by Sharon H. Chang
Editor’s Note: We want to acknowledge that there remains disagreement in the martial arts community over who is properly credited as Bruce Lee’s senior-most student. In light of that fact, we’ve chosen to refer to Taky Kimura as Bruce Lee’s senior-most instructor.
Taky Kimura, Bruce Lee’s best friend and senior-most instructor, has been lovingly safeguarding Lee’s memory and legacy in Seattle for almost five decades. Many people know and admire legendary martial artist Bruce Lee, but few know about the close friend who helped Lee start his first martial arts school in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (CID) and carried on Lee’s legacy after he tragically passed. Kimura turned 96 last month and Thursday, May 7, a new short film about his life and relationship to Lee, “Taky Kimura: The Heart of the Dragon,” will premiere online for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
The film was produced by Indie Genius Media, a People of Color run film and media company based in South Seattle. The company is co-owned by Jamil Suleman and Aaron Jacob, who are both South Asian. “We are excited,” said Suleman of this week’s premiere. “The Heart of the Dragon” is a passion project for Suleman, which began when he graduated from the University of Washington (UW) in 2007 and learned Bruce Lee had once attended there. Surprised UW had no memorial to the legend, Suleman became involved in a 6-year campaign, supported by the Bruce Lee estate, to install a Lee statue on campus. The campaign was unsuccessful, but Suleman became close with Lee’s family and friends including Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, and best friend, Taky Kimura.
“When I met Taky, I was like wow, this guy’s story is just as incredible,” said Suleman. The filmmaker was moved by Kimura’s close relationship with Lee, also describing Kimura as a prolific martial artist and legend in his own right. Suleman wanted to help tell Taky’s story. So, in 2016, Indie Genius Media started filming.
Kimura grew up in Clallam Bay, Washington. He was only a high school student when his family was incarcerated during World War II with 120,000 Japanese Americans. After the war ended and Kimura was released from prison camp, he was dispirited and downtrodden for years. “Taky had gone through a lot,” said Suleman, “and then in comes Bruce Lee.” When Kimura was 36, he met a charismatic 18-year-old named Bruce Lee, a rising martial arts genius who had just arrived in Seattle. Despite their age difference, the two became fast friends and Kimura became Lee’s senior-most instructor.
“Bruce taught Taky self-actualization and confidence through martial arts,” said Suleman. Lee was also a philosopher and his martial arts training combined with philosophical guidance transformed Kimura’s life. Together, the two best friends founded Lee’s first martial arts school in the CID, the Jun Fan Gung Fu Club (originally the Lee Jun Fan Gung Institute). Lee created Jeet Kune Do, the first mixed martial art, and Kimura became Lee’s first assistant. To this day, Kimura is one of only three people Lee personally certified to teach the art and philosophy of Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do.
Kimura took over the Jun Fan Gung Fu Club when Lee moved to California to pursue acting. Despite invitations from Lee to join him in Hollywood, Kimura stayed in Seattle and maintained Lee’s original martial arts school. Kimura ran the school for years and then passed it on to his son. Andy Kimura continues to run the school today and maintain the art and philosophy of Jun Fan Gung/Jeet Kune Do that was taught by Bruce Lee. “The legacy of Bruce’s teachings still last in the CID,” said Suleman.
“Taky Kimura: The Heart of the Dragon” took one year to film. It includes original footage of the Lee Jun Fan Gung Institute that Kimura and Lee started together, and of Kimura’s son, Andy. The film’s title, “The Heart of the Dragon,” refers to the enduring relationship Lee and Kimura had for over 13 years. Lee was notoriously known as the Dragon and became famous. But he always held a special place in his heart for Kimura, as Kimura did for Lee. Kimura was best man at Lee’s wedding and a pallbearer at Lee’s funeral. “Most people admire Bruce Lee,” said Suleman, “but Taky loved him. Bruce changed Taky’s life completely and so Taky is committed to the legacy of Bruce.”
Suleman said Lee’s family and particularly his daughter, Shannon, were very supportive throughout filming. The family has seen “The Heart of the Dragon” and loved it. The film is important for Asian Pacific American Heritage because many do not realize Bruce Lee lived in Seattle and originated so much of his work here. “This is a real authentic Seattle story that a lot of people just don’t know,” said Suleman. But the best part of “The Heart of the Dragon,” the filmmaker said, is the beautiful loyalty, commitment, and familial love Kimura and Lee had for each other. “The main story is the power of this friendship and it’s all Seattle — Asian American Seattle.”
You can watch “Taky Kimura: Heart of the Dragon” Thursday afternoon, May 7, on Indie Genius’s Facebook page and IGTV channel. The film will also be released through the Bruce Lee Brand online. Parents please be advised “The Heart of the Dragon” is a beautiful story that offers children an opportunity to learn important Seattle Asian American history, but there is mention of Kimura being called a racial slur during WWII.
Sharon H. Chang is an activist, photographer, and award-winning writer. She is the author of the acclaimed book Hapa Tales and Other Lies that reflects critically on her Asian American, Mixed Race, and activist identity through the prism of returning to Hawai‘i as a tourist. She lives in the Columbia City neighborhood.
Featured image: Taky Kimura and Bruce Lee (photo courtesy of Indie Genius Media)