Introduction: Choy Li Fut’s place in southern Chinese martial culture.
Let me ask you a question. What was the largest and most socially important martial art in Guangdong during the late 19th and early 20th century? What was the first martial art to organize an extensive network of public commercial schools in all of the province’s major towns and cities? Which southern Chinese martial art was the first to establish a permanent public school in the United States?
A few names often spring to mind. Hung Gar is synonymous with southern boxing, and it was pretty popular. But it’s not the answer we are looking for. Wing Chun was an obscure regional style that few people had heard of until the 1960s. And while many individuals studied one or more of the “Five Family Styles” they were highly fragmented. White Crane was a popular import from Fujian (another southern province with a distinguished martial tradition), but that is not the answer either.
In the late 19th century Choy Li Fut became the public face of the southern martial arts throughout the Pearl River Delta and much of the province. It was one of the most commercially successful schools of hand combat ever practiced in the region, and it commanded the loyalty of tens of thousands of students. Through its various charitable associations and Lion Dance teams it managed to extend this reach even further.
Choy Li Fut tended to have strong working class associations in the early 20th century. It was a popular martial art among handicraft artisans, porters, sailors and workers. The Hung Sing Association became an early supporter of the Community Party and as a result was closed by the right-wing Nationalist Party (the GMD) after its purge of leftists elements in Shanghai (and around the country) in 1927.
Most southern martial arts schools were forced to close again with the Japanese invasion, and then with the Communist victory in 1949. Needless to say, the Cultural Revolution also took a toll on the practice of all traditional martial arts in mainland China. Like Wing Chun and Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut survived the 1960s and 1970s in exile. It was practiced throughout the Chinese diaspora in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and even California.
As a result of this highly disrupted history, many hand combat students today (both inside and outside of China) no longer understand the important role that Choy Li Fut played in the development of Southern China’s modern martial culture. The art has yet to spawn a major media franchise (something that has benefited both Hung Gar and Wing Chun). Still, if we wish to better understand the Southern Chinese martial arts, it is necessary to take a closer look at both the legends and history that surround this style.
Of course Choy Li Fut is also interesting as it was one of the first Chinese martial arts to be openly taught in the United States of America in the post-WWII era. During the 19th century different Tong had engaged in military training, created militias and hired enforcers. One of the first concerted efforts at southern “martial training” in the US that I am aware of occurred in 1854 in the months leading up to the Weaverville War.
Still, these early experiments did not lead to long-term public instruction in the martial arts. It is also an interesting philosophical exercise to consider whether training with the trident and musket to fight in a battle would be considered to be an example of “martial arts practice” by most modern observers today. When it came to hand combat, it appears that Chinese fighters in the US were just as likely to study western boxing as anything else for most of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Lau Bun: A Pioneer of the Chinese Martial Arts in America.
Most observers of the Chinese martial arts agree that Lau Bun was the first individual to open a permanent, somewhat-public, Chinese martial arts school on the American mainland. That fact alone makes him an important figure to know about. However, the details of his life are fascinating for other reasons as well. As well as illustrating many aspects of the Chinese American experience, his career demonstrates the many ways in which the martial arts intersected with, and were useful to, the broader political-economy of immigrant communities.
Whether it was providing physical protection, settling disputes, or creating a sense of cultural continuity, Lau Bun’s life provides us with an interesting window into how the martial arts interacted with, and were used by, the broader Chinese society in the early 20th century. For that reason I felt that a brief biographical sketch of his career would make a valuable contribution to our lives of the “Chinese Martial Artists” series.
Before starting I should state that my own background is not in Choy Li Fut. Rather, my interests in this subject are purely historical and social. When discussing the background of Choy Li Fut in China I have relied on Zeng Zhaosheng’s 1989 volume Guangdong Wushu Shi (A History of Guangdong Martial Arts). I have drawn the basic facts of Lau Bun’s life from a 2002 article entitled “Remembering Lau Bun” by Doc Fei-Wong published in the July edition of Inside Kung Fu. Lastly I would like to thank Derek Graeff for his insights into the history and development of the American Choy Li Fut community.
Lau Bun was born in Taishan in Guangdong province at the end of the Qing dynasty in 1891. Taishan is southwest of Jiangmen and sits on a coastal region of the Pearl River Delta. The area is known for both its musical traditions (something that Lau Bun enjoyed and promoted throughout his life) as well as its large expatriate community. The local language spoken in the region is Taishanese, a cousin of Cantonese.
Large groups of Taishanese speaking immigrants left for the American west in the middle decades of the 19th century. Some of these individuals worked for the railroad, while others took service jobs in gold mining communities or worked in San Francisco. Until very recently, Taishanese was the most commonly encountered dialect spoken in Chinese American communities.
While the working conditions endured by these early immigrants were bleak, the wages they earned were often quite generous compared to what was being made in their home villages. Family members in America often mailed home some of their salaries as “remittances” which became an important source of liquidity in the local economy.
Lau Bun was born into a family situation that was deeply dependent on the tides of late 19th century globalization. His father worked in California and sent home the remittances that supported his mother and siblings. This source of income allowed the divided family to enjoy a comfortable standard of living.
For Lau Bun this meant that his family could afford to hire martial arts teachers to instruct him (recall that at this point the idea of the “public commercial school” had not yet become standardized across the region). Accounts state that his early teachers may have exposed him to Hung Gar and Mok Gar. For whatever reason, the family continued to look for a teacher and eventually settled on a well-known Choy Li Fut teacher named Yuen Hai.
Yuen Hai was trained at the Hung Sing Association Hall in Foshan, north east of Taishan. Following the death of the legendary Jeong Yim (who did much to establish Choy Li Fut as a major force in the Pearl River Delta region) Yuen Hai was sent to Taishan by the new leader of the organization (Chan Ngau Sing) for the express purpose of opening a Choy Li Fut school and promoting the spread of the style. This probably happened in 1893-1894, but there is no universally accepted date for the death of Jeong Yim which complicates our account. It is also important to note that these sorts of assignments are not all that uncommon in Choy Li Fut’s history and they may help to account for the arts rapid geographic spread in the late 19th century.
Yuen Hai’s career was rich and varied. He quickly became caught up in the expatriate driven economy that was so important to the region. When he first moved to the area he rented space in clan temples to conduct his classes. This was a fairly common practice in the era, especially in Guangdong where clan associations were strong and owned most of the real estate. Later Yuen Hai traveled to Indonesia where he worked a five year stint as a private bodyguard for a wealthy businessman. After returning to the region he once again took up teaching Choy Li Fut.
It was at this point that Lau Bun began his studies with Yuen Hai. He also is reported to have learned a “Shaolin Five Animals Form” from his teacher’s wife, who was also an accomplished martial artist. Most accounts of Lau Bun’s life are brief and do not give exact years. Still, we can make some informed guesses about when this instruction started.
The Boxer Uprising in 1900 proved to be a watershed moment for martial artists across the country. In Guangdong the provincial governor had every martial arts school and association in the province closed in the wake of these events. This order was taken quite seriously and was actually implemented by local officials. The great fear was that local martial artists would seek revenge against foreign traders in the region, or engage in copy-cat anti-Christian violence, giving the British a pretext to seize the entire Pearl River. Nor was this fear unreasonable. The British were looking for an excuse to expand their holdings in the area.
As a result of this order the Hung Sing Association in Foshan was forced to close its doors, and many of its instructors actually ended up going to Hong Kong for a few years to seek other means of employment. I expect that the same thing happened in Taishan, and that Yuen Hai’s five years contract working as a bodyguard in Indonesia probably spanned the period from 1900-1905. It just wasn’t possible to teach for much of this time.
After 1903-1905, the order restricting martial arts schools was eased. The Hung Sing Association in Foshan reopened its doors, Chan Wah Shun rented a new school space in the Ip family temple (effectively inaugurating the modern era of Wing Chun) and Yuen Hai returned to Taishan and resumed teaching Choy Li Fut. Still, his teaching career had been disrupted at a critical time, and this may have limited the size of the organization that he could build.
Luckily the remittances from America allowed the families of his students to pay consistent tuition. Lau Bun studied diligently and eventually became his teacher’s successor. I point this out because I find it interesting that apparently none of Yuen Hai’s first generation of students (who studied with him from 1894-1900) remained in the lineage after the Boxer Uprising. This is a valuable reminder of how volatile events were at the turn of the century and the impact that they had on the development of the martial arts.
Lau Bun had sufficient time to complete his martial arts training, but the situation in southern China was becoming strained by the middle of the 1920s. Warlordism became a major problem and the Nationalist government struggled to assert control of the country. The economy of Guangdong was slow to industrialize in the 1920s and did not receive the same level of investment as more quickly growing areas like Shanghai. Economic opportunities started to dry up, crime and narcotics became an increasing problem, and in 1927 the Hung Sing Association was officially suppressed by the Nationalist Party because of its association with leftist political elements (the CCP). Adding to this general sense of calamity, as some point during this period Lau Bun’s father appears to have died.
Sometime in the 1920s Lau Bun followed the path of so many of his countrymen before him and decided to seek his fortune in America. However, this process was now vastly more complicated than it had been half a century years earlier. A series of legislative acts passed between 1870 and 1924 essentially banned all legal immigration from China.
In fact, in the year 1924 the U.S. Border Patrol was created under the Department of Labor. Its original task was to patrol the Mexican border. Their assignment was to find and stop Chinese immigrants who entered Mexico as part of their effort to immigrate illegally to the United State.
Nevertheless, would be Chinese immigrants did have one thing on their side. The great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 resulted in the destruction of most of the state’s immigrations records. This allowed large numbers of illegal Chinese immigrants in the US to claim citizenship directly or to claim to be children of a family who were legally citizens. This was the basic situation that Lau Bun faced when he decided to immigrate.
In the early 1920s, he left China and entered Mexico like many other immigrants of the period. After crossing the border he became a “paper sons” by taking on the name Wong On. This false identity allowed him to claim that he was the son of a legal resident. Unfortunately there were some unanticipated complications in this plan.
American law enforcement officers were well aware of these schemes and continued to work to identify and deport recent Chinese immigrants. Lau Bun’s rise to fame actually started in 1930 when he got in an altercation with a group of immigration officials in Los Angeles. After fleeing from a regular police officer who tried to detain him, he found himself cornered in building by a number of immigration officials who had arrived as backup. He fought with and successfully resisted four or five of these officers before jumping safely from a second story window and making his getaway.
News of Lau Bun’s adventure and “successful” confrontation with the immigration authorities spread quickly in the still relatively small Chinese American community. When he arrived in San Francisco in 1931 his reputation assured him a hearty welcome from the powerful Hop Sing Tong. He was hired to act as a guard or bouncer for various night clubs and gambling houses, and at some point during the 1930s (again, accounts vary) he established the Wah-Keung Kung Fu Club of Choy Li Fut.
This was a small private school. Its original purpose was only to teach the martial arts to a group of younger members of the Hop Sing Tong who would likely also have gone on to work in the local community as guards or bouncers. However, as Lau Bun’s stature in the community grew there was more interest in his martial arts background and his understanding of traditional Chinese medicine (both herbalism and bone-setting).
His school expanded and eventually evolved into the Hung Sing Studio of San Francisco. By the early 1950s there was no longer a functioning Hung Sing school in Foshan, and so Lau Bun’s lineage took on added importance.
The new school quickly became heavily involved in community affairs. Lau Bun enjoyed traditional music and he trained a Lion Dance society. He provided traditional medical treatments to members of the local community, and was occasionally looked to as a broker or go-between to settle disputes. Lau Bun also engaged in extensive fundraising (which sometimes included public Kung Fu displays, a rarity at the time) for the Chinese Hospital in San Francisco.
During the 1930s the demand for Kung Fu instruction, even within the Chinese American community, was quite slim. However, as servicemen returned from fighting in the pacific in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, interest in the martial arts increased. Some of this curiosity began to be directed at the Chinese fighting arts starting in the late 1950s, and by the late 1960s (thanks to the Bruce Lee phenomenon) what started as a trickle had become a flood of outside interest.
Lau Bun’s career is interesting precisely because it spans two eras. When he first arrived, dominant white society had adopted a stance of active hostility towards Asian Americans. Lau Bun was fiercely loyal to his community, and drawing on the tradition of the Foshan Hung Sing Association (which was famous in the 19th century for its “Three Exclusions” policy), refused to teach Kung Fu to non-Chinese individuals. Still, given the active hostilities between these communities, and the general lack of knowledge that the Chinese fighting arts even existed, one suspects that that beatniks from San Francisco were not exactly knocking down the door of the Wah-Keung Ckung Fu Club demanding instruction.
In the late 1950s and 1960s things were different. Lau Bun was now in his 70s. Both his reputation and school were well established. The “yellow peril” that had dominated the 1920s and 1930s had all but disappeared from the public discourse. In some ways community relations were much freer than they had ever been in the past.
And now a new generation of young adults actually was banging on the door of the Hung Sing Association asking to be admitted as students. Bing Chan was the first of the San Francisco instructors trained by Lau Bun to begin to openly admit non-Chinese students to his classes. Jew Long, who was Lau Bun’s actual successor, also began to work with Caucasian students at almost exactly the same time.
Students of Choy Li Fut and martial historians are lucky to have some home movies shot at a public demonstration, probably sometime in the early 1960s. The atmosphere in these films is festive. They record Lau Bun performing a butterfly sword routine, which is probably the earliest footage of the hudiedao being used in America that I have seen. A wide variety of other demonstrations are also performed by second and third generation students. It is interesting to note that not all of these students are Chinese. Larry Johnson, a student of Jew Long, can clearly be seen demonstrating the Tiger Fork in one section of the film.
So while Lau Bun never taught any non-Chinese students as a younger man, and he clearly suffered racism at the hands of the dominant social group, by the 1960s he was happily presiding over what had become an open and multiracial school. In fact, Lau Bun is often credited as having introduced Anthony Qinn, an important Mexican American actor, to Kung Fu. These short films are worth watching as they record a critical moment in the emergence of the Chinese martial arts in America.
Determining who first accomplished some feat is usually a difficult and thankless task. There are suggestions that western police officers in Shanghai in the 1920s studied Chinese boxing, and it is well-known that a wide variety of martial arts were openly taught to westerners in Taiwan from 1949 to the present. Still, I find it remarkable that it took as long as it did to establish permanent Chinese martial arts schools in the US.
Lau Bun opened the first known school, and his students (along with Ark Yuey Wong) were among the first individuals to openly teach the Chinese martial arts to all races in the US. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to reduce his life to a series of “firsts” or colorful anecdotes. I prefer to focus on the ways that his biography demonstrates how the martial arts interacted with other elements of Chinese society, both in Guangdong and throughout the diaspora.
His life experience points to the importance of globalization as a central force in the social destiny of both southern China and the Chinese martial arts. Further, I find it fascinating that within his lifetime the martial arts were used both as a tool to police the boundaries between communities, and as a doorway to bridge them. That is a valuable lesson to remember as we think about the shifting relationships between the traditional Chinese martial arts, identity and nationalism today.
If you were looking for a figure to act as the foundation for a major martial arts film franchise, Lau Bun’s life would provide plenty of material. If instead you are interested in the development of modern Chinese martial culture, his biography would also make for interesting reading. I hope that this brief sketch inspires other academic students to start to investigate and write about the history of Choy Li Fut and its leading figures both inside and outside of China.