“Echoes of Memories”
It is the elusiveness of memory that captivates us. People tend to think of their memories as a personal hard drive, always running in the background, silently backing up the minutia of our daily lives. As with any massive archive, indexing can be a problem. We may temporarily forget where we have placed something. But once we pull the right file an accurate record of a day’s events unfolds before the mind’s eye. Our personal history is always there, within our grasp.
This is a comforting image. It suggests that nothing and no one is really gone as long as something remains to invoke their memory. It is also profoundly mistaken.
As scientists have learned more about the brain we have discovered that, far from simply “reading” a record, the act of remembering is an inherently creative process. It is our imagination that reconstructs both the sequence and meaning of critical events. Memory is inherently plastic. It evolves and changes over time. And the memories that we invoke the most, often those that are the most important to us, are also where we tend to exercise the greatest creativity.
This understanding of how memory functions is challenging. It does not seem to conform to our daily experiences. On a more fundamental level, it also suggests that we may not know ourselves nearly as well as we think. As a historian I know that all personal narratives not tied to contemporaneous documentation are at least somewhat suspect.
However, this “weakness” is also the beauty of memory. Even as we lose the illusion of a perfectly knowable past, we gain ever more insight into how prior events live on and continue to impact individuals in the present. Which set of insights would we as students of Martial Arts Studies choose? Perfect records of what occurred at a single moment in time, or a better understanding of how those events echo through our lives, leaving meaning and possibility in their wake?
This is not a unique dilemma, and it is a question that my dual interests in history and anthropology force me to confront with some regularity. I was inspired to meditate on these issues again as I watched a recently released documentary titled “The Origins of Macau Wing Chun.” Directed by Daniel Mak and co-directed by Alex Jung, this hour and half long production is very impressive. Anyone who is interested in the history of Wing Chun will want to set aside time to watch and digest this piece. The cinematography and visual construction of the documentary are excellent, and the music is worthy of special notice. There are all of the interviews with respected masters, visits to historically important locations and discussions of various aspects of the Wing Chun system that one would expect. Any student of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts will find something to enjoy in this story. Best of all, this documentary is generously being made available to the traditional Chinese martial arts community through various social media channels, including YouTube and Facebook.
It is clear that students of Wing Chun (particularly those from Ho Kam Ming’s lineage) will find a lot to like in this documentary. Still, as a student of Martial Arts Studies, what else does this substantial undertaking teach us about the Chinese martial arts in general, and their place in Southern Chinese life today?
When asking such questions, anthropologists often invoke the notion of “emic” versus “etic” viewpoints. Simply put, an emic perspective reflects views, beliefs or norms that are communally held within the community in question. This is the perspective that members of a group might have on their own situation, based in large part on their shared values. In contrast, the etic represents the perspective of an outsider, one who might claim to view things “objectively” (though it goes without saying that the notion of “objectivity” is fraught with problems in the modern social sciences.) To really understand the contributions of this film it is necessary to think about what it reveals when examined from both of these perspectives.
As such, my short review of “The Origins of Macau Wing Chun” proceeds in two parts. We first consider how this film might be read by its target audience of fellow Ho Kam Ming descendants. After that we will shift our perspective and ask what it suggests to those with who do not share an “insiders” perspective on these questions.
“We are all old men now.”
The creative nature of memory indicates that it is not an entirely individual phenomenon. Memories are cemented in our identities largely through the act of sharing them. This suggests the existence of a communal or social quality to certain types of memory. I might, for instance, have clear memories of some childhood incident precisely because my parents frequently repeated that story but not some other one. The construction of shared memories is a critical means by which we create and shape our communities.
It is thus no surprise that from an emic perspective this documentary is largely an exercise in the recollection and sharing of memory. The stage must be set before such a project has meaning. Like many Wing Chun documentaries, this one begins with a retelling of the basic Wing Chun creation myth. Interestingly, in this version of the story Leung Lan Kwai is the biological son of Yim Wing Chun, effectively rooting Wing Chun within the “family style” tradition. From there the memory of Ip Man (who serves as the modern grand master of the art) is invoked by his students (Duncan Leung and others) and family (Ip Chun).
Ip Man’s 1966 journey to visit Ho Kam Ming’s rooftop school in Macau abruptly redirects the structure of what had been a broadly shared narrative. This single memory (reinforced with some now iconic photography) moves us from preamble to the meat of the story. Mixing footage from a series of one-on-one interviews, recently filmed training sessions, historical images and dramatic recreations, the directors weave together a narrative of Ho Kam Ming’s Macau clan. Various parts of this story are correlated with basic discussions of the practice of Wing Chun. The film draws on labels such as “Siu Lim Tao,” the “Wooden Dummy Man,” and the “Six-and-a-Half Point Pole” to denote the sub-sections that structure its narrative progression. These are intertwined with a number of other, more abstract, headings including “Echoes of Memories” and “Training and Nostalgia.”
The overall effect of this structure is to argue that the texture of a life spent in Wing Chun (or, on a larger scale, the development of the community) is most legible when understood through the lens of embodied practice. It also allows the documentary’s directors to cover a lot of ground in a way that is both accessible and intuitively appealing to Wing Chun practitioners. Basic explanations are given at times, but this project is in no way an introduction to the art. Wing Chun practitioners (especially those from the Ip Man and Ho Kam Ming lineages) will immediately recognize that this discussion is both for and about them.
Yet all of this structure really just acts as the jewelry box to frame the sharing of poignant personal memories. While beautifully produced, many of this film’s most moving moments emerge out of simple interviews in which a single individual reminisces on the community’s past. The return of a group of (now much older) student to the previous location of Ho Kam Ming’s rooftop school at the Li Yuan Building (starting at minute 41) proved to be one of the most powerful sequences of the entire film. The shared narratives of community and personal history invoked in these scenes draws viewers into a powerful vision of what “Macau Wing Chun” is.
This vision was in turn dependent on a shared narrative of social unity in the past and continuing solidarity in the face of age and change. Such memories can unite and construct a community. Yet memory can also be invoked to separate and redefine. It is instructive to compare these scenes with Duncan Leung’s reminisces about Ip Man’s economic struggles in Hong Kong. He places the blame for Ip Man’s suffering squarely at the feet of his other, supposedly less loyal, disciples including Chu Shong Tin and Wong Shun Leung. In Duncan Leung’s memory they were guilty of betraying their master by poaching his younger students for their own fledgling schools. As Jon Nielson and I explored in our book, there are a number of reasons why many of Ip Man’s students left him in the middle years of the 1950s, and neither Chu or Wong were entirely responsible for them. Much of it seemed to be the result of the social fallout of Ip Man’s relationship with the “Shanghai Woman.”
The nuances of actual institutional history are bound to transcend pretty much any project like this. But it is fascinating to note the ways in which the unity of Macau Wing Chun is tacitly juxtaposed with the well-known rifts that seem to define the Hong Kong community. Conflict shapes memory, and memory shapes the experience of community. From an emic perspective this documentary is essentially a discussion of the ties that bind Ho Kam Ming’s disciples together. In a moment of remarkable self-awareness it is even acknowledged as such by one of his disciples during the final group interview.
The Etic Turn
Outside viewers would likely approach this documentary with a different set of questions. Rather than asking what is remembered, they may be more likely to ask who is doing the remembering in the first place? Such viewers are unlikely to be intimately familiar with the faces and life stories that flash across the screen. Second, they would probably have some questions about the genre and purpose of this film, particularly if they are not martial artists. And if they came from another part of the hand combat community, they might find themselves asking about the nature of Wing Chun itself.
The easiest way to think about these questions would be to consider how we are meant to understand the documentary’s title, “Origins of Macau Wing Chun.” Given both the size of this city, and the growing popularity of Wing Chun throughout the region, we can be certain that more than one lineage of the art is currently being taught in Macau. But the documentary doesn’t really concern itself with the origins or composition of this more cosmopolitan vision of the city’s “Wing Chun community.” Rather, it focuses almost exclusively on the results of Ho Kam Ming’s efforts to bring Ip Man’s teaching to the area in the 1960s.
So perhaps what we are really watching is “The Story of Ho Kam Ming’s Wing Chun”? Yet a quick examination of his biography, or list of students, suggests that this is not necessarily the case. For instance, Ho Kam Ming’s immigration to Canada is treated very quickly, and unless I am mistaken (which is a possibility as my own background is not within this lineage), I didn’t see any of his Canadian students or disciples being interviewed. That fact stood out to me as the documentary team traveled to Toronto and interviewed Ho Kam Ming, who is now living in a nursing home. And North American students of his lineage would probably have noted other absences (such as Augustine Fong) as well.
Perhaps the real emphasis in the title was meant to be placed on “Macau”? Again, this doesn’t quite fit. Far from the parochial perspective that such an idea might suggest, this documentary actually spent a lot of screen time discussing events (and cementing relationships) in other places. Meetings and interviews were staged with important members of the VTAA in Hong Kong, and Ho Kam Ming’s roots in that city were certainly not forgotten. Likewise, the growing links between the Macau and Foshan Wing Chun families were emphasized in a lengthy interview with a city official which, at times, began to feel a bit like a kung fu-themed infomercial. [Spoiler alert: Foshan is planning on building a Wing Chun theme park….You honestly can’t make this stuff up].
In reality it is the Macau Wing Chun Chinese Martial Arts Federation which is immortalized in this documentary, and the shared history that created it. Yet the project is not strictly historical in nature. It also seeks to advertise the group’s recent and ongoing efforts to contribute to the larger Wing Chun community. When seen from this perspective its less surprising that a documentary that frequently ruminates on the global nature of the Wing Chun community would neglect to explore Ho Kam Ming’s own international contributions.
All of this brings us to the question of genre. While I really enjoyed this project, in some ways it differs from the typical documentary. While basic technical explanations are provided in all the right places, this is clearly the sort of project that will be of the most interest to individuals who already have years of Wing Chun experience and enough investment in the community to already be familiar with the individuals being interviewed. In short, this was a project tailor made for an “insider” audience.
With a run time of an hour and half, one suspects that only Wing Chun students (or those from Ho Kam Ming’s lineage) are likely to make it all the way to the end. While the cinematography and editing are excellent, at times this project drags and feels self-indulgent. Some sections were worse offenders than others. As regular readers of this blog will already know, I love the six-and-a-half-point pole. And yet I remain unsure what historical or theoretical purpose was served by the weapon’s inclusion in this film. Nor did it illustrate anything about the development of the city’s unique Wing Chun tradition.
The best explanation for the documentary’s length and pacing issues can probably be found in one of its more intriguing cameo appearances. In multiple shots one can spot individuals reading a large, softbound, book with a red cover. During the concluding moments of the documentary it is revealed that this is a 50-year commemorative publication for the Macau organization. Such commemorative volumes are pretty common in the world of the Chinese martial arts. And it seems clear that in many ways the documentary itself is meant to be a visual compliment to that publication. Indeed, many of the project’s quirks (including its penchant for a certain type of nostalgic self-indulgence) vanish when we view it as a commemorative record rather than a typical documentary.
Such commemorative works are of interest to me as any effort to propagate social memories of the past are also an ideal opportunity to reshape how practices are understood in the present. And one can spot several instances where this documentary may do just that. Many historical discussions of the Chinese martial arts obsess on a mythological (or at least solidly late-imperial) past. This project, on the other hand, repeatedly framed Wing Chun as a modern and dynamic fighting system with a bright future. This could be seen in all sorts of places, from the sorts of personal stories that were told to the interior design sensibilities of the schools that were visited. In an era when Wing Chun students are regularly bombarded with images of their fellow stylists getting trounced by MMA practitioners on social media, members of the Ho Kam Ming lineage repeatedly pointed out that they were gearing up for full contact, mixed style, tournaments a decade or more before it was cool. Other instructors in Macau noted that they continue to do so today.
“Past and Future”
Wing Chun, we are finally told, is a set of principles. It is not a single training methodology or even a coherent set of goals. Change is inevitable as the art grows in popularity. A certain adaptability and congruence with the demands of the modern world my even help to explain Wing Chun’s success. In the documentary’s closing moments viewers are assured by the elders of Macao’s community that as long as the system’s core principles are studied and passed on, Wing Chun survives.
What I personally enjoyed most about this documentary was it’s quiet, confident optimism. This should be a great time to study kung fu. Students of the Chinese martial arts have never had more resources and good information at their finger-tips. We have never had such easy access to so many really good teachers. And yet we are literally inundated with articles (many coming out of Chinese tabloids) loudly proclaiming the death and imminent disappearance of the traditional Chinese martial arts.
This documentary seems to have a different message for its viewers. The continual visual juxtaposition of the growth and modernization of Macau with the expansion of Wing Chun provides audiences with a powerful counter-argument to these gloomy meta-narratives. It is certainly true that the nature of the Chinese martial arts community is changing. The boom years of the 1970s and 1980s are behind us and unlikely to return.
Yet by focusing on the steady development of community schools and local institutions, this documentary illustrates why it is that martial arts students are living in a golden age. And it further underlines a point that I have made in many places. National level narratives, while providing a valuable framework, can obscure as much as they reveal about the actual practice of the martial arts. Instead, these fighting systems are best understood as a local or regional phenomenon, reflecting the social forces that gave rise to, and supported, them. Students of Chinese martial studies need more local histories and ethnographies. “The Origins of Macau Wing Chun” offers something to both practitioners and scholars as it underlines the immense value of these projects.
If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: The Story of Ip Man’s Wooden Dummy