Within the field of International Relations Stephen Chan (OBE) needs no introduction. He is a Professor of Global Politics in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. He also served as a diplomat and was involved with several important initiatives in Africa, helping to pioneer modern electoral observation. Prof. Chan has twice been Dean at SOAS, has published 29 books and supervised many successful PhD theses. He won the 2010 International Studies Association prize and was named an “Eminent Scholar in Global Development.”
Less well known in academic circles is his lifelong involvement with the martial arts. Chan has been awarded many senior grades and titles in various styles of Karate. He has taught on multiple continents including while posted as a diplomat in Africa. In 2012 he established his own martial arts organization which currently boasts thousands of students in many countries.
I first had an opportunity to meet Prof. Chan at the recent Martial Arts Studies conference in Cardiff where he offered the opening keynote address. I was struck both with the importance of his remarks and how closely his own family history mirrored the development of the Asian martial arts in the 20th century.
We are very fortunate that Prof. Chan has agreed to take a few moment from his busy schedule to delve a little deeper into a couple of topics which he touched on in his keynote. In this interview he shares some family history surrounding his Grandmother, Chan Wong Wah Yue, a swordswoman and member of a village militia, who saw action in Guangdong during the turbulent years of the Warlord Era. While martial arts fiction is full of images of female boxers, relatively few women actually took up these pursuits. Prof. Chan’s genealogy is fascinating precisely because it allows us to identify one such individual by name, to contextualize her involvement with this aspect of the martial arts, and to trace her subsequent life history.
Since this interview builds on the account already provided in his keynote, readers who have not yet had a chance to review the recording of this address should start here. Prof. Chan’s presentation is full of interesting observations and stories. Your efforts will be well rewarded! Following that he offers some additional discussion below. Enjoy!
Kung Fu Tea (KFT): Can you begin by giving us some information on your Grandmother? What was her name? Where (and when) was she born?
Prof. Stephen Chan: My grandmother’s name was Wong Wah Yue, and she married Chan Hong Ling of Sungai village, then outside metropolitan Canton. No birth dates were recorded for her or her first child but she died at age 78 [circa 1906 – 30th April 1982].
I know nothing of her ancestry, although her husband’s ancestry can still be traced in records back some 800 years.
KFT: What can you tell me about her husband’s background and occupation? And what did he think of her martial arts activities?
Chan: Her husband was a greengrocer/fruiterer. I think that he admired her fighting youth. He was a placid man and it was she who was the aggressive person in the relationship.
KFT: How did you come to hear her life story?
Chan: She would tell me her stories when I was a child, before I went to school. Shortly after starting school, my parents moved into their own house and my contacts with my grandmother decreased.
KFT: Can you tell us a little bit about her introduction to the martial arts?
Chan: This is the stuff of grandmotherly legend. The entire community was caught up in the warlord and brigands era of the early 20th century. Sungai had outer fortifications of two watchtowers, with two more planned, mounted with machine guns financed by remittances from the diaspora in the foreign gold rushes of the period. These were built in 1902. As late as 1920, the village was attacked by an ‘army’ of 300 brigands. Guns were everywhere, but so were swords. My grandmother studied the sword.
KFT: Did she identify with any particular style or teacher?
Chan: If she did, I didn’t understand as a child. But I gather a lot of her sword work was inspired by necessity. As a foundation, there would almost certainly have been the rudiments of what we today call ‘Peking Opera’ basics.
KFT: What do you think motivated your grandmother to take up the sword, both in a personal and more political sense?
Chan: As I said, it was a heavily securitized environment. There was no ‘official’ law and order, so citizens had to defend themselves. It was like the Chinese version of the Wild West.
KFT: Did she ever mention any literary works, stories, radio programs or movies associated with the martial arts that she particularly liked or disliked?
Chan: She would take me to the only Chinese cinema in Auckland, New Zealand, the State Theater, which was hired by the Chinese community on Sunday nights. It was a pretty seedy and desperate place, and the Chinese films shown were also pretty badly made as the post-war Hong Kong cinema industry spluttered into existence. The sword work in them was also pretty awful, a very early and primitive form of what the Chinese state has now officialized and standardized into the Wushu syllabus. I hated them. And she didn’t seem overly impressed either.
There was, however, a Chinese comic, with very fine inking in something like traditional style, of a one-legged hero who was a swordsman. Miraculously, when he needed to do a high side kick, a supporting leg would appear! I thought this was ridiculous, but I liked the inking. And I liked the idea of a high side kick.
KFT: You mentioned in your keynote address that your Grandmother led followers in the field. What sorts of people supported her, and what types of goals did they have?
Chan: They were members of her village – the local militia. She was sufficiently prominent so that, as a rather young mother, her eldest son was kidnapped and tortured to death (and his totally mutilated body returned – crushed and jellied, apart from the head, so he could be recognized) as a warning to her.
KFT: What sorts of weapons (swords, sabers, spears, handguns, rifles, knives, grenades….etc) did her group carry in the field? What sort of opposition did they encounter?
Chan: She used a sword (gim or jian). Guns, as I said, were everywhere. She gave up fighting, and the sword, when her militia unit was strafed from the air. She realized then, she told me, that modernity had overtaken them.
KFT: Historians have noted that a number of martial arts militias in China during the 1920s practiced invulnerability techniques as part of their training (Golden Bell, Iron Cloth Shirt, other forms of spirit possession…..). Did your Grandmother ever mention any of this?
Chan: She believed in magic and in forms of Chinese medicine. I had to swallow from time to time all manner of obnoxious potions. But I don’t think she practiced magical techniques. As I said, being attacked by aircraft pretty much knocked the stuffing of traditional methods out of her.
KFT: Did your Grandmother teach the individuals that fought with her, or did they get their training somewhere else?
Chan: I don’t think so. I sort of gather she was like a female village ‘rowdy.’ My grandfather loved her very much. And she was certainly a VERY strong and independently-minded person.
KFT: Did she ever describe/talk about the larger world of Chinese martial artists at the point in time at which she was active?
Chan: No. She did talk about how terrible war was, and our family was a refugee family from war. Neither the brigand armies nor the Nationalists could stand against the Japanese.
KFT: At what point did your Grandmother “retire” from the martial arts?
Chan: She had given them up by the time she got off the refugee boat and set foot in New Zealand in 1941.
KFT: Did your grandparents ever discuss their journey from the Pearl River Delta to New Zealand during WWII?
Chan: Yes. The privations were extreme. This was particularly note-worthy in the separate flight of my mother’s family, which was described graphically to me. But none of my ancestors on her side were, as far as I know, martial artists. I do have as heirlooms the child’s suitcase my father carried, not much bigger than a satchel; and one of the remaining gold coins my mother’s mother stitched into her coat to use as bribes whenever they came across marauding soldiers or bandits on their flight. By the time of their flight, there were dead bodies pretty much everywhere lining the route to Hong Kong, which they did on foot from the village neighboring my father’s.
KFT: What was life like for her in her new home country after leaving China?
Chan: She refused to learn English and set up a Chinese gambling syndicate and circuit. We called her the Dragon Lady. She sort of remained an outlaw for the rest of her New Zealand life.
KFT: I am curious about your Grandmother’s turn to professional gambling in New Zealand. As I have been looking at the social history of the southern Chinese martial arts I have been struck by how closely connected these professions often were. Even small town gambling houses would hire crews of martial artist. One of the few female boxers I have been able to identify by name from the early 19th century had a very similar career trajectory.
Chan: Auckland, New Zealand, was not big enough then for Triads or other well-articulated criminal organizations. They came later. Gambling groups were just small time, small scale, businesses and social enterprises. Some, like the one my Grandfather frequented (different from Grandmother’s) were also opium dens. But these were all male affairs. Grandmother’s were all female. As a toddler I went to both from time to time. I’m sure I enjoyed the secondary inhaling…it would probably explain a lot…
KFT: How did your Grandmother’s example or stories influence you either as a martial artist or as a person?
Chan: Oh she influenced me alright – along the lines of “I am not going to do it like that!”
KFT: I understand that your father was also a martial artist. Can you tell me a little bit about his practice? What did your Grandmother think of his decision to take up Southern Mantis Kung Fu in the 1950s?
Chan: Dad just found a good (Chinese) teacher. Similarly, his younger brother found a good (Chinese) Wing Chun teacher. Grandmother could not have cared less. This sort of thing was just normal.
KFT: Many discussions of martial arts history focus on continuity with the past, but I have always found the breaks and disjoints to be even more interesting. Given your family’s multi-generation background in the southern Chinese martial art, why did you choose to dedicate yourself to Karate as a youth? How did your family (and Grandmother) react to that decision?
Chan: Everyone hated it, but I just went to the best martial arts teacher in town, Karl Sargent, and it was a wonderful and very tough dojo with a structured and modernized syllabus. I also, of course, wanted to be tougher than my father. Typical youthful rebellion.
Karl was a very young Sensei, so we got on very well personally, and he attracted weird and wonderful students. One was John Dixon, who had fought with Mao in the Communist victory.
Most of my classmates were Maoris, Polynesians, truckers, bikies and the like. Karl called it an ‘experimental’ class. For a young intellectual like me, it was wonderful. But the style did have Chinese Malaysian influences. It was a JKA Shotokan style overlaid with quite a large number of Chinese principles.
KFT: In your opinion as a scholar, when telling the story of the Asian martial arts should we continue to focus on “lineage” and “system,” or are there other critical concepts that we should be paying more attention to?
Chan: I don’t pay overmuch reverence to lineage. I know from my many visits to Asia how things change, miscegenate, and cross-cut. Systems change all the time. These ‘traditional’ arts came to us by the most ‘postmodern’ routes. The one thing about being Asian, achieving some rank, AND building social rank and capital OUTSIDE the arts (in my case in the diplomatic and scholarly worlds), is that the old teachers will treat you as an equal. That’s a very rare privilege. They also tell you the truth. The number of times I got the answer ‘I just made it up’ in response to queries about how a technique originated and developed was wonderful and just honest.
KFT: Thanks so much for taking the time to drop by Kung Fu Tea! Clearly your family history is a great case study in the development of the traditional martial arts. We look forward to your future research and writing with great enthusiasm.
If you enjoyed this interview you might also want to read: Dr. Daniel Amos Discusses Marginality, Martial Arts Studies and the Modern Development of Southern Chinese Kung Fu