Alex Casey talks to the most famous living Bruce Lee about building a sushi empire endorsed by everyone from The Mad Butcher to Dei Hamo.
We are a nation that is terrible at preserving our popular culture history. We don’t have anything close to the thousands of stars lining Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, or the hundreds of waxworks filling London’s Madame Tussauds. Instead, our most comprehensive tribute to the celebrities of Aotearoa can be found emblazoned on the walls of a humble sushi chain. Walk into any of the 11 Bruce Lee Sushi & Roll stores around the country and you’ll be greeted by all the greats: Len Brown, The Mad Butcher, Dei Hamo and Drew Ne’emia, to name just a few.
It is perhaps fitting then that the founder of Bruce Lee Sushi, Bruce Lee, shares his own name with a massive celebrity. But Lee, who grew up in Incheon, South Korea, says he has no connection to the martial arts superstar. While the association might seem useful to the brand on the surface, Lee says his deceased namesake has caused quite the headache. Eight years ago, when he opened three stores in Australia, he was contacted by lawyers from Bruce Lee Entertainment in California asking him to a pay a royalty to use the name Bruce Lee.
“I told them ‘my name is Bruce Lee too, and it’s my face I’m using’,” Lee explains, adjusting his big gold Rolex defiantly as we chat at one of the small tables of his Wynyard Quarter store. “Even when you Google the name, it is me that comes up first” (citation needed). He refused to back down, was forced to get his own lawyers, and they became embroiled in a Lee-based legal battle that spanned over two years. “Now, it is gone,” Lee grins, wiping the air clear with both hands. “Because it is my face. And it is my sushi. And my name is Bruce Lee.”
Before he became a titan of the sushi trade, Lee could not have been in a more different industry. Working as a bodyguard for the rich, famous and sometimes criminal in Incheon and Seoul, Lee found himself getting into threatening situations. “I had many problems with the fighting and the gangsters,” he explains. “I made heaps of money, but it was very dangerous.” He turns his head and shows me the ragged edge of his ear, which he says was bitten off by a mobster. “I’ve got knife marks all over my body, I’ve had 12 operations. I was drinking every night, big parties, my liver was tired.”
On his wife’s suggestion, Lee took some time away from the security industry to “relax” for a while. The first option was Australia, but he had visa problems. Next on the list was New Zealand. They arrived on a one-year visa, but haven’t looked back after 17 years. Working in a furniture store when he first arrived, Lee devoted his spare time to another passion of his – making sushi. For five years he spent early mornings and late nights perfecting his fusion sushi, and getting feedback from locals. “A lot of sushi is bland, no flavour” he says. “Not mine.”
Lee opened his first store in Botany Downs, and got to work hustling the radio circuit, doing television spots and door-knocking the wedding and funeral industries to drum up more business and publicity. But it was only when rugby league star Ruben Wiki walked into his store one day that Lee cracked onto a new strategy – celebrity marketing. “Everyone was asking him for selfies and kept saying he was this Kiwi legend,” says Lee. “So I decided to make him the Kiwi Legend roll, and put kiwifruit inside the sushi.” Years later, Lee says it is still “selling good”.
From there, the Bruce Lee Sushi & Roll celebrity wall exploded. A chance meeting during a local TV appearance introduced Lee to Joseph Parker, which saw the creation of the One Punch Noodle and, even more valuably for Lee, over a decade of friendship with the boxing heavyweight (he says they have dinner “five to 10” times a year). Other athletes featured include Maria Folau (salmon roll), Tana Umaga (All Black roll) and Jerome Ropati (crunch roll). “The sportspeople are good, because I target them with the healthy food,” says Lee.
But it’s not just sportspeople who make the hallowed wall – former Auckland mayor Len Brown can be seen beaming while holding the Super City Roll (tuna, cucumber, teriyaki chicken, bread crumbs, creamy wasabi sauce). That was a celebrity endorsement earned through years of dogged determination from Lee. “I asked him in his first year as mayor and he said ‘no’. And then the second year he said ‘no’. So I’m contacting him every year for four years, and then he eventually said ‘yes’ and then I added him to the menu,” he laughs.
Since then, he’s changed his policy – no active politicians on the celebrity sushi wall. “I’m careful to get into political stuff, because my customers support different parties,” says Lee. Or, even more plainly, “don’t mix politics and sushi.” His current sights are set on former prime minister John Key: “I’m asking him always.” His insistence has paid off across multiple public-facing industries – the wall is also full of actors (Xavier Horan, Crazy Chicken B), musicians (Dei Hamo, French Kiss Roll) and TV personalities (Drew Ne’emia, Crazy Chicken A).
Eagle-eyed customers will notice that it’s not all celebs – the face of Spicy Crazy Chicken is none other than Lee himself. The Heaven Roll is even more personal, depicting his dad holding up a giant, freshly caught fish. It is also a menu item that reveals some of Lee’s deeply held values. “Twelve years ago, Hell Pizza gave away pizza with free condoms and it made me very angry because I am Christian,” Lee explains. To assuage his anger and counteract Hell, he thought about one of the happiest scenes he could – his Dad smiling and fishing.
“He said it felt ‘like heaven’” says Lee, “so that’s why I made the Heaven Roll.”
Although he ‘s managed to build a celebrity sushi menu deep in diversity and meaning (although it could do with more women), it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Lee. Prior to 2020, Bruce Lee Sushi & Roll were poised to open new stores in Dubai, London and Qatar. But during the pandemic, they were forced to close eight stores, including three stores in Australia and one in Malaysia. Now, with a cost of living crisis and the price of ingredients soaring, he is looking to add at-home sushi making tutorials to his already generous social media presence.
And, as always, Lee will still be hustling for new celebrities to get on his coveted sushi wall. Along with John Key, he has his sights set on Mark Hunt, Israel Adesanya and David Tua. He’s looking further afield too: “I’m now more focused on the international phase,” he says. Tyson Fury is said to be visiting New Zealand this year, and he’s hoping to use his connection to Joseph Parker to get an introduction. “I want some really famous people, I’m thinking about BTS because why not? I’m thinking of the characters from Squid Game, because why not?
“All I can do is try,” sighs Lee. “Try, try and try.”