The Lion King
Grandmaster Ha Kwok Cheung and the Fighting Lions of Yau Kung Mon

By Ching (with Dr. Richard Wan)

Grandmaster Ha Kwok Cheung and the Fighting Lions of Yau Kung Mon In the 1950's, Hong Kong kung fu masters were playing for keeps. Fleeing the new communist regime of mainland China, hundreds of hungry fighters piled into Hong Kong's fragrant harbor, looking to prove themselves. In a desperate grab for reputation and real estate, they challenged every teacher they could find. At that time, Hong Kong was halfway through its 99-year lease as a British Territory ? a flagship for colonialism where Europe had farmed out its cheap manufacturing. You could turn over a product anywhere in the world and find the label "Made in Hong Kong." It was a big-money city for those who played big, but sweatshop labor for the sweltering masses. Stuck in the middle, in the cramped alleys and atop cluttered rooftops, kung fu refugees battled for territory in this flourishing metropolis, the gateway where east and west collided.

Grandmaster Ha Kwok Cheung remembers those times with a grim smile. He was in his early 20's back then. "We did have a lot of challenges at that time. If you got defeated, you got chased out of the territory so you couldn't teach there anymore." Grandmaster Ha is the lineage holder of the kung fu style known as Yau Kung Mon (). "Yau" means "soft," "flexible," or "supple." "Kung" is the same "kung" as in "kung fu," meaning "skill." And "mon" means "door" or "gate," but can also mean "family" or "sect." Yau Kung Mon was a secret style, fresh out from the Southern Shaolin Temple with a reputation for tough fighters. But still, challengers came knocking at the Grandmaster's door with regularity. In the '50s, Ha was teaching on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong where new challengers would constantly come to call him out. "People would just walk into your studio, look at you and say, 'Hey, this is not kung fu.' When someone said that, you know he's come to challenge you. One time this guy came in and said, 'My father is a very well-known kung fu master.' I knew when he said that, he was about to challenge me. So we fought. I just hit him once and he bounced all the way back ? you know in the streets in Hong Kong, there's a metal bar fence for the sidewalk ? so I go 'boom' and he bounced all the way to the bar and flipped over it. I never saw him again. Every other night was like that." According to Ha, this period lasted for a good half decade.

Let an Old Pro Show you how it's done
When it comes to kung fu, Grandmaster Ha Kwok Cheung is an "old school" traditionalist. Now at age 75, he still practices hard for 3 hours every day. As Ha puts it, "The secret of success is to practice every day ? kung fu is not talk." His direct disciple Dr. Richard Wan corroborates, "Right now, even though he's 75, he can still perform and show you. That's his secret. Today in Los Angeles he woke up at 5 AM and we practice to 8. Every day in Hong Kong, he wakes up at 5 in the morning, he goes to the park, then he practices until 8, then he goes yum cha (has breakfast ? ). Rain or shine. It's pouring over there and I have to still go with him. Practice makes perfect." What secret Yau Kung Mon techniques does he practice? Wan shakes his head in awe. "All kinds ? you don't even want to ask. That's why he spends three hours there."

Throughout Hong Kong and south China, everyone knows Yau Kung Mon (), but in the west it's still not as familiar as other styles like Tai Chi, Shaolin or Wing Chun. It's a unique style that begins with internal training, then proceeds to external techniques, thus the title "Yau." This is atypical, since most systems train this in the reverse order. According to Ha, "Our soft sets ? our first three sets ? are like Tai Chi, slow, very slow. And then when we do hard sets, it's very fast. That's why we have soft and hard together. Your qi comes out of your body, from inside to out, so that's the reason why we practice the qi first ? the internal system first ? before we go to the external."

The fighting guard position is similar to Tai Chi, Southern Praying Mantis or Dragon style. The stance is not as low as most other styles. The shoulders are down and the chest is in. Dr. Wan points out the tactical advantage of this position, "If your chest is straight up, your reach is less. But your reach is longer when the shoulders are down and the chest is in. Also you hide your chest. It tightens your chest muscles so when people hit you, it's not so easy to be injured, not so easy to break your ribs. It hides your tummy, almost similar to Tai Chi, this idea."

As for the strikes, Wan comments that the hand techniques of Yau Kung Mon are longer than Hung Gar but not as long as Choy Lay Fut. He compares it to Dragon style with Tiger footwork. The kicks are mostly low, below the waist. High kicks exist in Yau Kung Mon, but they aren't often used.

Throughout the curriculum, the Six Harmonies are emphasized. Yau Kung Mon distinguishes the six harmonies into internal and external. External refers to the hands and feet, the eye and the body. Internal is comprised of the three concepts of jing (spirit ? ) qi () and shen (essence - ). The eye combines with the mind, the mind combines with the qi, and the qi combines with the body. Hand and foot are together. Additionally, like most southern styles, it deploys the five animals, specifically the dragon, snake, tiger, leopard and crane.

The Throne of our Ancestors
According to Yau Kung Mon legend, it was a secret style of Southern Shaolin that originated in the Qing Dynasty. A Shaolin monk named To San () excelled in this style and passed it on to two other monks, Sing Loy () and Kit Loy (). These two were talented at both light qigong and herbal medicine. The next successor was a monk named Tit Yan () who mastered the Yau Kung Mon, then traveled to Tibet. Later he was at a temple in Canton. The first non-monk exposed to Yau Kung Mon was Grandmaster Ha's father, Ha Hon Hung ().

Ha Hon Hung is considered the first-generation grandmaster of Yau Kung Mon since he brought it out of the temple. He taught for many years in Yin Tong (), a Chinese military school. According to Dr. Wan, "In the old days, before the communists, the government was very selective about who they hired to teach in the military schools; so this was a big honor." Because of Ha Hon Hung's affiliations with the Kuomintang, he too had to leave Canton for Hong Kong during China's Cultural Revolution in the late 60's.

Grandmaster Ha Hon Hung is most remembered for a legendary "fight" he had with a Russian challenger in 1931. In those days foreign powers were oppressing the Chinese, and many foreign fighters came to try to beat down the kung fu masters as a show of authority. The Russian challenged Ha, but Ha refused to accept. The challenge escalated as Ha sat across from the Russian in a big hardwood chair. Growing tired of the Russian's provocations, Grandmaster Ha finally decided to take action; but instead of throwing a blow, he simply stood up. When he did so, his chair fell to pieces, silently crushed under his powerful grip. When the Russian saw that, he said, "Oh God. I better not fight."

In 1999, the Ha Hon Hung Sports Association celebrated its 75-year anniversary just before the turn of the millennium. Yau Kung Mon has five generations of students outside the temple now. From its modest beginnings in Canton, it has spread throughout southern China and into the mainland, as well as overseas to Australia, Canada and the United States. There are still five schools in Canton now, but after the Cultural Revolution, more of it is concentrated in Hong Kong around Grandmaster Ha.

Currently, Grandmaster Ha Kwok Cheung has two major schools in Hong Kong, one directly under his supervision, the other under his son. Additionally, they offer programs through various outside institutions. They have placed outreach programs in about fifty middle schools in Hong Kong, as well as special programs for young police cadets and corrections officers. They even teach in a school for building construction. There, all the building students begin their day of classes with the first basic set of Yau Kung Mon in a program modeled after the big Japanese corporations where everyone participates in an exercise regimen before they start work. These outreach programs teach basic Yau Kung Mon kung fu exercises to build up energy, as well as lion and dragon dancing. The corrections program is government supported. First they teach the corrections officers, then they teach the prisoners. This way, the prisoners can have some exercise too, in hopes of preventing heavy medical bills for the correctional system. Of course, the real fighting kung fu is not shown to the prisoners, just the exercises and just for health.

The Circle of Life, Spilled Blood and the Lion King
"It's almost like a cycle in martial arts in Hong Kong," reflects Grandmaster Ha. "In the 50's, 60's and early 70's, there were a lot of matches. That was full contact ? not light contact ? all full contact. In 1971, we started to compete in the first full-contact tournaments, all the way to 1985. From '71 to '85, we won gold medals and silver medals. We have more gold medals than silver medals. After that, because of one incident ? a full-contact competitor died ? the Hong Kong government stopped it. No more full-contact tournaments. Then Lion Dance competition began. Prior to that, Lion Dance competition didn't exist."

Most outsiders view Lion Dance as a colorful Chinese folk art, but kung fu practitioners know that there's a lot more to it. Lion Dance is a peaceful way for kung fu fighters to test each other's skill. Lions symbolize kung fu schools, protecting the common people from bad elements and dispelling evil spirits at auspicious events. Symbolically, the Lion serves as a sort of Feng Shui exorcist. In this way, masters of old would guard their villages with their fighting skills, and also shield citizens from misfortune on a mystical level. No role is more fitting for a true kung fu warrior.

When rival lion teams meet, it's not just a dance, it's a duel. You can show your upper body strength by how powerfully you shake the lion head. You can show your stance skills with your fancy lion footwork. You can show your cunning and agility with how you get your lucky offering. You can also fight by knocking a rival lion on its butt. Just like answering a challenge by crushing a chair, Lion Dance is an honorable way to demonstrate kung fu skill without resorting to hand-to-hand combat.

Grandmaster Ha explains, "Everybody had Lion Dancing. Lion Dance represents your style. It's important ? a lot of people don't know ? each different style, they play their drum beat different. If you are an expert in it, you don't have to see the Lion Dance. You listen to the drum, you know who's performing. In between, there is a certain beat that nobody else has. Drum is like a signal. And people will listen and know, 'Oh, Yau Kung Mon is performing' or 'Oh, Choy Lay Fut is performing' or 'Hung Gar is performing' or whatever. We all have our own way of beating the drum."

"From day one, we did Lion Dance already. But at that time, they did not have competitions. It was just for special festivals or Chinese New Year. In old ancient days, it was territory. Every studio in Hong Kong or in China, everybody had Lion Dance. Even Wing Chun has lion dance ? they don't know lion dance, but they still have lion dance in China."

Be King - Undisputted, Respected, Saluted
When it comes to Lion Dancing, Yau Kung Mon dominates. In 1978, Ha was honored by the Queen, who personally awarded him the Queen's medal for his work in Lion Dance. But it was a trip to Malaysia where Ha really pioneered the most recent evolutionary step in this martial art form. Ha and four other masters were invited to Malaysia as honorary judges for a martial arts gathering. Malaysia was introducing a new style of Lion Dancing which fused the unwieldy southern style lion heads with the shorter and more acrobatic northern lion tails. This new design allowed Lion Dancers the best and most challenging aspects of both regions and Ha liked it a lot. He liked it so much that he brought it back to Hong Kong and spread it throughout south China.

Ha attributes Yau Kung Mon's success at Lion Dance to their unique kung fu skill. "Yau Kung Mon has a strong stance foundation plus light skills. First of all, you have to have a very strong foundation, which is your stance. Once you do that, we teach you the light skills ? Heng Kung (special skills emphasizing lightness - ). Yau Kung Mon never fell since we train so hard. From beginning to now, we never fell because we train hard before we go out there."

With a record like that, Ha seldom needs to defend his Lion Dancing pride against challengers like in the old days. "Most of the other style masters know how good we are in Lion Dance already. So we hardly have any challenges from other styles because others know they can't compete with us, so they don't challenge us. Very seldom will others see the licee (lucky offering - ) up there, then come try to take it. They see us; they normally stay away from us. We hardly have any people say, 'We want to challenge your Lion Dance.' We don't have any fight with other people."

The Yau Kung Mon Lion and Dragon Dance team is one of the hardest working troupes in the world capital for Lion Dance, Hong Kong. Dr. Wan admits that his American school falls short of the Fragrant Harbor. "Hong Kong is 100 times busier than what we have here. Here, we don't fly that far. In Hong Kong, we fly at least 10 feet. Liability limits what can be done in the USA with Lion Dance. In America, liability insurance is very heavy. Anything goes wrong and you might wind up working for them for the rest of your life, so we can't do any dangerous stuff." But still, Ha and Wan still want to show the world what real Lion Dance is, so their current project is to develop an eagerly-awaited instructional Lion Dance video.

Don't Lose Your Strength
A young master can always fall back on his robust physicality. An old master only retains his kung fu skill, honed over a lifetime of practice. As the old folk's homes of America overflow with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's victims, Grandmaster Ha's only complaint is that when he practices beyond his daily three-hour regimen, his cha goes cold. He is a living testament of real kung fu. Yau Kung Mon may not be a panacea for everyone, but for Ha it's the key to longevity.

Over the last three quarters of a century, Ha has seen the communists close China's doors, then Nixon reopen them, then the return of Hong Kong to China. All that history had its impact on the kung fu world. Throughout such upheavals, true kung fu masters kept their warrior spirit, adapting to the circumstances. They fought in street challenges, then in the full-contact ring, and now in Lion Dance competition. Kung fu can be used to fend off encroaching refugees or it can be used to keep disease and the other lamentations of age at bay. It can also be stitched into the silk flesh and woven into the rattan sinews of Chinese lions through thousands of hours of hard, dedicated practice. Today, the opening of China's doors has spread kung fu ? real kung fu ? beyond the Great Wall to the four corners of the earth. And like a conquering lion, real kung fu dispels evil with every step.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2004 .

About Ching (with Dr. Richard Wan) :
Grandmaster Ha Kwok Cheung?s office is at No. 18, Queen?s Road W., G/F Hong Kong Tel: 2541-1685. His Disciple, Dr. Richard Wan, may be contacted at the Yau Kung Mon Kung-Fu Institute U.S.A. Tel: (323) 262-8181 Cell: (323) 712-9168

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