Director Wong Kar Wai’s recent martial arts film, Grandmasters, reinforced a popular view of Hong Kong as the home of kung fu masters. Tony Leung Chiu-wai assumed the lead role as Wing Chun master Ip Man, but unlike earlier Ip Man films, Grandmasters does not focus on one style or master, but instead celebrates the pluralism and diversity that is the hallmark of Hong Kong martial arts.

The film is set in the 1930s against a looming backdrop of Japanese invasion and the struggle between the Nationalists (Guomindang) and the Communists, which set the stage for the mass migration to Hong Kong that followed. If we put aside the complex love tension between the characters played by Leung and Zhang Ziyi, the film sets out to explain how Hong Kong became a major centre for Chinese martial arts in the post-War period.

The martial arts community – so-called ‘Hong Kong mou lam’ (香港武林) – was and continues to be a far more complex milieu than most people realise, boasting a mind-boggling range of styles and personalities. For most people and even among martial art practitioners, the sheer number of styles and lineages has created the false perception that Chinese martial arts are recalcitrant to description, and cannot be explained in systemic terms.

However, beneath this complex chaos there is an underlying pattern. Hong Kong society in the post-War period was divided into pockets of cultural enclaves, representing different communities from diverse parts of China. In this sense, Hong Kong martial arts also represented the complex structure of Chinese martial arts culture itself and, more than that, it has also been a microcosm that reflects how Hong Kong society has changed over time.

Towards the end of 2012 and into the beginning of last year, I was given a wonderful opportunity to explore this topic at a greater depth. At the invitation of Ming Pao Weekly and together with colleagues at the International Guoshu Association, I began a one-year collaboration with the magazine to research and write about the Hong Kong martial arts community. The resultant articles were consolidated into feature stories, serialised from February 2013 to January 2014, and after six months of editing, we published a 723-page tome entitled Hong Kong Martial Arts Community.

Through this initial research we discovered how Hong Kong’s martial arts community came into being and how it has developed over the past fifty to sixty years. The story we discovered is mundane yet extraordinary, as well as completely different and not any less intriguing than Wong Kar Wai’s imagined world.

Firstly, Chinese martial art styles in Hong Kong belong to two broad categories: Southern and Northern Chinese. In the context of Hong Kong, Southern Chinese refers primarily to the empty-hand and boxing styles and techniques found in Guangdong and Fujian provinces, while Northern Chinese refers to martial arts originating typically from Hebei, Henan and Shandong.

Some of the northern masters and styles came to Hong Kong at a relatively early period. For example, Master Geng Dehai, the founder of Dai Shing Pek Gwaa and originally from Hebei, moved to southern China and settled in Hong Kong towards the end of the 1920s as part of the Guoshu movement. Other significant northern masters to follow this route include Gu Yuzhang, who was famed for his iron-sand palm and Shaolin boxing, Yang Shouzhong, third generation master of Yang Family Taijiquan, and Fu Zhengsong, one of the earliest masters to introduce Baguazhang and his family style Taijiquan. They were part of a southward movement of northern martial arts and masters in the first half of the 20th century and represent an important, though slowly dwindling, aspect of Hong Kong martial arts.

Southern Chinese martial arts are indigenous to this part of China. In fact, some of these styles were practiced in the villages of Hong Kong before the 20th century, particularly among the numerous Hakka communities dotted in the New Territories. The Hakka martial art styles are related to martial arts from Southern Fujian, and may be broadly classified under the Fujian-Eastern Guangdong Southern Shaolin system. This system includes Fujian Yongchun White Crane Style, various family styles of Southern Praying Mantis, the more contemporary hybrid styles of Bak Mei and Dragon Style, as well as a number of others which have fallen sharply into decline in recent decades.

Hong Kong’s geographic proximity to the Pearl River Delta means the martial arts from this region also had the strongest imprint on development in Hong Kong. At the turn of the 20th century, Hung Kuen – once hailed as the premier martial art style in Guangdong province – was already well-established in Hong Kong, with important practitioners making their base here. By the outbreak of the war, the most important Hung Kuen masters moved across the border from China and established schools in Hong Kong. Another important martial art system that found foothold early on in Hong Kong was Choy Lei Fut, whose several branches continue to be well-represented in our city. Likewise, Wing Chun boxing, perhaps the signature martial art system from Foshan became established in Hong Kong after the war following the relocation of several important masters, including Tang Suen, Tang Yik, Sum Nung, and Ip Man.

In sum, Hong Kong martial arts may be divided into four clearly demarcated regional styles: Pearl River Delta, Hakka, Southern Fujian, and Northern China. In the immediate decades following the war, each of these styles found followers primarily among the corresponding communities, until the linguistic and cultural boundaries began to fall as new generations interacted and slowly merged to form a multicultural Hong Kong society. This process also brought about an unprecedented fusion of styles: most memorably, the warm friendship and open exchanges between Lam Family Hung Kuen and Dai Shing Pek Gwaa, which facilitated wide-ranging technical exchanges between two of the most important martial art styles respectively representing the southern and northern traditions.

Wong Kar Wai’s Grandmasters revealed an important subject on the history and development of Hong Kong martial arts. Flipping through the pages of Hong Kong Martial Arts Community, you would find unexpected stories about familiar characters such as Wong Fei Hung, Lam Sai Wing and Ip Man, who have struggled, in turn despaired and triumphed, and sought to adapt to a rapidly changing society and keep their inherited teachings alive. 

For those interested in a critique on Wong Kar Wai’s reconstruction of 1930s Foshan and post-War Hong Kong, as well as an exploration of a number of issues raised by the film, read on here.

Hing Chao will be giving a talk on Grandmasters at Asia Society on October 30.

All photographs courtesy of Hing Chao and Ming Pao Weekly.

Tags: Hing Chao, Heritage, Film, Columnist, Martial Arts, Hung Kuen, Shaolin, Tony Leung, Praying Mantis, Grandmasters, Wong Kar Wai, Bak Mei