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The world’s most famous dragon, Bruce Lee, was a natural entrepreneur

Lee was a gifted martial artist and charismatic movie star. He is also one of the world’s most valuable brands.

The Bruce Lee Code: How the dragon mastered business, confidence, and success
WATCH: In his book, Business enterprise reporter Thomas Lee captures the martial artist and actor's enduring impact.

Lunar New Year 2024, which starts on Saturday, marks the Year of the Dragon. Though there are 12 Chinese Zodiac signs, the dragon holds a special place in Chinese culture. People born in the Year of the Dragon are supposedly charismatic, confident, and demanding.

So it should come as no surprise that Bruce Lee was a dragon. Born in 1940 in San Francisco, Lee possessed all of these traits in spades. He was a gifted martial artist and charismatic movie star who continues to inspire people around the world.

Lee, who died 50 years ago last July, even adopted the dragon as his moniker: His two most famous films, “Enter the Dragon” and “Way of the Dragon,” are references not to any character in the movies but rather to himself.

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Lee was an accomplished entrepreneur. He founded his own movie production company, which fused Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema and created a unique brand of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do.

He didn’t necessarily think of himself as a businessman. But his beliefs on innovation and adaptability are certainly relevant to the business community. And he wasn’t just a talker or a thinker. He did things.

Lee co-founded Concord Production in 1972 so he could wield greater artistic and financial control over his film projects, which were enormously profitable. He started schools in Seattle, Oakland, and Los Angeles to promote his unique version of martial arts. And he was keenly aware of the power of his personal brand and actively explored merchandising deals.

Today, Bruce Lee is one of the world’s most valuable brands. He has inspired multibillion-dollar properties in comic books, professional mixed martial arts, music, fashion, and, of course, movies and television shows.

Though born in the United States, Lee spent most of his childhood in Hong Kong. When he returned to America in 1959, he was a teenager without money, connections, or credentials.

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But what Lee did possess was a startlingly clear grasp of American capitalism and its potential for economic mobility. In 1962, in a letter to Pearl Tso, a family friend, about his impressions of his new home, he wrote:

“Fortune, in the sense of wealth, is the reward of the man who can think of something that hasn’t been thought of before. In every industry, in every profession, ideas are what America is looking for.”

Although he was only 21 at the time, he felt the vibrance of a nation that had emerged as an economic and military superpower, thanks to its victory in World War II and the resulting economic boom of the decade that followed.

It was as if Lee were already starting to formulate the beginnings of his own Horatio Alger story — a man who succeeds in America through hard work, ingenuity, and ambition.

In his letter to Pearl Tso, he wrote: “I feel I have this great creative and spiritual force within me that is greater than faith, greater than ambition, greater than vision. It is all these combined. My brain becomes magnetized with this dominating force which I hold in my hand.”

“When you drop a pebble into a pool of water, the pebble starts a series of ripples that expand until they encompass the whole pool. This is exactly what will happen when I give my ideas a definite plan of action. Right now, I can project my thoughts into the future, I can see ahead of me. I dream.”

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Lee would later imbue his movie roles with that same charisma and inevitability to the point that it is sometimes difficult to separate the man from his art. He clearly felt as if he was someone on a mission, that he was destined to do something great in America.

In fact, Lee believed all humans had a moral duty to achieve their full potential. He also knew that America was a capitalist, market-driven country. Lee understood that it was a land that valued good ideas and acknowledged that financial success could turn those good ideas into reality.

Lee’s greatest innovation was merging the exciting, kinetic action movies of Hong Kong with the character-driven, storytelling approach of Hollywood. The result was movies that elevated the martial arts genre to new artistic and commercial heights.

His films were highly successful — and highly profitable. Beginning with “Big Boss,” his five films together grossed $3.1 billion against a combined budget of only $2 million (figures adjusted for inflation).

“Enter the Dragon,” widely considered one of the greatest martial arts films of all time, was a blockbuster even before Hollywood coined the term. When Warner Brothers released the film in the United States, the movie topped the box office for two weeks straight, remained in the Top 10 for another four weeks, and hit number one again in its eighth week. The film ultimately grossed $1.2 billion against a budget of just $850,000 (adjusted for inflation).

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Sadly, Bruce Lee died in 1973 at the age of only 32. He never got a chance to experience the success of “Enter of the Dragon,” through which he posthumously realized his lifetime goal of worldwide stardom.

This essay was adapted from Globe business reporter Thomas Lee’s book “The Bruce Lee Code,” published last year by Career Press in Newburyport.


Thomas Lee can be reached at thomas.lee@globe.com.