thought, ‘this is going to go away and die down.’ But it really hasn’t,” Shannon Lee said.
After his death, books and other writings about and authored by Bruce Lee were published.
“People began to understand that the thing that excited them and were grasping on screen came from a real deep well of hard work and philosophy and life of breaking barriers. That really inspired people,” Shannon Lee said. “You see this deep authenticity that shines through his eyes.”
The Bruce Lee Foundation’s ultimate goal is to open a museum dedicated to Lee’s legacy – in Seattle. “It felt like a natural fit because so many people take a pilgrimage to the gravesite every year,” Shannon said.
Cadwell grew up in Seattle. Remarried, she now lives in Boise, which reminds her of the Seattle of her youth. It was that Seattle that Bruce Lee came to know in the early 1960s. He loved the easy lifestyle and pan-Asian community, Cadwell said. And he developed several close friendships.
“When you become a movie star, the quality of your friendships sometimes changes because people want things from you. But not in Seattle,” Cadwell said.
When Lee died – the exact cause of his death is almost the subject of mythology – Cadwell was left adrift.
“Here I was, 28 years old, with two little kids. Where do you go? You go home,” she said.
Lake View Cemetery, with its scenic location and substantial Chinese presence, seemed like a natural location for Lee’s grave, Cadwell said.
“It’s such a beautiful spot overlooking Lake Union. It’s such a spiritual moving place for me. I’m glad I made that decision.”
At the Wing Luke, city officials proclaimed Friday as Bruce Lee Day, with councilmen and others dressing in yellow jumpsuits. But a few miles away at the cemetery, the mood was more somber.
Three men piled out of a truck with California plates and made their way to Lee’s grave. San Francisco resident George Chung had brought fellow martial arts enthusiasts Raj Kundra and Nazar Abbas with him. The two were visiting from India. All three were involved with a mixed martial arts event at Tacoma’s Emerald Queen Casino the following day.
One by one the three men took turns kneeling at Lee’s grave. Kundra, a celebrity in his own right in India, bowed his head. Bouquets of flowers covered the two graves and a small knot of visitors gathered around.
From a distance, it almost looked like a funeral was being held.