This is the second part of our biographical sketch of Cheung Lai Chuen. The purpose of the “Lives of the Chinese Martial Artists” series is to better understand the diversity of life pathways and variety of personal experiences seen among China’s traditional hand combat masters. Part One of this series can be seen here. The best way to approach these works is simply to print them out and read them together as a single short article.
Also, if any of our readers would like to suggest a figure for a future post feel free to drop a note in the comments section or email me.
Cheung Lai Chuen in Hong Kong.
In many respects the Nationalists (GMD) never really succeeded in consolidating their control of China and building an efficient and well-ordered government. Cliques and warlordism plagued national politics while crime, inefficiency and almost mind-boggling levels of corruption made it hard to accomplish much at the local level. Worse yet, the GMD had been so obsessed with hunting communists and purifying its own ranks that it had basically neglected to put up a serious fight against the Japanese during WWII (much to the chagrin of the American military advisers who were tasked with bringing in supplies and running training camps). All of this provided the perfect environment for disaffection to thrive and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to grow. And grow it did.
The Nationalists proved incapable of defeating the Communists or even preventing a complete route. By 1949 the CCP controlled the entire country and turned their attention to settling scores with the intelligence, military and police organizations that had tortured and murdered so many party members and suspected sympathizers over the years. As someone with extensive ties to the GMD police and intelligence establishment Cheung Lai Chuen was forced to flee to Hong Kong in 1949. He was part of the broader cultural diaspora that saw so many martial artists leaving for Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and the west in the early 1950s.
Hong Kong is where our story really starts to become interesting. Many of the individuals who entered exile were fundamentally disgusted with the GMD and wanted nothing to do with its legacy for failure. Ip Man for instance was also forced to flee into exile because of his role in the Foshan branch of the Nationalist controlled police force (he was a chief of a plain clothes detective unit after WWII). After arriving in Hong Kong he appears to have disassociated himself from anything to do with his former employers. According to his children he was entirely disillusioned by the political process, rarely speaking about the Nationalists except in invectives. He rebuilt his life in Hong Kong on his own terms.
Cheung Lai Chuen’s faith in the old government, and political power more generally, seems to have been less shaken by the events of 1949. He managed to escape with his three sons. Rather than dissociating himself from the past he turned to his connections with the GMD as his primary support system after arriving in Hong Kong.
Pak Mei and the Triads
One of the Cheung’s most important students was General Kot Siu Wong. Kot had been a high ranking intelligence officer in Guangdong between 1945 and 1949. His superiors were rightly concerned that the reputation of the Nationalists had hit rock bottom and that few people would actively oppose a Communist uprising in the region. Worse yet, they had doubts that even the military or police forces would remain loyal once a viable alternative emerged. Kot was tasked with solving this problem.
A student of the martial arts and a member of a number of underground groups, Kot called a meeting of the numerous Triads and Secret Societies operating in Guangdong. He proposed creating an anti-communist network (the Zhongyi Association) and that the various groups should work together to ensure the continued governance of the relatively lax Nationalist party. The key to this effort was that the Triads should enroll as many police officers, soldiers and civil servants into their ranks as possible. Needless to say many of these people were also martial artists, and some of them were Cheung’s students.
General Kot’s thinking was that the loyalty oaths of the Triads would help to reinforce the allegiance of individuals in the police and military to the GMD. Basically people were now more loyal to Triads than they were to the government, and the ruling party wanted to be able to build off of this supply of allegiance. Eventually rank and file civilians were also inducted into the Triads in huge numbers. Kot believed that it would be possible to turn these groups (most of whom were supporting themselves through heroin smuggling, illegal gambling and prostitution) into politically aware organizations that he could then control and use to fight the Communists.
It goes without saying that his plan failed on all counts. No matter how high-minded his intention General Kot’s plan was a spectacular, desperate failure. The population of Guangdong did little to resist the eventual Communist uprising, the Triads proved to be vastly more interested in drugs than politics, nor was he ever able to assert the degree of political leadership over them that he dreamed of.
Kot reconstituted the Zhongyi Association in Hong Kong and tried to run it as a political organization dedicated to the violent overthrow of the mainland government. Any remaining semblance of revolutionary motivation dissolved after his death. His various lieutenants reconstituted the group as “14K,” one of the most notorious and violent of all of the Chinese Triad organizations, and immediately went to war with each other over control of the group’s lucrative criminal enterprises.
This proved to be an immense problem for Cheung. A number of these criminal bosses were his direct disciples. As they grew rich he prospered as well. His family was sheltered and supported in Hong Kong by the criminal empire that General Kot had inadvertently (though all too predictably) created. This generated an obvious ethical dilemma.
Yet Cheung Lai Chuen does not seem to have approached these developments as an ethical issue. For him this appears to have been only a practical problem. He never refused the support and respect of his students in organized crime. He knew full well where their gifts came from, yet as an elderly and important martial artist he apparently felt entitled to the material comfort that they could provide.
At the same time the association between Pak Mei and 14K (as well as other criminal groups) was starting to tarnish his reputation. Small stores and businesses were being extorted by thugs using his techniques, trained by his own students, in schools with his picture on the wall. Everyone, including the police, noticed this well established pattern. While he did not object to the material support that he received from this criminal organization, it was clear that in long run this situation would be detrimental to the spread of Pak Mai.
And in fact it was. Pak Mei is a stunningly effective art, but it has never spread as much as one might expect given the strength of its reputation and the interest that it generates among martial artists. For much of the 1970s and 1980s this had to do with the social anxiety that this style’s criminal connections created, rather than any long running animosity towards the “White Eyebrow Taoist” and his supposed betrayal of the Shaolin order.
Cheung Lai Chuen sought to deal with the situation by going into a state of semi-retirement. Given his rapidly advancing age one suspects that this decision may have been more than just a plausible cover story. Yet he did not give up teaching all together. Instead Cheung called on his extensive social connections and created a new body of disciples out of a group of older, wealthy, well established businessmen who enjoyed a criminal free reputation in Hong Kong’s commercial community.
These businessmen could be seen to publically support their teacher in the style to which he was accustomed, and thus many questions about Cheung Lai Chuen’s criminal connections could be allowed to fade from public consciousness. They also had the capital and business experience to open new schools that would be free from the taint of the Triads.
The end result of all of this is a rather complicated set of relationships between Cheung’s students and their various lineages. Basically you have one group of schools that descends from his earliest students, who often claim primacy through a sort of “Hakka privilege.” Whether Cheung really held anything back from his Cantonese students is a question of some debate, with different camps breaking down along predictable lines.
Then there are students from the middle of his career, many of whom (though not all) were somehow touched by General Kot. Lastly there is a group of much later lineages from the end of his life in Hong Kong. He has left behind a large Kung Fu family, but perhaps not an always happy one. Grand Master Cheung Lai Chuen eventually passed away in 1964, probably at the age of 83.
Cheung Lai Chuen in the Context of Chinese Martial Studies
Cheung Lai Chuen is one of the most interesting and complicated characters that I have encountered in my research. His life illustrates a very important era in the modernization and expansion of the martial arts as a popular pastime and urban activity. It is also a wonderful example of a number of larger themes that we see repeatedly in the literature on Chinese martial studies.
His biography demonstrates how the martial arts provided an avenue of advancement for rural youth who lacked other social or economic options. His early career illustrates the transition from traditional modes of teaching to the creation of public commercial schools, complete with elaborate creation myths. It also demonstrates the government’s ability to promote or inhibit the development of civil society through its regulatory behavior. State backing helped Pak Mei to thrive, though the costs of this official support turned out to be high. In some respects they are still being paid today.
I find the political aspects of this story to be the most fascinating. They point to some obvious social realities that are often left out of the more stylized historical accounts generated by most schools from the region. The career of Cheung Lai Chuen reminds us that martial artists were often implicated in disputes over race, class and politics. It is not random chance that when the communists took over in 1949 some traditional martial artists felt perfectly comfortable staying where they were, and others (quite correctly) realized that they had to flee for their lives. These social and history aspects of the southern Chinese martial arts are too often forgotten by students today. If I could choose just one martial artist from Guangdong who would be worthy of a book length academic biography, it would be Cheung Lai Chuen. In the mean time I hope this biographical sketch will inspire more people to research this figure on their own.