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A Quick Dip into Hong Kong Bak Sing Choy Lee Fut:
A Visit to Wan Kei Ho International Martial Arts Association, Hong Kong

 

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Paul Bowman
Yongquan Martial Arts Association

One good thing about being an academic is that June signals the end of teaching and the start of the conference season. Occasionally conferences are even in interesting locations. This year, all my Christmases and birthdays came early, when I got to go to a conference in Hong Kong.

Thanks to a suggestion made by Sifu Rand that a certain Master Wan Kei Ho looked like someone who would be worthwhile trying to meet, and thanks to Graham Barlow’s judicious use of Facebook as a tool for making contact, I was put in touch with one of Master Wan’s senior students and instructors, Phil Duffy. Phil assured me that I would be more than welcome to attend a class or two or even organise private tuition with Master Wan whilst I was in Hong Kong.

So it was with much excitement and great trepidation that I eventually found the gwoon. (Eventually is the operative word here: the story of my search for Master Wan’s gwoon is a long story in itself!) Phil had given me clear instructions about the gwoon’s location on the third floor, but I still had to struggle past a lady at the entrance who jabbered at me in Cantonese – whether helpfully or obstructively I have no idea, as she evidently had no English or Mandarin and I had no Cantonese. But I guess she knew what I was there for, and eventually it became likely that she was most probably telling me what I already knew: to make my way up to the third floor.

On arrival at the third floor I peered through the glass door of the gwoon. I knocked and entered. I saw a smart but compact room, lined with a tightly-packed collection of a wide range of traditional martial arts weapons, plus more contemporary training pads and shields (I even noticed a pair of foam training nunchakus among the wooden ones – a sight which made me feel better for preferring to train with this infinitely less lethal version of such an unpredictable weapon). The room was thick with the scent of incense, and as I entered I saw Master Wan before he saw me: he was pacing the room with the air of someone who had just finished a very intense workout. (I later learned that the incense came from the alter (Gwan Dai) in the corner of the gwoon. The alter is to the God of martial arts, Kwan Gung, also known as General Kwan, who is a figure of both Buddhism and Taoism.)

Master Wan welcomed me into the room and offered me tea or water (warm: he doesn’t drink cold water). I accepted water and offered him what I understood to be the traditional courtesy of a gift (some liqueurs from Wales, where I work); whereupon Master Wan became very animated about a DVD he had recently been shown by Phil Duffy: a DVD made by a Wing Chun teacher about “how to beat Choy Lee Fut”.

Master Wan was obviously seriously irked by this particular DVD – even to the extent that he had me sit at his desk in his seat and watch the video, while he complained with some passion and gusto about the terrible misrepresentation of Choy Lee Fut contained on the film.

So, here I was, approximately two minutes into the Hong Kong martial arts world, and already I was involved in the long-running and intractable feud between Choy Lee Fut and Wing Chun! – a feud that has been (in)famous ever since tales emerged of Bruce Lee’s involvement in the legendary Kowloon rooftop competitions between Wing Chun and Choy Lee Fut practitioners in the 1960s.

Soon, other students began to arrive, but the sense of injustice being perpetrated by the DVD spiced the conversations. As such I was immediately treated to a demonstration of precisely how and why the DVD representation was wrong and unfair: Master Wan demonstrated a whole repository and armoury of CLF techniques which were not at all represented in the film – specifically, the fast and furious leopard fist techniques which are a world away from the huge swinging sao choys that were being caricatured in the DVD.

Master Wan had Phil warm up the class and set to work on training the ‘ging’ [jin] in various techniques [‘Yew Kune Ging’, or ‘waist-fist-energy’ training]. Unfortunately, a year ago I sustained a very serious ankle injury, which had made me cautious and careful to warn Phil and Master Wan in advance that I really was not up to much in the way of intense training. So I was quizzed about this, and when Master Wan and the other students saw the scars and lumps and bumps of the metal in my ankle, they decided that CLF training was not a good idea for me. Instead, Master Wan was keen to show me ways to treat my injury.

Being a practitioner of Dit-Da medicine (aka, ‘Chinese Bonesetting’), Master Wan concurred with what an acupuncturist in the UK had formerly told me: that a meridian has been blocked by the trauma of the injury. Master Wan demonstrated this by prodding various pressure points on both of my legs and demonstrating that there was pain in the left but no pain in the right leg, and suggesting that this was a sure sign of the blockage.

So, instead of doing and CLF, Master Wan taught me several ‘tai chi gung’ drills [‘yuen gung’] that would help my ankle. These certainly focused a lot of movement on my ankle – so much so that I couldn’t actually keep up the drills for long without the eruption of searing pain. But the upside of this was that I got to watch more CLF training than I otherwise might have seen.

The students drilled and drilled for ‘ging’ [jin]. (In conversation with Phil afterwards, he suggested that this focus on developing the ging/jin over and above all other considerations is a defining characteristic of the difference between kung fu training in Hong Kong and the UK.) They each practiced different forms: some, a northern Shaolin form; others, one of three CLF forms (Fut Gar style Kau-da Kune, Wong Lung Gwan (southern staff form), Northern Shaolin no. 6 (known in Canto as Dun-da Suilam), Fut Gar style Sap-gee Kune, Choy Li Fut style Kau-da Kune, and  their beginner’s form, Gung Lik Kune). Unfortunately I did not get to see any of their tai chi, which I was assured is unlike anything I would have seen before.

I was asked to demonstrate my tai chi form, which was greeted with approval; and later to demonstrate our CLF form. Master Wan commented in a mixture of English and Cantonese that I could not easily follow. But Phil later explained that Master Wan had acknowledged that my form was definitely ‘family’ (i.e., ‘legitimate’ Bak Sing CLF, as far as he was concerned – an acknowledgement that Phil later told me was quite rare and hence quite a significant event), but that there were differences in what I was doing with my hands (not extending them as fully as they would) and in my footwork (not as ‘active’ and ‘aggressive’ as their footwork).

As I have come to understand this, I think that the differences in footwork may amount to Master Wan’s school using the stepping that we use much more in the ‘secret’ section of our form (a section that I – regrettably, perhaps – omitted from my demonstration), or, alternatively, the kind of stepping that is much more characteristic of the Xing-Yi that Sifu Smith practices. As for the comment about my hands/arms: I think that this is more about the way ‘I’ practice the form than about the way that ‘we’ practice the form. My own instructor(s) repeatedly voice the selfsame criticism of my arm extension – or deficiencies thereof!

Nevertheless it was a real pity that my ankle injury hampered my ability to take tuition in this context. But I still learned an awful lot about the some of the ways that Master Wan’s students practice CLF and Northern Shaolin. I was also extremely lucky to be treated with great hospitality by Master Wan himself: not only did he provide me with both physical and spoken lessons, he also gave me various gifts, pieces of advice, and a wide range of demonstrations – from the intense form of Golden Bell qigong that he practices to what it feels like to be hit on the hand by a finger – little more than a tap, really – but with ‘ging’, which put a real whack into it and caused a significant amount of pain. But apart from a couple of prods and raps on the hands and forearms, Master Wan’s students seemed most impressed by the fact that I had gotten off so lightly! Perhaps he liked me, they speculated; or perhaps he was seriously concerned about my ankle and hence was treating me with kid gloves. Either way, my meeting with everyone involved in Wan Kei Ho International Martial Arts Association was the highpoint of my Hong Kong trip. (Conference? What conference?)

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Wan Kei Ho International Martial Arts Association:

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