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The History of Bok Fu Do

Grandmaster Richard Lee at the Long Quan Temple in the Wu Tai Mountains of China. - 2002

Grandmaster Richard Lee at the Long Quan Temple in the Wu Tai Mountains of China. – 2002

Bok-Fu-Do, meaning “the System of the White Tiger” was developed and founded by Grandmaster Richard Lee in 1967. It is a Chinese system of martial arts that is composed of many different fighting arts from around the world. It is one of the few systems of martial arts founded and developed in the west that is truly internationally recognized because of its content and consistent success in world competition.

Tom Conners, Ed Parker and Al Tracy inside Lee's first East-West Kung-Fu school in Castro Valley, CA - 1967

Tom Conners, Ed Parker and Al Tracy inside Lee's first East-West Kung-Fu school in Castro Valley, CA – 1967

Richard Lee began his martial arts training in pugilism in 1946. In 1953, seven years into his boxing training, Lee began studying Jujitsu and later that year, Shotokan. In the early 1960's, Lee began studying Chinese Kenpo with Al Tracy. Lee went on to become one of Tracy's first five black belts and went professional at the school with Al shortly thereafter.

In 1967, Lee opened his first Chinese Kenpo school in Castro Valley, California. The school grew rapidly and soon Lee had to expand. He opened up two more schools in Dublin and Walnut Creek. In 1968, Steve Labounty, Lee's fellow Tracy Kenpo black belt brother and friend who was now working directly with Ed Parker, encouraged Lee to join the International Kenpo Karate Association. Lee joined as Shodan (black belt).

By 1974, just seven years after he had opened the Castro Valley school, Lee was operating eight locations and literally had a tiger by the tail. Lee's schools had quickly become a popular operation but Lee understood that it was far more important in real martial arts to be respected than liked. He decided then that he needed to know just how effective his style of martial arts was compared to the rest of the systems in the world. Lee talked to Parker and Tracy in depth about his plans for this trip and what he hoped to accomplish.

Photo of Lee from New Martial Hero Magazine.

Photo of Lee from New Martial Hero Magazine.

In 1972, Lee began an around the world mission to study and research the various fighting systems of martial arts. He began his travels in the Republic of China, where some of the most respected and well-known Kuoshu (Kung-Fu) Grandmasters and Masters resided. Lee's travel and research efforts were immediately featured in popular magazines in the Republic of China. An article in New Martial Hero Magazine with popular movie star, Bruce Lee, on the cover labeled the aforementioned Lee a world traveling scholar and described Lee's sincere wish to experience the real face of Eastern Kung-Fu culture. Lee's style was described by the Chinese as “White Tiger Fist” which translates literally to Bok-Fu-Kenpo.

Lee with a Masaai warrior - Kenya, 1976.

Lee with a Masaai warrior – Kenya, 1976.

Lee next went to Japan and visited Kyokushin Karate Master Mas Oyama's school as well as the headquarters for Kodokan, Judo. Lee traveled to Korea and visited the newly constructed Tae Kwon Do headquarters in Seoul. In Nepal he studied the rarely seen knife fighting techniques of the legendary Gurkah. He spent time with the Headhunters of Borneo and the Maasai and Zulu warrior tribes of Africa. In Israel, he studied the Israeli military sentry removal techniques that later developed into the martial arts system now known as Krav Maga. He traveled to Thailand and observed the traditional form of Muay Thai boxing and to France where he researched the well known style of Savate. Lee went to India to research the birth place of Buddhism and learn of the legendary Bodidharma, 28th patriarch of Zen Buddhism and the oft regarded founder of Shaolin Kung-Fu. It was also in India where Lee first observed the beauty and magnificence of the rare white tiger. Inspired by its grace and power, Lee adopted the Chinese translation of Bok-Fu for the name of his style of martial arts.

During his time in the Republic of China, Lee was asked to coach the U.S.A. team for the first ever World Kuoshu (Kung-Fu) Tournament that would be held in the Republic of China in 1975. Pitting the best martial artists of their nations from around the world in a foreign land in a full contact fighting (lei tai) style tournament brings to mind the stuff movies are made of. It was an enormous challenge for Lee and an incredible opportunity for him to put his research and findings to the ultimate test – world competition.


Lee leads hundreds of enthusiastic Bok-Fu students through some basic routines before a tournament.
Lee leads hundreds of enthusiastic Bok-Fu students through some basic routines before a tournament.


Lee leads his US Team through a demonstration at the 1975 World Tournament to a thunderous applause.
Lee leads his US Team through a demonstration at the 1975 World Tournament to a thunderous applause.

Grandmaster Lee with interpretor (1992 World Champion Brandi Piacente) addressing the stadium at the 2006 Singapore World Tournament. To his right are the coaches and Grandmasters from the 50 countries that were represented.

Grandmaster Lee with interpretor (1992 World Champion Brandi Piacente) addressing the stadium at the 2006 Singapore World Tournament. To his right are the coaches and Grandmasters from the 50 countries that were represented.

With less than two years to train a group of his best students, Lee employed a diverse combination of ideas and training methods he had distilled down from his studies of Chinese Kenpo and the many different fighting cultures from around the world. His U.S.A. team went on to produce outstanding results and Richard Lee's Bok-Fu-Kenpo was now officially on the map as far as styles go.

Grandmaster Al Tracy presenting Grandmaster Richard Lee with an award that reads: In recognition of your vision and dedication in the development and promotion of Chinese Kenpo, not just in the United States but in International competitions and exhibitions around the world. - August 29, 1994.

Grandmaster Al Tracy presenting Grandmaster Richard Lee with an award that reads:
In recognition of your vision and dedication in the development and promotion of Chinese Kenpo, not just in the United States but in International competitions and exhibitions around the world. – August 29, 1994.

In 1994, in one of the most impressive Black Belt Presentatons in the history of Martial arts in America, Lee received his tenth degree black belt from Grandmaster Al Tracy in the presence of an international who's who in Chinese martial arts. Among those in attendance included General Wu, Hung-chang, Vice-President of the International Chinese Kuoshu Federation in the Republic of China and Grandmaster Huang, Chien-liang, President of the United States Chinese Kuoshu Federation. Witnessed by dignitaries, grandmasters, and masters from around the world and only his top students, Lee and his style of Bok-Fu-Do were globally recognized officially as a system of Chinese martial arts.

General Wu and Grandmaster Huang then appointed Lee the Senior Vice-President of the United States Chinese Kuoshu Federation and Lee's East-West Kung-Fu school in Alamo was subsequently memorialized as the West Coast Headquarters for all of Chinese Kuoshu in America.

Throughout the decades Bok-Fu-Do has consistently proven its effectiveness at the highest level of competition for martial arts, the World Kuoshu (Kung-Fu) Tournaments. Much like the Olympics, the World Kuoshu Tournaments occur only once every three to four years. Bok-Fu-Do students of Grandmaster Lee have represented the United States in these World Competitions eight different times spanning more than thirty years to date. Most recently, the 2009 World Tournament in Neu Ulm, Germany watched the United States turn in their best performance ever as a team. Anchored by eight of Grandmaster Lee's students – nearly half the entire American squad – and headed by U.S. coach, Master John Buckley, the United States beat out host country Germany and defended the World Title the US Team captured in Singapore (2006).

In 1994, Grandmaster Tracy and Grandmaster Lee were the only known 10th degree black belts in Chinese Kenpo.

In 1994, Grandmaster Tracy and Grandmaster Lee were the only known 10th degree black belts in Chinese Kenpo.

Some facts about Bok Fu Do

  • The “Do” in the words “Bok-Fu-Do” was officially added in 1994 when Lee became a Grandmaster and Bok-Fu-Do was recognized internationally as a system of Chinese martial arts.
  • Grandmaster Lee has taught thousands of students dating back to the 1960's. In his early years he developed black belts that have gone on to open their own schools and teach Bok-Fu and/or Bok-Fu-Kenpo. But there are only four schools presently teaching Bok-Fu-Do – The West Coast Headquarters, East-West Kung-Fu in Alamo,San Ramon and Lafayette, CA (Head of School – Master John Buckley, 1st disciple of Grandmaster Richard Lee). His affiliate school, K.O. Kung-Fu is in San Jose, CA (Head of School – Master John Ozuna, 2nd disciple of Grandmaster Richard Lee).

Some words from Grandmaster Richard Lee, founder of Bok-Fu-Do

Developing the system of Bok-Fu-Do has and continues to be my life's work. When I first opened the Castro Valley school in 1967 I was teaching the Tracy system of Kenpo as taught to him by Ed Parker. The school grew so quickly that I decided to open another in Dublin and shortly thereafter a third in Walnut Creek. By the early 1970's I was operating eight schools and had many students that earned their black belts with me under the Tracy system of Kenpo. I did not formulate the name Bok-Fu until 1972 when I traveled the world and documented the many different fighting styles of martial arts. I spent the next several years carefully distilling down the best and most effective methods I had gleaned from each and every martial art into one pool of knowledge under the name Bok-Fu. At that point it was my own style but not as yet a recognized system of Chinese martial arts.

Grandmaster Lee and his disciples at the Shaolin Temple entrance - China 2002. (Disciples from left to right: Art Panella, Norma Futini, John Buckley, John Ozuna, Morgan Newman)

Grandmaster Lee and his disciples at the Shaolin Temple entrance – China 2002. (Disciples from left to right: Art Panella, Norma Futini, John Buckley, John Ozuna, Morgan Newman)

The black belts that I produced after 1972 were the first Bok-Fu black belts. Many of them went into the martial arts business and opened schools under me. Some are still active today. But in the early 1980's I stepped back from the martial arts business to reflect. The black belts that had been with me inherited the schools they were running and I kept only the Walnut Creek location to operate out of. I remained active in working with the various staff from different schools and held tournaments as much as four times per year. The staff competed against the staff and the students against the students from the various East-West locations. At the time there were eight schools teaching Bok-Fu.

Grandmaster Lee and his disciples, Master John Buckley and Master John Ozuna at the Grand Palace -Bangkok, Thailand 2006

Grandmaster Lee and his disciples, Master John Buckley and Master John Ozuna at the Grand Palace -Bangkok, Thailand 2006

Over time the heads of the various schools went their own ways. None are still involved with me in anyway and have not been since the early 1980's. I have recognized those still in the business with appropriate rank but their path is their own. Most if not all have changed the name of their school from East-West to something more personalized. Most if not all have produced their own black belts, some of which I have met and some I have not. I claim no responsibility in developing, testing, or approving/disapproving any of their ranks. That is their own success to enjoy and as such they, along with their teacher, deserve all the credit.

There are undoubtedly many “sister” schools in existence teaching Bok-Fu. I taught thousands if not hundreds of thousands of students prior to 1980. Since 1986, however, my involvement has been strictly with the Alamo and San Ramon East-West Kung-Fu Schools, run by Master John Buckley and the K.O. Kung Fu School, run by Master John Ozuna. Again, I claim no responsibility for any school teaching Bok-Fu or any sister school teaching Bok-Fu and/or any variation or combination thereof. Any and all business endeavors in opening or closing a location or methods of operation were done without my consultation and remain, whether known or unknown to me, individual entities not associated in anyway, shape, or form with me or Bok-Fu-Do. I would never attempt to take the credit for any black belt student that was trained and developed by a black belt of mine no longer studying with me.

In 1994, when I became a Grandmaster it was suggested by Grandmaster Al Tracy, General Wu, Hung-chang (International Chinese Kuoshu Federation Vice President), and Grandmaster Huang, Chien-liang that I formalize my style of Bok-Fu by adding the “Do” (meaning way or system) to the end of Bok-Fu. They explained that the success of my Bok-Fu students in national and international competition as well as the content of the style warranted that Bok Fu – my life's work – become a system. It had long been recognized and respected outside the United States and was distinguished by producing some of the highest quality martial artists, each of whom were tested in the fires of international competition against various countries from around the world. Bok-Fu-Do then officially became an internationally recognized system of Chinese martial arts founded and developed in the west.

In 2001 at the Gathering of Eagles in Las Vegas, Nevada, I received the Senior Master's Gold Ring, one of only six such rings ever presented. Some other fellow ring recipients included Great Grandmaster Al Novak, Great Grandmaster Ralph Castro, Great Grandmaster Mc Sweeny, Grandmaster Al Dacascos and Grandmaster Larry Tatum. During my Gold Ring acceptance speech I made it clear that it was always out of respect and pride from my Chinese Kenpo roots that the Tracy/Parker system was the base of what I used in taking on the world in not only the 1st ever World Kuoshu (Kung-Fu) tournament but in all other World Tournaments and major International events. I further spoke about the fact that if it were not for Grandmaster Al Tracy I probably would have never gone professional and that I have always thought of my life's work as the international branch of Tracy/Parker Kenpo. I stand by those statements and will forever be grateful for Grandmaster Tracy's guidance.

Building the system of Bok-Fu-Do is no brief candle to me. At this point in my life I see it as a splendid torch which I’ve got hold of for the moment. I want to make sure it burns as brightly as possible for each of my students before handing it on to future generations of Bok-Fu-Do masters. My time now is spent exclusively with my disciples, masters, black belts, and staff. I waited fifty years before choosing a disciple to carry on the lineage of Bok-Fu-Do. Master John Buckley is the first such disciple and I am confident he will carry Bok-Fu-Do to future generations with the same passion, dedication, determination, and vision that I have given my life to. He has studied directly under my tutelage since 1986 and has helped me organize and write several books on the Bok-Fu-Do system. We have spent countless hours documenting and recording the historical facts of Bok-Fu-Do. He helped me put together the three foundation books of the Bok-Fu-Do system and wrote the book on my fiftieth anniversary in the martial arts. He is currently working on my life story. Our discussions and conversations have brought us closer together than anyone I have ever worked with. It has given John an insight into me that no other has ever understood. I have talked about things with him that I never shared with anyone.


Grandmaster Lee with his disciples in front of the Pagoda where he did his famous Flying Side Kick in 1972.
Grandmaster Lee with his disciples in front of the Pagoda where he did his famous Flying Side Kick in 1972.


Grandmaster Lee with 3 members of his Masters Council in front of the largest Fu Lion in the Republic of China.
Grandmaster Lee with 3 members of his Masters Council in front of the largest Fu Lion in the Republic of China.

Grandmaster Lee with his disciples inside the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand.
Grandmaster Lee with his disciples inside the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand.

Up to this point, I have chosen twelve disciples. They are all talented black belt students that have, over many years, demonstrated to me the appropriate character that a leader and potential torch bearer for the Bok-Fu-Do system should possess. They represent the first generation in the lineage of Bok-Fu-Do and bear the responsibility of developing the second generation. As is the custom in traditional Chinese martial arts, I have given them each a Chinese name ending with my name Li (Lee) to represent the first generation of Bok-Fu-Do.

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Wah Lum Grandmaster Pui Chan with Grandmaster Lee at his home in Hillsborough in 2007. Grandmaster Chan's daughter, Sifu Mimi Chan, was the real life model for Disney's Mulan.

I want to personally thank Grandmaster Al Tracy for giving me the opportunity to do what I do today. In my opinion, he has done more to promote and advance Kenpo than anyone and without him there would be no Bok-Fu-Do. I would like to thank my dear friend, 64th generation Tien Shan Pai Grandmaster Huang, Chien-liang for his contributions to the Bok-Fu-Do system and his advice through the years. We first met at the World Tournament in 1975 and have been friends ever since. He is on the board of directors for the Bok-Fu-Do system and has been working directly with my first disciple, John Buckley, since 1992 to further enhance the foundation of traditional Chinese martial arts within the Bok-Fu-Do system. I would also like to thank the legendary Praying Mantis Grandmaster Chang, Fu-chen for his friendship and contributions to the Bok-Fu-Do system.