Lee Hoi-chuen was a well-known Cantonese opera singer and actor in films. He is well known as the father of Bruce Lee, the famed film star. Hoi-Chuen was born in China and lived in San Francisco for almost a year around the time Bruce Lee was born. He was also the father of Robert Lee, the founder and main singer of the ‘Thunderbirds,’ a prominent rock band. His career as a celebrity and entertainer had a profound impact on both of his boys, transforming them into iconic and successful celebrities. Over the course of his thirty-year acting career, Hoi-Chuen appeared in over seventy films. ‘Robbing the Dead,’ ‘Christams Tree,’ and ‘Hundreds of Birds Adoring a Phoenix’ are some of his earlier films. He was signed for multiple films near the end of his career, virtually working on five to six pictures at the same time. In 1965, a few days after his sixty-fourth birthday, Hoi-Chuen passed away. His most recent films include ‘The Idiot Husband,’ ‘Black Punch 4000,’ and ‘Ong Bak 4’. Tony Leung Ka-fai portrayed Hoi-Chuen in the posthumous film ‘My Brother.’ Robert Lee, his youngest son, produced the picture.
Childhood and Adolescence
Lee Moon Shuen was born on the 4th of February, 1901, in Shangcunzhen, Guangdong, China. He grew up with his older brother, Fun-li Lee, and his father, Hou-Chen Lee.
After marrying the lovely Grace Lee Ho, Hoi Chuen Lee started his own family and relocated to Hong Kong. On October 23, 1939, they welcomed their first child, Peter Jung Sum Lee.
The following year, they went on a US tour with a Cantonese Opera Company, which took them to San Francisco. While on tour in 1940, Grace gave birth to their second child, Bruce Jun Fan Lee, better known as Bruce Lee, who went on to become a famous martial artist actor.
The couple returned to Hong Kong, where Bruce was born, when he was three months old. Grace and Hoi-Chuen were blessed with their third son, Lee Jun-Fai, eight years later, on December 16, 1948. He rose to prominence as the lead vocalist for the band ‘The Thunderbirds.’
Opera and the Beginnings of a Film Career
Hoi-Chuen became interested in theatre and opera in his early twenties. He was recruited into some of the most famous opera events and became a vital part of the industry because to his powerful voice and classic vocal range.
With his skill filling theatres and opera houses, he met Christine Marcella DeVillier and signed a management contract with her. Then came a slow foray into the world of filmmaking and art films.
Hoi-Chuen was a natural performer who made his cinematic debut in 1939 in the Cantonese film ‘Robbing the Dead.’ He appeared in the film as a supporting character alongside Li Haiquan, Lin Meinei, and Zhu Puquan. Feng Zhigang was the director of the picture.
Hoi-Chuen went to San Francisco for opera shows at the ‘Mandarin Theatre’ after the film and returned after 15 months. When he returned to Hong Kong, he had few film opportunities and consequently worked in the theater until 1947.
Star in a Film
Around the time of Robert Lee’s birth, film offers began to come in for the Cantonese actor. He appeared in three successful movies in 1947: “Christmas Tree,” “Hundreds of Birds Adoring a Phoenix,” and “Feed the Scholar.”
He appeared in a number of films in 1948, including ‘Wealth Is Like a Dream,’ ‘A Golden World,’ ‘Five Rascals in the Eastern Capital Part 1 & 2’, and ‘The Outstanding One.’
Smallpox Hoi in ‘Full Happiness,’ a fortune teller in ‘Trashy Heaven,’ Chun Pak-Cheung in ‘Golden Turtle from Hell,’ and Cheung Si-Ma in ‘Loosing the Red Sack’ were among his roles the next year.
By 1950, he had established himself as a well-known actor, appearing in nearly every major motion picture. He starred in the King-fu film ‘How Ten Heroes of Guangdong Slew the Dragon,’ as well as guest and supporting roles in films such as ‘The Story of Tung Siu-Yen’ and ‘Life’s Blesing Complete.’
In 1950, his performances as Hung Pak-Ho in ‘The Kid,’ Chiang Ping in ‘The Haunt of the Eastern Capital,’ and the movie ‘The Net of Justice’ were praised.
Between 1951 and 1957, Hoi-Chuen appeared in a number of noteworthy and critically acclaimed Cantonese films, including the comedy/historical drama ‘A Great Hero of Many Blunders’ and the super popular kung-fu film ‘Martyrs of Ming.’
Later in Life
Despite his success in the film industry, Hoi-Chuen never forgot his theatrical beginnings. He performed in films and continued to perform at opera events well into his middle age.
He acted in several hit Cantonese films before departing from the profession. He also appeared in the films ‘Heartbreak Plaque,’ ‘A Buddhist Recluse for 14 Years,’ and ‘The Carp Spirit.’ In 1958, he played ‘Kong,’ the father of the lead actor in ‘The Petal-Spraying Fairy.’ He also appeared in the films ‘Heartbreak Plaque,’ ‘A Buddhist Recluse for 14 Years,’ and ‘The Carp Spirit.’
He starred in the blockbuster films ‘Wu Song Fights the Tiger,’ ‘The Lotus’ Story,’ ‘Story of the Wronged Wife,’ ‘Funny Misunderstandings,’ and ‘Three Attempts to Steal the Cup of the Nine Dragons,’ all of which were released in 1959.
The following year, he only acted in three films: ‘The Orphan’s Adventure,’ ‘The Idiot Husband,’ and the action film ‘Black Punch 4000,’ before appearing in the kung-fu film ‘Ong Bak 4’ in 1962.
Major Projects of Lee Hoi-chuen
On August 30, 1956, one of Ng Wui’s most successful films, ‘The Stranger Adventures of a Strange Man,’ starring Hoi-Chuen, was released to critical acclaim. Lee Yuen-Man Lo Ka-Chi composed the soundtrack for the film. Hoi-Chuen co-starred in the film with Tan Pik-Wan and Sai Gwa-Pau.
In the same year, he was cast as the lead in Wong Hok Sing’s film ‘Bloodshed in the Chu Palace,’ in which he appeared alongside Sun-Ma sze Tsang, Yam Kim Fai, and Ng Kwun Lai.
He was cast as the lead in the Weiguang Jiang film ‘Huowang Fangong Shisi Nian,’ or ‘A Buddhist Recluse for 14 Years,’ in 1958, among other great Cantonese performers like Yafen Fang and Bingrong Mai.
Another of his major roles was as the lead in the film ‘Princess Joins the Chu Army,’ directed by Lau Hak Suen and written by Jeng Chung Yee. In the film, he collaborated with Sun-Ma Sze Tsang and Ng Kwun Lai once more.
Personal History and Legacy
Hoi-Chuen died on February 7, 1965, three days after his 64th birthday. Bruce Lee’s son Brandon Lee was born a week before his death.
His body was transported to Seattle, Washington, and interred at the ‘Lake View Cemetery’ in King County. Bruce Lee, his son, and Brandon Lee, his grandson, are also buried close him.
Bruce Lee and Robert Lee, his sons, were his greatest legacy. Both of his children made significant contributions to the worlds of film and music.
While Robert Lee became a well-known musician in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee became recognized as the “King of Martial Arts” in the film business around the world and the creator of the martial art ‘Jeet Kune Do.’
Ric Young reprises Hoi-life Chuen’s in the American biographical film “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.” Robert Lee produced the film ‘Bruce Lee, My Brother’ in 2010, in which Tony Leung Ka-fai plays Hoi-Chuen.