Every day, Craig Lee, a shy 17-year-old from Anacostia High School, takes a bus from his modest house in a tough, rough-hewn Southeast Washington neighborhood and rides for 30 minutes to the Jow Ga Kung Fu School in Chinatown.
Weighing in at only 125 pounds, he dons a black silk-like smock and wraps it tightly around his waist. He puts on a pair of ballerina-style shoes, smiling with the bashfulness of a high schooler at a costume party.
Then the workout begins. Suddenly, his neck swells and his veins turn to welts. His nose flares as he breathes in syncopated blasts. His eyes close to form dual slits and his soft, shy-guy gaze becomes the concentrated fixation of a square-jawed automaton.
With fists of fury, Craig Lee rains blows upon an Everlast boxing bag that is almost as big as he. Flying palm slaps and fingertip thrusts alternative with horizontal fist blows rapid-fired from waist-high to explode rhythmically against the hanging leather log.
When he stops, herbal medicines are rubbed over his hands, arms and feet, stimulating the circulation and preventing blood clots. The pain subsides for now.
Meet Craig Lee, mirror image, he hopes, of his hero Bruce Lee (no relation) the Chinese kung fu movie cult figure of the early 1970s. And incidentally, Craig Lee, member of a nine man team that has swept local kung fu competitions to qualify as Washington-area representatives to the Taipei International Kung Fu Championships next month.
"I don't want to hurt anybody," Lee said, as he repeatedly rapped a bag of ball bearings with the back of his hand. "I'm not a large person and I have found a sport that suits my needs. I have learned more about how to talk my way out of fights."
Lee and his eight teammates are among the best of some 5,000 people who practice a variety of martial arts at roughly 30 schools in the Washington area. Like many, Lee was attracted to the discipline and the aura of self-confidence and power he saw in the Bruce Lee movies, which first appeared in 1970 and still play to packed houses in inner city Washington.
Though he died in 1973 of an apparent brain injury at the age of 32, Bruce Lee remains the premier legend of the kung fu movie.
"This stuff is very popular," said Maruice Simmons, manager of the Lincoln Theater, at 1215 U St. NW, where "Fist of Fury, Part II," starring Bruce Lee's successor, Bruce Li, is currently showing.
"Bruce Lee is still the favorite," Simmons said. "But they don't care who it is, just so long as it's got a lot of kicking and hollering."
Craig Lee, a rather small child, had been reared to believe that fighting was wrong, says his mother, Octavia Lee, a teacher at Nichols Avenue Elementary School.
"Craig became withdrawn," Mrs. Lee recalled. "For a long time he just stayed under me. Finally, we decided that this couldn't go on. It was his decision to get out more, so I said, 'Dear God, please protect Craig.' See, this is not what you would call a good neighborhood."
These days, as Craig heads for the Jow Ga school, he is still outnumbered by neighborhood loiterers, but Mrs. Lee no longer worries so much. Those boys don't even blow smoke his way.
By all accounts, Craig Lee has emerged as perhaps the best kung fu student his age in the Washington area. "He's purely phenomenal," says Dean Chin, one of the few "sifus" or kung fu masters teaching the art in the United States.
Chin started the Jow Ga school, at 740 Sixth St. NW, in 1966. It was the fist kung fu studio in Washington and was funded shortly after Bruce Lee made his television debut as Kato, the loyal sidekick to the Green Hornet.
The Jow Ga school, which teaches a kung fu system based on complex footwork and strong hands, currently has about 80 students. For $25 a course the students also learn a series of Oriental dance routines, how to speak simple Cantonese sentences and how to meditate, as part of the preparation for the martial art.
The school has graduated some 18,000 students, Chin said, about 80 percent of whom were black.
"It's not just D.C. which is a mostly black city," says Chin. "I believe that Orientals and blacks are closer culturally than we are to Europeans. It has to do with the family, I think. Blacks have a lot of energy and they like music, although most of them come in here thinking that kung fu is only about fighting. Kung fu is about survival, and when you show them how, they really get into it."
Many kung fu students come from areas of the city where survival takes an added reality in the face of frequent physical threats. For them, to appear fit -- indeed, the fittest -- becomes a matter of walk, talk and muscle tone.
"A lot of guys come in here looking for ways to prove themselves or someway to keep from being 'chumped,'" said Deric Mimms, 25, the Jow Ga team leader. "That's when we start teaching that there are other ways to resolve conflict."
Eugene Mackie, 25, spends the time he is not working on a college degree or looking for employment in training at the kung fu school.
"For me, it's not just self-defense," he said. "It's attainment of an overall view, a sense of accomplishment and control of the body. You learn that you need discipline to improve, and before you can appreciate victory, you must be able to accept defeat. Here, you learn the ropes."
The Jow Ga school has attracted a loyal following among the merchants of Chinatown, many of whom have donated $13,000 to help finance the team's trip to Taiwan. The cost is expected to total $20,000.
"This is an ancient culture that should be available to everyone," said Bill Yee, owner of the Chine Inn, who donated $2,000 to the cause. "We don't care if they are black, white, Chinese or what, as long as they are the best to represent us and put us on the map."
In honor of the Jow Ga school's accomplishments, District Mayor Marion Barry has proclaimed Oct. 11-15, the week of the team's trip to Taiwan, as "Kung Fu Days."
In addition to Lee Mimms and Mackie, other team members are Paul Adkins, Robert Wood, Kevin Palmer, Reginald Moten, Torhan Brighthart and Frank Alexander Jr.
During a recent interview, Mrs. Lee recalled that her son first showed an interest in the martial arts three years ago when he saw a Jhoon Rhee commercial on television.
"When this little two-year-old kid came on, talking about, "Nobody bothers me,' that really had an effect on Craig," she said.
On a sojourn through Chinatown a few days later, Craig came across the Jow Ga school and decided to drop in. Now, Mrs. Lee says, Craig has become more confident and aggressive. Even his school work has improved, she sayd.
"It helps me relax so I can concentrate," Craig says. His mother says, "He is so excited that he is teaching me how to meditate. He has risen above so much, and I am so proud of him."
The walls of Craig's bedroom were soon covered with posters of Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly, a black kung fu character. But a potential conflict arose when he had to move into his 19-year-old brother's room where the walls were already papered with Playboy bunnies.
The Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly posters now face the inside of a closet, but that is all right with Craig.
"I gave in to keep the peace," he says. "That's what kung fu is all about."