Happy Lunar New Year! In honor of the holiday I decided to publish a couple of posts that focused on the important role that the traditional martial arts, and martial values more generally, have played in the celebration of this holiday. On Friday we looked at a reconstruction of a specific Dragon Dance festival in Tu village and asked what that could teach us about the place of martial values in building up social capital and shared identity within a community. This topic is an important one as it helps to explain what benefits martial arts groups might bring to communities outside of the realm of pure defense. You can read more about this topic here.
In today’s post we will focus on how martial displays in “Chinese New Year” festivals helped to spread the image of the Asian martial arts in North America during the 1940s and 1950s. These decades are particularly important as many accounts of the global emergence of the Chinese martial arts do not begin until the late 1960s. While it is certainly true that there was an explosion of popular interest in these fighting forms during the 1960s-1970s, it is not the case that no one was doing (or publicly exhibiting) Kung Fu in earlier periods.
While still relatively rare, the Spring Festival was one of the few times of the year in which martial values and practices were put on public display. And because various Chinatown businesses and restaurants promoted Lion and Dragon Dancing, as well as the occasional boxing demonstration, as a way of attracting tourists to their neighborhood, these displays were more widely observed and reported on by the press than one might suspect. In some important ways these events are the pre-history which shaped and conditioned the later explosion of interest in the Chinese martial arts. Thus it may be fruitful to critically examine a few images of Lion Dance teams and martial artists that were produced and distributed in this period. In this case we are interested in both the images themselves as well as how they framed these practices within the boundaries of mid 20th century consumer culture.
Who was Lee Fung?
That is not a rhetorical question. If you have any information on this individual I would really like to learn more about him.
I have been looking for information about Lee Fung (so far with little luck) since I had the good fortune to acquire a somewhat faded photograph of him. The picture was taken for a newspaper article and it came out of a press archive. The nice thing about old press photos is that they often carry descriptive notes on the back. This usually includes the name of the photographer, the subject, the date that it was used, the newspaper that ran the image and its caption (if any). If you are particularly lucky it is sometimes possible to even find the original article that ran with an image.
This is what makes newspaper photos so valuable. Like other forms of ephemera they capture a moment in time. Yet the nature of the commercial and journalistic projects tie these images to important themes in popular culture while providing some additional clues about their subjects.
Unfortunately one does not always get so lucky. In this case the back of the photo included a date indicating that the article ran four days before the Lunar New Year in 1941 (which was the year of the snake). It also had the name of the subject and the picture’s caption. Unfortunately the name of the newspaper was missing and I have not been able to locate the article that it accompanied. Nor have I been able to find any additional information about Mr. Fung.
The photo itself is interesting and I quite like the detailed images on Fung’s shin guards and his old school shoes. Yet what period readers would have noticed first was the large Dadao that he held in both hands. The sword has a small guard (similar in size and type to those that were popular on the Vietnamese version of this weapon) and a pronounced sweep to the blade.
While the Dadao is not commonly encountered in Lion Dance performances today (at least not in any of the ones I have seen), it would have been an immediately recognizable and meaningful weapon to readers in 1941. At the time the country was embroiled in WWII and discussions of the situation in China were commonly encountered on the front page of newspapers of the era. A large number of articles had reported the existence of “Big Sword” troops within the Chinese army and their success in facing down the Japanese (armed with their own near-mythical swords) in close quarters combat.
Indeed, the Dadao had become an image of China’s anti-imperialist resistance in the face of Japanese aggression. This discussion in the press helped to modify the common belief that the Chinese lacked the strength (either individually or collectively) to resist occupation. It was also one of the first images of the more modern (Republic era) Chinese martial arts to really find a firm place in the Western imagination.
The sight of a Chinese-American martial artist wielding a Dadao during the Spring Festival probably registered with American audiences on a number of levels that are not as obvious to us today. To take up this weapon in 1941 was to make a political and cultural statement about the complex relationship between America, China, Japan and the Chinese-American community.
The next photo comes from a widely distributed vintage postcard. It was part of a very popular series of images of L.A.’s Chinatown produced by the S. I. Co. We know from the postmarks and inscriptions on some of these cards that they were in fact being sold within Chinatown’s various shops to the tourists who visited the district in the early 1950s.
While this postcard bears a copyright date of 1952, it seems likely that the photograph of the Lion Dance team is somewhat older, possibly dating back to the 1940s. Note for instance the similarities in dress and foot-ware to Lee Fung’s more detailed photograph above. One almost wonders whether he might be hiding somewhere in this group shot. And while the Dadao is missing from this later image, the paired American and Republic of China flags (only a few years after the mainland fell to the Communists in 1949) would have invoked a similar set of political and psychological reactions in the viewer.
This is not to say that martial weaponry is missing from the photograph. In this case the Lions themselves seem to blend into the background while the various pole arms wielded by the troupe are brought to the fore. Again, the display of Chinese culture in this image is closely tied to the articulation of martial values.
All of this is given a strongly “Orientalist” gloss when we turn the card over. It appears that all of the postcards in this series carried an identical secondary message, meant to advertise the allures of the city’s Chinatown to potential tourists. In that sense these postcards are actually similar to Victorian “trade cards” which businesses of that era used for advertisement. Here we read:
In a setting of Old China, with shrines, lily pools, and courts, the Chinese have gathered art treasures of the Orient. Here is offered silks, antiques, jewelry, and thousands of beautiful souvenirs. The delicacies prepared in the fine Chinese restaurants are fit for a Mandarin, and delight the palate as well as the eye.
Thus the complex political subtexts of the actual image vanish in a hazy vision of “old Cathay.” Two themes dominate this short paragraph. The first is the promise of all types of consumption. The other is a powerful sense of nostalgia for China as the exotic “other.” After all, by the 1950s China had been free of “Imperial courts” for some time. This card rectified that situation by provided a vision of China as a living antique rather than a rapidly modernizing nation.
When one turns the card back around a new message seems to emerge. It is not simply the food and silks of China that are now available for Western consumption. It is also cultural traditions and martial values. All of this is being offered to the intrepid traveler who would set aside a day for patronizing the stores and businesses of Chinatown. While a national political and diplomatic debate raged as to “who lost China,” American consumers were discovering a new realm of nostalgia and imagination. It was more stable and immediate than the complex reality of events on the global stage. In this vision one could experience the “essence” of Chinese culture through the consumption of its goods, values and practices. All of this could be done without leaving home.
When did the Chinese martial arts finally make their presence felt in the Western marketplace? Mass public awareness of these systems would have to wait for the dawning of the 1970s. Yet the global journey of these systems began well before that. Concepts, identities and institutions from these earlier eras had an important shaping effect on events to come.
We cannot really understand some of the details of the later Kung Fu Craze without first coming to grips with the slow accumulation of ideas and symbols that preceded it. As the photographs in this post suggest, the martial values associated with the Spring Festival, and the way that they were marketed to mid 20th century tourists, helped to reinforce a specific cultural discourse that would later carry the Chinese martial arts to practically every corner of western popular culture.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to see: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (6): Ng Chung So – Looking Beyond the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun”