The Forbidden Fist of Bak Mei Kungfu

By Ching Hing Wah

\"\" Grandmaster "Fishmonger" Qiang and his Son, Zhong Luo
The most notorious villain of kungfu is Bak Mei. Blamed for the greatest tragedy of kungfu history, legend tells us that Bak Mei was a Wu Dang priest who betrayed the southern Shaolin Temple to Manchu tyrants during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911.) The temple was destroyed, the library burned and the monks killed. Actually, Bak Mei is a nickname that means "white eyebrow." Due to the legendary Bak Mei's nefarious legacy, white eyebrows are now the hallmark of evildoers in countless kungfu movies.

Despite this stigma, Bak Mei kungfu master Zhong Luo remains passionate about his family's art. The son of Bak Mei Grandmaster Mai Yu Qiang, Luo comments on Bak Mei's infamy. "During the Qing, before the war started, all the Shaolin temples collected people from all the different kungfu circles, and created their own tournaments. Basically they created their own little world. So the government got intimidated by all these different martial artists who stuck together - getting bigger and bigger - hundreds of thousands - getting too big. The truth is that during the Qing dynasty, 90 % of the army, the bodyguards and those who worked for the government and the emperor, were all Bak Mei style. They don't realize that the reason those guys got hired was because they could really fight."

"Unfortunately, a lot of people think Bak Mei is a traitor because they killed all the monks and burned all the temples - thousands dead. After that, the Bak Mei style disappeared for almost a whole century. The people were saying 'Anybody who does Bak Mei, deserves to die.' Their houses got burned down, their wives got killed, their children disappeared. People got revenge almost the whole century." Bak Mei practitioners who fought to preserve their kungfu faced bitter hardships until very recently.<

The Fighting Fishmonger
Today, Bak Mei Grandmaster Mai Yu Qiang is one of the most respected kungfu names in China. But like Bak Mei, Mai Yu Qiang is only a nickname. His real name is Luo Rong Qiang, born in 1938 in Futshan (Buddha Mountain,) Canton. His father, a Hung Gar master, passed away when he was only six, so Grandmaster Luo studied Hung Gar, Praying Mantis and other assorted styles with his eight uncles, each a kungfu master in his own right. In 1957, he began studying Long Ying (dragon form) the first of the two styles that he would eventually master, under Master Jun Gen. Then in 1960, he began his tutelage in Bak Mei, which his great grandfather had brought into his family fighting arts, under Master Lao Siu Leung.

During that time, the Luos were very poor like most of China. Grandmaster Luo cut fish at the wholesale market while his wife cooked for the employees of a big factory. Earning only a few dollars a month made raising two sons and a daughter very difficult, especially since Zhong Luo's brother was a sickly child and required expensive treatments. So in order to make ends meet, Luo resorted to illegal no-holds-barred fights.

Luo organized underground open challenge matches at the market. What's more, he jumped into the ring whenever he could. His son, Zhong Luo, remembers the stories. "If you win, all those wholesale store owners gave a 100 lbs. of rice or a couple chickens or a couple fish, whatever. Those markets were huge, bigger then three Home Depots! All these people from different cities came to pick up fish or rice wholesale, driving little 3-wheel bicycles to market, then to their shops to sell. Every morning, my dad went to market to pick up fish to sell. On and off, he was fighting there about 2 years - sometimes every weekend, sometimes every month, depending on how much injury he got. After that he would teach people to go fight too, and he had a lot of students."

It was there that Grandmaster Luo earned his nickname Mai Yu Qiang (Fishmonger Qiang.) Selling fish for over half a century, he even won competitions for cutting fish. He is so skilled with a filet knife that he can gut a fish in six seconds flat. His son still keeps some of his father's fish cutting awards. Even today, the Chinese press always calls him Mai Yu Qiang, seldom his real name.

But reputation can be double-edged. During the Cultural Revolution of the 60's, the kungfu world suffered as did all of China. By 1972, the Red Guard caught Grandmaster Luo and threw him in prison for disturbing the peace, teaching people how to fight, and having connections to organized crime through his fight organizing. Many of his friends and fellow masters committed suicide in jail. Master Luo remembers being a little boy and visiting his father in prison in 1973. But incarceration did not break their spirit. In fact, Grandmaster Luo covertly taught his fellow prisoners so that when he was released in 1974, he had even more students - ex-cons - to help him teach.

In 1976, the next political event to influence today's kungfu, China's Open Door Policy, occurred. All across the nation, public kungfu schools opened their doors. Grandmaster Luo's school began in his hometown in Canton, the nucleus of southern kungfu. It was a traditional kungfu school with no fees, just lucky red envelopes for the master during the holidays and the commitment to help out when necessary. Eventually, the school became well equipped with 30 sandbags for striking and dozens of rock buckets for finger jabbing training. Over 100 students were attending each night. By 1980, it was the biggest school in Futshan.

Recently, Grandmaster Luo received two of the highest honors for a kungfu master. During the celebrations for 50th anniversary of China last year, he was invited to Beijing to organize a phenomenal 80 lion performance. Luo is one of China's top martial drummers with over 20 years experience. His drum was amplified to lead all 80 lions in one of the grandest lion dance performances ever held. Furthermore, in Hong Kong, he was invited to play at the opening ceremony for the new airport and the longest bridge in the world. On that historic occasion, there were no lions, just the grandmaster and his drum.

Bak Mei at E Mei
There is more to the Bak Mei legend than the popular Shaolin versus Wudang story. Shaolin and Wu Dang Temple descend from the venerated Mount Song and Mount Wu Dang respectively. But there is a third mountain famous for kungfu, Mount E Mei. Beyond the defeat of Shaolin, it was at E Mei Mountain where Bak Mei kungfu demonstrated its formidable power. There, early Bak Mei stylists studied kungfu from a Tibetan Lama when formalizing this style.

Master Luo retells the tale. "Every year, they (Bak Mei masters) beat everybody up in the E Mei mountain tournaments. The Lama Temple in E Mei is huge. It's the biggest temple on that mountain. Inside, there were 4 or 5 different masters and they all have different loyal students. Everyone wanted to run the temple. The temple had money and reputation. Every year people go there, throw some money at the temple, burn incense, buy this, buy that. The Temple made a lot of money and they never paid rent. So they created a tournament. Whoever wins got the most power, more land, whatever. So for almost 20 years, the Bak Mei guys go in and kick people's asses. They fought so many years and never lost. Soft styles, other styles, big circle styles, they all lose."

"Most styles focus on defense. In Bak Mei the defense is to attack. The block is the punch. The defense is to go off and attack, way different from most other styles. It's aggressive - a lot of striking and killing moves. After they won so many years, the Qing dynasty government wanted to kill all these martial artists, so they paid whoever they could. They hired a lot of Bak Mei style people to start a war with the kungfu circle. When the big war was going on, 90% got killed by the Bak Mei people, so the Bak Mei style got a huge reputation as a traitor style because they killed their own kungfu people. After that revolution died down, the Bak Mei style almost disappeared. That doesn't mean nobody was studying and training -- only that the people cannot tell others. If people knew you were training in this style, you would get killed. If someone's grandmaster got killed by your style, and you're Bak Mei, they come after you. So after 100 years, it comes back out."

A Dragon with White Eyebrows
Young master Zhong Luo (Luo Han-Zhong) carries the tradition of his father's Bak Mei and Dragon style. Being the grandmaster's son, he began his kungfu study at the early age of three. At seven, he digressed to study circus for two years. For centuries, circus skills have been a common parallel discipline to kungfu. Luo trained in acrobatics and unicycles, but was badly injured during a circus competition. In an instant, his tendon popped and his circus career was over. Later, at age twelve, his father pushed him to into four years of hard, full-contact sparring competition.

Luo reflects on his transition from circus to combat. "I learned a lot of high kicks from that time (the circus.) After that, I jumped into the tournaments, and I really figured out the high kick doesn't work. I realized because most people who fight tournaments - my father agreed with me - fight the same weight. It works, sometimes. But if you're fighting some big old Samoans or big old whatever, a high kick just gives those people a chance to pick you up and throw you out. Especially, multiple fights or fighting in a small area, it's not practical."

"My family focuses on fighting skills and the hand skills. Bak Mei doesn't have too much kicking. Most kicks are below the waist, only the ball kick and knee kicks. Bak Mei is famous for quick footwork and fast hand striking. Power comes from speed. Long Ying focuses on the heavy-duty punch. Each move - one punch."

Speed and power. According to Luo, Bak Mei increases your speed and agility, while Dragon Style develops your power. It is a lethal harmony, fusing together for a devastating fighting style. "My body is considered big for a Chinese. My father was considered big for a Chinese guy when he was younger. A lot of people look at our bodies, they don't expect we can move quickly. That's why my dad is always telling me you've got to get quick before you get heavy. The Bak Mei style can make you a lot faster than you expect. We break the rules. Most people say you're big and kind of slow. That's not true. Our particular style really makes you quick."

"Whoever is very weak can train the Dragon. Long Ying has a lot of attitude. It's the King of the kungfu styles, a very aggressive style, over 300 years old. It really increases your punching power. The punching is from the ground up - from the foot, to the toe, to the fingertip. Everything concentrates together - hips, shoulder, back, legs and thighs - everything. Throw it out in one shot."

The White Eyebrow Dragon on Gold Mountain
Master Luo immigrated to America and has been teaching Bak Mei and Dragon style in the Mission District of San Francisco, California. Recently, he brought his father over for his first visit to America. "I've been showing him a lot of fighting - different tournament tapes - the past few days he has been here. He looks at most kungfu schools and 90% of the martial arts is more like exercise. Our particular style and our particular teaching focuses on street fighting. It's not much exercise."

"People have four different reasons for training in kungfu. Kungfu can be for looks. Some people train because they like the art. They just want to enjoy it. Some people train because they want the health - to help to circulate blood, (reduce) high blood pressure. Some train forms to make their confidence bigger and make themselves mentally better. The fourth reason is because they want to learn how to fight. They want to hit people and hurt people."

"Kungfu was originally created for people who want to learn how to fight. Unfortunately, these days martial arts has become more like a sport. A lot of kungfu schools utilize martial arts to become a moneymaker. We personally don't think that's right. You use kungfu for moneymaking, you have nice music and nice equipment, (but) it's not practical. Some of them ruin martial arts. Then some boxing guy says, 'Hey! Kungfu doesn't work!' Not me. However my school comes out, I do not what to have a shitty student. My father looks my student as his grand student. He always tells me, 'You have a smaller circle, you can build up slowly. Better than having a bunch of shitty people and coming out with students who really don't know anything.' They might know 20 forms, and a guy comes to attack them, they're going to fall, call 911."

"I think the worst thing about a lot of kungfu instructors is the day they start teaching is the day they stop training. In martial arts, you know and I know, if you don't train, you lose the breath. You lose the punching strength. You've got to keep it up. My dad still lifts weights four days a week and trains his students every day. I haven't stopped for years. Even now, I'm still teaching and training every single day. You can get older, you can train a little differently then young people with young bodies, but you've got to keep up yourself. I look at a lot of instructors and they are really out of shape. They tell people that it's a 'qigong belly.' No! That's a lie! That's too much beer and partying. There's no excuse if you do that for a living. For the rest of your life you cannot be out of shape. Keep yourself up. I look at my father at 63, he's still in pretty good shape for his age, apart from losing a little bit of hair." (laughs)

Today, Grandmaster Luo's Futshan school is still going strong. He still does seminars and has many students from different countries like Macao, Korea, Germany and France. He estimates that he has taught some 10,000 students over the years, not including his teaching for the army. For the past ten years, he has stayed out of the fighting ring. Now he serves as a judge and an organizer.

Young Master Luo's school is also beginning to produce Bak Mei and Dragon style fighters on American soil. His school is small yet hardcore. It is not open to everyone. Luo limits his classes to serious applicants only. Nor do his students compete in kungfu tournaments. Instead, he trains them to fight against the other styles like Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Jujitsu, Kickboxing, Muay Thai and of course, street fighters. After teaching himself English, he is always quick to voice his opinion on today's martial world. "I hope I don't offend, but I'm just telling the truth. Sometimes I think that too humble becomes too cocky. Some people don't give opinions. They don't say this guy's good. They don't say this guy's bad. Basically they don't criticize anybody. That's really arrogant. It's always good to come out with opinions. I can back it up."

Bak Mei (White Eyebrow)
The Bak Mei Kungfu of Grandmaster Mai Yue Qiang and Master Zhong Luo has twelve forms - ten empty hand and two weapons (double dagger and staff.)

The Bak Mei forms are:
Long Ying (Dragon Form)
The Long Ying Kungfu of Grandmaster Mai Yue Qiang and Master Zhong Luo has seven forms, including one weapon, the dragon pole. The Dragon pole is nine feet long and tapered. According to Master Luo, training begins with a wooden pole, then progresses to a bamboo pole, then to a metal water pipe. "Dragon pole you cannot use to fight, because no one brings that stick walking around the street. It's too long. Its training develops your wrist and your forearms and your punching power."

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2000 .

About Ching Hing Wah :
Master Zhong Luo may be contacted at his school - White Dragon Kung Fu Academy, 2799 Bryant St. San Francisco, CA 94110 (415) 643-8733 email:

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