A Quick Note
Last week I noted that I would be taking a short break from blogging to finish off a few projects (conference papers, book chapters and article drafts) with upcoming deadlines. I haven’t worked my way through all of this material quite yet. But I just polished off one of the major items on my plate and decided to celebrate by sharing a photo that I recently came across in an auction. After this it will be back to archives for a few more weeks.
As many of my regular readers will already know, I have spent the last few years working on a book project looking at the public diplomacy efforts surrounding the Chinese martial arts, and consequentially their development within the popular imagination in the West. Most of this research has been done chronologically (starting in about 1800) and I am happy to say that I am now up to the post-WWII era. As such, our last few “research notes” have focused on the various ways that propaganda publications produced in the PRC portrayed wushu during the Cultural Revolution.
Nevertheless, this was also the era when China’s many hand combat systems began to explode into the consciousnesses of a new generation in the West due in no small part to the TV and film exploits of Bruce Lee. While Lee clearly touched off the “Kung Fu Fever” of the 1970s, we must also remember that he could not sustain it all alone. Reforms to the American immigration system after WWII allowed more Chinese immigrants to settle in the United States, and they brought their hand combat systems with them. There are other factors to consider as well. As a number of theorists have hypothesized that America’s difficult experiences in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars served to increase interest in the Asian martial arts for a variety of reasons. Some of which were very practical (returning GI’s who set up Judo schools), while others were more cultural in nature.
There were also trends within the martial arts community that pointed to a growing interest in the Chinese martial arts even prior to “Enter the Dragon.” Specifically, the eruption of debates between the Karate and Judo camps in the 1960s led to increased interest in the striking arts. As a result, a number of American martial artists began to avidly research “Kung Fu” as the predecessor of (and possibly the key to) Karate a few years before Bruce Lee became a household name.
This image is remarkable for its ability to capture so many of these currents in a single moment. Briefly, this nine-inch by eleven-inch press photograph (though slightly under exposed and wrinkled) shows two individuals with poles in a dramatic pose. On the right we can see Sifu John S. S. Leung (1939 – ), while on the left we find his student Wai Mar. They are training in the Seattle Kung Fu Club. Behind them one can make out racks with various weapons and Lion Dance gear. Punching bags have also been suspended from the ceiling.
The photograph’s verso is stamped Feb. 13, 1969. It also bears a newspaper clipping marked with the same date. Sadly, there is no indication of which paper this article actually ran in. The photo originally included a caption stating:
“IT’S DONE WITH STICKS: Attack and counterattack in Kung Fu stick fighting were demonstrated by John Leong, right. Si-Fu or master, and Wai Mar, Si-hing or advanced student, at John Leong’s Seattle Kung Fu Club. The club is on the Chinese New Years Tours.—Times photo by Larry Dion.”
Beneath this photograph, readers found the following notice:
Kung-Fu, the oldest Oriental art of self defense, may be seen in today’s Chinatown at 656 ½ King Street in John Leong’s Seattle Kung-Fu Club.
The Si-Fu, or master or instructor is John Leong, who learned the art in China.
“Kung-Fu is the great grandfather of Karate,” Leong said. Much of modern karate has been taken from the art of Kung-fu.”
Stance is a first step towards learning this self-defense. Without a proper stance, it is extremely difficult to advance in Kung-Fu. Other Skills follow until the advanced students can use offensive and defensive actions in lightning-fast sequences.”
One of the most interesting things about this photography from my perspective is that it bridges the gap between the development of the Chinese martial arts in America and the current era. The Seattle Kung Fu Club is still active, and we know quite a bit about Master John S. S. Leong as he has made many appearances over the years. Born in Guangdong province in 1937 he began to study Hung Gar at the age of 12 (1949). He is a student of Wong Lei, who in turn studied with the famous Lam Sai-wing.
Like many others of his generation, Leong ended up in Hong Kong, where his training took place. He then moved to the United States and started teaching Hung Gar in Seattle in either 1962 or 1963 (I have seen slightly different dates mentioned in various sources). In either case, these dates are interesting as they remind us that Leong was a contemporary of Bruce Lee, and both were active in Seattle for a brief period before the later left for Oakland.
Leong has stated in various interviews that during the 1960s and 1970s he worked hard to educate the public about the existence of the Southern Chinese martial arts. Starting in 1968 he began to host large annual events to aid in this effort. The photograph provided here was taken the very next year and suggests that his efforts enjoyed some success. Still, he notes that after Bruce Lee’s explosion to super-stardom in the early 1970s, Kung Fu became a household term.
The joy of working with slightly more recent sources is that you can see the various ways in which history has shaped the formation of both practice and community. YouTube has many films (both vintage and surprisingly recent) recording Leong’s demonstrations. One can read interviews with him, and even find a video walkthrough of the Seattle Kung Fu club. One can even spot the exact location where this picture was taken. I hope that you enjoy reviewing these resources as much as I did. Taken as a set they do a remarkable job of chronicling the spread and acceptance of the Chinese martial arts in post-war America.
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Local Resistance and Guoshu: The Foshan Zhong Yi Martial Arts Athletic Association