Grandmasters in the Digital Age

Arts

August 26, 2014 | BY Hong Kong Tatler

Hing Chao takes a look at how Hong Kong’s tradition of martial arts is in danger of dying out, and how technology will help preserve it

Hong Kong has a rightful claim to be the kung fu capital of the world, not only because of its long list of martial art films, from the black-and-white Wong Fei Hung franchise through Shaw Brothers, Bruce Lee, to the more recent Ip Man biopics. More importantly, Hong Kong provided a safe haven to martial artists during the turbulent years of the early ­to mid-20th century, as China was first plunged into chaos by warlord-ism and civil war, and then ravaged by the savagery of the Cultural Revolution. Hong Kong’s relatively stable and free society allowed martial arts to endure and, indeed, thrive in the decades following the Great War – a fact that is reflected in Hong Kong’s numerous ‘grandmasters’.

Given a brief respite during the short-lived Republic when martial arts were elevated to the plane of national sports and education, and held up as an antidote to the national lethargy which was blamed for the semi-colonialism of the late Qing period, martial arts were again cast into the wilderness at the end of the 1950s as leftist movement sought to purge the past. But here in Hong Kong, riding the wake of the Guoshu movement, martial arts were embraced by the people as a symbol of Chinese strength and unity. In the absence of popular entertainment and with the Japanese occupation still painfully fresh in their minds, the masses of new immigrants took to martial arts training, as much to alleviate their boredom and as to give identity and purpose to their humdrum and, in many cases, impoverished daily life.

Enthusiasm for martial arts was no doubt buoyed by the presence of such luminaries as Hung Kuen master Lam Sai Wing, Lau Shui of Chow Family Southern Praying Mantis, the founder of Dragon Style Lam Yiu Gwai, northern master Geng Dehai, Wong Fei Hung’s widow Mok Gwai Laan, and many other renowned martial artists who were already celebrities in the mainland long before circumstances forced their relocation to Hong Kong.

Unsurprisingly, the next generation proved worthy successors – the great Lam Sai Wing passed the baton to his nephew and adopted son Lam Cho who reformed and enlarged the Hung Kuen repertoire; under the stewardship of Geng Dehai’s star pupil Chan Sau Chung, Da Shing Pek Gwaa produced some of the best martial art athletes to come out of Hong Kong, dominating the ring in the lighter weight divisions during the 60s and 70s; the ancient style of Fujian White Crane continued to grow – not in terms of practitioners but in depth of knowledge – as Cheng Man Long passed his mantle to Lee Kong, who is known today for his erudition and encyclopedic knowledge of traditional martial arts; and of course, Ip Man taught his Wing Chun system to Bruce Lee, who, more than anyone else, made kung fu a global phenomenon.

Unfortunately, martial arts development in Hong Kong failed to keep up with the pace of modernisation and social change. Over the past thirty years, interest in martial arts has flagged significantly, to such a degree in fact that the martial arts community’s ability to safeguard and protect this heritage is far from being a certainty. A number of styles have already fallen into terminal decline, such that practitioners or followers of these styles can no longer be found. Many more have a shrinking pool of practitioners, with perhaps Choy Lei Fut – once found in every corner of the city – being one of the most alarming cases of decline. Even the more popular styles such as Wing Chun and Hung Kuen are not in the ruddy health their public image suggests. Despite the continued popularity of these styles, few young people are willing to put in the requisite time or dedication to master their professed styles, with an inevitable and significant drop in standard.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Hong Kong martial arts have reached a crossroad. At the risk of making a sweeping statement, I would venture to say that with most masters being advanced in age while the younger generation struggle to inherit the passed on traditions and keep the legacy going, there is a real danger of our martial arts heritage becoming lost. We have a window of perhaps five to ten years to document this legacy before these masters become too old. They are, in truth, Hong Kong’s last ‘grandmasters’.

As anyone who has dabbled in martial arts will attest, mastering any given style of martial arts require many years of dedicated practice, as it involves not only learning pugilistic techniques, but internalising complex concepts and mechanisms to use the human body, which is as much an intellectual as physical feat. Given the short attention span of most learners today, the unfortunate truth is that masters who have not already found suitable candidates to pass on their knowledge may not have the time to do so.

Under these circumstances there is an urgency to document the embodied knowledge of Hong Kong’s ‘grandmasters’ as accurately as possible. Since last year, International Guoshu Association has been working with Creative Media Centre of the City University of Hong Kong to create the first-ever comprehensive digital archive for traditional martial arts using cutting-edge motion capture technology. To date, we have completed around 15 sessions of motion capture involving over half a dozen styles, with another 150 four-hour recording sessions planned for the next 12 months. Our aim is to document the representative sets of all the major styles.

 

The Hong Kong Martial Arts Living Archive is a collaboration between International Guoshu Association and the City University of Hong Kong. The project encompasses the first-ever comprehensive digital strategy of archiving and annotating Hong Kong’s diverse and rich Kung Fu styles and traditions using state-of-the art data capture tools.

The International Guoshu Association just launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise funds for the HK Martial Arts Living Archive, which will run until 13th October. For moreinformation, please visit http://www.fringebacker.com/en/projects/HK_Martial_Arts_Living/