Eagle vs. Eagle
Lily Lau & Tai Yim Explore Contrasting Eagle Styles

By Martha Burr

Hong Kong is a small place. How ironic, then, that two of today's kungfu grandmasters never met in that glorious island, the hometown of their youth, but instead traveled thousands of miles and a whole new lifetime to the huge country of America to finally become lifelong friends. Today we are fortunate to count among our top masters Lily Lau and Tai Yim, two martial artists who have brought not only the art of Eagle Claw and Hung Fut kungfu to these shores, but also the development of these respective lineages as well.

Comparison, in kungfu, is not a judgement, but instead at its best a pathway to greater understanding. Epistemologically speaking, we are always in search of our origins, our connections, what we hold in common as well as what sets us apart. What traces of technique still remain of Shaolin in our Southern styles? How does the tiger of one system vary in another? Questions like these are basic, yet essential to our synthesizing the great band width of kungfu, if that is our inclination. With this in mind we found a perfect opportunity to sit down with these two great masters to compare a single animal style - the eagle - in two very different systems. One northern, one southern, each incorporates the essence of the eagle in vastly different ways.

The Eagle or the Egg? Origins...
Tai Yim had heard a lot of stories about Lily Lau when he was growing up. "She was always in the Hong Kong kungfu magazines, I was always looking at her picture," he recalls, smiling. "My articles were in there too, so there we were together in print. But somehow we never met. Even though I went to a lot of banquets and functions, and we knew a lot of the same people, well, we still never knew each other. It was a very busy time." Tai Yim immigrated to America in his early twenties, in 1977, before fate had the chance to bring them together, settling in Maryland to start his school. But, fate was merely postponed. Lily Lau came to America in 1989, opened a school in California, and the two soon met and became close friends. They shared a Hong Kong cultural past, many acquaintances, and a lifetime of hard kungfu practice and study, as well as the same goal of promoting kungfu in the U.S. "Now," he says, "I am so happy we can be together in the same magazine again."

Likewise, Lily Lau remembers, "When I was growing up studying Eagle Claw, I heard a lot about Hung Fut and Sifu Tai Yim, but I never had a chance to meet him, though I often saw his students' demonstrations."

The eagle is another thing they have in common. "I'm an animal lover," says Tai Yim, "My favorite TV shows are animal documentaries, my favorite channel is Discovery. I watch it every day. I know the eagle pretty well. We had one for a brief time when I was a kid. When I was growing up we had a little chicken ranch in our backyard. The eagles would fly over it, and look at the chickens as prey, and try to catch them. One day a young eagle landed there and we caught him to keep as a pet. We only had him for one week, and realized we had to let him go. An eagle needs to fly, to have freedom. So after that week we let him go. But it was a good chance to study the eagle.

"Three things I remember - the look of his eyes, the size of his sharp claws, and the huge, powerful wings. I remember picking up the eagle on my hand - that hurts! - there's lot of power in the claw. After that I admired the eagle even more, and would watch it hunt its prey, the master of the sky. When it puts its eyes on that prey, there's little chance for it to escape."

"I have closely studied the eagle myself," Lily Lau adds, "and I have found that the real eagle's movements and attacking are very similar to our system. When opportunity arises, both the Eagle Claw system and the real life eagle use speed and precision to take the opponent/prey. I hope that all the kung fu practitioners, and especially animal stylists, help to protect this animal species that we treasure and practice from in everyday life."

And what of the eagle style in this kungfu? "Eagle Claw and Hung Fut are both close range fighting styles," notes Tai Yim. "Both rely on power, precision and attacking pressure points."

Lily Lau adds, "The primary difference between Eagle Claw and the Hung Fut style is that Eagle Claw is a northern style and Hung Fut is a southern style - hence Eagle Claw has the characteristics of a northern style. The Eagle Claw system uses the eagle's talons, whereas the Hung Fut eagle style imitates the movements of an eagle's wings.

"Eagle Claw's fundamental techniques and strategy focus on grabbing, punching, chin na, tendon and joint manipulations, pressure points, choking, breaking, extending, jumping, and moving the opponent. We try to manipulate the opponent's entire body, we try to knock the opponent off balance like an eagle takes its prey in nature."

"Hung Fut," she adds, "is a southern style which emphasizes close range fighting, fast footwork, fast punching and palm techniques, ten animal styles, with less emphasis on chin na and kicking. The similarities of the two styles are that they both emphasize close range fighting, both use animal styles and pressure point attacks."

Legend of the Snake vs. Eagle
So many legends are attributed to kungfu, especially regarding the creation of styles. I ask the two sifu what they thought of the legend of the eagle fighting the snake, and the origins of the subsequent animal styles. Tai Yim responds, "The original legend I heard many times, of the eagle fighting with the snake, and how this perhaps inspired two masters to create different styles." Lily Lau adds, "When I was young, I also heard my father talk about the snake versus the eagle, and other masters would talk about the same story. Regardless of which animal had won, the bottom line is that it was a very evenly matched fight. If by chance two great masters were both in the same place and saw the eagle and the snake fighting, then the two great masters would have two different inspirations. The one master would discover the eagle talon and create the eagle claw system, but another one would come up with how the eagle would use his wings to attack and to confuse the snake to create a chance for the eagle's attack. That's the way the Hung Fut grandmaster imitated the eagle wings to include the Buddhist palm of the Hung Fut system."

Buddha Palm, Eagle Wing
Hung Fut is a southern Shaolin style, created by a Buddhist master Wun Lei in Fujian province who combined the best aspects of Fut Gar and Hung Gar. This marriage of styles took the strong stances and hand techniques of Hung Gar and balanced them with the internal movements and techniques of Fut Gar. And the Fut Gar, not without its own origins, contributed the eagle style to Hung Fut's 10 animals as well. Tai Yim explains, "I learned about Fut Gar from my sifu, Hung Yu Chung. The Hung Fut eagle style is the Buddha palm style, not the eagle claw. Buddha palm was handed down long ago, its origins are not recorded. It's much older than Hung Fut or Hung Gar."

The eagle techniques of Hung Fut use both hands as the wing of an eagle, employing a lot of slapping, and a great deal of circular movement. "The eagle," Tai Yim observes, "spirals in the sky. In Hung Fut, the body also spirals in movement, whether engaging in an attack or avoiding the opponent. One important thing is that you need really fast footwork, and Hung Fut combines Fut Gar footwork with Hung Gar footwork.

"The Buddha's Palm eagle techniques are not like a clean block, clean punch, but they have dodging, avoidance - you go around the side, slap the opponent, go around the other side. It's very soft, and balances the harder animal styles of the other 9 animals in Hung Fut. However, we do have the Buddha's Palm form, fut jon (), a pure animal set, where all its techniques are derived from the eagle's wing."

In contrast, the eagle techniques of Eagle Claw style rely heavily on chin na. Says Lily Lau, "To imitate the eagle one must understand the eagle's natural movements and the way they attack. One uses both hands in Eagle Claw as the talons or the beak in the form of the techniques described earlier - grabbing, hitting, etc. The main points of attack are focused on pressure points and joint locks and breaks; one must use speed, precision and develop a strong grip. First one uses the techniques to control the opponent, and if you are unable to control the opponent, then the strategy changes to attacking."

Eagle Claw's Chin Na, Hung Fut's Combinations
Eagle Claw uses a great deal of chin na in its techniques. Lily Lau remarks, "Once one grabs ahold then you can break using chin na, making the techniques more damaging as a whole. Regardless of whether it's eagle claw or chin na techniques, it is not easy to apply to a speeding punch, because even though you may have the speed to catch it, you may not have the power to break it. To be good at eagle claw chin na techniques you must practice very hard to develop the precision and power to use them effectively." The most essential fundamentals of Eagle Claw, she adds, are to train the strength of the finger forming the claw, the arms, develop quick and sharp eyesight, and a profound understanding of the chin na techniques and the body's pressure points.

The usage of the eagle style in Hung Fut, on the other hand, relies more heavily on using it in combination with other animal styles, particularly for the attack. "Combining the other animals in Hung Fut with the eagle is essential," says Tai Yim. "This gives you a variety of offensive and defensive techniques. Except for the Buddha Palm form, we rely on quick changes of style to be unpredictable to our opponent. We switch suddenly, from a slapping defense of eagle wing, to the snake - to strike suddenly. Or the leopard, to attack in a flash. This quick transformation from one to another is a big advantage of the animal styles."

The eagle style in Hung Fut is combined especially in the more advanced forms. Some advanced movements use one hand as a snake strike and one hand as an eagle, combined in a single technique. Hung Fut has a snake and eagle form, sei ying kuan () just for these two animal techniques. Tai Yim describes the strategy of this particular form: "The snake has a lot of quick strikes, where you bite (strike) and pull your hand back fast. The eagle in this form uses mostly circular movements. Combined with the strike of the snake, it is very effective.

"We also have a snake and crane form, sei hou sou (), which is another good combination. The eagle slaps from the outside, and the snake hits always from the center; but interestingly, the crane also pecks from the outside, always at the pressure points of the body. Where in Eagle Claw they grab and press on the pressure points, we hit instead of grabbing."

Eagle vs. Eagle?
I asked both Lily Lau and Tai Yim how they would fight each other, how an Eagle Claw stylist would fight a Hung Fut stylist. Lily Lau protested, laughing, at first, saying, "I know Sifu Tai Yim so well, I can't imagine this would ever happen, we are much too good friends!" So I assured her I was not trying to start any brawls, just hypothetically looking at different styles' strategy. So she replied, "Because I know the Hung Fut system, I believe the Eagle Claw stylist would have to resort to longer range fighting methods, using pressure points, throws, kicking and ground fighting."

Tai Yim answered the same question, also smiling, and replying, "If the Hung Fut person has to fight the Eagle Claw person, they had better watch out, and never let the Eagle Claw stylist grab you. Do whatever you can to avoid them, using fast footwork and body movements to dodge them. You would strike, using techniques like snake or crane, very fast techniques, and make sure you don't get into any grappling situations where they can use their chin na on you. Just strike, and get out of the way."

Variations on a Theme
Finally, I asked Tai Yim and Lily Lau about their experiences regarding variations of their styles, inquiring about how the styles have evolved differently within the different schools and lineages.

"There are a lot of eagle claw styles and techniques," notes Lily Lau, "but I can only tell you about my lineage since I am not familiar with the others. Mine can be traced back to China to the founding hometown of Hobei province. Even now my classmates are teaching the exact same style back in the founding village. Lately, there are a lot of new "eagle style" schools springing up like the modern wushu eagle claw and the Shaolin Temple eagle claw. The Shaolin eagle claw can be traced back to the Fanzi Quan founder Shaolin monk Lei Chung. He wrote a secret text of the Fanzi Quan eagle claw style, so therefore the Shaolin did have an eagle claw system, almost identical to mine. Now, however, the forms are either shortened or not complete. That may be due to the Cultural Revolution or other disasters that occurred at the Shaolin Temple. Regarding the modern wushu eagle claw, it just demonstrates the shape of the eagle claw movements, but there are no useful combat techniques found in the style. If only the modern wushu style adopted the traditional techniques into its style - then it would be perfect. Also, I heard about some 'southern eagle claw systems' in Kowloon's New Territory, but when I saw the demonstration, I noticed that the majority of techniques are that of Hung Gar, and very few eagle claw chin na techniques."

The significance of these observations of Eagle Claw poses interesting questions for kungfu historians, and leaves the topic ripe for further study. Hung Fut's origins and variations also hold a tremendous amount of interest and comparative study. "I can see aspects of Hung Fut," he remarks, "in contemporary Fut Gar practitioners, like Sifu Arthur Lee, who I've seen demo many times. When I see his performance I get a warm feeling. I also saw Sifu Chen Wing Chi, a Fut Gar stylist from Canada, in 95 at the World Championships, and I could see distinct similarities in what we do, especially in the staff form.

"I have a classmate from Hong Kong who studied Hung Gar first, and so there is more Hung Gar mixed into his Hung Fut style. Another Hong Kong classmate, who was also a colonel in the Chinese army, showed me how he combined Southern Dragon style with Hung Fut, really making a very interesting new combination. Me, I'm stubborn, and I'll never change. But we need both kinds of people in kungfu, some who never change, and some who do. That way we can see the past, and also see the future."

While their very different paths have led to a common road, the singular friendship of Tai Yim and Lily Lau continues to bridge this past and future, making sure that the circle remains unbroken.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2001 .

About Martha Burr :
Tai Yim may be contacted at Tai Yim Kung Fu School, 10730 Connecticut Ave, Kensington MD 20895, (301) 946-4211; e-mail Taiyimkungfu@erols.com Lily Lau may be contacted at Lily Lau Eagle Claw, 4475-G Treat Blvd., Concord, CA 94521 (925)-689-6868.

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