Hung Gar's Lam Chun Fai

By Martha Burr

Bringing the Hung Family History, Legend and the War Palm to the 21st Century
My own personal odyssey back into the Hung Gar legacy was in 1995, when I traveled with my sifu Buck Sam Kong and his wife Nancy to Hong Kong to meet his sifu, the venerable Lam Jo. Walking into the small studio in Mongkok I was overwhelmed with history - the walls were covered with photos and articles of a century of kungfu people and events. A huge portrait of Lam Sai Wing dominated one wall, and a rack of well-worn weapons, including an old kwan dao engraved with a tiger and crane on the blade, stood in the corner. At 89, si-gung Lam Jo was vigorous and robust, his handshake strong, and his appetite at yum cha more than healthy. It was over dim sum and dinner that I was first introduced to Lam Jo's son Lam Chun Fai. I was struck with his intelligence, sensitivity, and deep knowledge of kungfu. While he and my sifu caught up on old times, I had a window into their youth, into the long kungfu nights in the tiny, intense Hong Kong studio under Lam Jo, young men taking on the mantle of the Hung Gar heritage.

Kong remembers Lam Chun Fai visiting him for his tournament in Hawaii in 1974, where they also went out on a short kungfu tour on the island and in LA, Las Vegas and San Francisco, with their kungfu brother Y.C. Wong. A black and white photo of the three of them on stage still hangs in Kong's LA studio.

I started my story on Lam Chun Fai two years ago when we met up once more in Hong Kong at the World Wushu Championships, where he was an official. He showed me his own Hong Kong studio packed with kungfu memorabilia, and I had another wonderful yum cha with him and Lam Jo and his family. My si-bak had fascinating stories to tell, both about growing up in Hong Kong, and also about Hung Gar's famous master Lam Sai Wing, Lam Jo's own sifu and uncle. He has since been traveling abroad, spreading the art of Hung Gar around the world. Here then, begins his story.

Inheriting Hung Gar's Legend
Growing up in the crucible of kungfu is both a wonderful and a difficult thing. In Hong Kong, everyone knows the name of Lam Jo. One of the last living grandmasters of a great generation of what many consider to be kungfu heroes, he is now in his nineties, and one of the few who can remember knowing Southern China's famous folk hero Wong Fei Hung. As the nephew of Lam Sai Wing, Wong's last disciple, Lum Jo lived and breathed Hung Gar, and went on to dedicate his life to preserving and propagating the art. Today his son Lam Chun Fai carries he torch, illuminating not only the legacy of his father, but of the entire lineage as well.

"My name was given by Lam Sai Wing, my great uncle," begins Lam Chun Fai. "He was born in 1860, and died in 1943, at 83. When my father was born his parents died, and Lam Sai Wing adopted him. He taught him everything about dit dar and kungfu growing up. It was very hard. Lam Sai Wing was a very stubborn guy." Witnessing Lam Jo's own strong personality, you realize some of this may have been organically nurtured.

Lam Chun Fai started playing kungfu when he was five years old. He recalls, "At that time, when I was growing up, I had a big interest in it, and I tried to practice and play better than the other students. At that time my father trained us real hard, he was very serious. Every morning we went to the mountain, we lived not far from it on Hong Kong Island. I'd go up the mountain at 5:30 am. to practice kungfu with my father and some students. I was 14, 15 years old."

At that time there were many other sifu from different styles that also trained up on the mountain in the early dawn hours. Lam Chun Fai remembers, "If my father saw another style, he'd ask me to take a look first. What is this style? My opinion, he'd ask me. What are his good points and bad points? How does he play? It was a continual martial examination. I saw a lot of different styles, different lineages."

This was a skill Lam Jo was passing down to his son, a sort of intuitive knowledge, an encyclopedic reference of living kungfu. As Lam Jo himself refined the Hung Gar he learned from Lam Sai Wing, part of his martial genius was also creating innovations that would become part of his lineage. Says Chun Fai, "I learned the Double Dragon sword from my father, he created it. My father was incredibly smart about kungfu, and very clever when he was young. When he went out to perform at a holiday or banquet and he'd see other sifu perform, and he could see a set one time, or two times, and he could remember. The whole set. He didn't learn from other sifu, only from Lam Sai Wing. But he was good friends with other sifu, and when they'd perform he learned and had a lot of knowledge."

Teaching and Bonesetting
Lam Jo's main school was in the Wanchai district of Hong Kong. There were perhaps 50-60 students in the school at that time. As a young teenager of 15 or 16, every day Chun Fai practiced together with my father, and helped him run his other two branch schools in Hong Kong, teaching different nights at different schools. "I also had to train my brothers and sisters," he notes. "My two sisters and three brothers all learned kungfu. Later, we all helped my father to teach. Now, it's only me and my brother. One sister still helps my dad every day with dit dar."

Lam Chun Fai says that at that time if you weren't playing kungfu well enough, it was because you weren't practicing enough. When that happened, watch out. "My father would get very mad. He always tried his best to make us much better. At that time I had no choice. My father told me I had to help him teach, to help patients in his dit dar clinic. I cannot say no."

Dit dar, or the art of bonesetting and Chinese medicine, is so closely tied to the Hung Gar tradition that it is virtually inseparable from it in Cantonese and Hong Kong culture. Even as a young boy Chun Fai studied the dit dar alongside his father, inhaling the pungent healing herbs, feeling injuries in patients to learn about muscle, bone and tendon. "I learned kungfu and dit dar at the same time," he says. "If you learn kungfu, you must learn dit dar first. Because in kungfu you may injure yourself, so it's important to know how to cure yourself. You must study dit dar for many years to get good experience.

"My brothers and sisters would also teach and do dit dar. My two brothers helped my father with the Kowloon school, and I would take care of the 3 schools on Hong Kong island. Several of my father's students, Y.C. Wong and Tang Kwok Wan also helped my father teach at that time. I taught morning, afternoon and night, 3 classes. If we had any spare time, we also practiced ourselves. We worked very hard."

Kungfu Society
While Chun Fai's long days were full of school and then kungfu until past midnight, the martial education continued, but so did the fun and excitement of being in the eye of the Hong Kong kungfu storm. "When I was a teenager I always performed in tournaments and doing demonstrations together with my father. We did the 2 man sets. My favorite was the dagger and spear with father, it was very fast and tough, very dangerous, because the spear touches the body a lot. My father, his students, my brothers - we'd just go out and perform the set, and edit on the fly."

Besides performing, there was a lot of socializing among the kungfu people at that time. Chun Fai remembers Kan Tak Hoi was a good friend of Lam Jo's, and many times they would perform together at banquets, festivals, and charity shows. The Hung family was friends with Kwan Tak Hing, the famous actor who portrayed Wong Fei Hung in 100 movies. However, notes Chun Fai, "He didn't play Hung Style. We performed together when he was more than 60. We asked him to come and do lion dance."

Kungfu people often came together for fundraisers, to raise relief money for disasters like floods in China. Whether for charity, holidays or socializing, there was always another aspect of kungfu performance in Hong Kong - and that was to show the art to other people. "We'd always go out and perform with the school," remembers Chun Fai. "Show the people our style, they'd want to come and learn."

As kungfu popularity grew in the 60's and 70's, Lam Chun Fai remembers the local Hong Kong shows thrown together by promoters. "They would rent a theater, and they'd have us performing kungfu and also ask actors and stars to come sing. It was very popular. When we learned kungfu in the old days the kungfu movies were not so popular. Only many years later. When I was 20 a movie producer asked me to do movies and become an actor. He wanted me to play Fong Sai Yuk. My father said no. Otherwise, I would do movies. If the first one was OK, then like the Wong Fei Hung series, they'd make 10-20 pictures. At that time the income was not so good. We didn't know acting would be so successful later." Nevertheless, he did make some guest appearances in Hong Kong film later on.

Fight and Insight
Lam Chun Fai Lam Chun Fai opened his own traditional Hung Gar kungfu school in Hong Kong when I was 18, continuing the traditions of his father. "Our purpose was not to fight," he says, "but to make people healthier, and learn self-defense. Some schools in the old days would tell their students to go out and fight. Go to the other schools and challenge them. Not us.

"Other schools would come to our school as well, to challenge us, challenge my father a lot. My father didn't like teaching free fighting - kungfu is for health, he would say, not free fighting. But sometimes we would join the tournaments and then practice for that, but he would not often teach this."

"At that time we are careful teaching students. When a student moves, I can tell if he knows kungfu, a lot or a little, and what style. Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Choy Lay Fut, I can tell. You have to be careful. Some people come to the school and say, "I haven't learned kungfu before." Why not say, I learned this style before, and now I want to learn Hung Gar? Years ago, people only had one sifu. Later, it was OK to learn from more than one person, but back in the old times, they were prejudiced against that."

In Hong Kong today much of that generation has gone. Lam Chun Fai's kungfu youth became tempered by his bank career, which he retired from nearly a decade ago to go back to teaching kungfu full time. "Before 1993 I was a bank manager as well. In the daytime I went to the bank, and afterwards I'd see patients and teach kungfu. I have three kids, they play kungfu but they don't teach."

On Down the Line
Since his retirement from the bank, Lam Chun Fai has shifted his teaching - and preserving the art of Hung Gar - into a higher gear. Freed from a daily schedule, he has been able to travel and give seminars. And the art that he has closely honed for a lifetime is finding its way into new hands across the continents, from Greece to Brazil. Both Lam Jo and Lam Chun Fai are determined that the art will not be lost, and as many nuances and subtleties of the style will also be preserved.

One of the classic sets created by Lam Sai Wing's father is the War Palm. It is the set Lam Chun Fai has chosen to teach abroad, as well as to the many foreign students who travel to Hong Kong to study with him. "In 1994 I went to Harvard University to teach War Palm. I had quit banking by then, and just wanted to do dit dar and teach kungfu. In Hong Kong nowadays we teach, but it's difficult, hard to find a center to teach in. Many sifu don't teach in their own school, because the space is too small for students to play.

I'm teaching more students now, some students are very interested in this set, and then subsequently in the whole system.

"War Palm (Chiu Ju) is a straight Lam Sai Wing set (have name in characters). Lam Sai Wing learned it from his father, who was also a Hung Gar stylist. His name was Lam Koi Chun. Lam Sai Wing studied from a lot of masters, he had had 6 or 7 sifus, and Wong Fei Hung was the last one. But when he followed Wong Fei Hung he knew his kungfu was very good. Wong Fei Hung already retired. He didn't want to take any other student. Lam Sai Wing was a butcher, selling pork, so every morning he cut the most special part of the pig and gave it to Wong Fei Hung. Later, Wong says OK, I take you as my last student. He saw Lam Sai Wing was sincere, diligent, and didn't give up."

The War Palm
In the War Palm, notes Lam Chun Fai, you are practicing power, hard power. "Lam Sai Wing created the War Palm, which is very good for practical use. It utilizes hip rotation, working the waist (jin jong) for power, and turning. It contains techniques not found in other sets for more practical applications. It develops power into a twist."

In the War Palm set, Lam continues, techniques are very fierce. Everything comes from the uppercut - it is very hard to block. You are cutting from underneath. This is a very practical technique. "War Palm is not good for looks," he says, "but practical use. Where you strike and the way you turn your waist trains you to develop power. The set contains the chui ju, a famous technique used to hurt the opponent's leg or hand."

Besides the efficient applications, performing the War Palm is also very good for health, especially helping internal circulation, much like the Hung Gar's famous Tid Sin Kuen.

Lam Chun Fai

My si-hing, Don Hamby has also traveled to Hong Kong with our sifu Buck Sam Kong, and recently returned there to learn more about the heritage with our si-gung Lam Jo and si-bak Chun Fai; continuing the Hung family desire for preservation, Hamby has been compiling Hung Gar history and knowledge to forward the art, and keep it living, something instilled in us by our sifu Buck Sam Kong. "Not many other Hung Gar lineages incorporated the War Palm into their teachings, "says Hamby. "The War Palm is a great beginner's set, because it incorporates strong stances, especially the horse stance, for strong legs, and heart and lungs. It has softness and hardness, using techniques like tiger claw and snake, and the footwork is very particular, educating a practitioner on transitioning from one stance to the next, shifting and turning, moving the hips. Each step is a shift to turn your waist, to put your hip and shoulder behind each block or punch. The War Palm also incorporates breathing with each step and movement, and trains power and focus."

Another interesting aspect of the War Pam set is that it trains the wrists, teaching techniques to escape wrist locks; in addition, this training has an extremely theraputic effect on the wrist, something Lam Sai Wing probably did not envision for today's computer users afflicted with carpel tunnel syndrome.

Lam Chun Fai is a person who is both humble and proud. Of his own skills he never brags or elaborates, but he carries a lot of pride over the family's name and kungfu. Growing up as Lam Jo's son gave him a lifetime of opportunity as well as challenges. He has learned the system his father gave him, but he has also has made it his own, shading his kungfu with his own character, not merely copying Lam Jo's. Notes Hamby, "When Lam Chun Fai teaches he wants you to go beyond the mere physical movements of the form. He wants you to sense, and feel, and analyze all of the movements - learn, then study, think, meditate on it. When you get knowledge, how you perceive it is how you project it."

Where a century ago Wong Fei Hung fought for the revolution against the Qing dynasty, today's Hung descendents have a different agenda. A modern warrior like Lam Chun Fai teaches the War Palm less as a method of killing and more as a weapon in the battle of personal transformation. The teachings he passes on are small revolutions inside each of us, but when they reveal a new way of looking at the world, that is enough.

Grandmaster Lam Chun Fai (Anthony Lam) is available for private lessons by appointment and overseas seminars and demonstrations. He may be contacted at: tel/fax (852) 25706722 Website: E-mail:
Grandmaster Lam is scheduled to teach in the U.S. later in 2002, please visit his website for more details.

Lam Sai Wing vs. The Crafty Bonesetter
Lam Chun Fai has many stories about his famous si-gung Lam Sai Wing. Here is one he wants to share with the readers of Kungfu Qigong.

"Lam Sai Wing taught in the army, and was very famous around the Canton area. There was a man named Loy Long Sau who was very famous for selling medicine and showing kungfu on the street. At one of his demonstrations on the street, he said that Lam Sai Wing's kungfu was not so good. But in that area there were many students and soldiers who had learned from Lam. They went back and told Lan Sai Wing, who was very angry. At that time, no one could say that.

Lam Sai Wing went to find Loy, but when he arrived at the place where Loy was selling medicine he only found a student there. Lam asked the student, who was very afraid, and told Lam Sai Wing that his sifu was taking tea on the other side of the street. Hanging up was a drying cowhide for a drumskin, and Lam Sai Wing with an incredible display of strength, tore it in half. Loy saw this and ran to his business and they started to fight. Loy went to punch Lam Sai Wing, who used qin kiu, and then Lam punched him again. Loy fell down pretending to be hurt. Lam Sai Wing knew Loy was pretending, and that he was a fake. Loy then used a tiger tail kick from the ground, and so Lam leaped into a cat stance and used qin ji (chop). Loy rolled over and threw a roundhouse kick from the ground. Loy was very famous for his block, but nevertheless Lam Sai Wing grabbed the leg and blocked with qin qi and broke his leg.

One month later Luo recovered, and came out to sell his dit dar medicines and perform again and told everyone - 'my leg was broken by Lam Sai Wing - but now I'm healed - my medicine really works! I can walk! My medicine is good!'"

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2002 .

Written by Martha Burr for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM

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