Ark Yuey Wong in 1965: Opening a New Era in Western Kung Fu
1965 was a pivotal year for the traditional Chinese martial arts in North America. Simply put, it was the moment when everything changed.
While a handful of non-Chinese students had been studying these fighting systems in the US since the late 1950s, most western martial artists got their first detailed look at Kung Fu in January of that year. Ark Yuey Wong, an established master of Guangdong’s southern Shaolin methods, was the one who declared that the door was open.
While it is often debated which instructor was the first to teach non-Chinese students, for most American martial artists the dawning of the new era was announced by the January issue of Black Belt magazine. Wong, dressed in a black Kung Fu suit, was the first Chinese martial artist to grace the cover of what was then the “publication of record” for the US martial arts community.
Nor would readers seeking a more detailed discussion of the Chinese martial arts be disappointed by the volume’s contents. The tone of the issue was set by the very first letter to the editor requesting more information on the Chinese martial arts. In retrospect this growing wave of interest is understandable.
By the early 1960s the Japanese arts (Judo, Karate and Akido) were becoming established as respectable athletic endeavors in the west. Judo had even been admitted to the Olympics. As American students became more deeply versed in these arts they increasingly encountered stories and lineage histories suggesting that the ultimate origins of their practice might be found in China. Many martial artists wanted to know more.
While a small number of western individuals had studied the TCMA prior to the early 1960s (Sophia Delza, R. W. Smith and Jim Anestasi to name a few examples), it was actually the media that would first bring most martial artists into contact with the Chinese styles. To understand the significance of 1965 it might be useful to think in terms of information “push” and “pull.”
Prior to this point individuals who wanted to know more about these subjects had to work hard to discover or “pull” this information towards themselves. After 1965 the media (first the publishing industry, then TV and finally movies) increasingly began to integrate the Chinese martial arts into their commercial narratives. These were then “pushed” into the homes of consumers, regardless of their preexisting level of interest.
The January 1965 issue of Black Belt represents the beginning of a sustained wave of medialization of the Chinese martial arts which would extend through the era of Bruce Lee to the current day. Prior to that time the magazine had focused almost exclusively on the more popular Japanese styles.
There were a few exceptions to this trend. In 1962 Prof. William C. C. Hu, who would later become a regular writer for the magazine, introduced the terms “Kung Fu” and “Shaolin” during the course of his discussion of the historical origins of Karate. Two years later in 1964 there was a short profile of a “Shaolin” school in Connecticut. But it was not until the January issue of 1965 that the Chinese martial arts started to receive sustained coverage.
As the top line of the cover indicates, this was a “special edition” for readers who might be interested in the Chinese martial arts. Pride of place was given to an exploration of Ark Yuey Wong’s school in Los Angeles. In an interview the master discussed both his background and philosophy of the martial arts. The magazine’s editors put great emphasis on the fact he was both metaphorically and physically opening the doors of instruction to all students.
The same issue also featured an extended profile of Zheng Manqing (Cheng Man-ch’ing), the renowned master of Yang style Taiji (and instructor of R. W. Smith) who had recently moved from Taiwan to New York City. While stories circulated about Zheng defending the honor of the Chinese martial arts back on the mainland, in New York he accepted a diverse student body that included a large number of western students.
There was more. The same issue also featured a detailed article by Prof. William C. C. Hu about the meaning of “Kung Fu.” His discussion delved into the etymology, popular usage and philosophy of the term on a surprisingly nuanced level given that for many of his readers this might be their very first exposure to the word. Lastly there was an installment of a multiple part series on the early history of Taijiquan.
Prior to 1965 one had to search for any sort of reliable information of the Chinese martial arts. After that time it would increasingly be delivered to your door (or television) for a nominal fee. It seems that from the beginning both readers and publishers were attracted to the diversity of these fighting systems. This single magazine issue introduced readers to important Chinese martial artists on the East and West coasts, to the rich traditions of Yang style Taijiquan and Southern Shaolin, and to both the scholarly examination of the TCMA and some well-worn historical legends.
In my view this document is a time capsule, capturing a critical moment in the evolution of Western thought about the Chinese martial arts. What had once been esoteric and private, hidden behind the walls of the various Tongs, was coming out into the open. Black Belt had determined that the Chinese fighting arts could be marketed to mainstream martial artists. It was Ark Yuey Wong who both verbally and symbolically opened the way.
This was all the more interesting as Wong himself was very much the product of the previous era. Over the course of his life he saw immense changes in the nature of the Chinese martial arts, and how they were presented to the public, both in Guangdong and California. As someone who lived and taught in both places, Wong was a critical bridge helping to convey the innovations that were sweeping through China to diaspora communities on the other side of the Pacific.
While Wong is often remembered as the first (or one of the initial) teachers to open his school to westerners, in truth his contributions to how the martial arts were taught and thought about within the Chinese community more generally may have been just as important. For all of these reasons Wong was a true pioneer of the Chinese martial arts in America.
Before moving on to a more detailed discussion of Wong’s life I should offer a few disclaimers. First, I am not a student of his style or connected with his lineage. Nor do I claim any special or secret knowledge about his life history. This short profile relies on a number of publicly available biographies (most of which are generally in agreement with each other) and published statements made by Ark Yuey Wong himself.
My goal in writing this is to illuminate the context of Wong’s life and career to better understand his contributions to the spread of the Chinese martial arts. Additionally, a detailed study of his early years (something that I can only touch on here) may also help to add nuance to our understanding of the evolution of hand combat within Chinese popular culture during the early year of the Republic period.
The Biography of a Southern Shaolin Master
Most accounts place the birth of Ark Yuey Wong in 1900 in Toysun Tien Sum Chien village, Guangdong Province, not far from Guangzhou. Ark Yuey Wong, in his interview with Black Belt, also states that he was born in 1900. Still, there is not complete agreement on this point. Ed Torres notes that Wong’s grave marker instead lists his date of birth as 1902, and there is an argument to be made that this is the more correct date. A few articles even claim that he was born in 1898.
By Wong’s own account, he was born into a somewhat wealthy land-owning family. It seems that he spent much of his childhood on his grandfather’s farm. Nor was his clan a stranger to the martial arts.
A number of accounts relate that Ark Wong’s grandfather demanded that all male members of his family learn martial arts. Bandits were common in Guangdong’s countryside in the years following the 1900 upheaval, and martial arts instruction was a common form of community insurance.
Other stories state that Wong’s grandfather had been viciously attacked by his own younger brother (an extremely unfilial act in a Confucian society) who hoped to inherit the estate. It was only after this incident that the rest of the clan was enrolled in martial arts instruction. Whatever the veracity of this account, it is full of symbolism regarding the proper place of martial values in society.
At the age of seven (or sometime between 1906 and 1908 if we use the Chinese system for calculating age), Ark Wong began his formal instruction in the martial arts. His first teacher was Lam Ark Fun, a Choy Li Fut master who had been hired to provide instruction for the clan.
It should be remembered that the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1900) resulted in a general suppression of martial arts instruction across Guangdong province as the governor and local leaders attempted to prevent copy-cat attacked foreigners. As this ban was relaxed in the period around 1905, there appears to have been an increase in this sort of teaching activity. Wong reports having 14 different teachers over the course of his education, but it seems that Lam Ark Fun and Ho Yeng (Mok Gar) had the most profound impact on him.
Nor were the young student’s interests limited to combat. At the age of 12 (1911 or 1913) he started to study herbalism with Master Lam. This was the beginning of a long and varied interest in traditional Chinese medicine.
It is worth pointing out that Wong’s instruction in the martial arts during this period was in many ways very different from the experience of his later students in California during the 1960s. During the early years of the Republic period the idea of commercial martial arts schools, open to all students who could pay, was still rather new. Certain urban areas (such as Guangzhou and Foshan) had witnessed the creation of an actual marketplace in public instruction relatively early on.
Still, these institutions had not penetrated very far into the countryside during the 1910s. Most martial arts instruction in rural areas likely happened during community organized militia training, or through private instructors hired by a family or clan.
Such individuals often lived with their students and received room, board and payments in kind. It is worth remembering that much of the economy of rural China was still not fully monetized at this point. This made the creation of large “public schools” difficult outside of urban areas (where workers were more likely to be paid a weekly cash salary). Of course the following decades were also a period of immense change for the traditional martial arts community.
Wong began to enter a larger and more cosmopolitan world when he was sent to Guangzhou to attend a “college” (or a senior high school in American educational parlance) at the age of 17. He would have arrived in the city sometime between 1916 and 1918 (depending on his actual date of birth), and he remained there for two years.
This would have been an exciting time to be a young martial artist in Guangzhou. The Jingwu (or Pure Martial) Association was spreading outward from Shanghai, electrifying many of China’s urban areas. This organization claimed that the martial arts, far from being a backwards practice that needed to be forgotten, were a vital part of the Chinese national identity. They could strengthen both the physical and spiritual life of the people. Through its martial arts program Jingwu offered nothing less than the promise of “national salvation.” Of course the martial arts would first have to be rescued from their rural roots and purified of their traditional secrecy and superstition before they could be made fit for national service.
Backed by a group of savvy businessmen, Jingwu grasped the potential of China’s expanding media and advertising markets. Its message of national salvation was carefully calibrated to appeal to educated, middle class, urban residents. This was a group that had not previously taken much interest in the martial arts. Yet their growing enthusiasm (and money) transformed Jingwu into China’s first truly national “martial arts brand.” By 1919-1920 formal chapters of the new organization were being established in both Guangzhou and Foshan.
Jingwu’s basic curriculum was composed of forms taken from a number of northern styles. The organization also helped to introduce Taijiquan to southern China during the early 1920s. To say that these efforts generated controversy among the local martial arts community would be an understatement.
Jingwu rode a wave of increasing interest in the martial arts after 1910, and it helped to put these practices into the national spotlight. It seems that this unprecedented degree of advertising was probably good for everyone. Thus it may not be surprising to discover that a young Ark Yuey Wong took his first tentative steps towards becoming a martial arts instructor in Guangzhou during the late 1910s. While still a student he began to offer private lessons.
It seems likely that Wong’s own interest ran in a different direction from the agenda promoted by Jingwu. He states that during this time he met a monk named “Peng.” Wong candidly admitted to Black Belt in his 1965 interview that such individuals often taught under assumed names, and their real identities can be difficult to ascertain. Still, under the instruction of “Master Peng” Wong began a detailed study of Qigong focusing on the use of breathing exercises. This became a cornerstone of his later martial practice.
Once again it is interesting to think about how this development fits into broader trends within the Chinese martial culture. The Bubishi suggests that at least some southern students had been paying close attention to this subject throughout the 19th century. Nevertheless, events at the national level, including the publication of Sun Lu-tang’s various manuals between 1915 and 1921, spurred public discussion of these topics.
At some point between 1918 and 1919 Wong’s family became worried about the growing threat of civil disturbances in Guangzhou and recalled their son to the countryside. After returning home he put his newly acquired education to use by getting a job at a local grade school. He also expanded his engagement with the martial arts by openly taking on students of his own. During this period Wong won special recognition for the strength of his Lion Dancing.
In 1921 a number of members of the Wong’s clan, including the young Ark Yuey, left Guangdong and immigrated to Northern California. During the same year Wong embarked on a more detailed study of both herbalism and acupuncture with an uncle who had also made the trip. He was also recruited to teach martial arts by the Hop Sing Tong and continued to be active in Lion Dancing. While he does not appear to have had a formal school in this early period, Wong trained Tong members in San Francisco, Oakland and Stockton. Some accounts indicate that in 1929 Wong took a job teaching martial arts in Los Angeles.
In 1931 Ark Yuey Wong left for his home village after receiving a request to return and teach martial arts within the Wong clan. This position seems to have lasted for about three years, ending in 1934 when Wong left for Los Angeles. There he opened his own shop dedicated to both herbalism and martial arts. Unlike some of his earlier efforts, this location seems to have moved towards the model of open commercial instruction which was coming to dominate the martial arts marketplace in southern China. It is also critical to remember that very few individuals were teaching the martial arts within the Chinese American community at that point, and Wong’s school in LA was among the first of its kind.
During the following decades Wong’s formal teaching was restricted to the Chinese community. Of course the 1930s-1940s were a very different era than the 1960s. Chinese neighborhoods suffered from a greater degree of discrimination and antagonism. Nor was there nearly as much awareness of the Asian martial arts within the dominant white community.
By the late 1950s the situation was starting to change. WWII had led to a notable increase of interest in the Asian martial arts, and some American students were starting to look beyond the more accessible Japanese systems. By accepting Ron Shewmaker and Jim Anestasi in 1958, Ark Yuey Wong became one of the first teachers of the Chinese martial arts in America to open instruction to all students. This paved the way for later Chinese schools to adopt the fully public and commercial model that would dominate instruction during the late 1960s and 1970s.
During his interview with Black Belt magazine Wong observed that for years he had restricted himself to teaching only Chinese students, “But now my art is available to anyone who really wants to learn. I can’t take it with me—and I want to leave something of value behind.”
While already a well-known figure within the Chinese Kung Fu community, the 1965 Black Belt issue helped to make Wong a minor celebrity among the West’s growing population of martial artists. In 1974, as the “Kung Fu Craze” was heating up, he opened a new school called the Ark Yuey Wong Kung Fu Academy.
On July 11, 1987 Wong passed away. His career in the martial arts spanned both oceans and multiple eras. During his lifetime he witnessed many transformations within the Chinese martial arts community. While teaching in Guangdong Wong observed the emergence of new types of schools and models of social organization.
The Chinese martial arts in America had generally been slow to develop. Figures like Wong and Lau Bun brought not just technical skills, but a new vision of what the martial arts could become. By showing others the wisdom and beauty of the Chinese martial arts, Ark Yuey Wong left a legacy that has enriched the lives of generations of students.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (11): Mok Kwai Lan – The Mistress of Hung Gar.