Harlan Lee knows that learning how to live is more important than learning how to fight.
By Broc sanford
"I don't want to be tough" proclaims Harlan Lee. It might seem that he doesn't have a choice, given his obvious physical strength and martial skill, but Harlan is referring more to an attitude than an ability. Lee, 32, of Honolulu, has been practicing the style of Sil Lum Fut Ga Kuen for more than 25 years. Head instructor at Lee's Shaolin Boxing Academy in San Francisco, he has earned several grand championships in forms, weapons and fighting during his tournament career, and he performed in the masters demonstration at the l995 World Wushu Championships in Baltimore. Sounds like tough guy stuff, and yet Lee fully understands that his system is based on balance, not on beating up the opponent. Sil Lum Fut Ga Kuen, meaning Buddhist family fist, was created in the Shaolin Monastery in Southern China during the Ching dynasty, using the most efficient elements of the five major sects of the Sil Lum Monastery: Lau, Lee, Mok, Hung and Choi. As a combination of different styles, Fut Ga Kuen contains techniques that emphasize different systems, hard and soft, internal and external. All the moves, however, are based on the underlying principle of simplicity. "Our style," Lee said, "is based on the concept that the greatest power is generated more by a combination of velocity and stance than brute force." Obtaining that speed is more easily done by executing simple moves instead of complicated ones. "We try not to have any wasted motion or energy," Lee said.
"Maximum power comes from using the whole body. Having a solid stance allows you to better transfer your weight when blocking or striking, while allowing you the mobility to quickly move and react." For example, the blocks in Lee's system "are executed at a 45-degree angle," he notes. "Rather than waiting for the punch to come to us, we meet it halfway, so that we shorten the opponent's speed by intercepting with another technique. That's what I like about our system: it's so simple. It's not like you have to drop down, do a spinning blocking fist, and then a roundhouse. It's just direct. You intercept and boom, boom, boom, in three seconds a fight should be over."
Nonetheless, Lee doesn't believe that any one martial arts style is in itself superior to any other. "It's really up to the individual," he said, "what they want from it and what they're willing to put into it.
"The movements of Fut Ga are meant to be simple. What makes them effective is their speed. That can only be obtained through relentless training."
Lee was first trained in the martial arts as a four-year-old, by his father, Sigung Arthur Yau Sung Lee. The elder Lee felt he had to push his children into learning the art, as a way to continue its existence. He also felt that martial arts instruction, if done in the same way he was taught by his sifu, would be valuable in developing his children's characters. "My dad tried to stress the fact that kung fu allows you to be in harmony with yourself and to constantly expand your limits," Harlan Lee said. "I think the greatest lessons I've received from my father are not in learning how to fight, but how to live."
During his elementary school years, Harlan Lee was extremely reluctant to be part of his father's club. He had to be forced to practice by both of his parents, and his father insisted he train with the adults. Despite a seeming lack of dedication, Lee always seemed to be able to pick up the basic moves and remember the sequences of the forms.
"During the yearly Chinese New Year celebration," said Sylvia Lee, Harlan's mother, "Arthur's club would perform demonstrations in Chinatown. Harlan would never practice, but would always be able to do the routines smoothly when he got up on stage."
In his early teen years, Lee began going to martial arts movies, especially those of Bruce Lee. "I once sat in a theater and watched 'Enter the Dragon' 14 times," he said. "How fast (Bruce Lee) was, his power and his techniques, made me and all of my friends dream about being that good. "I used to tell my dad 'I want to be like him.' My dad told me the only way was to push yourself and work harder." Nonetheless, the adult Harlan doesn't feel that film-style kung fu tells the whole story of the Chinese arts. "The way they introduce it in the movies, with people flying in the air, makes people from other styles say that kung fu is only show. People should get to know the Chinese arts more in depth, instead of just looking at it from the outside. They see a technique in a movie and say 'that is flashy but it wouldn't work.' We do have our flashiness; in forms competition, if you just do something plain, you will not place. But we also have our self-defense system, where the self-defense forms come from. Try to look really deep into the system and see what you can get out of it instead of looking at it and saying that isn't going to work."
And Lee does know what works on the street, though he assiduously avoids fights whenever possible. "In our society, there are killings every day," says Lee. "You have to learn to survive, but if you can, step away from a confrontation, because nowadays people take life too cheap. To me, self-defense and martial arts are learned in case you get in a situation where you cannot walk away. If you can walk away, the better for you." Nonetheless, two circumstances left him with few options. When a martial artist from another style was downgrading Lee's system and boasting that he would beat Lee in a fight, Lee merely looked the other way, though "it was irritating to me to a point," he says. One day they crossed paths and Lee told the antagonist, "'I don't know you and I have nothing against you. If you have something to say, we can talk about it.' He started getting real cocky and he called me chicken. My dad always taught me, people can call you names; just swallow it and walk away. I swallowed it but I didn't walk away. It was in the parking lot and he had his friend with him. I said 'okay, whatever happens, that is the end of it.' The first thing he did was try to shoot for my legs. I just dropped down on my ma; from there he tried to take me down. I open palm slapped him on the ear, which threw off his equilibrium, and then when he let go I came up with an uppercut and then I swept him off his feet. He dropped down, and I put a knee to his chest and said, 'Finished. No more.' The point is to defend yourself, not to kill or maim anyone." Even more dramatic was an incident from Lee's high school days when a young woman "didn't tell me she had a boyfriend when I asked her to the senior prom," Lee recalls with some chagrin. At 1:30 in the morning the day of the dance, the spurned boyfriend "brought twenty guys to my house," Lee recalls. "Five carloads pulled up and started calling for me. My dad, my brother-in-law and I went out, and my dad said to him, 'You know, you don't need this many people. If you want to do something, it should be between Harlan and you.' I said, 'What's fair is fair,'" In the structured fight that followed, Lee waited for the opponent to throw a punch, then countered with a block and threw a chin sum kin, a punch thrown to the chest. "Chin sum kin means 'center punch to break the heart,'" he explains. "Street fighting is not like the movies where it lasts five minutes. If you get in a good counter, three hits will do it. It's not a game, it's a life or death situation. Three techniques, if you execute them right, then you don't have to go on. No one wants to be bobbing and weaving for five minutes." And as if there needed to be more proof that life really isn't like the movies, though Lee won the fight, he still had to ask his cousin to the prom as a last-minute replacement.
The Tournament Scene
But though Lee clearly had what it took to defend himself on the street, his father's philosophy was an unwritten restriction on entering tournaments.
"Kung fu was not made for self-glorification, or to be bragged about," said Mr. Lee. "It is made and learned for one's self."
As he grew older, Mr. Lee still greatly believed in this principle, but also saw the joy and excitement that tournament competition could bring to his students. They could enter without losing their humility and respect for the art.
"It would teach them to respect their opponents," Mr. Lee said. "By doing so they also learn to remain humble to others."
Harlan Lee entered his first tournament in 1987. "I used to go to tournaments just to watch," Lee said. "At the time, Chinese martial arts tournaments weren't that big-time.
"I went to one and noticed they were accepting competitors for a Chinese martial arts division. I signed up right there."
There were 12 competitors in his division. Lee placed first in his division in forms and weapons, the two categories he entered. Since then, he has entered several tournaments every year. His father has been his inspiration. "My dad never entered a tournament in his life," said Lee. "When I'm competing, it's almost like he's the one that's out there instead of me. I feel like he's guiding all my moves."
Grand championships Lee has won include the National AAU Chinese Martial Arts Division from 1990-93, the Tiger Balm International in 1992 and 1993, and the University of California at Berkeley National Wushu Championship in 1994 and 1995.
For Lee, his achievements are a continuation of a family history started by his father almost 60 years ago. "My dad's experiences in martial arts were the beginning of the direction both he and I would take in our lives," said Lee. "In a way, his history is also mine."
In 1937, the elder Lee joined the Jing Moo Chinese Physical Culture Association, the first Chinese martial arts club opened outside of China. Membership was restricted to Chinese. "It was almost impossible for an outsider to join," Mr. Lee said.
Mr. Lee described himself as an average student at the beginning, held back by an asthmatic condition which made him reluctant to train. A horrifying moment in intermediate school began the direction of Mr. Lee's legacy. An incident of mistaken identity became the turning point in his life.
"One of the other students had a serious disagreement with another boy in school," he said. "One day, six of his friends dragged me into a bathroom, held me down and beat me senseless. They thought I was the one who had threatened their friend.
"I told myself I would never let this happen again."
Mr. Lee began training fanatically. "I found myself getting better and reached a point where I never wanted to stop," he said. His intense dedication was noticed by his sifu, Lum Dai Yong, who began training Mr. Lee privately in addition to the hours spent with the club.
Sifu Lum established his own martial club in 1941, and took his prized pupil with him. Upon Sifu Lum's death in 1957, the Gee Yung Chinese Martial Arts Association was handed down to Master Lee. He still heads the club and finds continuing enjoyment in developing new students. "'It is only through teaching I can be sure that this art will continue on," he said. "If I could see any of those six boys today, I would tell them 'thank you.'"
From Tournaments to Teaching
Harlan Lee plans to cut back on entering tournaments and devote more time to being an instructor. "Everyone expects Master Arthur Lee's son to win a tournament," said Harlan, who works with assistant head instructor Ricky Der, assistant instructor Wesley Cheng and junior instructor Gene Wong at his San Francisco school.
"The greater satisfaction for me is to see my students do well. It shows that what my dad taught me, I was able to pass on to them."
Lee's students range in age from four to 42. The differences in age means the teaching techniques have to be varied. "Kids have a shorter attention span," he said. "You have to keep them constantly motivated. When I was small, I only wanted to play. I know they are that way too.
"Adults are easier since you constantly have their attention. When you explain something, they grasp it easier than kids do."
At the same time, Lee has also become a student again. "I'm learning different systems from my uncles and my father's close friends," he said. "I'm learning San Shou (a form of free style fighting) from Sifu Bob Kwong Ming Lee, and I'll be learning from Sifu Fu Hang Ng, who is the Honorary President of the Choy Lay Fut Federation in Hong Kong. My uncle, Sifu Ming Lum, has also shown me a different side of the martial arts."
Lee believes beginning to train in these styles is not a new endeavor, but the continuation of a lifelong experience of learning. He feels it is important to credit all the masters who have contributed to that experience. "Sifu Clarence Lee introduced me to the Bak Sil Lum system of hands and weapons form," Lee said. "I went to China in 1992 and trained with Sifu Wong Fei Ling who showed me the internal and external system of Shaolin breathing exercises (chi kung). Master Toddy Sitiwatjana taught me the art of Muay Thai, along with Kru Sam Phimsoutham."
Lee also uses modern training techniques to complement his skills in these ancient martial arts forms, "Michael Quiocho developed the progressive resistance weight training program I use every day and helped me develop the conditioning that is vital in tournament competition," Lee said.
Lee is particularly enthusiastic about San Shou competition, which is taking great efforts to be more exciting to watch than point karate, as well as allowing practitioners from all different styles to compete. "When I went to the World Championships, I saw the Chinese martial arts background, but I also saw different techniques from different styles. So, yes, there are a lot of different styles that want to get away from the point system too and see how they can have semi-full contact," says Lee. "I think the rules work for everyone, because after your takedown you have your trapping, you have your grappling and then of course you have your kicking techniques. I believe that it favors every art form."
Lee feels that San Shou's main goal is to demonstrate to people that Chinese arts have strengths that work on the street. "Chinese martial arts are not known for full contact. Full contact sports are thought to be boxing, kenpo or jujitsu. You never hear about kung fu. Everyone thinks kung fu is you do your forms or you do your weapons and you win a trophy. San Shou will make it more entertaining and it will also bring the full-contact kung fu aspects to the public."
Of his specific goals, he says simply, "I am trying to extend this art." Asked if he is really concerned about that aspect rather than his personal future, he answers, "Well, yes, because I am going to retire from competition soon. When my students win, to me it shows the public, 'Wow, the students from Arthur Lee's or Harlan Lee's class are winning!' What I teach or what my dad teaches works. That to me is the bigger satisfaction than when I compete myself and get a trophy."
This is a particularly good time to focus his efforts. The burden on Lee's time was heavily increased on Christmas Day, 1994, with the birth of his son, Brandon. Lee says being a father has made him appreciate the sacrifices his parents made for him and his brother and sister, and hopes he can raise his son with the same care and quality. Does he also plan to push his son into martial arts?
"I'll guide him but I wouldn't want to put the burden on him that be has to somehow carry my father's legacy on," Lee said, "I'd rather have him learn under my father, at least at the beginning, since my dad would have more patience. I would only want for him to grow as a person and enjoy the benefits of training without having him worry about winning tournaments. I'd also want for him to pursue the things he enjoys, and hope I can be there to support him in whatever he wants to do." For all his accomplishments as a martial artist, Lee feels the need to keep the proper perspective. "No matter how good you think you are in anything," he said, "there's always someone out there training twice as hard. My father taught me that the Chinese say that while you may think you have seen the highest mountain, there is always another one somewhere that is higher. Knowing that will always keep you humble. That humility will make you strive to be better, and expand your limits as a person."
Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 1997 .
Broc sanford :
Broc Sanford is a journalism student at the University of Hawaii and member of the Gee Yung Chinese Martial Arts Association under Sifu Arthur Lee.