A View Into the Origins of Hung Sing Choy Lay Fut
-Sam Ng and Philip Ng-
The inconsistencies of the stories told of Choy Lay Fut's origins by practitioners of different lineages, often ignite debates that cloud the more important technical and conceptual aspects of this fighting method. As the methods and contents of today's Choy Lay Fut must have evolved and changed from its original state, it is more important to focus upon why Choy Lay Fut works and how to put its principles to work for today's practitioners. Even as we embark to discuss Choy lay Fut's historical origins, it is important to keep in mind that no matter how the Choy Lay Fut method came to be, the method as it exists today is by far more important to the practitioner than the Choy lay Fut that had existed in the centuries pasted.
With the above stated, it should be noted that in addition to Choy Lay Fut’s founders, many practitioners of the various Chinese arts took their own interpretations to create numerous styles like Bak Gar, Hop Gar, Bak Mei, Chu Gar, Bok Hok, Chan Gar, Yiu Gar, Chow Gar, etc… However all these methods maintain characteristics derived and developed from the founding five families of Hung, Lau, Choy, Lee, and Mok. Much of what is told as "martial arts history" today are based more on oral transmission than on documented and written records. The history of Choy Lay Fut, however, stands to be relatively well documented (with written records) when compared to the whole of the southern systems.
North and South
The history of Choy Lay Fut begins with the history of Chinese martial arts itself. Like those of various other cultures, the martial arts of China were initiated by the necessities of hunting and war. Discussions of Chinese martial arts are often accompanied by the terms "northern" and "southern". These categorizations simply refer to the method's geographical origin, with "northern" styles originating from China’s northern provinces, and "southern" styles originating from the southern provinces. As China is a large land, it comes as no surprise that many different subcultures existed within its borders. The differences in geography and cultural influences played a great part in the development of the varied combat methods that has evolved to be in practiced today.
While the martial arts of China developed in the northern provinces, the many wars that took place during the Song dynasty caused many of the northern inhabitants to flee southward, bringing with them their martial skills. When these immigrants entered provinces like Fukien, their martial arts began to develop characteristics that today would be considered “southern”. Originally, martial skills were developed to defeat invaders from outside of China’s borders but due to the fierce political revolutions that occurred later in China’s history, these skills were later employed to fight those from within. As the "southern" styles was born from war and conflict, much of its original “northern” characteristics were distilled to become more combat efficient. To achieve combat efficiency, the aesthetic techniques of posing, jumping, flipping, and so forth were eliminated. The southerners did not purposely reinvent martial arts to distinguish themselves from the north; the changes were born of necessity.
Near the end of the Ming Dynasty, many martial artists and anti-Qing revolutionaries hid in the southern Shaolin Temple to congregate and practice the martial arts. Their main headquarters nestled within the walls of the Fukien Shaolin Temple. The Shaolin Temple housed practitioners of many styles, thus an amalgamation of sorts began to emerge, and it is during this period that the distinction between the northern and southern methods become more apparent.
When the Qing Troops burned down the Shaolin temple, many fled to spread both martial arts and anti-government propaganda to inhabitants throughout the south. The martial arts being taught had to be combat efficient, thus combat efficiency became a common characteristic of the southern fighting methods.
At this juncture, many characteristics of southern method (as we recognize them today) began to emerge, however, true consolidation of what one would consider the “southern style” did not take place until the Shaolin monk, Jee Shim, fled to the Kwong How Temple in Canton and took in six famous students. These students were, Liu Chan, Hung Hei-Koon, Choy Chin-Kwong, Mok Tai-Cheung, Lee Yau-Shan, and Lau San. Liu Chan was a religious monk and his beliefs had prevented him from fighting in the revolution. However, the rest went on to propagate the martial arts throughout the south. These five martial artists are credited to have created the famous five families of southern kung fu (Hung, Lau, Choy, Lee, and Mok) that most of the southern systems practiced today are related to.
Chan Heung and the Birth of Hung Sing Choy Lay Fut
Born in 1805, Chan Heung began his martial arts training at the age of seven under his uncle Chan Yuen Woo. Chan Yuen Woo was a Shaolin disciple and a student of the martial monk, Dok Jung. Dok Jung was a practitioner of the Fut Gar method (a predecessor to the Hop Gar style). At the age of nineteen, Chan Heung began his training with a classmate of his uncle, Lee Yau Shan, who himself was also a student of Jee Shim. When Chan Heung turned twenty-five, Lee Yau Shan introduced him to a Shaolin refugee named Choy Fook. Choy Fook was nicknamed Lantau Fook (or “broken head” Fook) as his head was terribly scarred during the burning of the Shaolin temple by the Qing troops. Chan Heung would later name his fighting method Choy Lay Fut to honor his teachers. Choy was for Choy Fook, Lee (or Lay) was for Lee Yau Shan, and Fut (which meant Buddha in Chinese) was for the method taught to him by his uncle (and to honor Choy Lay Fut’s Buddhist origins).
When he left Choy Fook after ten years of study, Chan Heung was asked by his master to call his style Hung Sing. Chan Heung obeyed his master’s wishes when he relocated to Sunwui Village to establish a school by that name (as he had not yet fully consolidated his knowledge to create Choy Lay Fut).
Hung Sing Choy Lay Fut’s Political Connections
Soon after his move to Sunwui, Chan Heung collaborated with the Heaven and Earth Society (whom the British dubbed the “Triads”) to secretly engage in anti-government activities. It was during this period that Chan Heung began to conceive Choy Lay Fut through the amalgamation of what he had learned from his three teachers.
The salutation practiced by many Chinese martial arts practitioners today (with the left hand opened and the right hand clenched in fist) originally represented the Chinese characters for “moon “and “day”. Together, these two characters formed the Chinese character “Ming”, and the double back fist (practiced in many southern styles) after presenting the salutation represented the overthrowing of the Qing dynasty. So taken together the whole salutation sequence represented the anti-Qing motto of “faan ching fook ming” or overthrow the Qing (the then current dynasty) and restore the Ming (the previous dynasty which the Qing overthrew).
The presentation of three salutations during the opening in many of Hung Sing Choy Lay Fut’s handsets are a representation of the three “dots” on the Chinese character “Hung” in Hung Sing. During this period in history, performing the three salutations would acknowledge your affiliation with either Hung Sing, the Heaven and Earth society or both.
Further Development and Proliferation of Hung Sing Choy Lay Fut
Together with his elder martial arts brother, Chan Chung Lin, Chan Heung teamed up with the Heaven and Earth Society and the Tai Ping Troops to attack Qing soldiers in Canton. The subsequent attack launched by Chan Heung and his comrades ended in tragedy. After suffering a defeat that cost the life of his kung fu brother, Chan Heung fled to Southeast Asia (near Malaysia) in an attempt to avoid further political strife. During his stay in Southeast Asia, Chan Heung once again opened a school to teach Hung Sing Choy Lay Fut.
During the gold rush of the mid 1800’s, many Chinese immigrated to California in search of riches. Soon the Chinese community living abroad congregated to create the first Chinatown. A western strongman and boxer by the name of Gillis would enter the newly established Chinatown to bully and harrass the local inhabitants. Though they tried, none could rid the community of this man. Upon hearing of Chan Heung’s exploits, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association or the CCBA (established to consolidate and protect the interest of the Chinese living outside of their homeland) hired Chan Heung to appear in California to challenge this Gillis. Upon hearing of his countrymen’s plight, Chan Heung was angered to the point of thrusting a chopstick through a table during a meeting with the CCBA. Records of this meeting and the table with the chopstick hole is said to still exist within the CCBA headquarters.
Chan Heung answered the CCBA’s plea and traveled to California to meet Gillis in an attempt to persuade him to stop his abuse on the Chinese. Gillis refused and presented a challenge to Chan Heung. Chan Heung had little trouble dispensing Gillis. Out of pity for his downed opponent, Chan Heung tended to Gillis’s injuries. Gillis thus agreed to bother the Chinese no longer. After the match, Chan Heung would stay in California for a few years to teach kung fu and medicine before returning to his students in Southeast Asia.
After staying in Southeast Asia for a few more years, Chan Heung made his move to Hong Kong. During his stay in Hong Kong, he taught numerous students; of most the renown were Cheung Yim and Lung Gee Choy. When the government lifted the bounty on Chan Heung’s head, he made his moved back to his home village in China. When he returned to his village, Chan Heung focused his teachings to his children and those living in his village. Now older and with more combat experience, Chan Heung further consolidated his knowledge to formulate a progressive level system by dividing the Choy Lay Fut method into beginner, intermediate and advance stages. He then spent his time recording his discoveries and knowledge onto paper. Thus the curriculum of his earlier students and later students was understandably dissimilar.
While Chan Heung was content staying in his home village with his family, his students in America and Southeast Asia asked for his return. As Chan Heung was entering his later years, he did not wish to leave his home again. To fulfill his foreign students’ wishes, he sent his son, Chan Koon Pak to the United States. Grateful students in the U.S. sent money to Chan Heung to build the Hung Sing headquarters in SunWui.
When Chan Heung passed away in 1881, Chan Koon Pak returned to his home from his tenure abroad. While at his home village, Chan Koon Pak took over his father’s position to teach his family members and fellow villagers the Choy Lay Fut martial arts. Even after his death Chan Heung's teachings continued to flourish as many of his students opened schools to pass on what they had gained from their teacher. Cheung Yim opened schools in Futshan and Hong Kong, while Lung Gee Choy open a school in Canton.
When Lung Gee Choy died, and he left his school in Canton to his martial arts brother, Lee Yan. Not wanting to see his talents wasted by staying in a small village, Lee Yan convinced Chan Koon Pak to relocate to Canton. Initially, Lee Yan invited Chan Koon Pak to teach classes at the school left to him by Lung Gee Choy. However, Lee Yan later decided to relocate Chan as his relation with the style’s founder awarded Chan Koon Pak the a majority of the students. When asked to leave, Chan Koon Pak relocated to open a school on Bo Yuen Dai street.
At Lee Yan’s academy, the original Chinese characters for Hung Sing were changed to shake the stigma of the original anti-government sentiments. However, Lee Yan was not picky about who he took in as students and often accepted pupils of questionable character. Chan Koon Pak proved to be more selective. Chan Koon Pak wanted to distance himself from the reputation that his kung fu brother was giving Choy Lay Fut (with his poor choice of students), so he again changed the Chinese character Hung in Hung Sing (to now differing from both the original Hung character that his father had initiated, and the one used by Lee Yan’s academy), to distinguish his schools identity from Lee Yan’s.
Lee Yan later apologized to Chan Koon Pak for forcing his relocation and tried to make peace by changing the Chinese character in his school name to follow that of Chan Koon Pak. But as Lee Yan continued to maintain criminal elements in his school, Chan Koon Pak changed his school’s name once more by adding an additional character to the title, making it Hung Sing Jo Kwoon (with the “Jo” in the title implying “original” or “the first”).
In 1903, students of the Chan family in Southeast Asia had offered Chan Koon Pak an invitation to instruct his father's Southeast Asian students. He did not wish to leave his students in Canton so instead he sent his son, Chan Yiu Chi, to take his place in Southeast Asia. With Chan Yiu Chi being only eighteen years old and having no experience abroad, Chan Koon Pak sent his own elder sister, Chan Ah Bo, to assist him.
After spending four years in Southeast Asia, Chan Yiu Chi married and returned home to Canton. Chan Yiu Chi continued assisting Chan Koon Pak until his father’s passing in 1915.
About the time of his father’s death, a man appeared at the door of Chan Yiu Chi's school in Canton to challenge him. The man challenging Chan Yiu Chi revealed himself to be a Choy Lay Fut practitioner whose greed had overcame his filial commitments as he fought his own Choy Lay Fut brother for money. In addition to this disheartening event, Chan Yiu Chi caught wind of the circumstances behind (his kung fu brother) Lau Chung’s death and turned away from teaching the martial arts forever.
Lau Chung was a well-known Hung Sing Choy Lay Fut practitioner teaching in Hong Kong. During this period, a foreign military officer by the name of Norris offered a cash prize to any Chinese boxer who could defeat him in a match. Defeating many of the local Chinese boxers made Norris boastful and arrogant. Lau Chung took on the challenge and ended the fight by breaking Norris’s ribs with an elbow strike. As the fight was fought under gloved western boxing rules, the elbow strike that Lau Chung had executed was considered an illegal technique. From the hospital Norris ordered Lau Chung’s capture for his offense. As the foreign military leaders would no doubt do him great harm for his actions, Lau Chung decided to leave Hong Kong for Macau. As the incident began to cool down, Lau Chung relocated to Canton. While believing he was safe, Lau Chung was unexpectedly assassinated by a fellow Choy Lay Fut practitioner hired by those associated with Norris in Hong Kong.
Upon hearing of Lau Chung death, Chan Yiu Chi stopped teaching his family’s fighting art to focus on practicing medicine. Chan Yiu Chi closed his martial arts academy to open his medical clinic, Wing Sing Tong.
Fong Yuk Shu was born in Canton during the year 1870 to a wealthy gentlemen named Fong Kit Ting. Fong Kit Ting was a martial artist, and a scholar who earned his fortune through his entrepreneurship and many business endeavors. He was an herbalist, the founder of Canton’s Fong Bin Hospital, and the owner of the local water company. He was a renaissance man whose skills in both the martial and the academic arts were passed on to his son, Fong Yuk Shu.
To further his martial studies, Fong Yuk Shu sought scholarship under both Chan Koon Pak, and the martial monk named Jing Han who resided in the Nam Fook Temple located in Ho Nam.
At the age of eighteen, Fong Yuk Shu went to the country’s capital to compete in the Mo Jong Yuen competition (complete martial arts grand-championships) held by the Qing dynasty. The prize for winning was an opportunity to become an honorable officer in the Qing military. The championship consisted of five events. First was a contest of strength measured by the pulling of a heavy bow. The second was a demonstration of the Kwan Dao set. The third was a demonstration strength by lifting stone bars of increasing weight. The forth was traditional standing archery, and the final event was archery while riding horseback. Fong Yuk Shu had won the first five events but failed to do so in the last. By refusing to pay the bribe money asked for by the official in charge of the final event, Fong Yuk Shu was given a sick horse thus causing him to lose. He was angered by such corrupt practices.
Disturbed by the Qing’s corruption and moved by Dr. Sun Yat-San convictions, Fong Yuk Shu took initiative and joined the doctor in a revolt against the Qing government. When Fong Yuk Shu became a wanted man for his decision, Dr. Sun convinced him to escape to Singapore until the situation eased. When the revolution was over, Fong Yuk Shu returned to Canton and made a decision to stay away from politics. He began practicing medicine and teaching martial arts in the six schools he had established throughout the Canton area.
In 1925, a big dispute erupted between factions of the factory steel and wood workers that resulted in many violent encounters between the two groups. To remedy the situation, the steel workers union hired Fong Yuk Shu to act as the head instructor for all the local factory unions. Out of respect for Fong Yuk Shu as their teacher, the different fractions decided settle their dispute peacefully.
In 1933, the province of Canton organized a national martial arts championship where Fong Yuk Shu was invited to act as a judge. Of the many competitors, his students took both first and second place standings in both the spear and staff categories. Following the competition, Fong Yuk Shu attempted to consolidate the martial arts community by co-founding the National Chinese Martial Association based in Canton. He also acted as the organization’s technical advisor.
In 1937, Fong Yuk Shu relocated to Hong Kong and established both medical clinics and martial arts schools in the Wan Chai and Kowloon districts. Residents praised him for his generosity and charity as he set up free public medical clinics in Shum Shui Po’s Lung Hing temple and maintained public academic centers in Kowloon’s merchants association headquarters.
After living a life of many great accomplishments and charities, Fong Yuk Shu passed away in 1953.
To Hon Cheung began the martial arts at an early age, following his master, Fong Yuk Shu. Fong Yuk Shu took a liking to his young student as he displayed both hard work and perseverance. When To Hong Cheung reached the age of twenty-eight, his teacher, Fong Yuk Shu, invited him to be the head instructor in his second (of six) martial arts school in Canton.
During the Canton martial arts Championships in 1933 and 1934, To Hon Cheung competed and triumphed both years as he received both first and second place standings in the spear and staff categories. During World War II, To Hon Cheung moved back to his native village of Go Yiu, where the village elders appointed him the headmaster of the village martial arts school, Tung Yi Tong. He expanded the school and changed the name to Tung Yi Kwoon. Within his school, he trained an elite group of clandestine operatives know as the Dai Dao Dui (the "big blade troops") that took on covert missions to fight off Japanese invaders during the war. Due to his patriotic deeds, he was appointed the director of the largest charity organization in Canton at the time, Hin Jen Tong. When the war had ended, he opened his own martial arts school in Sai Kwan called, Chuen Yi Tong.
In 1947 To Hon Cheung relocated to Hong Kong to establish the To Hon Cheung Martial Arts Athletic Academy in the Shum Shui Po district of Kowloon and taught thousands of student across the globe before his death.
The Present Generation and Beyond
To Hon Cheung is survived by his son, To Sum, and students who continue to spread his teachings in both the fighting and healing arts. While his son, To Sum, is a world-renown Chinese medical doctor, martial arts teacher and historian, both of To Hon Cheung's grandchildren are martial arts champions in their own right. To Siu-Chun is not only a martial arts champion through Asia, but is also an accomplished actor, who has starred in numerous Hong Kong action films. To Hon Cheung's granddaughter, To Yuet Ping, like her brother is not only an accomplished martial arts competitor, but her skills are also highly sought after in the world of Hong Kong cinema and television.
Overseas in the United States of America, Sam Ng, one of To Hon Cheung’s final three disciples before his retirement from teaching, leads the way to ensure the longevity and continued proliferation of the teachings so generously offered to him by his instructor.
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