"Indian" Police Officers in Hong Kong.  This postcard probably dates from the middle of the 1920s, though the image could be a few years older than that.  Source: Vintage Postcard, author's personal collection.
“Indian” Police Officers in Hong Kong. This postcard probably dates from the middle of the 1920s, though the image could be a few years older than that. Source: Vintage Postcard, author’s personal collection.


Vintage postcards are fascinating because they capture a dual image.  On the surface they present a simple picture of a notable location, individual or native custom.  Some of these images are historically important and you can occasionally glean a lot of information from them.

Yet the real value of postcards goes well beyond that.  Like all items of ephemera these pictures were bought and consumed with little thought.  Better yet, they were used as a means of communication.  One could scribble a quick note on the back, but the image on the front of the card also carried a powerful message about “where” you were, and what sort of “values” that place represented within broader society.

Anyone who is interested in China’s entrance into the global marketplace during the early 20th century would do well to consider these colorful time-capsules.  They record both important trends in China’s early 20th century development as well as a running commentary (sometimes in explicit terms) of the evolution of western beliefs about their eastern neighbor.  The fact that most ephemera is selected quickly, and then used in the moment with little or no thought about its future value, means that these artifacts offer an almost unparalleled glimpse into the subconscious of those individuals who bought and sent them.

While the postcards sent from places like Shanghai or Hong Kong seem to offer a staggering variety of images, after looking at enough of them certain patterns emerge.  Many postcards feature scenes of street life focusing on crowded alleyways, colorful advertising banners and throngs of vendors.  Such images capture the dense vitality of Chinese urban life.  Yet one assumes that they were also meant to convey the exotic strangeness (and possible danger) of this foreign land.  These images, while fascinating, often emphasize the differences between Chinese and European cities, rather than their similarities.

The next most common class of postcards is dedicated to China’s architectural wonders.  These are photographs of temples, pagodas, ancient monuments and crumbling walls.  If the first set of images is notable for their message of thronging humanity, the second impresses one with their eerie silence.  Many of the subjects are desolate ruins.  Others, such as important urban temples, were photographed early in the day before the crowds showed up (or perhaps after they were cleared away).  If a person is included in any of these shots it is usually to give a sense of scale.

Benedict Anderson has observed that these images were an important part of the language of imperialism.  In the current case they present a visual argument that while China may have had great achievements, those days are long passed.  Cultural treasures are reduced to museum exhibits to be curated and commented upon by a new group of overseers.  The literal invisibility of the Chinese people in these images stands as a stark reminder of their “political invisibility” in the imperial imagination.

Both sets of images served to justify and reinforce the imperialist ethos among the western public in subtle, almost subconscious ways.  A third category of postcards dispensed with pretense and made the arguments in more explicit terms.  From the end of the 18th century western citizens became increasingly uncomfortable with the Chinese institutions and practices surrounding crime and punishment.

Images of criminals being subjected to gruesome tortures or methods of execution became the subject of countless export watercolors, engravings and later postcards.  The message embedded in these representations was clear.  The Chinese were dangerous, violent and depraved.  It was the duty of the west to “reform” and “Christianize” them.  This message was starkly at odds with the more detailed descriptions and accounts of life in China that were easily available to anyone with access to a library.  Yet they played easily into 19th and early 20th century ideas about the “yellow peril.”

The postcards that we will be looking at today seem to have evolved out of this last set.  But rather than focusing on Chinese courts and law enforcement, they instead turned their lens on the institutions of western colonialism.  Specifically, the UK worked diligently to establish their own police forces in areas like Shanghai, the foreign concessions in Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

These organizations carried out both political and legal directives.   Racially they were diverse and reflected British colonial holdings in Asia.  Large numbers of individuals from India (especially Sikhs) came to serve as soldier and law enforcement officers in Hong Kong.  These were joined by constables from the UK and an increasing number of Chinese employees from both Hong Kong and other areas (Shandong turned out to be a common recruiting ground).

Customers seem to have liked these images of local law-enforcement officers.  In fact, postcards featuring “Indian Policemen” (almost always Sikhs wearing their characteristic turbans) are pretty common and easy to find.  Occasionally a card will show a South Asian constable paired with a local Chinese officer to emphasize the notable differences in size between the two.  By showcasing the diversity and exotic grandeur of the empire, these postcards make an argument about the legitimacy and moral authority of the imperialist project.

Unfortunately there is an even darker side to some of these cards.  A number of them record the practice of publicly confining petty criminals in stocks.  Often the prisoners in these images are Chinese women, and almost inevitably the officers standing guard over them are “Indians.”  Many of these images seem to serve no other purpose than to record (and perhaps take a moment of pride in) the purposeful humiliation of Chinese subjects by the western colonial government.

In historical terms there is nothing new or shocking about the treatment of prisoners in these images.  It is pretty easy to find period photographs of Chinese law enforcement officials engaged in the exact same practice.  Hong Kong’s administration seems to have borrowed the punishment, along with many other points of “customary law,” in their attempts to make administering the colony as easy as possible.

Yet the social meaning of these images becomes radically different when the police officers are all foreigners, as are the purchasers and recipients of the postcards.  This image became a short-hand for everything that was humiliating and emasculating about the colonial experience.  And it is probably not a coincidence that the “criminals” in the stock are usually women.

Indian Police.Hong Kong.Pre-1911.color
Hong Kong police force. Note that only the Indian officers are armed. Source: Vintage Chinese postcard.

Ip Man Rescues a “Chinese Lady”

This particular image of national humiliation plays a small but important role in the formation of modern Wing Chun Kung Fu.  Ip Man (1893-1972) brought the art to Hong Kong after the 1949 Revolution.  From there his students (including Bruce Lee) spread it to the rest of the world.  Of course this was not the first time that he had visited the colony.

At the age of twelve Chan Wah Shun accepted Ip Man as his final student.  He studied under his supervision, and then under that of Ng Chung So (Chan Wah Shun’s senior disciple) until 1908.  At that point his parents decided to send him to St. Stephen’s College in Hong Kong.  This was a prestigious institution where the children of Southern China’s “new gentry” could receive a western education.

It might also have been the end of Ip Man’s formal studies of Wing Chun except for a fateful encounter.  Like all good martial arts legends, there are multiple versions of the following story.  Nor do they all agree on the details.  Ip Ching, Ip Man’s second son, places the following story in or about 1908 (see Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger. 2001. Ip Man: Portrait of a Kung Fu Master. King Dragon Press. p. 11).  This year in Hong Kong was marked by social upheaval and unrest triggered by the “anti-Japan” boycott and riots.

Ip Chun, Ip Man’s eldest son, instead places the following events three years later in 1911.  (See Ip Chun and Michael Tse. 1998. Wing Chun Kung Fu. St. Martin’s Griffin. P. 25).  This was the year when the vague sense of anti-foreignism that had been building in Hong Kong finally evolved into an open upwelling of nationalism closely tied to the Republican revolution.

Regardless of the exact year (1908 vs. 1911), the important thing to realize is that the following story does not occur in a social vacuum.   As we have already seen, strong feelings of anti-foreignism was not the normal state of affairs in Republican southern China.  Nevertheless, exceptional events or periodic crises could bring these tensions to the surface.  During those moments brazen examples or images of national humiliation (such as the previous postcards) could trigger a cascading chain of events.

“With the help of his relative Leung Fut Ting, Ip Man moved to Hong Kong at the age of 15, in 1908, to attend High School at St. Stephen’s College.  During this time the British, who ruled Hong Kong, were using Indian and Pakistani police officers in Hong Kong.  The police were not very fond of the Chinese people and were often quite cruel.

One day, on the way to school, Ip Man and a classmate came across an Indian police officer who was beating a Chinese lady.  Ip Man had seen all types of injustice but this time he had to do something about it.  Both kids told the officer that if this lady was a thief or if she had done something wrong then the policemen had every right to take her into custody.  But even if she was a thief, he had no right to beat her.  In actuality, she had done nothing wrong.  The police officer was just being cruel.

The officer, realizing that Ip Man was just a kid, took a swing at him.  Unfortunately for the police officer, Ip Man had nearly four years of Kung Fu under his belt.  He responded to the police officer’s attack with what appeared to his classmate to be a very simple move, but the police officer went down with blood all over his face.  Ip Man and his classmate ran very quickly to school.”   (Ip Ching, 11).

This story is usually introduced as the prelude to something much more important.  Ip Man’s high school friend related the tale of their adventure to an older member of his family.  He was Leung Bik (the son of Leung Jan), a Wing Chun master from Foshan.  After asking to be introduced, he took Ip Man on as a student starting the second phase of his martial arts training.

This is an interesting, and somewhat controversial, chapter in Ip Man’s career.  Unfortunately its exploration must wait for another day.  Instead I would like to return to the encounter with the police officer.

Historically speaking, I am not all that interested in whether this altercation actually happened.  It is the sort of event that leaves no evidence behind and is basically impossible to verify.  What is interesting is the fact that this story was passed on at all.

Ip Man himself served as a police detective in Foshan during a period of rapidly increasing social instability and violence (1945-1949).  It has always struck me as a little odd that someone who was a law enforcement professional would go around telling a story about assaulting another police officer in what was essentially a juvenile prank.

To really understand what is happening in this story we need to think about the context in which it occurred.  Further, to understand how it became enshrined in Wing Chun folklore we need to consider the ways in which it was translated and reinterpreted by a new group of students during the 1950s-1970s.

Chinese police officers employed by the Russians, probably in Port Arthur.  Circa 1900.  Note the modern, western style swords, that have been issued to this unit.  The transition to western arms was almost complete by 1890.  Source: Image taken from a vintage stereoscope slide.
Chinese police officers employed by the Russians, probably in Port Arthur. Circa 1900. Note the modern, western style swords, that have been issued to this unit. . Source: Image taken from a vintage stereoscope slide.

Ip Man’s Confrontation in the Context of the 1911 Revolution

It is not a coincidence that the details of both this story and the previously discussed postcards focus one’s attention so strongly on the issues of nationality and gender.  The victim of the police beating is not a “homeless woman” or an “older woman” or a “well dressed” woman.  We are not told anything about her.  All that we know is that she is a “Chinese lady.”  Likewise we hear nothing about the police officer or the context of his actions except that he was a “cruel” foreigner and a representative of a colonial power.

In prior or subsequent years this story might have been told very differently.  The timing of these events is crucial.  The Ip family managed to send their son to college just in time for him to see some of the most dramatic examples of social upheaval (1908-1911) that Hong Kong had ever experienced.  All of this culminated in the very rapid adoption of a new national identity by the Chinese population of the city in 1911, though interestingly not much before that.

In her discussion of this period Jung-Fang Tsai points out that even as late as 1910 all of the shops in Hong Kong had displayed the Imperial Dragon Flag during the celebration of Confucius’s birthday.  While there were brewing feelings of anti-foreignism (directed against the British, the Japanese and especially the Manchus) there was not yet a general public embrace of Chinese nationalism of the sort that would characterize the 1920s-1930s.

Within one year all of this would change.  Following events on the mainland the population of Hong Kong strongly sided with the rebels.  There was now a growing sense of national identity and awareness.  Very few shops in 1911 flew the imperial flag, and those that did might expect an angry mod demanding that they replace it with a Republican one.

In 1911 a mob attacked the offices of the royalist Shang-pao newspaper and the Bank of China, demanding that they too adopt the Republican flag.  The offices of the newspaper were ransacked and looted with much of their equipment being burned in the street.  The editorial staff was essentially taken hostage by the angry crowd and forced to light celebratory fireworks.  Finally a detachment of Indian police officers was sent to restore order.  The mob immediately turned on them and began throwing stones.  They were only dispersed after law enforcement started to use fire hoses.

It is certainly true that there were racial tensions between the Chinese population of the city and its Indian police officers.  The city’s colonial administrators believed that they could prevent corruption, and more effectively enforce social order, by bringing in outside groups that would have a difficult time communicating with local citizens (and hence becoming empathetic to their cause).  We should not be surprised to see a certain sense of animosity.  The system was designed to cultivate that.

The previously discussed conflict between the two students and the “Indian” police officer did not happen in a void.  It occurred at a time when the police were on edge because of a dramatic increase in crime and social unrest.  Likewise, the growing nationalist awareness of the city’s Chinese residents made them increasingly sensitive to, and less willing to tolerate, the casual humiliations of colonialism.

It is hard to know whether Ip Man’s confrontation with the police officer happened in 1908 or 1911.  For that matter it is impossible to know whether it really happened at all.  But what is clear is that this account is remembered in the light of the events of 1911.  It fully embraces and glorifies that eruption of Chinese national awareness which occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Republican revolution.

"Indian" police officers in Shanghai.  Source: Vintage Postcard.
“Indian” police officers in Shanghai. Source: Vintage Postcard.

Translating Ip Man’s Confrontation during the 1950s – 1970s

Nationalist identities have an odd habit of rewriting history.  Once one becomes aware of them, it is all too easy to read them onto the past.  We assume that previous generations must have thought and felt the same things that we do now.  But as L. P. Hartley reminds us “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Read in the context of the Republican revolution, Ip Man’s story is interesting as it records the very moment that modern Chinese nationalism emerged in Hong Kong.  It even gives us some insight into how these ideas empowered a young martial artist at the start of a new era.

Yet this story has been passed on to the present not by Ip Man himself, but by his students and children.  These were individuals who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s.  Two generations later the existence, and normative value, of Chinese nationalism was a settled matter.  These students had never known a time when China was a complex multi-ethnic empire administered by a foreign dynasty.  Even the historical novels of Jin Yong (so popular with young martial arts students during this period) take the existence of a “Chinese nation” mostly for granted.  The fact that this story is continually retold (when so many others have been forgotten) suggests that they must have found some meaning in it.

Life in post-war Hong Kong was characterized by high levels of social conflict between and within certain communities.  Still, it seems unlikely that the meaning that they derived from this tale of their master’s exploits was exactly that same as what he would have experienced in the early Republic period.

Following WWII the law enforcement situation in Hong Kong underwent significant changes.  The independence movements in India and Pakistan resulted in many South Asian officers leaving the colony to return to their ancestral homes.  For the first time locally recruited Cantonese speaking officers came to make up the vast bulk of the department’s personal.

Unfortunately this did not herald the end of tensions between the police and the broader community.  Corruption within the police force remained a crippling problem for much of this period.  The city’s government also used the police to pursue their political and social goals in addition to simple law enforcement.  As a result the police were often, and not entirely incorrectly, seen as a “paramilitary” force in the classic sense of the term.

The city’s efforts to control the Triads, and any sort of social group that could be linked to them, brought law enforcement officers and martial artists into a state of frequent conflict.  In point of fact many martial arts schools were essentially covers or “recruiting tools” for various criminal enterprises.  In an economy of violence that lacked easy access to firearms, trained fighters and a reputation for violence was a valuable commodity.

Yet even when organized crime was taken out of the picture, local martial artists and the police clashed over a number of other issues.  Accusation of coercion and the blackmail of store keepers by Lion Dance troupes were common during the period.  Not surprisingly the police tended to side with the business owners.

The “beimo” youth subculture that is often retrospectively glorified by modern martial arts students was another point of contention.  These illicit challenge fights sometimes resulted in serious injury and they were regarded as a criminal activity by the police.  One of the reasons why the Hong Kong police came down so hard on beimo fighters was because serious defeats or injuries could spark revenge attacks that could engulf both schools.  When police officers did intervene in these situations it was usually to the detriment of the entire martial arts community.

In his dissertation, “Marginality and the Heroes Art” (1986), one of Daniel Amos’ central informants gives an account of just a situation.  The police reacted by arresting, questioning and beating everyone whom they could get their hands on from both schools. Likewise Hawkins Cheung has related the story of how his family was forced to pay a bribe before he was cleared to attend college abroad because of his association with illegal rooftop challenge fights.

Conflict with law enforcement remained an issue for Hong Kong’s younger martial artists in the 1950s-1970s.  Yet nationalism was no longer a salient element of this specific discussion.  By the 1960s all but the most senior police officers were locally recruited members of the Chinese community.  Further, the social and political agenda that the law enforcement community was advancing was overwhelmingly supported by most of the city’s middle class inhabitants.

An "entry team" of officers in the Shanghai Foreign Concession, trained and led by a British officer.  The police needed serious training and firepower to stand up to the strong criminal gangs that controlled much of the city.  Photographer is unknown.
An “entry team” of officers in the Shanghai Foreign Concession, trained and led by a British officer. The police needed serious training and firepower to stand up to the strong criminal gangs that controlled much of the city. Photographer is unknown, dated 1936.


Towards the end of his career Ip Man was involved in a number of efforts to try and legitimize the martial arts in the eyes of the city’s administrators and police officers.  It is actually quite significant that the Hong Kong Ving Tsun Association was the first traditional Kung Fu organization in the city to be officially registered with the local government.  Still, given the general atmosphere of the 1950s-1960s, it is not hard to understand why his younger students would have been so interested in the tale of their teenage Sifu standing up to the police when they unjustly bullied the population.

This story is an interesting example of how intergenerational translation might happen within the traditional Chinese martial arts community.  When told in the context of the 1911 Revolution (and the postcards that I used to introduce this discussion) the conversation immediately turns to questions of nationalism and the humiliation of the Chinese people.

To a different generation of students in the 1950s-1960s, a new layer of meaning becomes more relevant.  Now the police officers, and their political supervisors, are themselves Chinese.  Instead the story is read as a narrative of resistance between those who lack privilege (the young, the uneducated and the economically marginal) and those who control access to financial and social resources within the confines of the city.  The same sense of frustration and anger is present, but it is now focused on inequality and marginality rather than nationalism and anti-foreignism.

Tracing this one story has illustrated something important about the evolution of the Southern Chinese martial arts.  The techniques can be remarkably consistent over time.  In each generation these systems might even function as an engine of personal and social empowerment.  Yet their specific meaning, or the role that they play in their students’ lives, can evolve and change.

This is one of the mechanisms by which Kung Fu, like any cultural practice, maintains its relevance.  Images of Sikh police officers standing behind Chinese prisoners do not evoke the same passion in individuals today as they did in 1911.  Yet many practitioners still look to the Southern Chinese martial arts as a potent force in overcoming the challenges of life.


If you enjoyed this post you might also like: Through a Lens Darkly (9): Swords, Knives and other Traditional Weapons Encountered by the Shanghai Police Department, 1925.