This is the second part of our series on Sugong: The Life of a Shaolin Grandmaster (2012) by Nick Hurst. If you have not already done so, be sure to check out the review here. Nick is a great guy and he was kind enough to sit down with Kung Fu Tea and answer a number of question about this experiences researching and writing this volume. I think this interview really helps to put a lot of what I read and discussed in the review in its proper context. Enjoy!
Kung Fu Tea (KFT): To begin with, why don’t you introduce yourself. What is your background and how did you become interested in the Chinese martial arts?
Nick Hurst (NH): I’m a 37 year old Londoner working in advertising in between my attempts to escape the industry. My interest in martial arts coincides with some of my earliest memories – watching the badly dubbed Water Margin and Monkey on TV. However I became football (soccer) obsessed as I grew up until beer and unhealthy living took over in my late teens. At university I realized I needed to get active again and luckily a friend, Michael, had just started kung fu classes awakening my old TV memories. I joined him at a class, loved it immediately and have been practicing ever since.
KFT: Tell us a little bit about how “Sugong” came together. At what point did you decide you were going to write a book on this topic? Did you have trouble selling the concept to a publisher?
NH: My original plan wasn’t to write a book – it was meant to be a kung fu trip career break that would hopefully result in a bright idea for a career change.
Michael joined me for part of it and having been regaled with stories from Sugong’s life over obligatory post-training breakfasts we got in a conversation about how someone should write a book to prevent his adventures and the history of our lineage being lost. Michael suggested I do it but knowing he was about to head back to life in banking the suggestion to go into the notoriously badly paid world of a writer seemed an easier one to suggest than take.
It did plant a seed but I still came back as planned at the end of my six months. Having not had my bright idea for a career change I went to an interview for an advertising job, realized immediately I wanted nothing to do with it, and decided to head back to Kuala Lumpur to write the book as soon as I walked out of the building.
I approached a couple of publishers before heading out in the naïve hope that I would be able to get a deal and with it an advance. Needless to say they weren’t too keen to fund a first-time writer with no contacts or media presence to write a book about a martial artist who had no fame in the West.
I decided to take the plunge without a deal and waited until I had a more polished product before making further attempts. Even then it was a painful process. I had a couple of near misses with UK publishing houses, and was offered deals with Singaporean and Malaysian publishers. The Singaporean one fell through when the financial crash leveled book sales just as we were negotiating contracts.
When I came back to England after finishing the book I made a few further attempts but it started to look as though Sugong would remain as a manuscript under my sofa. Fortunately I came across a book by my publisher SportsBooks, approached them and it was all go from there.
KFT: Have you been happy with the audience that your book has found?
NH: Yes and no. I was quite clear in my mind from the start that this wasn’t a “martial arts book” – martial arts obviously feature strongly because of who Sugong was, but it was always more about the adventure-story that was his life. I was hoping there would be a core audience of those interested in martial arts, but that it would appeal to a wider readership as well.
To some extent it has possibly been successful in achieving the latter but not successful enough with the former. This is reflected in the press it’s had where the more mainstream – from Time Out to the Times Literary Supplement – have picked it up but only Kung Fu Tai Chi in the US have featured it from the martial arts press.
So I’m pleased it is meeting wider tastes, but it would be nice to get more of a look-in from the martial arts world as well.
KFT: “You want to know about my parents, go ask them and stop bothering me.” That was the first sentence of your book, and it was the moment that I knew you had conducted real interviews. Most of the sources that I have dealt with in my own research have been open and forthcoming….but…attitudes like the ones expressed above are not at all uncommon when researching the history of the Chinese martial arts.
Why do you think that Chinese individuals of a certain generation are so reluctant to discuss the past?
NH: I think there are a number of possible reasons.
There can be a reluctance to be questioned at all, whether about the past or present. This is possibly a generational thing: there is greater respect shown toward one’s elders in the East and among some there seems to be a feeling that being questioned by the younger generation at all is tantamount to being shown disrespect. They appear to take the view that if there’s something you need to know they’ll tell you.
So allowing one or two questions may already be pushing things and probing for further detail in the answers can be taken as a challenge resulting in all hell being let loose.
I think some also take the view that the past is the past and it’s none of your business. The sensitivity surrounding ancestry can also play a role – there is a disinclination to dishonor the dead which is particularly delicate if there has been rancor or difficulty in their relationships.
I also think there may be a general preference for crafted histories rather than academically recorded ones, and questioning can challenge these. It may just be a reflection of my experiences and the people I came across, but in a similar way to obvious myths of Shaolin not always being challenged by people (in East and West) there were many occasions where something that was patently untrue to me was readily accepted. As this could be by highly intelligent people I could only assume it was almost intentionally turning a blind eye in favor of a preferable explanation.
Face also plays a part. Showing inconsistencies that distant events can bring would cause embarrassment. And there may also be a preference not to reflect on past indiscretions at odds with the upstanding position many of this generation like to present.
I should point out these are all suppositions – an explanation was never offered to me. Rather, the default response would often be offended rage.
KFT: Are there any interview techniques that you found especially helpful in creating open, non-confrontational settings?
NH: Distraction and opportunism. While more organized interview settings could prove useful in the earlier stages they grew increasingly less effective as Sugong tired of the process and felt he had provided all that was required (despite the odd ten-year spell being covered with a couple of sentences).
When we’d reached this stage just the prospect of an interview could be enough to incite a tirade and any information after the first month was best encouraged in less arranged settings when he was in a good mood. The breakfast table in the days after I paid my monthly fees was one but occasions outside of the norm could be even better; a five hour drive on a trip to the temple he trained at in Singapore opened the floodgates for a stream of recollections.
In terms of the best way for the questions to be phrased I can’t say – my translators CG and Mr Tan worked their own magic. But their presence – people he trusted absolutely – was essential, as was the fact he trusted me. He wouldn’t have given the details he did to a stranger or casual acquaintance.
KFT: A lot of us who are interested in Chinese martial studies as an academic discipline are what anthropologists might call “participant observers” meaning that we study with the people that we write about. How did you, as a writer, attempt to maintain some level of objectivity while at the same time being so close to your subject? Is objectivity even something that we should be striving for in our writing?
NH: This was a tricky issue for me. On the one hand I’m a history graduate so I appreciate the importance of good source material and a lack of bias (or at least an attempt at it). On the other, Sugong had placed a lot of trust in me and I was writing on his behalf to some extent. Furthermore, while I tried to get further verbal and documented sources the bulk of my information still came from him.
In the end I decided to approach it more in the vein of a memoir from his perspective than a biography. I tried to ensure this was clear to the reader and I also noted areas of conjecture around specific events so it was obvious that the book could serve as a source of information but one that comes with the usual biases of one person’s recollections.
So it would be hypocritical for me to say others should be totally objective – I think it depends on the kind of book it is. But I do believe that if there are any questions over objectivity they should be made clear. Martial arts writing can fail to do so and sometimes suffers from blind observance to myths, legends and the words of one’s seniors/ancestors.
KFT: Have you read other martial arts travelogues? Do you have a favorite that you would recommend?
NH: I ummed and erred about how many to read before writing my book – while I wanted to learn from others, I didn’t want to unconsciously mimic the ones I liked. I did end up reading a few but I don’t think I discovered any unknown gems in my favorites – I loved Angry White Pajamas (Robert Twigger, 1997) and also enjoyed American Shaolin (Matthew Polly, 2007).
The biggest influence of AWP may have been in what I didn’t write rather than what I did, however; because I felt Robert Twigger wrote so well I thought I would only end up writing an inferior kung fu version were I to focus on travelogue. I thought that Sugong’s story was not only better than mine but also more original – there are a number of martial arts travelogues but good memoirs I found thin on the ground.
But because I did have some interesting experiences (although not enough for a full book) I thought it would be worth including a few interludes both to break up the story with a contemporary and more light-hearted perspective but also to give a different view of Sugong.
KFT: Who do you look to for literary inspiration?
NH: There are numerous authors whose work I love who probably had an influence of some sort on my book. However, I was consciously trying to avoid any particular literary style in Sugong beyond trying to reflect the excitement and adventure of his life-story; keep the historical explanations informative but snappy and non-disruptive; and write exactly as I would tell the story if speaking to a friend for my experiences (perhaps with some censoring here and there…). So I can’t think of any influences I took consciously although I’m sure I unconsciously lifted from other writers…
In terms of favorite authors, Haruki Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguro are definitely up there, and Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain blew me away when I read it last year.
KFT: Did you turn to any historical or academic sources for background research when you were writing your book? If so, which ones?
NH: I tried to. For the background on the countries Sugong lived in I was lucky enough to be given some pointers by my old university’s (The University of Sheffield) School of East Asian Studies. Getting accurate information on Shaolin and the triads was more difficult.
All the writing on Shaolin I could find seemed to be different versions of the same rehashed myth. As a legend I like it but I couldn’t believe it was so regularly presented as fact. Fortunately I was saved by Meir Shahar whose book The Shaolin Monastery came out while I was writing Sugong and I leaned heavily on this as about the only academically rigorous English-language book I could find.
By trailing through bibliographies from various books I found a couple on triads (ter Haar’s Ritual & Mythology of the Chinese Triads and Murray’s The Origin of the Tiandihui) that again provided an academic rather than a sensationalist approach.
Beyond books I went to Singapore and Malaysia’s national archives to find whatever press coverage on Sugong and his master I could, but it was very thin on the ground. I also spoke to someone associated with the temple Sugong trained in who has researched its history and that of its abbots.
To try to ensure greater accuracy in the main narrative I interviewed as many sources as I could find. I spoke to five or six other disciples of Sugong’s master, some of his older students and also a couple of ex-triad heads.
KFT: You had an opportunity to closely observe the Chinese martial arts in south east Asia in some detail. Tell us a little about what you saw? Are these arts able to maintain their popularity in the face of more commercial styles like MMA and Muy Thai Kick Boxing? To what extent are the Chinese arts in the region still an exclusively ethnically Chinese affair?
NH: I’m not sure how much light I can shed on this as my experiences revolved quite closely around Sugong who was no longer as active in the wider martial arts scene as he had been in younger days.
However, there definitely didn’t seem to be a particular aura of cool surrounding traditional Chinese martial arts among the younger generation. My feeling was that with it having been so widely practiced by their parents’ generation it didn’t quite have the same appeal to them. In fact, there generally seemed to be an admiration for westerners among older martial artists for their perceived dedication.
One area where Chinese martial arts were still being encouraged was in schools where local masters and their pupils would come in to teach extra-curricular classes. They tended to be more common in Chinese schools but they weren’t exclusive to ethnic Chinese.
They also mixed modern wushu with traditional kung fu. With Malaysia having had international success with wushu its profile was high and its more goal-orientated approach seemed to provide a wider appeal. Tae Kwon Do was also popular partly for the same reason but its overseas allure i.e. not being the activity of kids’ parents, and its uniforms also seemed to provide an attraction.
Whatever the martial art it seems as though less people are practicing now than in previous generations where the impression is that high numbers of ethnic Chinese did kung fu. On the plus side, the ties to the triads seem to have loosened considerably from a time when most clubs would have some kind of connection, even if this was involuntary.
KFT: What advice would you give to someone who would like to do some oral history of their own school or teacher with an eye towards an article or some form of publication? In your view, what is the importance of this type of work?
NH: In terms of the approach to take it depends very much on the individual being interviewed. Someone as difficult as Sugong (which should be a rarity) needs to be approached with the view that they will only tell you a part of their story. You have to take each piece of information gleaned as a treasure that would otherwise have been lost, rather than being disappointed at the inevitable gaps in the full picture.
You also need to disassociate your respect for their martial arts, and perhaps also their personality, with their historical expertise. Just because they have great kung fu or have been passed down a story it doesn’t mean what they say is fact.
You must also be frank with yourself – the history is undoubtedly interesting and important to you and fellow pupils of your school and should of course be investigated and recorded. But is there anything specifically interesting to the wider world that merits publication? Should you decide the answer that is yes you need to develop thick skin and retain your belief as you will have to battle to make others share your conviction.
For me the importance of these social histories is in their cumulative effect. No matter how upstanding the interviewees they will have their own biases and inaccuracies. And while their martial arts may be beyond question their recollections may not. Sometimes they can provide the spark for a new line of investigation, other times they can provide substantiation or challenge an existing line of thought. They also bring color and context and can round out academic accounts. For these reasons they have fundamental importance as historical sources. But if they form the central historical pillar on their own they can leave a reasonably flimsy historical record behind.
KFT: Can you tell us a little bit about your current or future projects?
NH: They’re getting a bit more surreal… I was in India last year on holiday and watching a movie thought the bare bones of Sugong would transfer brilliantly to Bollywood if re-written for an Indian audience. A couple of production houses in Mumbai seemed to agree and I’ll be heading out there next month to see if anything further comes of it.
KFT: Thank you so much for dropping by Kung Fu Tea! I enjoyed your book immensely and it was great to have an opportunity to hear about how it all came together.