Kom Tong Hall and Bruce Lee’s Eurasian Ancestry
I’ve been aware of Kom Tong Hall for quite sometime, mainly because of its modern day incarnation as the Dr Sun Yat Sen Museum. But it’s also a great example of the type of grand splendid private residences that used to be all over the Mid-levels before high-rise property became the de rigueur mode of development.
However, about two years ago I was able to make what I thought was a solid connection between Kom Tong Hall, its owner Ho Kom Tong and Bruce Lee. The connection seemed strong enough to mention it to John Little when he was over filming his documentary, and as a result he spent some time up there getting some shots with the movie camera.
You see Bruce’s mum, Grace Lee (nee Ho) was actually the daughter of Ho Kom Tong. Well, at least that seems to be the accepted lineage in all the biographies I’ve read, including that stalwart of fact – Wikipedia (okay, apologies if you fail to spot the sarcasm in that one). However, last year on Gwulo someone with connections to the modern day Ho dynasty made a comment which seems to have put a a spanner into the works of Bruce Lee’s accepted Eurasian heritage.
The accepted background is that Bruce’s Great Grandfather was a Dutchman called Charles Henry Maurice Bosman (the use, by his offspring, of the surname Ho comes from the fact he was from Holland). He has been described as German in some texts (e.g. Bruce Thomas’ best selling bio “Fighting Spirit”) but he was indeed a Dutchman and even served as the Ducth Consul in HK at one point.
Bosman had various sons with his Chinese wife (she was known as Shi Tai) and so the Eurasian dynasty of the Ho clan was born along with its most famous member, and later philanthropic figurehead, Sir Robert Ho Tung.
Ho Kom Tong (Grace’s dad) was Sir Robert’s younger brother and, like his older sibling, was a Compradore for Jardines. This was at a time when it was still possible to amass the kind of personal fortune that only Russian gangsters, Mexican drug lords or the scummiest of the scum – members of the property cartel that run HK’s so-called freest economy in the world – can even dream about. (On an aside, anyone wishing to know more about how restrictive the economy actually is in HK should read Joe Studwell’s excellent “Asian Godfathers“).
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
In 1914 Kom Tong built the hall as his family residence and boy what a place it is. It is immense, but then again when you are aware of just how many family members there were, the size becomes understandable – fifteen sons and fourteen daughters from a multiple wives, as was the accepted standard for wealthy Chinese at the time. More offspring than you could shake a stick at, one of which ended up being Bruce Lee’s mum. For one reason or another (probably because it was getting too expensive to maintain) the family put the house up for sale in 1960 and it was purchased by the Mormon church. The church outgrew the property and moved to their new location next to Wanchai Police Station. The property was superfluous to their needs and they applied to the Govt to demolish it and sell the vacant lot. This was in 2002. Thankfully for us all, even back in 2002 there were people in HK who valued HK’s built heritage and successfully lobbied the Govt to purchase the property. The house purchase was completed in 2004 and after a renovation was turned into the Sun Yat Sen Museum in 2006.
Anyway, back to Bruce and the spanner in the works. It turns out that Mr Ho Kom Tong, commonly thought to have been the full-blooded sibling of Robert, was in fact only his half brother!! This may not mean very much to you until you understand that Kom Tong was not the biological son of Mr Bosman but was actually the illegitimate product of a liaison between Shi Tai (Bosman’s Chinese wife) and a Chinese lover called Kwok Hing-yin. So, Kom Tong was in fact not Eurasian at all. Suffice to say I was intrigued by this revelation (which I should hasten to add has been confirmed by Eric Peter Ho in his book “Tracing My Children’s Lineage“) because it threw some doubt on Bruce’s own supposed Eurasian heritage.
This is important because it has often been noted that Bruce suffered at the hands of his fellow Wing Chun students for being ‘not completely Chinese’ at a time when teaching non-Chinese was pretty much forbidden by all manner of Kung Fu masters.
So, did Bruce Lee have any Eurasian heritage at all?
Hmmm, well let’s see. Grace is the daughter of a full-blooded Chinese man, not Eurasian as previously thought. Surely this means that Bruce actually doesn’t have any Eurasian heritage at all?
Yes it does. Given this information it seems that Bruce therefore has no blood link with Bosman at all. So all those people who claim Bruce has Dutch (or German!) ancestry don’t seem to have been doing their research properly.
However, it gets even more complicated than that because then another comment came in from another Ho source . It turns out that yes, Grace was Ho Kom Tong’s daughter, but only by way of adoption!!
Adoption of children in Chinese culture is actually a well-established tradition. Perhaps less common these days it was still prevalent recently enough for my own mother-in-law to have been the subject of it. My mother-in-law was born to a family who either couldn’t or wouldn’t raise her and so gave her away (most likely for a nice little sum) to a family that could. Her adoptive mother went to her deathbed refusing to divulge any information about her biological family and as such she has no knowledge of any biological relatives still alive (if any) and for that matter her real date/year of birth. Quite shocking really but standard practice for many families at the time.
Grace Lee/Ho it seems had a similar experience and was adopted by Ho Kom Tong and one of his wives (for he had many) and raised as their own. No one knows the true identity of Grace’s biological parents but her Eurasian appearance – especially when compared to her Chinese siblings – indicates that she was probably was (Eurasian). Theories continue to persist that Grace’s mother was either a white Russian or French but, actually, no one knows for certain.
So who cares whether Bruce was Eurasian or not? Surely he was who he was and he did what he did regardless of who his biological grandparents were. Most sane people would agree, but his ancestry has always been a bone of contention, seems to always get mentioned in any biographical material and, growing up in 1940′s and 50′s less-enlightened Hong Kong, it would have been a significantly greater deal than it would be today.
Anyway, next time you read about Bruce’s so-called Dutch heritage from his Great Grandfather Mr Bosman, you’ll know that this is not the case and the facts about his real heritage will remain unknown.
Incidentally, in case you are seeking further information about the ins-and-outs of Hong Kong’s prominent Eurasian dynasties, apparently Peter Halls “In the Web” is the place to find it. It’s currently out of print but I understand Mr Hall is working on a second edition, to be released soon.
And speaking of Eurasians, Blacksmith Books have just released a new book by Kirsteen Zimmern called “The Eurasian Face“. On a personal note I’m intrigued by all this because my own children are Eurasian and at the moment, with them still being quite young, I have no idea how it will affect them. So far it has only been something positive. Comments welcome.