Unfolding a Story
When the opportunity presents itself I try to collect vintage photographs, postcards, illustrations and other ephemera touching on the martial arts. As someone who writes and publishes on these subjects, it is very helpful to have a small collection of unique images to draw from. Yet over the years I have come to believe that the true power of these images lays not in their ability to illustrate a story, but in how they encourage me, as a researcher, to jump into new subjects, or to see things from a slightly different perspective. The world and the Chinese martial arts looked very different to the intended consumers of much of this ephemera than it does to us today.
From a historical perspective the best images are not necessarily the flashiest or the most spectacular. They are the ones that lead to a slowly unfold a story, giving us a chance to appreciate layers of history or evolving ideas that might otherwise be forgotten. Sometimes they help us to remember the contributions of individuals who are less frequently discussed, or put into perspective the actions of individuals who dominate the modern conversation.
The preceding photograph does all of these things. It is an eight inch by ten inch (faded) newspaper photo taken from the archives of the Seattle Times. Published on September 19th 1967, it records a Lion Dance being performed on 7th Avenue in front of the regional offices of the Gee How Oak Tin Association (which the Lion is facing). A news clipping pasted to the back of the photo notes that the occasion of this demonstration was a six day convention bringing together members of the association from all fifty states. Apparently these gatherings were a regular thing, but this was the first year that the meetings had been held in Seattle since 1937.
Other than the Lion Dancing, there is not a lot of outward evidence of Kung Fu in this image. We see a row of students holding weapons, watching the performance. Things become more interesting when we note the caption of this photograph which informs us that these students have traveled all the way from San Francisco and represent the “Lup – Mo Studio.”
We know that this school was run by Master Chan Bing. A Choy Li Fut instructor, Chan Bing was a senior student of the much better remembered Lau Bun. Of course Lau Bun (previously discussed here) was a fixture in the Bay Area Chinese martial arts scene. He was one of the earliest instructors to operate openly in the area and his name frequently comes up in discussions of which instructor first broke the “Tong Code” to accept Western students.
In point of fact, affluent and educated Chinese martial artists in both China and America had been openly demonstrating and attempting to teach their art to Western students since at least the 1920s. Central figures in the Guoshu Movement, most notably Chu Min-Yi, attempted to frame the Chinese martial arts as a potentially global practice as early as the 1920s and even set up classes for Westerners living in cities like Shanghai. So whenever engaging in debates about “who did what first,” we should remember that the Chinese martial arts have never been just one thing. Historically they have existed as a collection of different social movements carried on by very different communities and groups. Often these trends have lined up with each other, but sometimes they have clashed, denying us easy answers to several of our favorite debates.
Still, there is wide agreement that Chan Bing was one of the first instructors in the San Francisco Chinatown area to accept large numbers of Western students when he opened his school in 1967. Chan further broke with the old “Tong Code” when he accepted and encouraged a fair number of female students as well. This was the era when the dam broke on such social restrictions (both real and imagined) and we begin to see a true global uptake of the Chinese martial arts.
How can we explain the timing of this shift? Loosening immigration restrictions meant that more instructors were arriving in cities like San Francisco (Wong Jack Man comes to mind). Further, Bruce Lee’s run as Kato on the Green Hornet electrified American martial artists in 1966 and 1967. All of this played into the quickly emerging Karate vs. Judo debate which was then occurring in the pages of Black Belt magazine. As the Japanese striking art gained ground, Western martial artists began to ask about its Chinese antecedents.
Again, all of this is well underway before Bruce Lee exploded as a global superstar in the early 1970s. Enter the Dragon was clearly responsible for making Kung Fu a household term. But it is also important to realize that increased interest in the Chinese fighting system among Western martial artists in the late 1960s was already established. This helped to lay the foundation which supported everything that would occur in the 1970s and 1980s.
Nevertheless, oral histories from the period suggest that there probably weren’t all that many Bruce Lee fans in this photograph. Charlie Russo’s Striking Distance: Bruce Lee & the Dawn of the Martial Arts in America is very instructive in this regard. Several of Chan’s students were in the theater that night in 1964 when Lee made his fateful open challenge to the traditional martial artists of the Bay Area. Of course this would culminate in his now legendary fight with Wong Jack Man.
Russo’s account of the incident draws on interviews with Adeline Fong, one of Chan’s female students, and one of the first female Lion Dance performers in the city. I can’t help but wonder whether she might be one of women pictured with Lion Dance team above. Kenneth Wong, her classmate and another student of Chan’s, was the individual who accepted Lee’s offer to act as a “demonstration partner” on stage that night and effectively derailed his performance, leading a flustered Lee to issue his challenge. Russo reports that upon hearing about the incident Chan reprimanded Wong for not retaliating against Lee’s insults on the spot.
It is easy to become distracted by the ghost of Bruce Lee. I like this photograph as it reminds us of the rapid growth that was occurring in the West Coast kung fu scene in the late 1960s. At the time Chan Bing was a rising star. He was respected as one of Lau Bun’s senior students, and press reports suggest that he was actively participating in public demonstrations and Lion Dances. Sadly this would not last. In 1968, only a year after opening his own club, Chan Bing died unexpectedly. Many of his students were taken on by other instructors trained by Lau Bun.
That tragedy was not yet on the horizon when this photograph was taken on a fine September day. In 1967 it must have seemed that Lup – Mo had a bright future. Such moments should remind us of the role of contingency in the development and global spread of the Chinese martial arts. That, in turn, suggests that much of what these arts could be, their social potentialities, remains submerged just under the layers of history and controversy that we debate so well.
If you enjoyed this reflection and want to think a little more deeply about Bruce Lee’s impact during this period you might want to read: Chinese Martial Arts, Opera and Globalization: Kung Fu as a “Blurred Genre”