Sunday, 28 July 2013

Hong Kong gongfu masters fight back

English-language manual among ways to revive interest in Chinese martial art

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Guanyu 道 said...

Hong Kong gongfu masters fight back

English-language manual among ways to revive interest in Chinese martial art

By Li Xueying
28 July 2013

It takes 271 steps to tame a tiger.

There is the “two dragons emerge from sea” pose - forming one’s hands into claws. Then the “beauty gazes into mirror” stance - right palm facing inward to protect the head. And the “bullhorn punch” - hook left fist from the back to opponent’s temple.

They will not instantly transform one into Wong Fei Hung - the famed grand master of the Hung Kuen school of gongfu who invented the Gung Gee Fok Fu Kuen (Taming the Tiger in the I-Pattern).

But the techniques - traditionally passed on orally lest they land in enemy hands - will now be accessible to the public in what is believed to be the first English-language gongfu manual.

Lam Chun Fai sifu (Cantonese for “master”), 73, whose great-uncle Lam Sai Wing was Wong’s disciple, published it in May, hoping it will help preserve the ancient Chinese martial art.

“Foreigners are just more interested. If, in future, the Chinese want to learn gongfu, they will have to learn from the foreigners.”

Thus far, most of the 3,000 copies printed have been snapped up by enthusiasts from as far as the Czech Republic.

While Hong Kong today is caught in the throes of a Bruce Lee fever with events marking the movie star’s 40th death anniversary on July 20, fears are that the martial art itself is slowly dying out in the city instrumental in bringing it to the outside world.

Today, tigers are no longer the threat to pugilists; instead, it is the distractions of modern society. Youngsters prefer to be keyboard warriors than train in physically demanding gongfu moves.

As Mr Lam’s son, Oscar, 28, puts it: “My friends think that gongfu is boring and outdated. They prefer to play computer games instead.”

A check among major associations finds that there are about 5,500 gongfu students in Hong Kong - a far cry from the art’s heyday in the 1960s when there were 20,000 Hung Kuen followers alone.

But the masters are not standing idle.

To woo back disciples, they are defending their corner in various ways. Mr Lam’s manual, now being reprinted, is one. Descendants of grand master Ip Man of the Wing Chun school are toiling to make it attractive via popular culture.

Ip’s elder son Ip Chun, 90, was a consultant for the Donnie Yen biopic on his father, which helped boost membership from 500 to today’s 1,000.

This, even as he acknowledges with a laugh: “One-third of the movie is true, one-third exaggerated and the rest entirely false!”

The key challenge is that gongfu no longer occupies the role it used to in society.

The use of fists was crucial to survival during the turbulent late Qing dynasty.

In particular, martial artists flourished in Guangdong and Fujian - far from the central government and boasting an independent culture - where bandits roamed and anti-Manchu insurrections were mounted.

“This militarisation likely provided an opportunity to martial artists for social advancement, patronage and influence,” wrote Mr Lam in the book co-authored with cultural researcher Hing Chao.

Many later left for Hong Kong, including Lam Sai Wing in the 1920s and Ip Man in 1949.

Hong Kong movies thereafter depicted the masters as nationalistic defenders against enemies ranging from the British to the Japanese.

Most were sensationalised.

For instance, a pivotal plot in the Ip Man film involves a challenge by a Japanese general Miura in 1937.

Says Mr Ip: “My father did receive the challenge but he did not accept it because he thought it would cause him a lot of trouble at a time when the Japanese were in power.”

That said, gongfu remained relevant in Hong Kong up to the 1970s, when triads were active and street brawls common. “Everyone wanted to learn it for self-defence. Everyone was fighting,” says Mr Lam.

Guanyu 道 said...

But in recent decades - excepting temporary spurts after each popular gongfu film - interest has been on a long-term wane. Aside from those from a prominent lineage, some sifu today are driving taxis and teaching only at night, says Mr Lam.

Ensuring gongfu’s longevity, says Mr Ip, may lie in promoting the prosaic: its health benefits as a form of exercise.

At 11am on a Wednesday, a motley crew of retirees, students and shift workers shuffles into a second-floor studio in

Mongkok, where a bust of Ip Man gazes down benignly on them as they begin their warm-up exercises.

Jewellery salesman Joe Yu, 45, says he started learning Wing Chun three years ago after watching the Ip Man movie, but has been motivated to continue for health benefits. “When I trip, I don’t fall down so easily now.”

Hopefully more will cotton on soon. Otherwise, its legacy may ironically fall on the shoulders of the gweilo (“foreign devils”).

Italian Massimo Iannaccone, 42, who trained with Mr Lam and today has five Hung Kuen schools in Italy with more than 200 students, says he is surprised Hong Kongers do not appreciate the art more.

“They love to talk about football and Western bands. They do not know that the real treasure is here, at home.”

xueying@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Pearl Liu

Guanyu 道 said...

Some main styles

Hung Kuen

Supposedly named after the subversive Hong Men society that tried to overthrow the Qing government, Hung Kuen emerged in the Pearl River Delta in the 18th century.

Its most famous face is Wong Fei Hung (1847-1924) who invented its key sets including the Taming the Tiger in the I-Pattern. His student Lam Sai Wing brought it to Hong Kong in 1920 and today, there are some 3,000 practitioners here.

Wing Chun

Legend has it that this style started from a girl Yim Wing Chun who was taught gongfu by a Shaolin monk in the 1600s to defend herself from an unwanted marriage.

Her refined style - emphasising short-distance combat and fluidity of movements - was passed on to the Canton Red Boat opera performers in the 19th century, who tried to stage rebellions against the Qing government.

It was brought to Hong Kong in the 1950s when Ip Man, a Kuomintang official, fled the communists. Notable disciples later included Bruce Lee. Today, it has about 1,000 students here.

Tibetan White Crane

Legend has it that 400 years ago, a Tibetan monk was meditating when a white ape attacked a white crane. The bird gracefully evaded it and took out the ape's eye instead.

Inspired, the monk invented a style of gongfu that emphasises clean and coordinated movements. It was brought to Hong Kong, Guangdong and Macau in the 1930s by Ng Siu Chung, and today, there are about 100 students in Hong Kong learning it, according to Ng's grand-disciple Ho Kuen.

Jeet Kune Do

In 1964, Bruce Lee was teaching Wing Chun, including to non-Chinese, at his school in Oakland, California. Unhappy about this, other sifu dispatched a challenger from Hong Kong with an ultimatum: fight or close the school.

Lee won but felt the style was not effective for real-life fighting. He then combined several styles with Western boxing to come up with his own style, "The Way of the Intercepting Fist".

In Hong Kong today, there are about 300 to 400 students, estimates Mr Lewis Luk, president of the Hong Kong chapter of Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do.

Choy Lee Fat

A pugilist, Chan Heung, developed this style in 1836, when he was collaborating with Hong Men. Choy Lee Fat stresses combat through powerful offensive hand strikes. It now has more than 1,000 followers in Hong Kong, says Mr Tsang Hi Kuen, chairman of Choy Lee Fat Pak Shing Association.

Pearl Liu