Lam Family Hung Kyun: About Carrying the Tradition Forward and Innovation

Family and lineage have been important values in Chinese history since ancient times. In other words, the family shrines have been important symbols. Its position within the community can be compared to a church in Western countries, a place for religion and belief. The comparison between western churches and Chinese family shrines can be applied to physical education, traditional Chinese martial arts have been taught from one generation to the next and developed during that process. This kind of passing knowledge from one generation to the next is common in traditional Chinese culture. In this tradition, family bloodline has been an important aspect. All the famous South Chinese martial arts, Hung, Lau, Choy, Lei, Mok, are all surnames. Thus, the development of martial arts have been inherited from one generation to the next which has given each category a specific features. Some varieties of martial arts have kept their knowledge within their families and they have not been allowed to teach outsiders.

In some aspects, the Lam Family Hung Kyun is a representative of the above mentioned system. Master Lam Jou learned from Lam Sai Wing, who in turn learned from Wong Fei Hung. Through numerous generations these masters have shaped what is now known as Hung Kyun. Next in succession after Lam Sai Wing was his nephew, Lam Jou. Not only did Lam Jou inherit Lam Family Hung Kyun, but he also renewed the style and brought a new sense of vitality to the style. The current inheritor Lam Chun Fai, Lam Jou’s eldest son, took the family art overseas and he continues to develop the style. From Lam Sai Wing to Lam Jou and then to Lam Chun Fai, these three generations have continued on the same path, a path that gives us a glimpse into this important Southern martial art. It has spread from Gwong Dung, to Hong Kong and then overseas, from an ancient and sturdy style it has transformed into a flexible style with a lot of variation. The style has survived the traditional Chinese society, the modern metropolis of Hong Kong and continues to spread around the globe.

A Brief Introduction of the Three Generations: Lam Sai Wing – Lam Cho- Lam Chun Fai

As most Hong Kongers are aware, Lam Sai Wing is the student of Wong Fei Hung that most people are familiar with. If we say that Wong Fei Hung was the one who summarized and modernized Hung Kuen. Then we have to mention Lam Sai Wing, whose family trained Hung Kyun for many generations, was the one who took the art one step further, both in the Ling Naam area [translator’s note: Ling Naam cover both Gwong Dung and Gwong Sai provinces] and Hong Kong.

Since Lam Sai Wing did not have a successor, he taught everything he knew to his nephew Lam Jou. Lam Jou’s students all relied on his efforts and understanding, as well as his open-minded view of martial arts. Because Lam Jou mixed efficient techniques from other styles of martial arts, which resulted in a fundamental change. The originally simple, hard and stiff Lam Family Hung Kyun developed into a more agile, more diverse martial art. Lam Jou’s son Lam Chun Fai also simplified the most tedious parts of the sets and he has been spreading the art overseas ever since the seventies, planting a seed in order for the art to grow.

Although Chinese martial arts have been passed to future generations through oral instruction, we are all human beings. In other words, two people can be of the same lineage, but these human beings are unique, so there will naturally be a difference in the way people perform their techniques. Thus, the art avoids becoming rigid. They do not repeat what the predecessors made before them. Generally speaking, this development of the style is important for the style’s survival.

Lam Sai Wing (1861-1943) was born in Ping Jau village in Naam Hoi County, he was about 180 cm tall with an extraordinary strength (in the last issue of “Martial World of Hong Kong” master Lam Chun Fai mentioned that Lam Sai Wing could single-handedly butcher a pig by himself, without anyone’s help), he was well suited for practicing martial arts. Before Wong Fei Hung, Lam Sai Wing had already learnt martial arts from six or seven other masters. From a young age, Lam Sai Wing enjoyed a great reputation within the martial arts sphere of Guangdong. Otherwise the legendary battle of Lok Sin Theater would not have reached Hong Kong. After he was accepted as Wong Fei Hung’s student he took the three most important sets, including “Taming the Tiger in Gung Pattern” (Gung Ji Fuk Fu Kyun), “Tiger and Crane Double Form Set” (Fu Hok Seung Ying Kyun” and “Iron Thread Set” (Tit Sin Kyun), and he practiced them to perfection. Then he took the two first mentioned forms and made martial arts manuals, which was very unorthodox at the time. These manuals, containing text and pictures, were published and sold to the public. Thus Lam Sai Wing broke the unadulterated tradition between master and student- that the instructions should be given orally.

Young and Inexperienced at Pottinger Street

In this time of enlightened thinking, the kind of Hung Kyun Lam Sai Wing performed still had some ancient characteristics, namely strong and sturdy forearms and stances. So when Lam Sai Wing taught Lam Jou, the training still contained these aspects, Lam Chun Fai recalls what his father told him about the time with Lam Sai Wing: “when my great uncle taught my father, he learned “Old Hung Kyun”  (Lou Hung Kyun), it was sturdy, he trained body conditioning and practiced hitting sandbags, what was missing was the softer aspects, it was really traditional”.

Lam Jou’s fourth child, Mrs. Lam Fung Chu also has recollection of what her father told her about her great uncle. Lam Sai Wing did not want his students to practice other styles of martial arts, he wanted them to concentrate on his martial art:

“My father not only made Hung Kyun more agile, he also took no offence in teaching his students techniques from other styles, for example Lau Ga Kyun. He told his students not to practice this set in front of Lam Sai Wing, just to avoid making the old master upset. But there was one time when one student who carelessly practiced Lau Ga Kyun in front of Lam Sai Wing, which made him very upset, so he called upon my father. My great uncle wanted to teach my father a lesson, he wanted to sweep my father off balance. But my father was very agile, so he could not sweep my father. This was quite embarrassing for my great uncle, so he left. Although his bad temper seemed quite harsh, it was just his tool, he returned the next day like nothing had happened. My older brother Lam Chun Fai got his name from Lam Sai Wing”.

Lam Jou (1910-2012) was a posthumous child [translator’s note: meaning that his parents died when he was very young]. Lam Sai Wing raised Lam Jou single-handedly, Lam Jou started training martial arts when he was five or six years old, the training was quite strict, more so compared to Lam Sai Wing’s other students. When Lam Jou was 18 years old, he moved with his uncle to Hong Kong to establish a martial school and teach martial arts for a living, they opened a school on Pottinger Street in Central.

“My father said, in those days it was difficult to teach martial arts in the basement on Pottinger Street, and also if they could not make a living there, they would have to move back to the countryside. It was difficult in the beginning because people did not know about them, so nobody came to learn. My father trained on his own, when his clothes were completely soaked, he would train some more. After four, five years, they started to have students coming to learn, in the beginning they relied on their students to treat them to meals, life was hard, but my father did not want to go back to the countryside. The only thing he could do was to endure. In those days there were a lot of different martial artists who would come and challenge Lam Jou, one of his students even tried to challenge him”.

Pre-war Neighborhood Watch

The beginning of the twentieth century were years of great change and Hong Kong was no exception. You would rarely see a true Gung Fu master, because people had to deal with more urgent matters. By the way, where was the inexperienced Lam Jou during this time? All his diligence and hard work had paid off, before the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, Lam Jou had already made a name for himself within the city’s martial arts sphere. Lam Jou had even opened a martial arts school on Nathan Road, then the Japanese troops occupied Hong Kong. Master Lam Chun Fai describes:

“Before the Japanese troops took the city, there were already numerous fights and robberies. By demand of the neighborhood, my father and his students established a kind of neighborhood watch, in order to maintain order. Although they did not have any weapons at hand, they simply used the headlights of a couple of cars at night, so they could protect a couple of streets. They did not earn any money, but the neighbors treated them to meals. They only put up Lam Jou’s name on their door, in order to not get robbed. Some rich people even gave him ten thousand Hong Kong Dollars for protection. Early on my father really had guts, and people came from all over to pay him their respects”

“The Japanese knew my father had this kind of authority, and this was something they wanted to take advantage of, they wanted him to help them. There were troops who came to the school, they used to ask a lot of questions, and they even wanted to pinch my father’s muscles. My father was often brought to their headquarters to speak with their officer. They wanted him to maintain the public order within the city. My father was very familiar with the locals and the Japanese were quite aware of this so they sent all the known robbers to Lam Jou’s neighborhood to ask questions, in the beginning my father would return all the robbers to the Japanese, but then their families came kneeling to Lam Jou, because as it turned out, once Lam Jou left the robbers, the Japanese would not interrogate them again, instead they executed them, so my father released the ones he still had in his custody. Because of this he himself was forced to escape Hong Kong and take up exile in the countryside, he did not return until the occupation had ceased”.

Keeping an Appearance

Although Lam Chun Fai was only a child at the time, he can still remember: “When I boarded the boat to go to Macau, it was my father’s good friend Gang Dak Hoi who followed me to the pier”.

“In those days, my father knew many masters of different styles. He had a very good memory too, as soon as he saw someone performing a set, he would remember it directly. He would also combine different styles with Hung Kyun. My father’s best friend within the martial arts community was Gang Dak Hoi of Daai Sing Pek Gwa. They were quite different, one from the South and one from the North, although they spoke different languages, they got along just fine. They would often exchange techniques, so Gang Dak Hoi’s students know our Gung Ji Fuk Fu Kyun. In exchange we learned their Monkey Fist and sword techniques. My father’s Monkey Fist and sword sets are all inspired by Gang Dak Hoi”.

Lam Cho’s open attitude gave him a deeper understanding of martial arts, which caused Lam Family Hung Kyun, to be richer than it had been. Lam Chun Fai says: “At the time of my great uncle, there were only 10 sets, the weapons and sparring sets of the time were quite simple. My father developed his style to 30 or 40 forms, many of which were designed by him”.

Lam Jou had a very different method of teaching compared to his uncle Lam Sai Wing. Lam Jou did not spend much time standing in stances (Jaat Ma) or practicing “dead power” (Sei Lik), which means to hit objects such as the wooden dummy, sandbags and so on. He also emphasized flexibility. Lam Chun Fai says:

“My father, one of his students and I used to practice in a park on Kennedy Street, at six o’clock in the morning. I used to practice until 8 o’clock and after that I went to school. This was an everyday routine, even if it rained we would still go practice. In those days there were many masters who practiced in that park, my father would let us watch carefully. Then he would ask us to analyze their techniques, to see their special features, to enrich our knowledge. We should not only have knowledge about Hung Kuen, but also know about other styles”.

“Lam Family Hung Kyun differs from other Southern styles, the reason to this difference is because we have more techniques and our forearms and stances are very sturdy. You have to be agile but at the same time firm, this was my father’s aim when he developed his Hung Kyun. He meant that within the softness there should also be power. A practitioner should not focus on ‘dead power’, there are those who believe that Hung Kyun only use hard power and no soft power. Actually, Lam Family Hung Kuen has softness within the hard power.”

To create this kind of characteristic really shows the crucial position Lam Jou had within the martial arts sphere.

At the time, the exchange between martial artists in Hong Kong flourished after establishing the Naam Mou Athletic Association (Southern Martial Athletic Association). This association was unique to Hong Kong and there has been nothing like it ever since. Lam Chun Fai says:

“The purpose for establishing the Naam Mou Athletic Association was to bring Northern and Southern masters together and collectively promote martial arts. It was not meant for these masters to do things in their own way, it was completely different from today. In the beginning there were one or two thousand people who used to participate. In those days my great uncle was still alive and he was the leader of the association. However, he did not teach there. The main teachers were my father and other masters as well. But afterwards there were some masters who introduced other items, such as a dancing class. It became too messy, and some masters didn’t like this tendency so they stopped participating.”

The Years at the Blue House

After the war, Lam Jou returned to Hong Kong. His family started renting the Blue House in Wan Chai during the 40s, they had a shop in the front and living quarters in the back. He opened a martial arts school where he taught and managed a bone-setting clinic within the Blue House. Lam Chun Fai describes that his father only needed to enter the door, of his martial arts school and teach a few forms in order to earn money. In the beginning, he did not have to practice Chinese medicine. But after some time, life got harder and he needed to practice medicine in order to earn money, so he could not only teach Gung Fu for a living.

The one who took care of Lam Jou’s daily life, in his later years, was his daughter Lam Fung Chu, who also started helping her father with patients at the age of ten. She recalls the life in the Blue House, which was a tenant house with 72 apartments.

“I was born 1944 in Ping Jaau village, Naam Hoi County. After the war my father brought us from the village back to Hong Kong. We settled down in the Blue House on Stone Nullah Street in Wan Chai. In those days the monthly rent was only 100 Hong Kong Dollars, we lived there for 10 years. All the buildings in that area were quite old, in the neighborhood there was a wood craftsman, a liquor vendor, a stall that sold steamed fish balls and so on. Our house used to be a temple, so people did not live there before us. My father said: ‘I teach Gung Fu and treat patients, no need to be afraid’. We were six siblings, our parents and our grandma. The house was about 244 square meter. There was a main hall, a small courtyard and a kitchen. My parents used to sleep on the upper floor, we, the siblings used to sleep in the main hall. Since it used to be a temple, the effigies were still there, the courtyard still had an incense burner, the Gung Fu training was conducted in the main hall”.

Lam Fung Chu continues:

“In the evenings when people practiced Gung Fu we used to have the main door open, there used to be quite many observers standing outside. Some of them came back later and wanted to learn from my father. Every evening people practiced Gung Fu until 10 or 11 pm, after training there were some students who used to go and buy some late-night snacks, such as night congee, watermelon and so on. It was very popular to practice Gung Fu in those days, there were around twenty or thirty students who came and practiced every evening, and everyone got along very well. Everyone trained very hard, so my father’s favorite students were all very hard working. Some students even helped out in the bone-setting clinic, if they wanted to stay in the clinic for a while, my father did not mind. Because he knew that after we, his children, would marry, then he would be alone”.

Devoted to the End

In April 2012 at the age of 102 master Lam Jou departed from his earthly life. Throughout his long life he had a profound love for martial arts and he did not even retire. Mrs. Lam recalls, that the past decade with her father felt like one day:

“When there was no one at his school, he trained by himself. Every morning, until he turned 100, he used to practice Tit Sin Kyun for more than an hour. He often told his students that they had to practice, because if they didn’t then their training would all be for nothing. Even if you are a ‘Sifu’ you still have to practice in order to remember your forms and maintain your speed”.

“When he taught his students, he didn’t care whether they were rich or poor, the only requirement was that they were willing to learn, then he would teach them. But 20 years ago he didn’t take on any more students, because he thought young people had a lack of respect for their master, he raised the study fee, he thought that if he would meet his young students on the street they wouldn’t even bother a greeting. So he decided not to take on any more students. For those who loved stirring up trouble and starting fights, he would ask them to leave without the slightest hesitation. When it came to students he was very picky, he was very cautious when it came to his reputation. But usually he viewed his students as his friends, they would play Mahjong together. When he taught his students he was very stern and he always paid the bill whenever he and his students would go and eat”.

Except for Gung Fu, master Lam Jou did not have many hobbies. Whenever he went out he was particular about the way he dressed, in addition to wearing a suit, his hair was also well combed, he was scrupulous about every detail, he even had a swift step and he had a straight posture. From his appearance people could not believe he was a martial artist, who could be quite rough.

“When he was bored he liked to bet on horses, but it was only 10 dollars and 8 cents, it did not matter much. The worst habit he had was when he was young, he liked to drink. He used to go and have a drink with painters, lawyers and advisors. By the time he was 50 he suffered from gastric perforation, it was very exhausting for him, and even though he had this ailment he refused to go to the doctor, and he didn’t trust Western medicine. In those days he had a friend, Ng Cheuk Kei, who was a doctor in Chinese medicine, he told my father to lay in bed and rest for a time. But after a week he started moving about a little, so my two older brothers (Lam Chun Fai and Lam Chun Hin) held his hands and together they brought him up to a spacious place on the mountain to practice some Gung Fu, more than half a year later he was fully recovered, even his doctor thought it was strange that he had recovered so quickly. So after he got sick and was admitted to the hospital, he used to call on us to help him up so he could practice Gung Fu- he was still aware that Gung Fu could renew his health. By this time he was already very old, so he could not move, so we didn’t let him practice”.

Lam Cho lived in the hospital for two years and eight months before he passed away, at the age of 102.

A Son in His Father’s Footsteps

As the eldest son of Lam Cho, Lam Chun Fai started studying martial arts at a young age, the Blue House is where he grew up. At the same time, the Blue House was also the place where he trained and taught Gung Fu, just like his father. Ever since he was a teenager Lam Chun Fai has been a martial arts instructor, except for the martial arts school in the Blue House, “I also taught in three other places, one of these places was located in the Western District’s Welfare Association, another place was on Castle Peak Road in Cheung Sha Wan where I taught the workers of a weaving factory, I also taught in Mong Kok. When I first started teaching I was only about 15-16 years old, I used to take turns with my training brothers to visit these four schools and teach martial arts”.

Even though he inherited his father’s profession, along with social changes, it had been difficult to avoid the changes for two generations. In Lam Chun Fai’s youth, during the 60s, the Hong Kong cinema flourished. The Wong Fei Hung series and other Gung Fu movies made the scene more and more popular, Lam Chun Fai also had a chance to participate in a movie:

“Before I turned 21, Wu Pang and the director Chau Si Luk wanted me to play the role of Fong Sai Yuk, they had already cast the female lead role. They also wanted my father to play the part as the Buddhist monk Ji Sin. The director would handle the traditional opera division. We would handle the martial arts choreography”.

However, after a while there was some economic problem and they could not come to an agreement, this time the cooperation did not come to realization in the end. Afterwards Lam Chun Fai used other means to participate in a movie production, for example the portrayal of Lam Sai Wing in the movie Budo Wing (1979), the production management asked him to come to the set and demonstrate Lam Family Hung Kyun. In those days, Lau Jaam (a student of Lam Sai Wing) and his son Lau Ga Leung were very active in the movie business. They were very familiar with the Lam Family, they used to visit frequently.

“Whenever Lau Jaam had been injured during a movie shoot, he would come and see my father for a treatment. When Wu Pang would shoot a movie about Lam Sai Wing, he would ask my father to help with the screenplay. There was a story about Lam Sai Wing, that he beat the local tyrant while he was defenseless, but then my father opposed the suggestion to put this into a movie, as a result, they didn’t film it. Actually, quite a few movies are just made up, they are not based on any actual events”.

Master Kwan Tak Hing, who played the role of Wong Fei Hung in many movies, was also were very familiar with the Lam Family. Lam Chun Fai recalls: “Kwan Tak Hing had his martial art school on King’s Road in North Point, at one point he was asked to do a lion dancing fundraiser at the Tai Ping Theater, he told me that everyone would be up on stage for 15 minutes, but after a few minutes he went backstage to rest, after all he was quite old at the time”.

Spreading the Art Overseas

Since he did not enter the movie business, Lam Chun Fai did not follow his father’s example. Lam Chun Fai had only taught Gung Fu and practiced bone-setting as his profession for a couple of years, after some years he took up employment in banking instead. During the days he went to work and in the evenings he would teach Kung Fu and practice bone-setting. His martial art school/clinic at that time was established on the upper floor of the bank. Apart from being his school and clinic, it was also the place where he lived, very convenient. Quite a few of his colleagues at the bank also became his students.

At the same time, Lam Chun Fai started traveling abroad. One of these places were Harvard University, in the United States. He went there to promote Lam Family Hung Kyun, which had been kept within the Blue House all his life. This allowed people to take the initiative and practice his father’s heritage. Lam Chun Fai used a style of teaching completely different compared to his father.

“My father was quite low-key, although he got invitations to teach he never went abroad. He didn’t even went into an airplane, if you looked for him you would have to go to the Blue House. So when I went abroad to teach, there were many students who would say, ‘we went to Hong Kong to look for Lam Jou, but we never found him’. Some of my father’s students, who went abroad, were quite selfish and said that Lam Cho wouldn’t teach foreigners. In those days, Lam Family Hung Kyun had not spread far and wide, until I went abroad and taught, the interest was huge. Then the Internet came along which allowed more people from different places to get to know us”.

The road of spreading the art overseas happened during the 60s and the beginning of the 70s. Lam Chun Fai went to Hawaii to give lectures, he also went to a tour of both the east and west coast of the US.

“Because of Bruce Lee, Gung Fu was very popular, but students of Lam Family Hung Kyun had not settled down in the States, the one who made it happen was Buck Sam Kong. He grew up on Hawaii, when he came to Hong Kong he trained with my father, actually I was the one who taught him. Then he went to Los Angeles to teach Gung Fu, he had ten schools in the States, it used to be the biggest martial arts school. He invited me to the US to teach his instructors, so they could teach. Every day I got the tuition fees in small boxes that I later took to the bank. When I got in the taxi to go to the bank, the radio was playing ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, the American students were obsessed with this song”.

“You could really make money teaching Gung Fu abroad, which resulted in the fact that they studied very diligently, the number of students was much higher abroad compared to Hong Kong. Some of these foreign students have a deeper understanding of Hung Kyun compared to Chinese people, and some of them were also more hardworking than Hong Kong practitioners. In the future, maybe Chinese practitioners have to invite foreign practitioners if they want to learn Chinese Gung Fu”.

Lam Chun Fai’s son Oscar Lam Chun Ho belongs to the fourth generation of Lam Family, he is currently carrying his father’s heritage forward. The 28 year old [translator’s note: this was in 2013] Oscar started training with his father on a serious level when he was 20, and he is now the inheritor of the Lam Family Hung Kyu, but the road he took to get there was very different from his father. Oscar explains: “Actually, teaching Gung Fu in these days is very passive, many practitioners just practice for health reasons, and so except from teaching Gung Fu you also have to teach stretching for health purposes, you also have to consider that practitioners want to lose weight, as an instructor you have to cater to their needs”.

But his father Lam Chun Fai is still persistent, although it is good to combine your training with other skills, but when teaching Gung Fu you should still preserve purity when it comes to Hung Kyun, then practitioners would not mix it up with other things, and thus preserving the quality and essence of Hung Kyun.

“I am the vice chairman of the Wushu Union, my responsibility is to teach traditional martial arts. But all the martial arts I teach comes from my Great Uncle. I will not add any components of contemporary Wushu in my performance. It really takes time to immerse yourself in traditional martial arts”. The currently 73 years old [translator’s note: this was in 2013] Lam Chun Fai has a profound understanding of his responsibility to maintain the traditions of the Lam family. It is not up to him to change these tradition. In recent years he has spared no effort to promote Hung Kyun as an intangible cultural heritage. Recently Lam Chun Fai has together with his student Hing Chao published a new book about Lam Family Hung Kyun, called Hung Kuen Fundamentals: Gung Gee Fook Fu Kuen, which really displays his diligence to allow his knowledge to be passed on from one generation to the next.

Author: Sam Sam

References: 

  • 趙,式慶。林,鎮輝 & 三三。承傳與創新。明周。2325期,2013年6月1號。
  • Chao, H., Lam, C, F. & Sam, S. About Carrying the Tradition Forward and Innovation. Ming Pao Weekly. Issue no. 2325, 01 June 2013.
  • Lam, C, F. Hung Kuen Fundamentals Gung Gee Fok Fu Kuen. International Guoshu Association. 2013. Print.

About the TranslatorViktor Nordgren been training Hung Kyun since 2002. He started to learn from Mattias Lindh Sifu in Umeå, Sweden. Viktor has been practising under Raymond Wong since 2010. Håkan Andersson, Viktor’s Sihing, started training under Mattias in 2001 and under master Wong in 2010 as well. Viktor is an author of excellent English translation of Lam Sai Wing’s Taming the Tiger Manualavailable in our PHK Eshop HERE.

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