When he wasn’t shirtless, Bruce Lee often wore a white, round-necked T-shirt with three buttons at the front. It’s an iconic image from the 1970s that made the humble, lightweight undershirt famous around the world.
That sought-after cotton garment was made in Hong Kong—and still is today.
Lee Kung Man was established in Guangzhou in 1923 but moved to Hong Kong in 1949 after the Communists rose to power.
For decades, the company has been selling the same shirts in the same packaging at the same shops in Hong Kong.
Entering a Lee Kung Man store is like going back in time. The products are all in cardboard boxes stacked behind the counter. Customers have to ask to see the merchandise and cannot try anything on.
When it comes to the undershirt that Bruce Lee wore, the only choice of color is white, and the sleeve options are long, short, or none.
The fabric is thin but highly durable. That’s because it’s mercerized cotton, which is produced by treating raw cotton with caustic soda.
This process causes the fabric to shrink, become more hard-wearing, and gain a silk-like texture.
“The material is super absorbent so that when you sweat, it evaporates just like that,” says Douglas Young, co-founder of the Hong Kong lifestyle brand G.O.D. and a huge Lee Kung Man fan.
That explains why it became Bruce Lee’s garment of choice.
Before he started wearing it in kung fu movies, the shirt was seen as an undergarment.
“No one wore them out,” Young says, “but Bruce Lee made it OK to wear it as a top.”
The shirt is also comfortable because of its tube-knit design, which means no seams.
“The machines [on which they are made] are almost obsolete,” says Alan See, co-founder of the Hong Kong tailoring company The Armoury, “so they have to cannibalize other machines to repair them.”
Fung Sau-yu, the founder of Lee Kung Man, was inspired to make the shirt after seeing expensive French garments in the 1920s, according to his son, Fung Ka-cheung.
“The style and cutting of the clothes is basically the same as it was then,” Fung Ka-cheung told a South China Morning Post reporter in 1985.
Although the company has received many requests to send undershirts to the United States and Europe, mail order sales and foreign sales tax regulations were “too complicated,” he said.
As a result, the iconic Bruce Lee shirt remains a uniquely Hong Kong item.