Fierce Tiger Descending the Mountain

By Gene Ching

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Kung Fu Tai Chi November + December 2017 Kung Fu has a unique and intimate relationship with film unlike any other discipline.  The Kung Fu movie genre encompasses tens of thousands of films, arguably more than all the films devoted to sports and similar practices combined.  Kung Fu movies enjoyed a Golden Age that began in the seventies and went into the eighties.  Bruce Lee's first Kung Fu film was The Big Boss (1971), and by the middle of the seventies Jackie Chan rose to fame, to be followed by Jet Li in the early eighties.  Beyond these internationally recognized stars, the Golden Age was really driven by two leading Hong Kong studios, Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest, cinematic grind-houses that cranked out dozens of Kung Fu films every year.  Any true fan recalls those films with reverence – those extravagantly long fight sequences captured in a single continuous shot where each actor's entire body was completely in frame.  The action was showcased so clearly, no quick cuts, no CG effects, no camera angles hiding stunt-people.  Those actors had solid Kung Fu.  And it was traditional Kung Fu, not flying flashy tricking kicks or flowery modern Wushu that dominates today's martial arts movies.  The traditional Kung Fu style that ruled the silver screen during the Golden Age of Kung Fu Films was Hung Gar (洪家).

Current action stars Donnie Yen and Philip Ng have trained in Hung Gar, but the roots of Hung Gar dominance on the silver screen go much deeper.  The most revered character in Kung Fu film was based on the folk hero Wong Fei Hung (1847–1924 黃飛鴻), a real-life leading exponent of Hung Gar.  No one really knows how many Wong Fei Hung films have been made because they came from so many studios.  Beyond the movies, there were at least four Chinese TV series based on Wong Fei Hung.  Even Disney depicted Wong in Jackie Chan's Around the World in 80 Days (2004).  And Wong keeps reappearing, such as in Eddie Peng's Rise of the Legend (2014).  What is clear is who played Wong the most, an honor held by Kwan Tak-Hing (1905–1996 關德興).  Kwan played Wong more than any actor ever portrayed the same role in all of movie history, some 80 films or more.  Kwan was a genuine exponent of Hung Gar who consulted with students of Wong's real-life pupil Lam Tsai Wing (1861–1942 林世榮), one of whom was Lau Cham (劉湛).  Lau's son, Lau Kar-Leung (aka Liu Chia-Liang 1934–2013 劉家良), was a leading action director for Shaw Brothers studios.  His collaborations with Gordon Liu (aka Lau Ka-Fai 劉家輝) led to some of the greatest Kung Fu films of all time, classics like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), Dirty Ho (1976), Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter (1983), and Legendary Weapons of China (1982), to name just a few.  The style of fighting was Hung Gar, easily recognized by the style’s signature hand position with the index finger pointed to heaven, the Bridge Hand (kiu sau 橋手).  In many of those films, complete recitals of traditional Hung Gar forms were demonstrated.  “The choreography is fantastic,” gushes Robin Leong, a master of Hung Gar who is also a movie star.  “And this is in the seventies.  They're flying in the air without all this CG stuff.  I love it.  I could watch it all the time.  I never get sick of it.  You could see it fifty times and never get sick of it.  That tells you something.  That's a perfect example of what it is about traditional martial arts.  Just like Bruce Lee movies, it stands the test of time.  The action of it – compared to martial arts films now, you can't remember them.  You just can't.  I think people can see that the heart and soul aren't into it, like you see in the Shaw Brothers.  I can't even remember any good martial arts films I've seen recently, you know?  Because I know there's a lot of CG, big bangs, action here and there, it doesn't have the same effect.  I think that epitomizes the comparison of today's martial arts world or action world, compared to the traditional martial arts world.  They stand the test of time.”

Two Tigers Stalking

Master Robin Leong (梁侠儿) is the son of Grandmaster John S. S. Leong (Cover Master January–February 2008 梁崇), an American Kung Fu pioneer.  He established one of the first public Kung Fu schools on American soil, the Seattle Kung Fu Club, in 1963.  It still stands today, retaining several students who have been there since the very beginning.  That’s a test of time few schools can claim.  Like every child of a leading Kung Fu master, Robin started training early.  “When you're four and a half, you have no choice,” admits Robin.  But he holds no animosity whatsoever for his precocious indoctrination and credits all of his success to Hung Gar.  When it's in your blood, you know no other way.

Within the Chinese title for master, sifu (師父), the fu character literally means "father."  But when you're growing up in America, and your sifu really is your father, it's different.  Your dad is your dad.  “Growing up I would always watch the exhibitions.  I remember, maybe it was 1975 or '76, in a big crowd, watching him from the stands.  But he's my dad, so it was just like him doing his job.  I really got a sense when I saw him performing, bending the rebar with his throat.  I always asked him, 'How do you do it?'  He always said, 'Just train hard.  Then you can do anything.' [laughs] When I first saw him perform that, the reaction he got from everybody, I kind of got a sense of how respected he was in the martial arts community, and just the community in general.  Then, as he started to do all his charity exhibitions, city council members, mayors, governors, started coming to the events.  I got the idea what he's all about, what he's accomplished.  It's quite rare in this day and age.  He's always said, 'It's never about yourself.  It's about the others.'

“I remember my first day of classes,” continues Robin, reminiscing, “walking up the red staircase, the famous red staircase, and just going through the motions of the class.  My main impression was the wall, the lion heads.  I remember my first day.  I was sitting in horse stance for 45 minutes – a hour.  Actually, I was just daydreaming, so just looking back on that, even today the school has not changed.  That's the beauty of it.  There's no change.  The pictures are all in the same place.  That's what it is.  Consistency.  Consistency is the key.”

Double Dragon Leaving the Sea

Today, Master Robin Leong has all the hallmarks of success that any martial artist might desire.  A former martial arts champion, he founded an international franchise of Kung Fu schools, Ch’i Life Studios, which teaches thousands of students his beloved discipline of Hung Gar.  He has been featured on the cover of magazines, not just this issue of Kung Fu Tai Chi, but also the Singapore edition of Men’s Health in 2004.  He’s starred in several feature films and on television in several scripted TV series as well as being a TV personality covering lifestyle and sports.  He’s even garnered critical acclaim for live theater performances.  Most of all, he’s a devoted father and works hard to cultivate the next generation of Hung Gar practitioners through his Kung Fu Kids program which has attracted some 6000 children, turning them on to the venerated discipline and rich legacy of Kung Fu.

And while most celebrity martial artists study a mish-mash of dramatic exaggerated styles, Robin has remained true to his roots.  “No other martial arts,” declares Robin.  “Hung Gar.  When I was filming in Shaolin, we were there for a few months and I did a little Shaolin.  But it's always been Hung Gar.”

Leong has spent the last two decades in Singapore.  Growing up in Seattle's Chinatown, he always loved Asia and longed to connect with his Chinese roots.  But in the summer of '91, as a teenager, he felt differently.  “That summer, while still in university, my mom sent me to Hong Kong, not do anything but to learn Cantonese, to get me back to my roots, so she sent me to live there for the whole summer.  I was heartbroken.  I had a girlfriend.  I was like, ‘I don’t want to go.’  I was homesick.

“So this acting thing, I just came upon it because one day, I was walking the streets and a lady stopped me.  And she said, ‘Would you like to be in a movie?’ I said, ‘What?’  My uncle would always tell me to be careful – a lot of people that scam.  I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, just give me your name card.’  She gave me her name card and it was Golden Harvest.  I knew Golden Harvest from Bruce Lee films.  She said, ‘Please come down.  I want to put you on the screen – a screen test.’  I brought it to my uncle and he looked at it and said, ‘It’s real.’  We called it and it was a real place.  He brought me there the next day and I did the screen test and I met the director.  They were doing a teenage love movie, and they wanted me to be a love interest, a lifeguard.  And they signed me that day, right on the spot to do that film.  Five Lonely Hearts (1992五個寂寞的心) and it was directed by Fruit Chan (陳果).  That was his first one.”  Fruit Chan has gone on to become one of Hong Kong's leading directors.  Known for his films about everyday Hong Kong life, he often used amateur actors.  His 1997 film, Made in Hong Kong (香港製造), garnered 14 wins and 6 other nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Film and Best Director.  His upcoming project is Invincible Dragon starring Jin Zhang and MMA champion Anderson Silva.  Leong was only on set for less than a week for Five Lonely Hearts, but he got signed by an agent which led to another small role in a film with another renowned director, Peter Ho.  “So that was a great summer,” recalls Leong.  “It was very fun.”

Leong returned to America to earn a degree in business with aspirations of going to law school.  But after graduating, he decided to return to Hong Kong for another summer.  That was 1995.  He was doing some modeling work and got a job in Singapore to do an ad campaign to attract Hong Kong people to Singapore for the 1997 handover when the 99-year British lease on the territory expired.  This exposure led to a successful acting career (despite the fact that he was American)  and the founding of his international Kung Fu school.  “So the acting thing was just by chance.  Everywhere I went, from Hong Kong to Singapore, I was told I wasn’t able to work because of my accent.  And then, they made a role for me.  I did a police drama.  And then they wanted me to join the Chinese-speaking market so they hired a tutor for me, six days a week, two, three hours a day.  That was around 2001.  My first Chinese show had good reception.  I did a martial arts series in Shaolin, that’s why I spent a few months there – The Challenge (谁与争锋).  It was a popular show.  There’s a link to all the Singapore TV.  Mediacorp owns all the rights.  So there is a website with all of the dramas and sitcoms on there.  They have a whole library of it.  The funny thing was everything I’ve done in Singapore is they had to justify my American accent.  So the first one was I was an investment banker from America, first time in Singapore.  Then the Chinese drama, the martial arts one, I was an American champion in Shaolin to compete.  The Police drama, probably the role I’m most known for, Triple Nine, I was in Singapore and I went to university in America.  And then there was a Chinese role where I had to play a mute.  A mute! [laughs]  So it was very funny.  And during this whole time, I was asked to do the Blue Room.  Nicole Kidman made it famous back in the year 2000.  I played a dual role.  That was a live stage performance.  Then after seven years of that, I was also hosting shows.  I was working with Channel News Asia, doing lifestyle programs and sports shows because sports have always been my passion.  That’s how I got into it.  It’s by accident.”


Simultaneously Lifting the Sun and Moon

Ironically, it was Master Leong's cinematic career that led to the founding of his schools – Ch’i Life Studios.  Leong explains.  “After the martial arts drama came out, 2002–2003, it was well received and very popular.  People were asking me, ‘Do you have a school?’  They wanted to learn.  Ironically, the first family that came up to me was a Japanese family.  They said, ‘Oh, my son is a big fan of the show.’  So it started with him.  I said, ‘Well, I don’t have a place.’  They said ‘Teach him privately first.’  So it started with him and then his dad joined in, then I started a school in Singapore.”

Although steeped in tradition, Ch’i Life Studios takes a modern approach to martial arts tutelage.  Hung Gar has a well-established lineage, and certainly, given Master Leong's bloodline, that legacy is accessible to any Ch’i Life Studio member.  But the policy of the institutions is more open door than the secretive Kung Fu clans of old.  “Ch’i Life Studios is actually for all martial arts,” explains Leong.  “It’s kind of like a community center in an upscale area, so there’s Taekwondo classes, Karate classes, Capoeira classes, Kung Fu classes; but as the years went on, only the Kung Fu was more popular.  It’s my thing – the idea was, instead of doing it at a community center, it’s a special area, a nicer neighborhood area, and smaller classes so we could stress on personal attention.  So that’s how it grew.  Now we have almost 4000 students in Singapore and multiple facilities.”

Ch’i Life Studios is now in three countries.  It is still going strong in Singapore.  Leong also established a school in Redmond, Washington, part of his father's Seattle Kung Fu Club – East.  By popular demand, he also opened a third location in one of the world's most rapidly growing economies, the People's Republic of China.  “I didn’t really want to touch China,” confesses Leong.  “That was about 2005 when I was first asked.  Finally I went to China in 2008.  I wish I went earlier because it’s a huge market.  My first master, who I hired to teach the kids, was actually a stuntman from the TV station but I never met him.  He became my partner in Beijing because in China, you need China partner.  He brought me up there and then I opened in Shanghai in 2012.  And now I’m back here.  I’m looking in California.”

Children Bowing to Buddha

Here in America, the vast majority of martial arts schools pay their bills by catering to one main demographic – kids.  Some naysayers deride this marketing, claiming strip-mall schools sell the martial arts out as daycare centers, but few of those critics ever tried to keep a brick-and-mortar school open.  Master Leong sees it differently.  Everyone has to start somewhere and it's best to start young like he did.  “The Kung Fu Kids program specializes in kids of all ages, just getting their feet wet in Kung Fu,” clarifies Leong.  “That’s about 80% of the enrollment.  Now, for the adult classes, we have Shaolin Kung Fu classes, Shaolin Temple style, because in Singapore I would have Shaolin guys lead our classes.  Same in Shanghai.  My partner in Shanghai, I recruited him for a live Wong Fei Hung show that I produced – a theater show.  I recruited him from Shaolin because we were looking for some great performers and I went over to Shaolin, and this one guy, his name is Wang Shuai (王帅), this very short guy, but he’s like ten years old.  He did this great impression of Bruce Lee.  ‘I want to show you.  Wataaah!’  Then he lifted up his shirt and he had a six-pack.  More like an 8-pack!  He specializes in flips.  Then I brought him to Singapore.  He’s another master that I brought over and now he’s running the Shanghai school.  Now he’s all grown up.”

Traditional Kung Fu was taught by rod, an obsolete pedagogical approach nowadays.  Many contemporary schools must water down the teachings in order to keep the interest of today's youth, but Master Leong refuses to compromise.  “No modification.  It’s either Shaolin Kung Fu or Hung Gar.  I was teaching the Hung Gar.  But since I’m not in Singapore, then it’s just the Kung Fu Kids program.  Now it’s just Hung Gar in Seattle.  When I was over there, it was Hung Gar – traditional – it's not modified in any way.  And also the traditional Shaolin.

“There's no shortcuts.  And that's why I started the Kung Fu Kids program.  You can see this new generation – there's so much distraction.  There's so many choices.  The Kung Fu Kids program keeps the traditional teachings, but adds the fun element to it so when they get to that certain level, they can go traditional classes.  It just lets them to find their interests.  That was the main reason why I wanted to do that because I didn't want to lose the traditional.  Because of all these different things that they are doing, you know, iPad, other sports, this and that, I just wanted them to have a little more enjoyment.  I'm not saying that Hung Gar is not enjoyable.  I enjoy it.  But the traditional teaching is very rigorous.  It's hard.  And for a four-year-old or a five-year-old, you can't put them in horse stance for an hour without smacking them with a stick.  Obviously you can't do that.  If they have a bad experience in a martial art, they don't want to do it ever again.  So that has been my goal, and I'll say it's a dilemma because I'm not modernizing it.  I'm kind of tweaking it…  So I kind of ration it out so it's not just regimented – horse stance, kiu sau, bong sau (wing hand 膀手), next.  They get a little bit more freedom to really holistically find their way and their passion on their own.  But the main training area inside of it is stances, stances, and stances.  That is never ever compromised.”

It's a realist point of view.  The martial arts aren't for everyone and only a portion of those practitioners will pursue traditional styles.  But everyone must start somewhere.  “We have students that really excel and they go into the hardcore Shaolin or Hung Gar program,” says Leong with pride.  “They do very well.  But seventy percent are there as a novice.  They just want to get exercise.  But we have that thirty percent that want competition, that want to be serious.”

Tiger Roaring with Crane Calling

In the era of MMA and Modern Wushu, the fate of Kung Fu's venerated legacy hangs in the balance.  Will it be passed down to the next generation as it has been for so many generations before?  Who will step up to carry it on?  “I never preach that Hung Gar is better than all.  I can't say that.  From personal experience, all I can tell you is that Hung Gar is the perfect balance.  It's an art form but it's also about character.  Every time you want to give up, you push it a little harder to make sure you don't.  And it's because the movements – and this isn't just Hung Gar but any traditional martial art – you're always learning, always learning every day.  But it's the perfect balance of the joy of getting through – I make it sound like it's torture [laughs].  To some people, it is – the joy of breaking down that fear of failure through your own merits.  Because when you're doing a class, obviously you have a lot of people in the class, it's not pressure on you that you want to outdo the other person.  In Hung Gar, you are trying to outdo yourself.  You got to keep improving yourself otherwise you cannot do some of the movements and you cannot cheat that.  You can't cheat it with like CG in a film or something like that.  That's what it is.  You have to make sure what you're doing is the correct way.  So you're not going to fall over, you're not going to lose your balance, and lose breath because in Hung Gar, you're using the qi a lot.  Your inner energy and your breath.  And to combine the two, in my experience doing, performing and training, is such a great feeling of becoming one with the whole.  The whole art form.  It's just – I can't explain it.  What I like to tell people is just getting that satisfaction of knowing that no matter how much you want to give up, that you don't.  You break through that fear of giving up.  And it just gives you that confidence and motivation to improve.

“All traditional martial arts are at a crossroads.  It's unfortunate but it's a reality.  With MMA, some people are interested in it for the sport – in action – from the TV.  What I've seen at my father's school, the traditional Hung Gar in Seattle is alive and kicking.  It's not like in the heydays of the '70s and '80s – Shaw Brothers, the Kung Fu TV series, and Bruce Lee – that was the golden age of all martial arts really.  So I was concerned worldwide for traditional martial arts.  I would always get asked questions about traditional martial arts dying and I think in some parts of the world, yes, I think it's true.  Maybe it's slowed down, but saying that it's dying is a bit premature.  It's up to the new generation to make sure that traditional teachings are put in the forefront as much as possible to continue the traditions.  It would be a great mistake for the martial arts to let traditional martial arts either die out or become non-existent basically.  That's the foundation – the foundation of everybody's flashy styles, all these new styles, this and that, MMA, but you need to look at the roots.”

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine November + December 2017

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About Gene Ching :
For more information about Master Robin Leong's Ch’i Life Studios, visit More of this exclusive interview can be found on, along with video of Master Leong performing Hung Gar at the Kung Fu Tai Chi 25 Anniversary Festival Grandmasters LIVE!

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