Before he was a global icon, a film idol who led martial arts into the mainstream, broke down myriad cultural barriers and laid the foundations for new forms of competition and expression, Bruce Lee was a wide-eyed teenager touching down in Seattle.

Emigrating from Hong Kong in 1959, the future superstar arrived in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood, to be specific, a few long goal kicks northeast of Lumen Field, where today the Seattle Sounders sport the fiery red-and-black kits designed to honor and celebrate him.

Before he founded his groundbreaking Jun Fan Gung Fu martial arts practice, Lee waited tables – and for a time, lived in the attic – at Ruby Chow’s restaurant, whose proprietor became the first Asian American elected to the King County Council. He met his wife Linda while studying at the University of Washington and spent the first several years of adulthood in the Emerald City, a period family members would later describe as some of the happiest years of his life.

“He came into a time still not far from anti-miscegenation laws and redlining,” explained Joël Barraquiel Tan, executive director of the nearby Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, to MLSsoccer.com. “He landed in a Seattle, and in more specifically in the Chinatown International District, that created a safe haven for him to cultivate himself.

“That moment where you're a young person and you're falling in love, and you're falling in love with ideas and you're filling yourself up with new knowledge, engaging in new practice – I would say Seattle, and particularly the Chinatown International District, created and helped raise our young dragon.”

A marked departure

Those roots inspired the new Sounders kit that bears his name, which marks both a marked departure from the Rave Green’s usual visual identity and a fitting next chapter after their “Purple Haze” tribute to another native son, Jimi Hendrix, graced much of Seattle’s historic run to the 2022 Concacaf Champions League trophy.

From its textured, deep-red front and “Core Symbol” neck tag to its arrival on the 50th anniversary of both his passing and his tour de force film “Enter the Dragon,” the Bruce Lee kit’s marks and colors are heavy with meaning. Homegrown midfielder Sota Kitahara readily admits that he was taken aback on first glance.

“My first reaction, I was with the players and we were all like, ‘so we're going to be Salt Lake?’” deadpanned Kitahara in a recent conversation with MLSsoccer.com. “From far away you couldn’t really tell. And then they told us about Bruce Lee and all that, and then you see the design, the dragon, the yin/yang – yeah, it's awesome.”

The son of Japanese immigrants, Kitahara grew up in Edmonds, Washington and is now pushing for MLS minutes as a member of the Sounders’ rising vanguard of academy-reared talent.

"Geographically connected"

Stories like his and his family’s epitomize the rich tapestry of Asian American/Pacific Islander life on Puget Sound. Tales of resilience and redemption in the face of adversity – and for key stretches of the past two centuries, outright hatred.

Migrant workers from China were welcomed in the early years of the region’s settlement, then later resented by many white counterparts when the labor market tightened, sparking racism, violent mobs, restrictive zoning practices and even forced expulsions like the Seattle Riot of 1886.

Filipinos arrived amid the instability unleashed by the Spanish-American War, only to suffer institutionalized discrimination as U.S. “nationals” denied full rights despite their country being under U.S. occupation. The 20th century saw the rise of formal groups like the “Asiatic Exclusion League” and “Remember Pearl Harbor League” advocating for disenfranchisement and segregation. During World War II more than 12,000 Washington state residents of Japanese descent were incarcerated in internment camps.

Over the decades the Chinatown neighborhood became a welcoming enclave for newcomers from various minority communities, and in time a hub of not only culture, but political empowerment.

“It's not just Chinatown. Chinatown International District is the only North American pan-Asian district. It was born out of redlining, when we were all shoved over here and it created a unique situation: We were geographically connected to each other,” said Barraquiel Tan.

“We're a little bit more like Hawai’i than anywhere else in North America, where many different Asian diasporas create a local culture. So this is Seattle local – this is the Asian-American culture that's born out of the CID … This is the lived reality of this neighborhood, and the way not only pan-Asian communities came together, the way that native communities and African diasporic communities in Seattle were also relegated to this area. And to me, the creation of this pan-Asian district, in many ways is arguably the best kind of lemonade you can make out of that situation.”

Bruce Lee, himself of mixed heritage, creator of the Jeet Kune Do style that incorporated multiple influences, personified this rich stew. And for many within it, he was its poster child.

“I think this Bruce Lee kit kind of represents it now – it shows what Asian Americans have done, and representing his philosophy and values that we really value here in Seattle,” said Kitahara.

“It brings together a lot of people, the community as a whole, and now the Asian-American community feels more a part together with the Sounders and Seattle.”


His teammate Dylan Teves carries these stories, too. Born and raised in Honolulu, he was offered a place in the Sounders’ academy in high school and made the big leap to the mainland with some trepidation.

“I would say my experience was really welcoming,” said Teves, who has Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese and native Hawai’ian ancestry, a family tree shaped by the islands’ waves of imports to work in pineapple plantations. “It was a tough transition, because you're leaving your family and friends, your food. Seattle is a very accepting culture and inclusive and diverse, compared to other places, and so that really helped with the transition.

“It wasn't too different,” he added, “mainly because you have Chinatown, you have International District, you have all these other things that make Seattle Seattle.”

Like Lee, he stuck around to matriculate at UW, and after a strong NCAA career earned a homegrown deal with SSFC. Even – perhaps especially – as a transplant, Teves feels what the Bruce Lee kit means when he dons it.

“I would use the word empowering,” he said. “We're proud to be embracing the sense of history and representing what Bruce Lee meant and what the Seattle community really embraces as a city – ultimately what Seattle really embraces as a club as well.

“You can see how he brought light to all of it, informed citizens. Because we even need that now too, to some extent, especially during the pandemic.”

Violence and discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Stop AAPI Hate coalition has received reports of more than 11,000 acts of hate towards members of the community since March 2020. Then there’s the specter of displacement and gentrification in the CID amid Seattle’s booming economy and severe housing shortage.

A neighborhood once deemed undesirable is now squarely in the developers’ crosshairs.

"We’re at a precipice point"

“There's a paradox too, right?” said Barraquiel Tan, noting the widespread fears Sound Transit’s planned light rail extension through the area could deal it a crippling blow. “Because the Chinatown International District, as vital as it is to this city’s soul, and as powerful as it is in terms of creating Ruby Chows and Win Lukes and Bruce Lees, Bob Santos – these are our hometown heroes that have had national, global impact – it's also important to note that as powerful as the neighborhood is, is as vulnerable as it is. Because we're a community of migrants.”

This is why, though he passed in 1973 and lies in rest at Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery, Lee’s life and legacy remain vital today. And that Sounders jersey elevates it all just a little bit further.

Up to $50,000 of proceeds from the first 30 days of Bruce Lee kit sales will be donated to the Bruce Lee Foundation and the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, to be used for youth programming and a curriculum that connects Lee’s teachings to soccer, movement and art. The three organizations are also partnering to build a mini-pitch next year in connection with the Sounders’ RAVE Foundation that will celebrate Lee’s teachings.

“The significance of it really has to do with our current moment, not only in terms of what's happening in this neighborhood, which is only a microcosm of what's happening in the nation and in the world. We’re at a precipice point,” said Barraquiel Tan. “That's the importance of understanding Bruce Lee as a powerful change agent that was created by communities of people, and traditions that well extend past him are at the core of this.”